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2011: The Year We Want to Forget

2011 started with a bad omen: rain.

A few weeks prior, Pens fans were sporting a month-long glow courtesy of the light 24/7 cast on the team and organization and it would be topped off with what was sure to be an epic Winter Classic. However, the detailed schedule of events took a hit when Mother Nature decided to literally rain on the NHL's parade. The afternoon opening faceoff would now take place under Pittsburgh's night sky, but the gentle rain didn't cease. During TV timeouts, the ice crew would shovel puddles of water toward the boards, creating waves as the water escaped the shovel's blade. I remember thinking a mop would have been a better idea.

Nevertheless, the game went on, despite the difficulties caused by the rain. Sidney Crosby took what has become one of the most famous head hits in the NHL and the Pens lost a tough game. But sure enough, the next morning, the sun still rose and life moved on.

The first day of 2011 neatly describes how the rest of the year went for the Pens. Things didn't go as planned, players got hurt, and the Pens lost some tough games, but in the end, the Pens still had to take care of business. Frustrating doesn't even begin to describe the mass of emotions felt throughout the 2011 year. As a person of many words, I found myself struggling to explain why fate decided to use the Pens as its own voodoo doll. I eventually gave up.

I might be more twisted than a screw to want to re-remind everyone what exactly went down (or plummeted?) in 2011, but here it goes:

  • Crosby is concussed during the Winter Classic from a reckless play by David Steckel and the injury is aggravated more when he absorbs a Viktor Hedman hit the following game. That Tampa Bay Lightning game was the last game Crosby would play for almost 11 months.
  • Evgeni Malkin goes down with a torn MCL/ACL against the Buffalo Sabres about a month after the Pens lose Crosby. He won't return until the beginning of the following season.
  • In the first round of the playoffs, the Pens take a 3-1 series lead over the Bolts off a much-needed James Neal goal in overtime, but the Pens lose in seven. Reassuring that the absence of Malkin and Crosby caused the meltdown got old fast.
  • Matt Cooke receives what would become a 17-game suspension after a hit on New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh.
  • Jaromir Jagr and #JagrWatch. I'm sure nothing more needs to be said about that.
  • Max Talbot turning down Ray Shero's offer and joining the Philadelphia Flyers on July 1. I may not care for his decision, but it's going to be strange seeing him in orange for some time.
  • Crosby's return to the NHL on Nov. 21 was cut short when his concussion symptoms returned after playing the Boston Bruins on Dec. 5. He's only played eight games this season.
  • As this season has gone on, the injuries have piled on to include concussions to Kris Letang, Tyler Kennedy and Zbynek Michalek and injuries to Ben Lovejoy, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Jordan Staal, Malkin, and most recently, Pascal Dupuis and Deryk Engelland.
So with a year that began with an injury and a 3-1 loss, the Pens close out the year with a 3-1 loss and two injuries. There have been no updates on Dupuis' and Engelland's condition, but they have until Friday to rest. Hopefully that's enough time for other players to regain their health as well.

By now, Pens fans have created an opinion about the "Into the Sun" commercial that airs during Pens games. Love it or hate it, I think a closer look at the lyrics is in order:
Out of the darkness
And into the light of love
Though for now it seems this struggle has only begun.

I'm still believing
Our day is going to come
When we step out of the shadows and into the sun.

In a sense, it's very fitting. No matter how many injuries the Pens have faced, it seems like more keep coming. Every new injury feels like the team has to start over with the struggles, especially since the injuries tend to come in bunches. But there will (hopefully) come a day when the Pens can tuck the problems away and step "out of the shadows and into the sun."

While this season will go down as one we all wish to forget, there were some high points as well:

  • Dan Byslma coaching a Crosby-less and Malkin-less team into the playoffs which won him the Coach of Year award.
  • Nov. 21, Crosby's return game. Regardless of what Crosby's future holds, this will always be a special day in Penguins history when Crosby lit up the New York Islanders with two goals and two assists on his first game back. The energy from that game was majestic.
  • With the injuries to the lineup, many players took it upon themselves to carry the team in a staggering fashion, including Neal, Matt Niskanen, Pascal Dupuis, Marc-Andre Fleury and Cooke. Speaking of Cooke...
  • His turnaround from dirty hitter to clean checker has received a lot of attention. This is a player who went through a lot last season but took it upon himself to change his game in an admirable way.
In short, 2011 was a whirlwind with more lows than highs, but life moves on and so must the Pens. These times are when a team's true colors show and we all know the levels of character in the dressing room.

So with open arms, we welcome 2012 into our lives and hope the Pens, who are now an uncomfortable 4 points away from being out of playoff contention, can benefit from this fresh start.