Odds stacked against Pen­guins

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Stephen Whyno

After the Pen­guins pa­raded the Stan­ley Cup through the streets of Pitts­burgh, Sid­ney Crosby took it to his home­town of Cole Har­bour, Nova Sco­tia, Ev­geni Malkin to Moscow and Phil Kes­sel to a chil­dren’s hospi­tal in Toronto as part of the sum­mer-long cel­e­bra­tion.

If there’s one thing cham­pi­ons in the NHL have learned, it is to sa­vor those mo­ments be­cause his­tory says they won’t hap­pen backto-back. No team has re­peated as Cup cham­pion since the salarycap era be­gan in 2005, and the last back-to-back win­ners were the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

Sorry, Pen­guins. And sorry to the San Jose Sharks, as no team in the past eight sea­sons has lost in the fi­nal and got­ten back the

next year.

The Chicago Black­hawks and Los An­ge­les Kings are rested from an un­usu­ally short spring, the Tampa Bay Light­ning boast the deep­est team in the league and the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals are vir­tu­ally un­changed after dom­i­nat­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son. All those things, plus play­ing into June, stack the odds against the Pen­guins rais­ing the Cup again in 2017.

“You’re com­ing off such a high, it’s go­ing to be tough to get to that (level) right away,” Pitts­burgh de­fense­man Trevor Da­ley said. “How you be­come a great team in this league is you have the hunger ev­ery night. Teams that are proven win­ners are usu­ally the great teams, the L.A.s and Chica­gos. Pitts­burgh is right up there now in that con­ver­sa­tion. We’re hun­gry to do it again.”

Be­cause they have two top goalies in Matt Mur­ray and Marc-An­dre Fleury, the Pen­guins are per­haps the best po­si­tioned team to re­peat in re­cent his­tory. That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy.

On­line sports­book Bo­vada set the Pen­guins and Black­hawks as co-Cup fa­vorites with the Cap­i­tals, Light­ning, Dal­las Stars, St. Louis Blues and Sharks not far be­hind. It wouldn’t be a sur­prise if any of those teams make it through a World Cup of Hockey-con­densed reg­u­lar sea­son and a gru­el­ing di­vi­sion play­off for­mat and get to cel­e­brate in June.

“The par­ity in the league al­lows for a lot of teams to have the same goal and ac­tu­ally le­git­i­mately have a chance at it,” said Wash­ing­ton winger Justin Wil­liams, who won the Cup with Carolina in 2006 and Los An­ge­les in 2012 and 2014. “There’s a hand­ful of teams that have those aspi­ra­tions and they’re real.”

Rather than par­ity, Com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman prefers the term “com­pet­i­tive bal­ance,” which speaks not only to the lack of re­peat cham­pi­ons and the death of NHL dy­nas­ties but the vari­ance in play­off teams. Of the 30 teams, 24 have made the play­offs at least once over the past three sea­sons.

“Un­less you’re (cheer­ing for) the team in the dy­nasty mar­ket, you could care less,” Bettman said. “All you care about is that your team is com­pet­i­tive.”

Com­pe­ti­tion isn’t the prob­lem. It’s so high that play­off teams can’t miss a beat or fear they’ll drop out. The Florida Pan­thers look like a team just be­gin­ning a run of play­off ap­pear­ances with young stars like Aaron Ek­blad and Alek­sander Barkov, but pres­i­dent of hockey op­er­a­tions Dale Tal­lon knows it’ll come down to breaks and in­juries be­cause “it’s go­ing to be a bat­tle to re­turn to the play­offs.”

It’s a bat­tle be­cause the top teams haven’t lost much.

The Pen­guins made a few tweaks and will be with­out Cup-win­ner Mur­ray to start the sea­son, but they can turn to 2009 win­ner Fleury and still lean heav­ily on Crosby, Malkin and de­fense­man Kris Le­tang. Else­where in the East, the Light­ning re­signed Steven Stamkos, the Cap­i­tals are primed for an­other run with Alex Ovechkin and Vez­ina Tro­phy win­ner Braden Holtby, and the Mon­treal Cana­di­ens should be back in con­tention with all-world goalie Carey Price healthy after miss­ing most of last sea­son with a knee in­jury.

Chicago has cy­cled pieces in and out while win­ning the Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, but the core of Jonathan Toews, Pa­trick Kane and Dun­can Keith is as strong as ever. The Black­hawks would have liked to go deeper in last year’s play­offs, but not do­ing so could pay div­i­dends this sea­son as it has in the past.

“It might be good for the guys to have a longer off­sea­son and come back hun­gry for the start of the sea­son,” de­fense­man Nik­las Hjal­mars­son said.

Trad­ing off years with the Bos­ton Bru­ins’ 2011 cham­pi­onship mixed in, the Black­hawks and Kings know all too well about the Cup hang­over that the Pen­guins will try to avoid. Peak­ing at play­off time and main­tain­ing that level amid in­juries and bounces takes a lot, plus the sys­tem is skewed against back-to­back cham­pi­ons.

“It’s more hard than be­fore when teams were re­ally dom­i­nat­ing and could spend so much on salaries and they can buy dif­fer­ent play­ers,” said Black­hawks winger Mar­ian Hossa, who lost in the fi­nal in 2008 with Pitts­burgh and 2009 with Detroit be­fore win­ning three times with Chicago. “In this mod­ern day, it’s ex­tremely hard . ... It’s re­ally, re­ally hard to re­peat.”

GENE J. PUSKAR — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A healthy Sid­ner Crosby starred in the World Cup of Hockey, which the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins hopes is a boost to its hopes to re­peat as Stan­ley Cup cham­pion.

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