Years ago, before the Stanley Cups, before Jaromir Jagr could find Pittsburgh on a map, and before Mario Lemieux was asked to save this franchise once, let alone twice, the Penguins were a decidedly average team.
Which, by the way, is putting it nicely.
Average teams don't miss the playoffs six straight times or seven of eight seasons. Average teams don't spend eight consecutive years under .500 and average teams tend to tread water, not take it on. Still, what was most important then and what remains most important now has nothing to do with the Penguins' record.
The team itself is what matters. The games matter, winning is merely the icing on the cake.
Today, right now, the Penguins are abysmal. In fact, they have been abysmal for much of this season (at least they're consistent) and why they continue to flail is anybody's best guess. Maybe the trading deadline adrenaline has worn off, maybe Alexei 'Triple-Shift' Kovalev has finally hit the wall, or maybe it's because Rick Kehoe, the rest of his coaching staff, and a phantom defense have just about driven net-minder Johan Hedberg into an on-ice nervous breakdown.
Or perhaps it's a combination of any of the other approximately six hundred excuses that have been circling above this team since before training camp began. Coaching, or the lack thereof, player development, or the lack thereof, scouting, organizational complacency, a curse from the Hockey Gods? All of the above? None of the above?
Nevertheless, now, with twelve days left in the season and a whole seven games to go, honestly, who cares what the actual answer is.
Even if the reason could be pin-pointed tomorrow, the injuries healed, the effort doubled and re-doubled, the leadership void dissolved, and everybody put on the same page, it wouldn't matter. The season would still end a week from Saturday. All that remains is the game.
The Season of the Injury, the Season of the Underachieving Youth, whatever it's going to be called, this year will be remembered as the year that the Penguins, willingly or not, took a big step backward in the hopes of taking a giant leap forward.
So why not just let it be exactly that.
Why not enjoy these last few games for exactly what they arePenguins' hockey, pure and simple.
Cheer approvingly when they score, cheer supportively when they are scored upon. Save the scorn and point counting for next year when the team is fighting for playoff positioning within the conference instead of plane reservations home.
Why? Because being miserable for the next two weeks solves nothing.
Why should playing or watching the last seven contests of the season feel like supporting ten cent labor in a third world sweatshop?
Soon enough, we Penguin fans will be begging for hockey again. It's going to be a good five month off-season this year, why not just enjoy what's left of the season while it still exists.
Before the playoffs became a Pittsburgh birthright, there were a hundred reasons to come to the arena. Love of the game, to be with family, friends, bothit wasn't merely fashionable to show up because you expected the team to win, that sense of entitlement only comes with years of success. Pittsburgh came to the building because it was hockey, end of story.
The best part? It still is.
Penguin fans with a sense of perspective will see this season as an anomaly. Yes, next year this team will have to work harderespecially at homebut that complaint has been registered almost every year for the last decade and when the post-season started, there were the Penguins, every time. So, too, will it be twelve months from now.
The Penguins played this year with a minor league roster and a neophyte coaching staff. They were out-manned, out-gunned, and out-coachedand they still found a way to contend for a playoff spot until the end of March. That says something.
There will be plenty of time to rip this team apart over the extended off-season. Who should stay, who should go, who's bad, who's worse, and what needs to happen to keep the roof from caving in like this ever again. But to start the vivisection now would take away from the very thing that everybody is there for in the first place.
These Penguin players know that missing the playoffs is unacceptable, and if they don't they'll find out when they're shipped off to parts unknown over the summer.
But that's two weeks away. Over the next twelve days, the Penguins will match up with three, if not four, playoff teams. They may lose the rest of their games, they may not, but either way, there's a solid week's worth of Penguins' hockey left this year.
There'll be time enough to be bitter once the season ends for good. Right now, it's still hockey season, and that remains a beautiful thing.
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com and believes the team should give tickets away to the final two home games if that's what it would take to fill the building. It's been a tough year, but both the team and the fans deserve some appreciation for what they've been through.