Remember way back on Oct. 5, 2007, when the Pens were ready to get their season under way. On the heels of a disappointing five-game loss in the first round of the '06-'07 playoffs, the Pens were looking to get back on track.
No one could have imagined the ups and downs that would occur during the course of the looming year.
The Penguins lost their captain, Sidney Crosby, for over 30 games due to a high-ankle sprain. Gary Roberts, the veteran leader of the team, went down in late December and eventually was sidelined for the duration of the regular season. Number one goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was also sidelined for months with a high-ankle sprain. Key players such as Maxime Talbot, Adam Hall, and Mark Eaton all suffered injuries that stockpiled the men/games lost to injury.
However, the resiliency of this team would prove to be unmatched by any Pittsburgh sports team in recent memory.
Evgeni Malkin emerged as a true superstar, eventually challenging Alexander Ovechkin for the scoring title and league MVP. Third-string goaltender Ty Conklin lead the Pens to an eight-game winning streak before the all-star break, while posting the best save percentage in the league.
Rookies Kris Letang and Tyler Kennedy stepped into an injury-ridden lineup and exceed all expectations. Minor-league players from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton such as Jeff Taffe, Connor James, Jonathan Filewich, Ryan Stone, and Alex Goligoski all saw playing time, and worked their tails off for the big club.
Ryan Malone finally emerged as one of the top power-forwards in the league, putting up career stats in both goals and points, and eventually became one of the team's alternate captains. Sergei Gonchar proved to be the powerplay quarterback that was a key ingredient in the Pens' success. Defenseman Rob Scuderi emerged as one of the elite "under the radar" positional defenseman in the league.
The trade deadline brought mixed feelings among Penguin fans. The Pens traded away two young, talented players, in exchange for the biggest name in the trade market and two solid, more experienced, role players.
The Penguins parted ways with Erik Christensen, whose potential exceeded his performance, and Colby Armstrong, who had become a fan-favorite, a great presence in the locker room, and a guy who enjoyed success the previous season playing alongside Sidney Crosby.
What the Penguins gained would eventually prove to be worth what they gave up. The Pens acquired all-star RW sniper Marian Hossa, to play alongside Sidney Crosby on the team's top offensive line. The Pens also acquired LW Pascal Dupuis (Atlanta) and D Hal Gill (Toronto). Gill further solidified the Pens' blue line by adding a veteran presence, and a six-foot seven-inch frame as a physical presence in front of the net.
With the Pens sitting at a mere 7-10-1 in mid-November, it looked as though it would be another battle to the finish just to make the playoffs. Not many people imagined that by season's end the Pens would have won their first Atlantic Division title in 10 years, and be sitting atop the Eastern Conference with one game left to play.
The Winter Classic proved to be everything that its billing suggested, one of the most exciting games in the illustrious history of the National Hockey League. The game ended with the best player in the world, at the tender age of 20, being placed on center stage with the game in his hands. Sidney Crosby did not disappoint, beating Sabres goalie Ryan Miller five-hole in the shootout to give the Penguins the win.
Although Evgeni Malkin's outstanding season will most likely be overshadowed by Ovechkin's 65+ goals and probable scoring title and MVP, Penguin fans will never forget the performance of their team's MVP this season. Malkin led the team in all offensive categories, and was second in the league in points, and third in goals.
After winning the Calder Trophy last season, there was little doubt that Evgeni Malkin would be a great player in this league for many years to come. There was doubt, however, that it would happen so soon. With the injury to Crosby sidelining him for over one-third of the season, Geno was thrust into the spotlight. He did not disappoint.
This season solidified Evgeni Malkin as one of the top five players in this league. His performances, with and without Sidney Crosby in the lineup, combined with the resiliency and contributions of his teammates, has led the Penguins to their most memorable season since 2001.
Head Coach Michel Therrien was unsure if he would even have a job after last season. But GM Ray Shero signed Therrien to a one-year contract extension. Therrien also did not disappoint. With injuries plaguing his lineup almost on a nightly basis, Therrien took it one game at a time and led this group of young talent mixed with some veteran leadership to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Looking ahead, there is a huge feeling of hope for the Pens in the playoffs. With all of the guys having a year of playoff experience under their belts, and Marc-Andre Fleury playing the best hockey of his career, the Penguins will undoubtedly prove to be a formidable opponent no matter who they match up against.
The offensive prowess, combined with the emerging defensive core, leaves Pens stating, rather than asking the question: "This could be the year."