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Penguins Penguins balk at national forecasts of miserable season

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Penguins center Brian Holzinger spent last autumn in Tampa, Fla., where observers were split on just what kind of season the Lightning were going to have.

Some saw Tampa Bay tumbling out of playoff contention by Thanksgiving, completing the year with a point total that stalled on the dark side of 65.

Others weren't nearly as upbeat.

 
 
THE PRINTED PANS

What national publications have to say about the 2003-04 Penguins:

The Hockey News
Ranking: Last in Eastern Conference, along with D-plus grade, lowest of any team in NHL.
Comment: "Will 2004 draft gem Alexander Ovechkin like playing in Pittsburgh?"

The Sporting News
Ranking: Last in conference, along with forwards 27th in league, defensemen 30th and goaltenders 28th.
Comment: "Eddie Olczyk, who played in the NHL but has no experience coaching pros, has the least amount of talent to work with -- beyond that of his boss."

Sports Illustrated
Ranking: Last in Atlantic Division.
Comment: "They are unproven on the blue line and greener still in goal. The last time a team had success with that concoction was ... well, never."

ESPN the Magazine
Ranking: Last in division.
Comment: "Olczyk says foes will have to 'go through all five players.' They will."

The Sports Network of Canada
Ranking: Last in division.
Comment: "Lemieux will return for another season, but has perhaps the worst supporting cast of his career."

   
 

All those dire predictions seemed reasonable, because the Lightning had a long history of poor management, spotty fan support and underachievement by the few players with big-time skills who ended up there.

In NHL circles, it had become known as a place where the golf was a whole lot better than the hockey.

But all that changed a few months later, when the Lightning put up a franchise-record 93 points and won the Southeast Division championship for the first time. Tampa Bay followed that by beating Washington in the first round of the playoffs, firmly establishing itself as a team on the rise. Quickly.

"Sports Illustrated picked us to go dead-last," Holzinger said. "And you all saw what that team was able to accomplish."

Its entirely possible that Holzinger will repeat that story to his teammates the next few days -- assuming he hasn't done so already -- because most predictions for the Penguins in 2003-04 are every bit as dire as they were for the Lightning a year ago.

They are pretty much a consensus selection to end up 15th in the Eastern Conference, and 30th in the overall standings.

The assessments of the Penguins' short-term future are as brutal as any offered since the days leading up to the 1983-84 season. Back then, they were blistered as a team with absolutely no hope of getting into the playoffs, then validated those predictions by earning a league-low 38 points.

"We know what's going on," forward Martin Straka said. "We talked about it before camp started. Everybody picked us last. I think that's a good thing. When we go up against other teams, maybe they're going to think we're going to be easy to beat."

Such thinking isn't entirely unreasonable. Over the past few years, the Penguins have had to slice the likes of Alex Kovalev, Ron Francis, Jaromir Jagr, Darius Kasparaitis and Robert Lang from their payroll, replacing them with players whose profiles and salaries are radically lower.

The days when the Penguins could routinely overwhelm opponents with individual talent ended long ago; whatever success they have during the coming season will stem from having the whole of their lineup be great than the sum of its parts.

"There's no secret about it," Holzinger said. "We're going to have to be a cohesive group, we're going to have to rely on 23 individuals, all contributing, in order to be successful. If we're going to rely on Mario [Lemieux] and Straka and [Aleksey] Morozov and those guys scoring all our goals, it's going to be a long year. All of us are going to have to chip in in our own ways, maybe play out of our element a little bit in order to surprise some guys."

That wouldn't take much. If the Penguins simply are hanging on the periphery of the Eastern playoff race at midseason, it will be viewed as a monumental feat. Outside their locker room and executive offices, anyway.

"We have the potential to make the playoffs," Straka said. "Especially if [Lemieux] stays healthy, and he looks it great shape so far. That's awesome news for everybody."

And it lends at least a little credence to the idea of contending for a playoff berth. That several teams seem to defy expectations every winter doesn't hurt, either.

"I'm saying to myself, why can't we be one of them?" defenseman Marc Bergevin said. "It's an 82-game season, it's a grind, and we'll go through our ups and downs. It's up to the leadership around the room to make sure that the wheels don't fall off."

If that would happen, I-told-you-so would pour in from every corner of the continent. The Penguins realize that but don't seem inclined to fixate on how they're viewed around the league.

"We're gunning for the playoffs," winger Ramzi Abid said. "That's our goal. We don't really care what other people think."

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