How did this happen?
Here are, in no particular order, the top five reasons why the Penguins are where they are today, according to Bob Smizik:
Jordan Staal: He wasn't supposed to make the team. In the slight likelihood he did, he would be along for the ride to kill penalties and play on a fourth line. After all, he is only 18. He was barely old enough to be drafted. But he has 24 goals and has moved from center to left wing to give the Penguins a formidable second line. Not bad for a kid who scored 28 goals in Juniors last year.
Sidney Crosby: Everyone knew he was marked for greatness. But at 19? He leads the league in scoring with a 15-point lead over Vincent Lecavalier. The 16th-leading scorer in the league is closer to Lecavalier than Lecavalier is to Crosby.
Evgeni Malkin: He will do what Crosby could not do last year -- win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. He leads all rookies in scoring by 14 points. His 67 points are double the output of all but three NHL rookies. He's on pace to score 93 points, a Crosbyesque total.
Marc-Andre Fleury (left): He's living up to the hype that comes with being the first pick in the draft. His 29 wins are fourth best in the NHL. Despite being only 22, he's developing into a franchise-type goalie. It's looking more and more like the Penguins made a serious mistake by not keeping him with the team at the start of last season.
Michel Therrien: Best known as a harsh disciplinarian when he took over the team last season, Therrien has been tough but also flexible enough to let his young team grow. He installed a system that makes their NHL growth come easier.In the recent history of professional sports, there have been rare occasions when a team has gone from last place to first place in one year. The Atlanta Braves, for example, went from sixth and last place to first place in 1991. The advent of free agency in all sports and the ability it gives teams to make an almost immediate and drastic revamping of their roster, along with a trend toward smaller divisions, makes this unusual development possible.
But here's what would figure to be impossible.
Going from last to last to last to last to first.
That's what the Penguins, who are 14-1-2 in their past 17 games, are attempting to do. After four consecutive sixth and last-place finishes, the Penguins aren't just playoff contenders, they're candidates to finish first in the Atlantic Division and a threat to any team in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It's questionable whether the Penguins' furious charge up the NHL standings eventually will carry them to first place in the Atlantic Division -- they trail New Jersey by seven points -- but the mere fact the subject is up for discussion is testimony to one of the great revivals in sports history.
No one expected this. There was hope the team would make the playoffs, which often does not require a winning record. But the Penguins are 32-18-9 going into their game tomorrow night at Florida. Considering the team's youth, their slow start was not unexpected, but now the Penguins are among the elite of the league.
With 23 games remaining, they already have 10 more wins than last season and nine more than the previous season.
It has all served to markedly increase the interest in the Penguins. Games are regularly sold out, and there is a distinct buzz about the team that hasn't been here since the 2000-01 season, when Mario Lemieux was at the height of his comeback and the Penguins were thick with talented veterans. That's the beauty of this team and why the buzz is so intense. It's thin with talented veterans. Mark Recchi, at 39, is enjoying a memorable season -- 20 goals and 55 points. Sergei Gonchar, 32, is the second-leading scorer among NHL defensemen. There are five other players over 30, 14 in their 20s and two teenagers. Eleven of the team's players were born in the 1980s.
It is too early to call this a dynasty in the making but such a future is not out of the question. What makes that future even brighter is that the Penguins will become a desired destination for free agents. With the salary cap in place, there's not a tremendous difference between what teams can pay free agents. Why not come to Pittsburgh where a championship team is being built? If you're a winger, why not come to Pittsburgh and play beside Crosby or with Malkin and Staal?
It looks like all those last places are soon to be equaled and surpassed by first places.