Kovacevic: These Penguins could top '93
It's recently become cool to compare these star-laden Penguins — with 70 goals in the past 16 games and three eight-spots in a month — to the more prolific scoring machines in hockey history. One wag on NHL Network the other night even brought up the 1980s Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and an embarrassment of other riches.
Sorry, I'm not in that solar system of thought.
But here's where I am willing to go: What we're watching right now might be the best team in Penguins history.
Yes, even if they somehow lost to the Islanders, 5-3, on Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center.
Fact is, losing to the Islanders was the fatal flaw of the 1992-93 Penguins that common sentiment still holds as the franchise's greatest. The city's pre-lottery fans no doubt remember with equal parts excitement as exasperation how Mario Lemieux made his heroic return from cancer, how the team won a league-record 17 in a row and how a third consecutive Stanley Cup was a virtual lock ... until they were dumped by David Volek and the Islanders in the second round.
Happens a lot in sports, actually, that a fan base cites a non-championship team as their best. Most around here still swear by the 1976 Steelers, one of the two teams in that hallowed six-year span that failed to win a Super Bowl.
Not everyone subscribes, of course.
"I hear all the time how a team that didn't win was the best," said Phil Bourque, a grinder on the Penguins' first two Cup teams. "No way. Doesn't work like that. Give me the team that gets it done."
Well, the current one hasn't gotten it done yet, either, so let's have some fun with what's increasingly a reasonable comparison ...
Winning : The 1993 team went 56-21-7 for 119 points in a regular season that had two more games, winning its only Presidents' Trophy. The current team is 47-23-6 for 100 points, fourth in the league, and it had its own impressive winning streak stopped at 11 last week.
Scoring : Comparing goal counts between eras is hollow, but the 1993 team led the league with a franchise-record 367 goals, 16 more than anyone else. The current team has 256 goals, seven more than anyone else. That's pretty much a wash.
Forget about it from there.
Lemieux chased down Pat LaFontaine for the scoring title with 160 points in just 60 games, including an extraterrestrial 35 points in the first 12 games after radiation treatment. With all due respect to Sidney Crosby's concussion comebacks and Evgeni Malkin's yearlong magnificence, there's no debate to be had.
Moreover, Lemieux centered prototype power forwards Kevin Stevens and Rick Tocchet, and the all-Hall of Fame second line had Ron Francis, Joey Mullen and Jaromir Jagr, the latter's enshrinement a pending formality. Larry Murphy, another inductee, was on the power-play point.
Crosby and Malkin get top-tier scoring help from Jordan Staal, James Neal and Kris Letang, but this one's still no mas .
Defense : This isn't close, either, but the other way around. Last night aside, the current team is highly disciplined under Dan Bylsma's forecheck-but-get-back system. The 1993 team was so brash it barely cared if it prevented goals. Or even if it practiced.
The current defensive core is deeper, faster, and it has a big hitter in Brooks Orpik to match Ulf Samuelsson.
Goaltending : Marc-Andre Fleury and Tom Barrasso still duel to a draw, but the 1993 team had Ken Wregget as backup while the current team is still seeking an answer.
Toughness : The 1993 team was hardly lacking, but the late-season trade of Bob Errey for journeyman defenseman Mike Ramsey hurt more than most realized at the time. The Islanders, especially pesky Ray Ferraro, would goad the Penguins all over the rink in the playoffs. Players like Errey and Bourque, lost to free agency the previous summer, "never would have let Ferraro get away with that," Errey said yesterday.
Neither would Matt Cooke, Arron Asham, Craig Adams or any number of gritty types on the current team, which gets this edge.
Mike Lange says so : This is always a healthy tiebreaker in any historic debate about the Penguins, given that no human has witnessed more of their games.
"I know the '93 team didn't win," the franchise's voice said, "but personnel-wise and the way they played the game, that team should have walked through those playoffs. That team, to me, was the best the Penguins have had in terms of talent."
Better than this one?
"I think '93 was better."
I'll concur. For now, and only because of the superlative scorers. But there's an easy way for the current Penguins to prove us wrong.
No, not just beating the Islanders.