Sixteen teams will have a chance to win the Stanley Cup when the playoffs begin Tuesday. Most, if not all, genuinely believe they can do it. And, if history counts for anything, they should. No postseason tournament is more grueling or unpredictable, and any advantage gained over the course of a regular season can be wiped out by 60 subpar minutes.
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Parlaying regular-season excellence to a Stanley Cup can be tougher than translating Finnish to Hindi.
Of the past nine winners of the Presidents' Trophy, which goes to the team with the most regular-season points, the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings are the only one to earn a Cup.
Finishing with the league's best regular-season record is preferable to the alternative -- Chicago certainly won't object to having home-ice advantage for every series it plays this spring -- but it's not standard procedure to order a Stanley Cup banner when the top spot in the overall standings gets locked up.
The Penguins know as well as any team, and better than most, that productive winters don't necessarily lead to long springs: They have been eliminated by lower-seeded opponents in each of the past three years.
Failing to win a series since beating Ottawa in the opening round in 2010 should eliminate any danger of overconfidence on their part, but that doesn't mean their expectations will be tempered.
No team will have greater urgency -- and, consequently, more pressure -- this spring to pile up the 16 victories that winning a Cup requires than the Penguins.
They entered this season as a popular choice to contend for the Cup, and general manager Ray Shero's aggressive moves around the trade deadline -- when he surrendered quality assets such as defenseman Joe Morrow and a first-round draft choice to add Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen -- gave coach Dan Bylsma a roster as deep and talented as any in the league.
The mandate behind those acquisitions was obvious: Win a Cup. Now.
While the Penguins presumably would like to keep the team Shero has assembled largely intact for 2013-14 and beyond, there's virtually no chance that will happen.
The lineup is liberally sprinkled with contributors who will be unrestricted free agents this summer -- Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Mark Eaton and Craig Adams, to say nothing of Iginla, Morrow and Murray -- and the realities of the NHL's salary cap (which will drop from $70.2 million to $64.3 million next season) mitigate against most returning.
Consequently, this could be the Penguins' best chance to win the franchise's fourth Cup in the relatively near future.
That's not to suggest that 2014 or 2015 or 2016 should be written off; simply that the personnel they have at the moment probably is superior to what they'll have in the lineup during those postseasons.
Of course, having the best players, or being the best team, assures nothing.
That has been proven countless times, including in 1993, when the Penguins' only Presidents' Trophy-winning squad failed to make it past the second round.
A lot can happen during a playoff run, and most are bad for teams favored to win a series.
An opposing goalie who is nothing special most of the time can became virtually unbeatable; it is no accident that goaltenders, so rarely honored as MVP of the regular season, routinely win the Conn Smythe Trophy, which goes to the outstanding performer in the playoffs.
Usually reliable scorers can slump, and struggling to crack the scoresheet for a week during the playoffs is far more important in May or June than it is in November or January.
Injuries to key players -- something the Penguins experienced frequently during the final month or so of the regular season -- can sabotage the momentum and synergy of a club that had been on a seemingly unstoppable roll.
So much can go so wrong, and there is so much opportunity for it to happen over a two-month span.
None of that figures to carry much weight, though, if the Penguins don't capitalize on the opportunity before them this spring.
Their time is now, and if they again get jettisoned during an early round, Shero will have to seriously consider whether it's time to overhaul everything from his coaching staff to the nucleus of his roster.
This team was built to win this Cup. Anything less -- for any reason -- will be an abject failure.
The Vokoun question
From the moment they acquired Tomas Vokoun from Washington last spring, the Penguins have stressed that Marc-Andre Fleury is their go-to goalie.
Wise move. Choked off any chance of a goaltending controversy before it ever started.
But after a slow start, Vokoun was outstanding, putting up statistics nearly identical to Fleury's.
He earned the confidence of his coaches and teammates and, in the process, might have set up an interesting situation if Fleury stumbles during the playoffs.
Making an unwavering commitment to Fleury during the regular season is one thing.
Sticking to it if Fleury isn't sharp and the Penguins fall behind in a best-of-seven could be quite another.