One of my biggest sports writing pet peeves – even if I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve most likely fallen into that habit before, and probably will again – is leaning on convenient, flimsy psychological factors to explain a team’s struggles.
Joe Thornton’s teams lose in the playoffs because he cannot handle the pressure … just look at that time he didn’t score any points against Montreal! (Sure, he was injured but let’s face it folks, he didn’t care.) Young Team of the Moment faltered in the playoffs because they didn’t have enough “experience,” not the fact that they’re facing a more talented, higher-seeded team. One of my favorite stereotypes has to be the fabled “Team thinks it can just find the on switch,” an argument usually trotted out when a seemingly talented team plays a series of flat games or struggles in the regular season.
Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reached for the light switch argument when discussing the thoroughly unacceptable fact that the Penguins generated an 0-fer against the Devils – and worse yet – the Washington Capitals. (Then again, the “on switch” material isn’t even the most ridiculous thing in the column. Collier used the phrase “twitch slapped” in the column. Yes, “twitch slapped.” Ain’t that a twitch.)
Instead of advancing the point of the Penguins’ “indifference” why not lean on something a little more tangible like, say, fatigue? Only the Detroit Red Wings can relate to Pittsburgh’s last three years, with the Penguins (by my count) playing a staggering 287 games between these past 3 campaigns plus two maximum playoff runs – not to mention the Olympics. The main reason why this line of thought makes more sense to me is simple: by spending big bucks on Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and other young players, they’ve had to skimp on depth more and more every year. Malkin, in particular, has shown what seems like telltale signs of wear-down – going from 82 games played and 113 points in 08-09 to 64 games played and 72 points so far this season.
Just look at the team’s inner-conference tormentors. The Capitals might be known for their star players, but they also have less-regarded depth players like Mike Knuble to carry the load. The Devils were able to add Ilya Kovalchuk to an already playoff quality team. These teams have had the salary cap flexibility to bolster their lineups while (with all due respect to Jordan Leopold, Mike Rupp and Alex Ponikarovsky) the Penguins have not.
Ultimately, you could chock up a team’s shortcomings to plenty of problems. But could it be that the Penguins are too tired or – hockey gods forbid – just not good enough? Or maybe we should just buy the team a set of powerful flashlights?