So where does this weekend leave us?
Are the Penguins the team that could only muster enough offense to have a shot of the post be the highlight of the game? Are the Penguins the team that dominated the league for the first half of the year? Or are they somewhere in the middle? From what I've seen and read here, the consensus is the middle; a hard working team (forget the Habs game) who, at the very least are competitive night in and night out running sheerly on desire, tremendous heart, love of the game, and a hot goaltender (again, forget the Habs game). More after the hop.
Obviously, there are many important factors to consider.
1) This team is not, nor ever will be, the same without one Sidney Crosby. No matter who you add or subtract, the is no replacing the best hockey player in the world.
2) This team is not, nor ever will be, the same without one Evgeni Malkin. While there is no #87 around to enhance #71's game, Gino is, in his own right, a premier player that also makes everyone around him better because of his exceptional skills.
3) You are only as good as your goalie in the playoffs (see 2010 Halek). While I feel that Marc-Andre Fleury can carry this team a long way, I know there are many who have their doubts. Premier goaltenters do not have games like yesterday against the Canadiens.
4) The additions of Neal, Niskanen, and Kovalev, if nothing else, were well timed. How each of them continues to develop in Bylsma's system remains to be seen, but I, for one, am encouraged from what I've seen so far. Sure we could use Gogoloski on the power play (and the rest of the game), but Neal has shown the toughness and hockey presence to be able to help this team this year, and down the line. Niskanen has been a pleasant surprise for such a young defenseman since he was basically thrown out of Dallas faster than Thomas Henderson on a coke binge. And while there are mixed reviews on Kovalev (I still love the guy), his leadership, yes I said leadership, has shown on and off the ice. The guy loves Pittsburgh, plain and simple.
5) Will "The Kid" return?
Can they win it all if he comes back? I don't think there's any doubt they can. Can they if he doesn't? More than likely not. While I feel that Head Coach Dan Bylsma has done one of the finest coaching jobs I've seen since Rollie Massimino at Villanova in 1983, he can't put the puck in the net and he can't keep it out of his own goal. That's up to the players that he has to work with, plus or minus Sid.
All I can say for sure is that is has been an incredible season so far, with lots of highs and lows, and I for one, can't wait to see how it turns out. We are all praying for Crosby's health and return whenever that may be. It's an honor to say I'm a true fan of this team, and all the teams in the past.