Penguins ‘Steel’ing the spotlight

One is the reigning Super Bowl champion and the other had the second-worst record in the National Hockey League (NHL) last season. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the way the Pittsburgh Steelers and Penguins are playing at this point in their respective seasons. The Steelers are currently 2–6, while the Penguins are 7–4 and in second place in the Atlantic Division — only one point behind the New Jersey Devils. Bad execution and poor management decisions have hurt the Steelers, while an influx of bright young stars is making the Penguins one of the most exciting teams to watch in the NHL.

The Steelers look like a completely different team now from last February, finding new ways to lose each week. The proverbial finger can be pointed at almost everyone affiliated with the team after the Steelers managed to lose close games against the Cincinnati Bengals, Atlanta Falcons, and Oakland Raiders. All three losses were games they arguably should have won. The Steelers dominated the Falcons and the Raiders on paper, but shot themselves in the foot with costly turnovers and penalties, two things uncharacteristic of teams coached by Bill Cowher.

Two big drop-offs from last season have occurred in the areas of special teams and the offensive line. The Steelers did not re-sign wide receiver/kickoff and punt returner Antwaan Randle El this off-season, and to compound matters, they didn’t go out and get a proven replacement for him. This has come back to haunt them, especially in their losses to Cincinnati and Atlanta. The offensive line hasn’t been as dependable as last season, and Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings is currently injured, causing the running game to struggle and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to lose protection, which leads to more sacks and more turnovers.

Injuries have taken a toll on the Steelers, but the bottom line is that the team lacks the confidence needed for it to succeed. Everything that Roethlisberger has gone through in the past few months has added to the current situation.
First, he suffered a concussion in a motorcycle accident that left him with a surgically repaired face in June. Somehow he managed to recover quickly and fully from that, but then came his emergency appendectomy that kept him out of the season opener and another concussion in the loss to Atlanta.

Last year’s Super Bowl champions were able to win with their balanced offense and dominating defense. Once they had a lead, they would run the ball to eat up the clock and seal the victory. Last year’s team had discipline and determination, while this year’s team is having trouble focusing for four quarters, not to mention a full 16-game season.

But check it out sports fans, there is a team in Pittsburgh playing well this fall, and they’re exciting to watch, too. Filled with youth, the Pittsburgh Penguins have exploded out of the gate behind the great play of center Sidney Crosby and forward/center Evgeni Malkin.

Become familiar with these names if you aren’t already, because they’re the real deal. Last year, rookie Sidney Crosby became, at age 19, the youngest player ever with a 100-point season. He’s as good as advertised and is the future of the Penguins franchise. Add in Malkin, a 20-year-old rookie from Russia who is playing alongside Crosby on the Penguins’ first line, and you’ve got one of the youngest and most talented tandems in hockey. Malkin became the first player since the 1917–18 season to begin his NHL career with goals in each of his first six games.

Let’s not forget Jordan Staal, who’s only 18 years old and the team’s number-one draft pick from the June 2006 draft. Staal made the team out of training camp and has contributed right away. His first three NHL goals were all shorthanded, and he has moved up to the team’s second line because of his strong play. Marc-André Fleury, the Penguins’ 21-year-old goaltender, is blossoming into a star as well after struggling at times during his first two seasons.

The jury is still out on the Penguins, with the season just over 10 percent complete. They have the offensive firepower necessary for success, but they’ve let in the most goals two seasons in a row and return virtually the same defenders. The playoffs are a definite possibility with this group, something that can’t be so easily said about the Steelers.

If what has happened so far with the Steelers and the Penguins is any indication of what’s to come, the city of Pittsburgh isn’t going to know how to react. I can think of only one more thing that could add to this unexpectedness, but the Pirates winning the World Series next year is completely out of the question... or is it?