Kovacevic: All clear in Penguins' window
“Yeah, it does seem like a long time ago. Really does.”
That was Marc-Andre Fleury's reply the other night at Consol Energy Center, offered through that toddler's smile, when asked how far removed he feels from that magical Motown moment in 2009.
From that sliding save on Nicklas Lidstrom.
From raising that silver chalice.
“Once you don't win it, you miss it,” Fleury continued. “We went to the final the year before then we won, and you think you'll be there every year. But that's not how it's gone.”
No, not in the slightest.
The Penguins have gone 1-3 in Stanley Cup playoff series since, bombing against the Canadiens and Lightning and, by far the most painful, melting down in Philadelphia last spring.
There's now a postseason trend line that's sunk with each passing season.
There's even a temptation, or so I sense, to suggest that, if this team's window hasn't slammed shut, the sash is at least diving downward.
And maybe it's true.
But good luck making a case.
Really, all it takes to debunk the notion is to block out the emotional noise of those playoff losses and look at cold facts.
Sidney Crosby is 25 — and a young 25 at that, given the beating his body's been spared for the better part of two years now. No reason he shouldn't lead the NHL in scoring.
Evgeni Malkin is 26. He just did lead the NHL in scoring. Won MVP, too.
Those two alone should be enough to sway any skeptic. Backcheck through hockey history, and you'll find that those fortunate few teams blessed to have two of the game's top players almost always wound up winning it all twice or more:
· Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr, Bruins: 1970, 1972
· Guy Lafleur and Ken Dryden, Canadiens: 1973, 1976-79
· Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, Islanders: 1980-83
· Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, Oilers: 1984-85, 1987-88
· Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr ... you know.
· Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, Red Wings: 1997-98, 2002
· Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, Avalanche: 1996 and 2001
Now add this: Could any of those duos claim to be 1-2 in the league at the time they won?
Jagr was still a mullet-headed child in 1991-92. Messier wasn't yet Mr. Guarantee. I'll grant you Esposito and Orr, and that's it.
Until Crosby and Malkin.
Are we really dismissing how special this situation is because of a couple lousy playoffs?
Are we really forgetting that both will enter a season healthy for the first time in four years?
Because I can assure you those involved are not.
“I think it's huge,” Crosby said. “It's been a while, for sure, and Geno's coming off such a great season and now playing great in Russia, so that makes it even more exciting.”
Yeah, just a little.
So what of the supporting cast?
James Neal is 25. He just busted out for 40 goals.
Kris Letang is 25. All that's keeping him from a Norris Trophy is consistency. Maybe a contract year will do it.
Brandon Sutter is 23. I'm not close to weighing the Jordan Staal trade, but anyone who saw this kid in camp would love Eddie Johnston's old-school assessment after the scrimmage the other night: “Kid's a (heck) of a hockey player.”
Now tell me again, where's this window?
Is it with the other forwards?
Chris Kunitz (26 goals), Pascal Dupuis (25) and Matt Cooke (19) all set career highs last season. Overall, the Penguins led the NHL with 273 goals. Same group.
The rest of the defense?
OK, there are issues here once you get past Letang, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. But Ray Shero can trade for help at the deadline, if not sooner. That process tends to go well.
Well, this is where we come full circle back to the Flower.
None of the above matters if he doesn't blossom again. That's just hockey. The Penguins scored plenty on Philadelphia, but the Flyers buried a ridiculous 26 pucks past Fleury in just six games. Bad goaltending can't be overcome.
But Fleury is hardly old at 28, and he ranked second in the league with 42 regular-season wins despite being driven into fatigue by Brent Johnson failing as backup. Truth is, until Fleury hit the wall, he was very good.
Moreover, Shero tried to fend off a sequel by wisely signing Tomas Vokoun, probably the game's most qualified backup.
The goaltending will be fine.
So will the Penguins. I really believe that. The facts — and I use the term advisedly — support that powerfully.
Maybe this window hasn't even entered the picture yet.
Maybe for now everyone, the Penguins included, would do well to slam shut their own windows on the bitter aftertaste of Mike Cammalleri's goals, Dwayne Roloson's saves and Scott Hartnell's smirk and focus instead on the imminent task.
Which has a lot to do with Hartnell's smirk, come to think of it.