In the first part of this series, we looked at the beginning half of the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2010-2011 season, which quite symbolically mathematically ended with the Winter Classic loss to the Washington Capitals at Heinz Field.
The second half of the season would be one of pain, fights and perseverance.
Down Go Sidney Crosby And Evgeni Malkin
Crosby, though stunned by a collision with David Steckel on January 1, seemed like he wouldn't miss a beat. Crosby practiced with the team and was in the lineup for the very next game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Then he took this hit from Victor Hedman.
Again, Crosby, while dazed, soldiered on. He continued to play his regular shifts in this game and traveled with the team to Montreal for the next game. By then, finally, symptoms were showing and the player and team doctors knew this was something that had to keep him out of the lineup. Even though it was deemed a "mild" concussion with the famous "about a week" timeline, it would be the last time Crosby played in the 2010-11 season. His symptoms would persist for many weeks, and even though he returned to limited on-ice practice sessions, Crosby suffered another setback on April 20 that effectively ended his season.
The Penguins persevered, going 7-3-1 in January and early February without Crosby, and with Malkin largely limited with a left knee injury that knocked him out of the lineup. On February 6, Malkin was ready to rejoin the team and shoulder his share of the burden. And then he skated into the corner with Buffalo's Tyler Myers.
Malkin's right ACL would be torn and he would undergo surgery, ending his season as well. Within a month, the Pens had been dealt two devastating injuries to their two best players. But they still pressed forward, illustrated perfectly in that Buffalo game. When Malkin went down, the Pens were losing 2-0. They'd win that night 3-2 in what could be a microcosm of their season, in terms of being resilient in the face of injuries.
The Sideshow: Fights, Suspensions and Matt Cooke
February 2 saw the sport of hockey devolve into a sideshow. New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro, in a moment of frustration, hit Matt Cooke at the end of a 3-0 Penguins win. Pens backup goalie Brent Johnson took umbrage with this, and the two goalies fought, with Johnson dropping DiPietro with one swift left punch that broke DiPi's orbital bone. The bottom-feeding Islanders took issue with Marc-Andre Fleury laughing on the bench, so when the teams met again nine days later, the Islanders aimed for retribution.
The penalty minutes accumulated and several players would be suspended, and Eric Godard for Pittsburgh was assessed an automatic 10-gamer for his part in leaving the bench to protect Johnson.
After this circus sideshow, Mario Lemieux wrote a scathing open letter to the league, advocating more supplemental discipline and the eradication of intentional head shots.
Almost before the ink was dry on that letter a few weeks later, Matt Cooke - who's been suspended several times for head shots - did this.
Ryan McDonagh would not be injured, but Cooke made Lemieux look bad, he made the Penguins look bad and he made the league look bad. The NHL would be swift, suspending Cooke for the rest of the regular season plus the first round of the playoffs, quite the stern penalty. The Penguins, unlike many teams who lodge complaints when their players get suspended, publicly supported the ruling, but the loss of a player like Cooke would be just one more blow for them to overcome.
Trade Deadline Shapes The Future
Penguins general manager Ray Shero would look to add to the Pens' scoring touch at the deadline. He got former Penguin star Alex Kovalev from the Ottawa Senators for a seventh-round pick. The aging forward couldn't provide much of a spark, but his skill on the ice gave the team enough of a boost to justify the cost for this year, and his expiring contract will not handcuff the team later.
Also Shero made a trade that will shape the roster for years to come when he sent defenseman Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars for forward James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen. The loss of Goligoski, the team's power-play quarterback, represented a step back. Neal, a goal-scoring forward, only produced two goals in his 27 games as a Penguin, a disappointment for this year.
A Strong Regular-Season Finish
Lost in all the injuries and firestorm of fights and hits was how the Penguins actually played on the ice in actual game action. While they only went 3-6-4 in the first month without Malkin, the team won 12 of their last 16 games down the stretch, including four straight to close the season. The Philadelphia Flyers built an early lead in the standings and would end up holding on for the Atlantic Division crown, but Pittsburgh was just one point behind them. The Pens were off to the playoffs as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference to meet the Tampa Bay Lightning.
For his efforts, head coach Dan Bylsma was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year, the winner of which will be announced in June.
An Early Playoff Exit
Game 1 of the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs saw Marc-Andre Fleury pitch a 32-save shutout in a 3-0 Pittsburgh win. Tampa would rebound with a 5-1 win in Game 2. The Pens clawed out two close wins when the series shifted to Tampa in Games 3 and 4, highlighted by a double-overtime win to give the Pens a 3-1 advantage in the series.
The tide would turn when Tampa's main offensive players like Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier helped the Lightning outscore the Pens 13-4 in the last three games of the series, culminating in a 1-0 win in Game 7. The final game of the Penguins' season also showcased their determination, but also demonstrated their inability to produce enough offense to be a playoff contender.
And when the dust settles, that's how the 2010-11 Pens will be remembered: as a team that showed immense promise but had to deal with crippling injuries.