Twenty-seven of 53 games decided by one goal and a mid-to-late-January five-game losing streak. Tenth place in their Conference with a 51.8% overall winning percentage. Such are the circumstances of last year's Stanley Cup finalists this season. It is not unlike the 'season after' for all finalists since Wayne Gretzky scored his last Stanley Cup series-winning goal in 1988. Only four times in those last 20 seasons has a team encored in the battle for Lord Stanley's Cup. Why is a repeat so difficult?
This is due in part to unit character as expressed in team performance.
There is no denying DETROIT can win. To the tune of 68.3% this season. But subtly on the face of the team are several small indicators of the strain of being Number One. A goalie controversy of sorts except when they are notching one of Ty Conklin's six shutouts... A subtle look of relief that says '...We SHOULD BE winners...' at the end of Overtime or a Shootout instead of '...We ARE champions....' Star Defenseman Nick Lidstrom nursing a nagging injury from last year enroute to potentially his worst statistical year since the Lockout... And a coach saying at season's beginning that his team '...Used to be the hardest working team on the ice....'
And then there is Pittsburgh. A coach maligned and potentially replaced in the press... A team that needs more than just Malkin and Crosby to win on many occasions... An organization that could use 30 goals from a re-signed Hossa and the sandpaper of a Malone and Recchi... And a No. 1 goalie who is good, but not as stellar as the previous season.
Of equal measure, however, is the part where 29 other teams have painted a Bullseye on both. Everyone 'else' wants the two previously best teams in the NHL to know they can play with and beat them. It is a matter of pride and wells up an 'A+' game in a contender who otherwise does not match up talent-wise. DETROIT should have caught a glimpse of it on opening night when they were outscored by TORONTO, a team in a self-acknowledged rebuilding year.
So it will be difficult on both from every team each of them plays throughout the regular season and, when their own 'A' game is not brought to the ice, will cost them victories that, if history is our guide, falls short of a return to battle for The Cup.
Of equal interest is a developing bullseye on BOSTON and SAN JOSE by the rest of the League. Why? Because they are their respective Conference leaders and every other team's yardstick. If they define the best, team pride means opponents HAVE to defeat them. What is different on both of these teams from DETROIT and PITTSBURGH is an unshakable belief that they are winners. Opposite sides of the North American continent ooze the quiet confidence that let's you know the BRUINS and SHARKS come to play and can up their game on the great majority of nights to equal or outmatch their opponent. Their like-minded goal is leaving the ice with that 'W,' plain and simple, and everyone else wants their scalp. This includes each other, because of both team character and 'The Bullseye.' They are why Tuesday's Versus matchup may very well be one of the best games of the regular season.
But that is a subject for another night...