The Pittsburgh Penguins' recent playoff history has given their fans reason to enter this year's playoff season with high expectations.
It may be time to lower them.
The past two years the Pens have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals riding momentum from the regular season.
Two years ago, it was the acquisition of Marian Hossa that pushed the Pens over the edge. Last year, newly hired Dan Bylsma had the Pens playing as well as anyone heading into the playoffs.
But what about this year?
For those tempted to say it, the answer is not Alexei Ponikarovsky. Ponikarovsky has shown almost no spark in his game since joining the Pens. Not to mention, even at the top of his game, Ponikarovsky's impact is not even close to that of Hossa's.
And doesn't it feel like the Pens are just slowly drifting into the playoffs?
Last year, Bylsma led the team to an 18-3-4 record in their last 25 regular season games. When he took over for Michel Therrien the Pens were in tenth place in the Eastern Conference and had to fight for their playoff spot.
This year, the Pens have had a safe spot in the standings for several weeks. The sense of urgency the Pens depended on to get into the playoffs last year doesn't exist this year. You can say all you want about the Pens playoff experience, but the teams that succeed in the playoffs are the teams that come in with momentum.
Lastly, there's something to be said about the Penguins inability to beat good teams this year.
The Pens have played 19 games against the eight teams ahead of them in the overall NHL standings. Their record in these games is 3-12-4, being outscored 74-37.
And please spare any arguments siting New Jersey's lack of offense or Washington's suspect defense as reason for optimism in the playoffs.
While the Devils are one of the lowest scoring teams in the league, they have proven the ability to light the lamp consistently against the Pens. In six match-ups with Pittsburgh this season, the Devils have totaled 22 goals, an average of 3.67 goals per game.
And no, the Capitals aren't all that great defensively, but they can score at will. If the Pens expect to beat Washington in a high paced, up-and-down game, they are sure to be heading into the off-season earlier than they'd like.
For Pittsburgh to compete with the Capitals or Devils in the playoffs, they need to play their brand of hockey on a consistent basis:
Get the puck deep, sustain possession in their opponents zone, and grind out a couple goals.
While it's always good to have faith, there is no evidence from the regular season that suggests the Penguins can consistently get to their game plan against either the Capitals or the Devils.
I hope I'm wrong, but it looks like we as Pens' fans should tone down our lofty expectations heading into the 2010 playoff season.