Long before the first drill of training camp in September, it was generally accepted that the success of the Penguins' 2013-14 season could not -- indeed, should not -- be judged before the playoffs. * In the wake of a run of four consecutive playoff disappointments, the logic was that nothing accomplished before mid-April could offset the distress that another unexpectedly early departure from the postseason would cause. * And now, with the regular season in its final hours, that hasn't changed.
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Still, the Penguins have had a pretty successful run since opening the regular season with a 3-0 victory against New Jersey Oct. 3, especially considering the injury-based adversity they've had to overcome.
A look at some of the highs and lows of the regular season that ends with a game against Ottawa at 7:38 p.m. today at Consol Energy Center:
Most valuable player: It's kind of tough to overlook Sidney Crosby, since he has emerged as a prohibitive favorite to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP. He's a fairly logical choice to claim a second Hart because, among other things, Crosby is going to win the NHL scoring championship by a double-digit margin. Despite all of that, however, a case could be made that goalie Marc-Andre Fleury contributed at least as much as Crosby to the team's regular-season success. Not that anyone will (or should) care unless Fleury performs at, or near, the same level during the playoffs.
Dominant story line: Kris Letang, Tomas Vokoun and Matt D'Agostini (remember him?) weren't available for the regular-season opener because of injuries/medical injuries and James Neal logged less than four minutes of ice time before leaving with an injury that forced him to miss the next 15 games. That game proved to be a portent, as the Penguins would go on to lead the league in man-games lost with well over 500. The Penguins were forced to use more players than they ever could have expected, and to use many in bigger roles than planned. Didn't hurt the results all that much, though.
Most pleasant surprise: Really, could anyone have anticipated the contribution the Penguins would get from 19-year-old defenseman Olli Maatta in his first season as a pro? He played with a poise and presence that belied his age from his earliest shifts in the league and, despite sputtering a bit in recent weeks when fatigue seemed to become an issue, has been one of the most effective rookies in the league. Maatta isn't going to win the Calder Trophy -- Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon looks to be a lock -- but he figures to turn up on more than a few ballots. As he should.
Most satisfying victory: Win more than 50 games and the details might begin to run together a bit, but a few the Penguins have earned stand out. Their 4-1 victory in Los Angeles Jan. 30 reinforced the idea that they can compete with the top teams in the Western Conference, and a 3-2 victory at Anaheim March 7 did the same. For sheer guts and grit, though, it's hard to top their 3-2 shootout victory at Colorado a week ago. The Avalanche was the league's hottest team, with a six-game winning streak, and the Penguins' always-bloated injury list was swelled by the addition of Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Brooks Orpik and Maatta. Didn't matter, because Fleury was brilliant and the Penguins' watered-down lineup executed the game plan as efficiently as coach Dan Bylsma and his staff could have dared to hope.
Worst loss: Although the Penguins appear to be developing a genuine home-ice advantage at Consol Energy Center, they had several real clunkers against non-playoff teams on home ice -- a 5-1 loss to Florida, a 4-1 defeat by Carolina -- this season. All things considered, though, their worst 60 minutes came during a 5-0 loss in Ottawa Dec. 23. And the two points they gift-wrapped for the Senators that night were nothing compared to the loss of first-line right winger Pascal Dupuis, whose season ended when Crosby fell on the outside of his right leg after being checked, necessitating reconstructive surgery on Dupuis' knee.
The fast-fading footprint of history
Winning a Stanley Cup isn't easy.
Returning to the site of your triumph apparently can be even tougher, at least for the Penguins.
Word out of Detroit is that Joe Louis Arena likely will be replaced by 2017.
When that happens, all three buildings in which the Penguins have won their Cups -- the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn., Chicago Stadium and Joe Louis -- no longer will exist.
The first two were demolished years ago, and financing reportedly has been arranged to raze Joe Louis as part of a development project in that area of the city.
The week ahead
Today: vs. Ottawa ... For only the fourth time in the past eight springs, the Penguins won't be spending a little quality time with the Senators during the playoffs.
Wednesday: The Stanley Cup playoffs begin. So does meaningful judging of the Penguins' 2013-14 season.
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