The Pittsburgh Penguins stood atop the NHL standings on New Years Day with a 25-11-3 record, the league's leading scorer, and one of their most important players nearing return from a lengthy injury. The sky looked to be the limit.
By January 5 their season would irrevocably take a turn for the worse. But how the Penguins handled that adversity made the 2010-11 season a success.
In the first installment our two-part season recap, we'll start off by taking a look at the Penguins' impressive opening half.
A Rocky Start
The beginning of the Penguins' season was typified by a bit of an identity crisis. Many teams are still trying to find their way at the start of a season, but few had as many questions as the Penguins did.
The defense, heavily overhauled in the offseason, was still trying to find its identity. Marc-Andre Fleury's playoff struggles continued into the new campaign. Projected second-line winger Mike Comrie did little to inspire confidence playing alongside Evgeni Malkin (though he was, unknown to us at the time, playing through a hip injury). And with Jordan Staal's injury/expected promotion to the second line, the checking lines were still trying to sort out effective, long-term combinations. That the team's output was underwhelming at the start should have been expected.
But, gradually, answers emerged. Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek slowly found a comfort zone in their new pairing. Kris Letang stood out and provided blueline offense that the team sorely needed after the loss of Sergei Gonchar. The unheralded Deryk Engelland proved a more-than-competent 6/7 swing defenseman. Mark Letestu emerged as a heady and capable center.
But most importantly, Fleury found his game.
Before that November 12 contest against the Lightning, Fleury had opened the season with a 1-7 record and an .852 save percentage, and had given up fewer than three goals only once - a game in which he was pulled after surrendering two goals on five shots.
From that point on, Fleury was nothing short of magnificent, posting a 35-13-5 record and a .924 save percentage over the remainder of the regular season.
It was on that play and a scoring explosion from Sidney Crosby that the Penguins would begin to turn heads.
The Penguins didn't lose a game in regulation for about month after Fleury's awakening. Over that 27-day span, the team would put together a league-pacing 14-0-1 record, including a 12-game winning streak.
Not coincidentally, it was also around this time that Sidney Crosby began to heat up.
Starting on November 5, Crosby recorded at least one point in every game played until a December 29 loss to the New York Islanders. The streak was the longest since Mats Sundin scored in 30 straight in 1992-93 and tied for the 11th-longest in NHL history.
Evgeni Malkin, despite battling injuries, also showed bursts of dominance during the team's hot streak, putting up a point per game in the 10 games he was healthy, and also blowing up for five points against the Coyotes in mid-December.
Winning breeds happiness, and the Penguins locker room was predictably in high spirits.
Adding to the quickly developing buzz around the team was the introduction of HBO's 24/7. A behind-the-scenes sports documentary series, 24/7 followed the Penguins and Washington Capitals over four not-safe-for-work episodes, ultimately concluding with the New Year's Day Winter Classic outdoor game between the two rivals at Heinz Field.
It was during 24/7 that we learned of the Penguins' hazing rituals...
...what happens when Ben Lovejoy takes a puck to the face...
...and some of Crosby's more unique habits.
But, most importantly, the show helped cement a bond between the fans and a team with which they were now intimately familiar. From Max Talbot's antics to intimate family moments for some of the team's more unsung heroes, we were given a bird's-eye view of the Penguins' private lives while they played at the best of its abilities.
The Winter Classic
Even though it only counted for two points, the 2011 NHL Winter Classic stood for much more. It represented the marquee regular-season game in the NHL, in front of a crowd about four times the size of the typical capacity NHL crowd.
For the Penguins, it was an opportunity to cement their reputation as the marquee team in the Eastern Conference. For the Capitals, it was an opportunity to show they could win on a big stage. And points and standings aside, the biggest prize to be had was ego-related.
Build-up to the game was feverish in Pittsburgh and proved to be one of the rare occasions in which the Steelers could be overshadowed in late December.
But that anticipation was briefly placed on hold. Rain and ugly conditions forced the game's start time to be pushed back several hours. Conditions would eventually improve enough that the two teams could play on some ugly, slushy ice.
The Capitals won 3-1. In the grand scheme, the score mattered little to the Penguins season.
More important was David Steckel's unintentional blindside hit to the head of Crosby.
The hit would unknowingly be the start of a rash of injuries to the Penguins that would turn a once-promising season into a serious test for Dan Bylsma, Ray Shero and the Pens' role-players.
But at the start of 2011, the Penguins were on top of the world. Jordan Staal had returned from injury. Sidney Crosby could not be slowed nor stopped. Evgeni Malkin could switch on and take over a game. Marc-Andre Fleury was playing like a world-class goaltender. Kris Letang had the look of a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate.
Little did anyone know how much the face of the team would change over the next 30 days.