And now the Penguins have their own 2017 Predators series. We’re not alone.
Two years after their third Cup. Swept out. Looking out of ideas, out of energy, out of speed. Those who had been pillars of historic success simply nowhere to be found. A GM floundering and picking up slow, past-it d-men, holding onto methods that no longer apply. A former playoff chew-toy rising up and vanquishing those that hadn’t even considered them an adversary before. A raucous crowd behind them, swinging wildly between euphoria and disbelief that it’s finally happening (though let’s thank Isles fans for finally stealing European soccer songs instead of just college chants, a la Music City). A sense of of it truly being over.
Sound at all familiar? The difference here of course is where the Predators simply sped past the Hawks at every turn, the Islanders boa constrictor’d the Penguins from the off, and there wasn’t any air anywhere for them. You can’t really blame the Pens. After the past three years, it would take an utter miracle to find the energy to get through a Barry Trotz team. Especially when you’ve run into a Barry Trotz team the previous three seasons. At some point, everyone just says, “Fuck this, I’ve had enough.” Victory has defeated you, as they say.
It seems every defining team goes through this. The Hawks in ’17. The Kings missing the playoffs altogether after their second Cup and then being utterly destroyed by the Sharks a year later. The Wings being flattened by the same Predators in 2012. The endings are never clean or graceful. As Sick Boy put it, “At one point you’ve got it, and then you lose it and it’s gone forever.” In the NHL now, that moment where it switches doesn’t let you down gently. It goes upside your head with a mace.
Oh, I’m sure Penguins fans will scream until they wretch up an Iron City that as long as Crosby and Malkin are around they’re never out of it. We said the same thing around these parts, and look where it got us. If Sidney dyes his hair purple and tells the assembled press in September he’s really gotten into writing his own poetry, you’ll truly know where you’re headed. They’ll pout and stamp their feet about how Jim Rutherford will figure it out. The same Rutherford who signed Jack Johnson and traded for Erik Gudbranson and then wondered why they couldn’t bust a Trotz trap. And remember, that was all for a still useful Carl Hagelin, who just happens to still be playing. I’m sure Rutherford has a real master plan here. After all, he wasn’t responsible for all of the Canes playoffs-less decade. Just most of it.
Oh, they’ll tell themselves that Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad will put it together at The Confluence. That they just need to be in a winning atmosphere and suddenly they’ll blossom. Sure thing, that’s why the Panthers are so good. Maybe they can bring back Matt Cullen again, assuming they can find enough virgin’s blood between now and training camp to keep him upright. Signing centers over 40 is always such a keen strategy.
Next year will be the 54th straight that Olli Maatta is going to have a breakthrough. Or maybe next year is finally the one Justin Schultz can make it through without catching legionnaires or having half of a construction site fall on him. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. Maybe if you try hard enough, Pens fans, you can close your eyes and focus and suddenly Marcus Pettersson will just become Elias.
Matt Murray is still young, they’ll tell themselves. Really had a surge in the second half of the year. All that’s true, except he just put up his second subpar playoff performance to go with his two good ones. Are they ready for another Marc-Andre Fleury roller coaster? They didn’t like the first one much. There are no answers here either.
No, realizations like Patric Hornqvist proving that if you’re an asshole power forward and you take the power forward away, you’re just an asshole, aren’t going to get any better and brighter when he’s 33. Come December the Pens will have their very own Milan Lucic! They must be so excited.
And there’s little salvation to be found. The only big contract coming off the books soon is Schultz’s, and that will mostly be insurance after he’s eaten by werewolves. This is entrenched. This is what you are. It was good enough not so long ago. It’s not now, and it won’t be again. There are glories past to be celebrated, and you’ll have to hang on tight, because what comes next isn’t very fun. Ask us. We know. Keep the DVDs close.
So fare the well, Pittsburgh Penguins. Don’t worry, the NHL will keep shoving you in outdoor games and on national television. The name recognition doesn’t fade. But that only shines a brighter light on what isn’t there any longer. Believe us, we got here first. When all you want is to remain in the shadows so no one will notice you trying to white-knuckle through another Gudbranson shift, the masses will keep coming back to scoff and mock, and try to remember what it was like before, while decrying that they still have to watch and pay attention to you. And you’ll tell them you don’t want them to either, but NBC keeps bringing you back. Everyone is going to know your pain when all you want is to be left alone.
It’s a dark ride from here.