It begins again. A mere 112 days after the Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup in Detroit, they must -- ready or not -- start the grueling journey all over come Friday night. History and the New York Rangers will provide the opposition.
Gee, and it all seemed so impressive at the time.
Looked like quite an accomplishment when the Penguins went from tenth place in East with eight weeks left in the regular season to grab the No. 4 seed for the conference playoffs.
When Dan Bylsma, with two-thirds of a season of head-coaching experience at any level, took over the team with 25 games remaining and radically altered not only its style of play, but its results. And did it almost instantly, helping a team that started the season 27-25-5 to finish it with a 18-3-4 surge.
When the Penguins clinched four consecutive playoff series on the road, twice doing it in elimination games.
Turns out, that was the easy part.
The Penguins open the season Friday night at Mellon Arena vs. the New York Rangers. What fans can expect in the days leading up to the opener:
Today: No team has defended the Stanley Cup since Detroit in 1998. No team has been to three finals since Edmonton in 1983-85. Are the Penguins up to their history test?
Tomorrow: The Penguins can expect a bulkier, stronger Atlantic Division bent on negating their speed and offense.
Tuesday: Up close and personal with Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Also: A breakdown of the team with which the Penguins begin defense of the Cup.
• Game: Penguins vs. New York Rangers.
• When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.
• Where: Mellon Arena.
• TV: FSN Pittsburgh.
• Of note: The team will raise its title banner before the game.
Surviving the two-month marathon that is the Stanley Cup playoffs is one of the most daunting challenges in pro sports; doing it in consecutive seasons has become a once-in-a-decade feat.
The Penguins will be trying to be the first club to manage that since Detroit in 1997 and 1998; before the Red Wings, there hadn't been a repeat champion since the Penguins of 1991 and 1992.
In order to do that, the Penguins will have to pull off something even more rare: Become the first team to reach a Cup final in three consecutive years since Edmonton in 1983-85. Detroit, which has split the past two finals with the Penguins, has a chance to do the same.
Coincidentally or otherwise, the Penguins are the first team since the 1984 Oilers to win a championship after losing in the final the previous season.
"Who would have thought two teams would be playing [in the Cup final] in back-to-back years, so we've kind of beaten the odds once," center Sidney Crosby said. "Hopefully, we can do it again."
Precedent isn't on their side. While evidence of the time when single teams could dominate the NHL for years still can be found, the eras of dynasties like the New York Islanders (the early 1980s) or Montreal (the late 1970s) are as much a part of ancient history as the Ming or Han dynasties in China.
It's a different game now, governed by dramatically different regulations. Think Bill Torrey, architect of those great Islanders teams, would have been able to hold onto Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Clark Gilles, John Tonelli, Billy Smith, et al. if there'd been liberal free agency and a salary cap?
"Back then, you kept your players," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. "It wasn't a situation where players were coming and leaving. You pretty much had your team together."
The 2009-10 Penguins, however, suffered less significant roster turnover than most champions. Aside from their shutdown defense pairing of Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill, most of the players who departed during the offseason filled, at most, complementary roles.
One who might have been missed -- right winger Petr Sykora, who had developed a good chemistry with center Evgeni Malkin during the past two seasons -- lost his scoring touch and his place in the lineup during the stretch drive and playoffs, and thus was out of management's plans even before the season ended.
"Not taking anything away from the guys we lost, but especially for a team that won it or goes to the final, I'd say we probably lost very little, compared to most teams that win it and try to keep the team together," defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
Having the group that won the Cup remain largely intact obviously is a plus for the Penguins; what might not be readily apparent was that simply winning the Cup could work in their favor, too.
While they played one more game in the final than they did in 2008, many of the Penguins insist they feel more invigorated than they did a year ago. Hoisting that 35-pound trophy doesn't take much out of a guy, after all.
"They are more excited about this camp than [the 2008] camp," Shero said. "To go all that way and lose in the final, it's tough.
"If you win, you feel great about yourself. Great about your teammates and what you accomplished. Guys are excited to be here. Short summer or not, they're ready to go."
That excitement will fade eventually, and then it will become apparent whether fatigue born of consecutive trips to the Cup final will influence the Penguins' prospects for making a third.
They have a pretty close locker room that doesn't disagree on much, but whether the cumulative effects of the past couple of years will have an impact on how this season plays out is one of those issues.
"Mentally and physically, it's a grind," Crosby said. "You go that deep into the playoffs, your summer is shorter and you become more of a target, as far as your team is concerned.
"Teams are that much more motivated to beat you every night. You're not going to see too many teams' off-nights. They're usually pretty prepared when they play you.
"The physical part, it just wears you down. You have to find a way to stay energized and keep that motivation."
Orpik, however, see it differently, and is pretty blunt about it.
"Some people make a big deal out of fatigue," he said. "I think that's maybe the most overrated of the reasons [champions don't repeat]. I think maybe that has a little bit to do with it.
"Everyone is in such good shape. Three months is a long time to have off. If you can't recover in three months, I don't know if you should play in this league."
Credible arguments, both. Which is more accurate might not be known for a while.
"We had a short summer last year, too," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "I guess we'll see. It's tough to say what I'll feel like in December, but right now, I feel good."
Even without a lengthy playoff run, the NHL season is grueling. There are 82 regular-season games, and precious few -- if any -- that can be penciled in for two guaranteed points.
"That's one of the reasons it's extremely hard [to sustain success] -- the competition is pretty darned good," Bylsma said. "There are teams in our league that have really good players, but don't make the playoffs.
"It's tough to get wins, and that means it's tough to make the playoffs. That's why it's challenging to duplicate success, over and over and over again.
"We all view success as getting to the final and winning the Stanley Cup, but you could have a very good year and go into a playoff series and you could lose in Round 1 and everyone would think you didn't have a very good year."
And, in the case of the Penguins, those people would be correct. Win a Cup, and getting bumped from the playoffs early the next spring is pretty hard to accept.
It certainly isn't what the Penguins are expecting, even though they recognize and respect the threats posed by Eastern rivals such Philadelphia, Washington and Boston, among others.
"Especially our conference, it seems like every single team got better this summer," Orpik said.
It's possible that the Penguins did, too. Not necessarily because they added veterans like Jay McKee and Mike Rupp, but because so many key young players like Crosby, Fleury, Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski, among others, probably won't reach their real potential anytime soon.
"We have a team that's still fairly young and can grow together," Fleury said. "We've had some tough times -- last year, we had a tough stretch -- but we were able to get out of it and win the Cup. That was good for us."
Whether playing until June for two years in a row could work in their favor is hard to say, but there was more to that than simply the physical and mental tolls taken on the players.
"We're not the most experienced team," Crosby said. "But we're coming off two pretty long [playoff runs] where we hopefully learned a lot."
One thing they'll discover soon, if they haven't already, is how tough it is to produce a championship sequel. Winning a Cup takes talent and commitment and luck and quality coaching; the Penguins had all of that a few months ago, and will get rings in a couple of days to prove it.
Soon enough, it will be evident whether getting that championship satisifed their desire to win, or stoked it.
"I'll always be happy that we won that one, but at the same time, we can't be complacent," Fleury said. "It's a new season."
Dave Molinari can be reached at email@example.com First Published September 27, 2009 4:00 AM