Depth, consistency drive these Penguins

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A lot of people were rightly taken with that March of the Penguins, obviously, in no small part because the narration by Morgan Freeman alone was probably Oscar worthy.

As for the dead-solid perfect Ides of March sculpted by these Penguins eight years later, not to mention all of that month's hockey on both sides of the Ides of March, that was pretty well received, too.

In fact, it was probably sometime in March, maybe right there on an 11-game stretch beginning on the 10th, when these Penguins outscored opponents, 32-9, and didn't allow so much as one goal for nearly 219 minutes of ice time, that it occurred to me that professional hockey might never have been played this crazily well, this consistently, in this city.

Then Ray Shero made it better.

To what appeared a fully stocked stable of hockey thoroughbreds including Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, the Penguins' GM added twin captains Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla, plus menacing defenseman Douglas Murray and multi-purpose forward Jussi Jokinen.

So now it's time for May of the Penguins, the ultimate reality TV/postseason, in which they May excel and they May not, a return to the hyper-urgent playoff atmosphere in which some of the best teams in franchise history have wilted badly and expired quickly.

Such is the stark dichotomy that dogs these exceptional Penguins: Come May, they may be on their way to the city's fourth Stanley Cup, and they may not be around by Mother's Day.

For the moment, it's worth taking a poke at some perspective relative to current edition's place in franchise history at the far end of its irregular, regular season.

Is it the equal of the storied club that bestrode the pond like a colossus exactly 20 years ago this spring, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion, 17 games in a row-winning Penguins of 1992-93, the emperor Penguins of Tom Barrasso, Ron Francis, Jaromir Jagr, Mario Lemieux, Larry Murphy, Ulf Samuelsson, Rick Tocchet et al?

"Pretty close," Eddie Johnston was telling me between periods Saturday night in an 8-3 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes. "That [1992-93] team was terrific, pretty tough to beat, but this team is very solid all the way around. The trades that Ray did were perfect. The coaching's done a tremendous job. When you combine those things, you've really got something.

"We've got depth in every department, and that's really important when you're going into the playoffs and you're playing every other night."

E.J. spent more than a quarter-century in and out of this organ-I-zation, up and down its often-dubious management chart, drafting Lemieux, advising Craig Patrick, coaching bad teams and good, and holding an official advisory role all the way through until the most recent Cup got hoisted.

That's not the profile of someone who might be convinced that the most glorious hockey ever played here didn't include No. 66, but asked pointedly if it's patently out of the question this team could be better, he didn't flinch.

"No," E.J. said. "This is a good hockey club. Not a good hockey club, this is a very good hockey club."

The most striking aspect of this edition is that it is truly as deep as it is wide, almost as capable from the depths of its roster as it is on its giant marquee of star power.

How deep?

These Penguins are 19-6 on nights when they're missing Crosby and/or Malkin.

How balanced?

These Penguins finished 18-6 at home, 18-6 on the road.

How dangerous?

At places well out of the spotlight, there are plenty of Penguins with lethal playoff skill. Kris Letang this winter became only the fifth Penguins defenseman in history to average a point a game, joining Paul Coffey, Randy Carlyle, Larry Murphy and Sergei Zubov.

Forwards Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, added in prior years by Shero to be complementary pieces, made themselves stars in this league.

Fleury, playing Saturday for the first time since the birth of a daughter, his first child, surpassed the franchise record for victories in January held by Barrasso.

No team in Penguins history captured a larger percentage of the available points as this one, pulling down 72 of a possible 96 points, or 75 percent of 'em. Those 1992-93 Penguins collected 119 of a possible 168, 71 percent, although it's probably necessary to point out that that team did not have the opportunity for shootout victories.

This team, it is just as necessary to point to further polish the Shero contribution, was harder to assemble in the salary cap era than were those Lemieux-led machines.

What needn't be pointed out to this audience, of course, is that as monstrously talented as the 1992-93 team surely was, it fell in the second round that spring to the New York Islanders.

It now falls to these Penguins to avoid the long range echo of such a harsh judgment.

mobilehome - penguins - genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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