By Joe Starkey, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Thursday, October 6, 2011
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang(notes), left, center Steve Sullivan(notes), and forward Evgeni Malkin(notes), right, celebrate Letang's goal during the first period of a preseason NHL hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Friday, Sept. 30, 2011, in Chicago. (AP)
The Penguins' six-month, 82-game odyssey begins Thursday night in Vancouver. As always, predicting their path is pure folly.
If following this club teaches you anything, it's that the sheer length of the season, combined with the mercurial nature of the franchise, prohibits anything approaching an accurate forecast.
Oh, you can make a pretty good estimate of their final point total. But you'll never imagine the way they get there. Choose a season, any season, and you'll see.
Ten years ago, the Penguins fired Ivan Hlinka four games in, to be replaced by the first human being who walked past Craig Patrick's office. It happened to be Rick Kehoe.
In Kehoe's first game, Toby Petersen scored a hat trick playing next to Mario Lemieux. The season soon fell apart, finishing in a 10-game winless streak.
I didn't predict that (though I did have Kris Beech pegged to go minus-25).
Five years ago, a team rife with promise was piddling along at .500 in January when it ran off a 15-game unbeaten streak. Ray Shero then altered the culture by adding an insane person — Gary Roberts — and the heavyweight champion of the league, Georges Laraque, who promptly decided he would rather attempt to play hockey than fight.
Didn't see that comin'.
Nor was I alone in butchering the palm reading last year. Who could have foretold the Penguins losing Sidney Crosby in January and Evgeni Malkin in February and still putting up 100 points?
Who, in October, could have imagined Alex Kovalev running the spring power play (into the ground)?
Nobody can say who will flourish and who'll flop, who'll stay healthy and who won't. By the time this Penguins odyssey ends, the Pirates will be sailing toward a 20th consecutive losing season.
Having said all that, let's get right to the predictions (with notable dates sprinkled in) ...
» Thursday night, in Vancouver: Penguins measure their newfangled power play against the league's best from last season. I asked Shero about the risk of using four forwards. "I'm open to anything — five forwards if you want," he joked. "Pull the goalie and use six. I don't know."
» Friday, in Vancouver: Royal Canadian Mounted Police move in to protect what's left of Vancouver after fans wreck the city following the Penguins' 4-2 win.
» Oct. 11, home opener vs. endangered Panthers: New Florida coach Kevin Dineen was a Hartford Whaler, so he'll adapt nicely to coaching the Kansas City Panthers next season.
» Oct. 13, first Capitals visit: Should be emotional, with both teams wearing commemorative Lokomotiv patches in honor of the KHL tragedy.
» Oct. 17, at Winnipeg: Nobody will be happier than Arron Asham, who grew up in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, rooting for the old Jets. "The only other things we had to root for were a minor league baseball team and the (CFL) Blue Bombers," Asham said.
» Oct. 25, first trip to Long Island: Probably not the right night to bring back Crosby. It's Dan Bylsma's 200th NHL game, at the site of his first.
» Oct. 27, Islanders visit: Twice in three days? The NHL must want mayhem.
» Oct. 29, at Toronto: Wouldn't it be something if Crosby returned against David Steckel's new team? More likely it'll be a home game.
» Nov. 29, at Rangers: And nobody misses Sean Avery.
» Dec. 5: Cup champ Bruins in town.
» Dec. 8, at Philadelphia: First in-person sighting of Max Talbot in orange. "He knew it wasn't going to work out here," Brooks Orpik said. "But Philly was probably the last place I thought he'd sign."
» Dec. 13, vs. Detroit: Cup Final preview, anyone?
» Dec. 20, vs. Chicago: Cup Final preview, anyone?
» Dec. 23, at Winnipeg: Twitter follower Eric Spada said it well: "Couldn't be happier that NHL moved team from town where nobody cares to town where everybody cares."
» Dec. 29: Jaromir Jagr in a Flyers jersey in Pittsburgh.
» Dec. 30: World ends.
» Jan. 1: World resumes.
» Jan. 29: The Penguins have four reps (Malkin, Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang) at the All-Star Game in Ottawa.
» Feb. 14: Colby Armstrong-to-Pens rumors heat up.
» Feb. 27: Trade deadline. The Penguins pick up at least one radically underachieving winger.
» March 16: Ten-year anniversary of the Penguins claiming Jeff Toms off waivers.
» March 17: At annual GMs meetings in Florida, Brian Burke leads a movement to revoke Rule 48, reinstitute all head shots.
» March 22: Nothing speaks to the season being 20 games too long like a spring visit from the Predators. It is, however, Penguins Garden Gnome Night. (Really, it is.)
» April 2: Brendan Shanahan, upon handing out his 613th suspension, drops from exhaustion while filming the video explanation.
» April 5: "Frozen Four" begins in Tampa, Fla.
» April 6: World ends.
» April 7: World resumes. Penguins host — who else? — the Flyers to finish the regular season. Crosby nets a hat trick to win the scoring title with 108 points (in 68 games). Jagr makes his final 'Burgh appearance, ironically enough, on Fan Appreciation Night.
Which brings us back to the safest prediction of the year. Orpik made it, when he said of Jagr: "I'm sure he'll get booed pretty good when he gets here."
Pretty good won't begin to describe it.