Ron Cook: Penguins expectations even higher


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They raved about management's commitment to winning, about its willingness and wherewithal to add Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray this week to a team that has won 14 consecutive games after thoroughly throttling the Winnipeg Jets, 4-0, Thursday night at Consol Energy Center, about their improved chances of not just competing for the Stanley Cup this spring but winning it. One voice stood out from the rest for me in the Penguins room. It belongs to no-nonsense winger Chris Kunitz, who cut through the rhetoric with the same ease he cuts through opposing defensemen on his way to the dirty areas on the ice where he scores many of his goals.

"What they expect is a lot greater than what we've achieved in the past," Kunitz said of the front office. "Maybe they feel the urge to do something now because we've underachieved in previous years."

One man's rough translation of Kunitz's message:

"Shame on us if we underachieve this season."

All of the Penguins should be feeling that pressure after one of the most amazing weeks in franchise history. There will be no excuses for playoff failure this time, barring a string of injuries, of course. Not after general manager Ray Shero made larcenous trades to bring in Iginla, Morrow and Murray, filling holes -- such as they were -- in the team's lineup.

Penguins owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux did their part by taking on extra payroll with the trades. "We all talk about cap space, but this is actual cash. Money," Shero gushed.

Shero did his part by finding a way to deal for the three players, Iginla in the early hours Thursday just when it appeared he was headed to the Boston Bruins, the Penguins' chief competition in the Eastern Conference. Iginla has scored 525 NHL goals and is a future Hall of Famer. Morrow is a proven leader and goal scorer. Murray is a huge, hulking, punishing defenseman. "I think we've added three big pieces to our team," Shero said.

Now, it is up to coach Dan Bylsma and the players to do their part. There can't be a first-round playoff collapse like a year ago when the Penguins -- the favorites to win the Cup -- went down, almost unbelievably, in six games to the Philadelphia Flyers. There can't be a first-round playoff loss like the one against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011. So what if the Penguins played that series without injured Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and suspended Matt Cooke? They led the series, 3-1. There can't even be a second-round playoff exit like the one against the Montreal Canadiens in 2010. The Penguins lost Game 6 in Montreal and Game 7 at home in the final game in Mellon Arena.

Cup or bust?

That's a little much. The heavy favorites don't always win. Think Penguins, 1993. They had five future Hall of Famers, won an NHL-record 17 consecutive games late in the season and won the Cup the two previous seasons, yet were beaten in seven games by the New York Islanders in the second round of the playoffs. Think Steelers, 1994. They lost at home to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC championship despite being favored by 9 points.

But Cup final or bust for these Penguins?

That doesn't seem like too much to expect.

The pressure to get that far will be enormous on Bylsma, especially after the Penguins' quick playoff exits the past three seasons. Having great players is one thing. Putting each man in the right place and getting him to accept his role is something much more difficult.

"I like the challenge of it," Bylsma said.

Bylsma's first big decision will involve how to use Iginla. I was glad to hear him say he plans to keep the Kunitz-Crosby-Pascal Dupuis line together. It has been the best line in hockey this season. Kunitz scored the Penguins' first goal Thursday night after taking a terrific, blind, back-handed pass from Crosby. How did Crosby see him? Dupuis scored the Penguins' third goal -- not to mention their fourth, short-handed -- after taking a wonderful pass from Kunitz. Crosby had two assists and is running away with the NHL scoring title with 56 points.

Iginla belongs with Malkin and James Neal. If Iginla is uncomfortable at left wing, he can go to Malkin's right wing and Neal can move back to left wing. "Neal is comfortable playing both sides," Bylsma said. Malkin, playing against the Jets in his first game after missing nine with a shoulder injury, scored the Penguins' second goal after a pass from Neal. Iginla is the winger they have been waiting for all season.

"It's a good problem to have," Crosby said of the decisions Bylsma is facing about which star player to play with which star player.

Speaking of pressure, there will be plenty on Crosby and Malkin at playoff time. Since Malkin was drafted No. 2 overall in 2004 and Crosby No. 1 overall in 2005, they have been expected to produce championships. So far, they have led the Penguins to just one Cup in 2009. One simply is not enough. This is the year to get the second of what figures to be at least a couple of more.

"There was pressure before the deals," Crosby said. "I don't think it changes anything. If anything, it should motivate us even more knowing we've added some guys who are going to help us. We're a better hockey team."

It's nice to think goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has the same attitude. He missed the game against Winnipeg with what's believed to be a minor neck injury. The goalie always has to be the man in the playoffs, but the pressure on him is even greater when he has the best team around him. Tom Barrasso stood up to it on those great Penguins teams in 1991 and 1992 and could have won the Conn Smythe Trophy each year but wasn't quite as good in 1993. Fleury played great when the Penguins won the Cup in 2009 but has been mediocre in the playoffs since. Well, except for last season. He was awful then, not that he had much help from his defense and penalty-killers.

Fleury has been outstanding this season, just as was in the regular season a year ago. It's nice to think he will continue to play well, that his defense will continue to play well. The Penguins killed a five-on-three Winnipeg advantage for 1:56 early in the third period and have given up just nine goals in the past 10 games. This latest shutout -- by goaltender Tomas Vokoun -- was the second in a row by the Penguins. Fleury and Vokoun combined to shut out the Canadiens Tuesday night, 1-0.

"I like the position we're in," Shero said.

That's easy for Shero to say.

His work is done.

But for Bylsma and the players, it's only just begun.

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published March 29, 2013 4:00 AM


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