The Penguins have unparalleled strength at center. Successful teams in the post-lockout NHL have to be strong up the middle.

2004-2005. The average Joe might just look at these years as a “pretty good time” or “those were the days.” But for the diehard hockey fan, it was seven to eight months of pain and dispair (get ready NBA followers).

A full season of what we live for was wiped off the face of the Earth. The National Hockey League had become the definition of bland. Tickets weren’t being sold, there were no players worthy of being called a superstar and ultimately, the product on the ice was to blame.

The NHL had turned into the opposite of what it is supposed to be.

Fast-paced? It was slow and full of penalties. Violent? Goons such as Donald Brashear and Krzysztof Oliwa took it to a new, unentertaining level. World class skill that could fascinate the casual sports fan? Well, Mario played ten games that year at least.

The players were bad, and so was the game as a whole. Winning was dependent on shut down goalies, a defensive minded (boring) trap system compliments of New Jersey and wingers who would cherry pick until the cows came home. The NHL has finally changed, and those of you who call the 412 or the 724 home do not have to look very far to see the gem of this new era.

In today’s post-lockout NHL, a well-balanced team with studs on both offense and defense are needed to lift the Cup. But let’s look deeper. Out of the six teams to win a cup since the lockout (Carolina, Anaheim, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Boston in that order), how many of these teams have surefire Hall of Fame goaltenders?

Cam Ward from Carolina has not sustained his lights out performance from his cup run. Jean-Sebastian Giguere has turned from cup winner into travel agent. Antti Niemi of Chicago is already on a different team and battling for the starting spot. Marc-Andre Fluery battles with inconsistency yet has the potential to win plenty of more. Tim Thomas got too late of a jump. And Chris Osgood, who won three Cups, two of which as a starter, is tenth all-time in regular seasons wins list with 401. Osgood will be in the Hall, nobody else will be, but Fluery has the best chance.

Now let’s look at the six winning goaltenders before the lockout (in descending order).

In 2003-2004, Nikolia Khabibulin—probably not a HOFer, but can be regarded as one of the greats as his resume includes a four time all-star, gold and bronze medal winning goalie in the Olympics, as well as a Cup. The previous four years include Martin Broduer, Dominik Hasek, Patrick Roy and Broduer again. This list contains three of the top-five greatest goalies to ever live, including the greatest in Roy.

Marty Turco, who is continuing a very respectable NHL career, led the Dallas Stars to the hardware in 1999. For the previous twenty-six years before the Stars won, every team since 1973 was led by a starting goaltender who is either in the NHL Hall of Fame (Bernie Parent, Ken Dryden, Denis Potvin, Grant Fuhr, Roy, Broduer) or the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame (Mike Richter, Tom Barrasso) besides the two years Mike Vernon won (Calgary ’89 and Detroit in ’98). That only leaves out Osgood’s win with Detroit in 1997, and as I stated before, there is no question he will be elected.

Gone are the days where a player who will be standing at a podium thanking God and his family and fo

rmer coaches 5 years after he plays is needed to win a Cup. Above Average goalies needed? Yes. Perennially elite? Not anymore.

Pittsburgh struck gold in winning the lottery for Sid the Kid. But they also beat the casino when they drafted Evgeni Malkin No. 2 overall after Alex Ovechkin in 2004, followed by the selection of destructive two-way centerman Jordan Staal in 2006.

As the clever Bob Errey would say, this certainly is a three headed monster.

The first time the Penguins put it all together, they made it to the playoffs in 2007 for the first time in six years. The next year they lost in the Cup finals. The year after, the Pens got their spark when in-season hire Dan Bylsma brought in his fast-paced, physical and up-tempo forechecking system to the team that seemed to awake a sleeping giant and led them to the ultimate prize of raising the Cup.

His system was dependent on every skater playing a two-way game, whether it was Sidney concentrating more on working down low in the defensive zone or Sergei Gonchar bringing the puck up and jumping into the play on odd-man rushes. Their roster also consisted of elite offensive defensemen such as Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang. The underlying theme here is this: strength up the middle on offense, versatile, puck moving defensemen on the back end, an up-tempo forechecking system and a hot goaltender come playoff time.

Need more proof?

The Detroit Red Wings went to the Cup finals in back to back years when they faced the Penguins. Their roster consisted of world-class centers Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk (5 All Star Games, 3 Stanley Cups, 4 Selke Trophies for best defensive forward, 4 Lady Byngs, 1 Conn Smythe, and 1 Calder) along with 4-time Cup champ Kris Draper centering the third line. Their defense included Mr. Norris himself Nicklas Lidstrom (7-time Norris Trophy Winner) and perhaps one of the best American-born defenseman ever in Brian Rafalski, whose offensive prowess was shown in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

We can go from before the Penguins to after them, as the Chicago Blackhawks were built just as similarly. The Blackhawks’ number one center was Jonathan Toews. Toews is a two-time all star, and became the youngest Captain in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP. He is also the third youngest captain in NHL history, as only the sixth player ever to win the Stanley Cup and Olympic Gold in the same year. He is revered as one of the best two-way centermen in the game, predicted by many writers as this year’s Selke trophy winner.

Their #2 centerman was Patrick Sharp, who has scored at least 20 or more goals for 5 straight years, and was named the MVP of the 2011 All-Star Game. Their defensive corps was headed by the Norris Trophy winner that year, Duncan Keith.

What about the 2011 Bruins? Their top 2 centers, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, were their best offensive players, not only scoring but all-around games. Bergeron was Crosby’s linemate on the gold-medal Canadian Olympic team in 2010, so I would say he had some skill if he can skate with Sid. Their #1 on the back end was 6-time All Star and Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara. They rode red-hot goalie Tim Thomas all the way to the Cup, becoming the first goalie to win the Conn Smythe trophy since Ward did it was Carolina in 2006.

Four different teams, yet so alike. Their best players were all centers and puck-moving defenseman, complimented by a goalie who just wins and a system that entails outmuscling and outgrinding the opposing team. The Pens, Hawks, Wings and Bruins all win because they concentrate on pressure on the forecheck, creating offense through defense, and also having defenseman who can skate well enough to not only shut down opposing forwards in their own zone, but also keep the play in the offensive zone and be a part of the offense.

They are able to play this way because of the personnel they have. They throw finesse out the window, and let the dirty work begin. The Capitals, Sharks, Lightning and plenty of other teams out there that bust come playoff time all play a different way. Mainly these three teams mentioned above keep their wingers up high in the defensive zone, depending on a bad bounce or a chip past an opposing d-man so they can create off the odd-man rush.

Their best players are scoring wingers who are liabilities defensively, not two-way centermen who will beat you in all three zones. People want to know why superstars such as Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatly disappear in the playoffs. There is one reason for this: Winning teams bring it in the playoffs.

From top to bottom, every skater blocks shots, gives up his body, forgets about hanging high in the defensive zone waiting for a bounce to take a breakaway. It is more important to players like Bergeron and Staal to shut down the other team than to score. The Capitals and Sharks have yet to learn this lesson, as they bank on snipers and danglers and their transition game every year in the playoffs, which usually leads to an early exit simply because those bounces and those opportunities are not there once a best of seven series starts.

I would take a Pascal Dupuis or Chris Kunitz in the playoffs over Alexander Semin every day of the week. Winning isn’t measured by goals, but by bruises and the rings on your fingers.

The Penguins need Sidney Crosby back at 100 percent to raise another banner. They need his skating, his skill and his defensive abilities which may be the only underrated thing about him. They also need Malkin to regain his world-class form, which many say he has already done. Jordan Staal also needs to stay healthy.

When all three of these machines are in the line-up, they easily put the Penguins in the top three teams in the league and become not only perennial contenders, but favorites. Goalie Marc-Andre Fluery has exorcised the demons and won a ring already, but everybody knows he is hungry for more. Pittsburgh has been to the top, and is staying put. The only problem is, they showed the rest of the league how to get there. Lucky for us, there is only one #87.

Some Early Picks

Division Winners
West: LA Kings, Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks
East: Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Buffalo Sabres

Conference Champs
LA Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins

Stanley Cup Champs
Pittsburgh Penguins


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