There were few reasons to think the Pittsburgh Penguins could recover from a stretch of 16 losses in 25 games and make the playoffs, much less win the Stanley Cup. They did.
There were few reasons to believe the Penguins could rally from 2-0 playoff deficits against the Capitals and Red Wings. They did.
There also was scant evidence to suggest they could become the first team since the 1983-84 Oilers to lose in the Stanley Cup finals one season and win them the next, especially after star forward Marian Hossa bolted for Detroit. Or that they would be the first club since 1971 to win a finals Game 7 on the road, especially after losing 5-0 in Game 5 in Detroit.
They did all that.
So, after shoving aside so many misconceptions and toppling so many you-can't-do-this hurdles to win their first Stanley Cup in 17 years, the Penguins have every reason to think that one of the youngest championship teams in NHL history might repeat, right?
Yes. And no.
With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal all in their early to mid-20s (Fleury turns 25 in November), the Penguins might be like those '83-'84 Oilers _ a youthful team that wins the Stanley Cup and then gets better. Edmonton won the Stanley Cup four more times in the next six years and is the last team to play in the finals during three consecutive seasons (1983-85), as both the Penguins and Red Wings will try to do.
"We're probably even more confident than we were before," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said as the Penguins get ready for Friday's opener against the Rangers. "Obviously, we want to prove again that we can do it."
After taking a remarkably rugged path to the Stanley Cup last season, the Penguins may find it more difficult to pull off a repeat, especially given it would take another 100-plus games on top of the 208 they've played in the last two seasons. That's a heavy workload even for a young team.
Certainly, the Penguins were much different after coach Dan Bylsma took over a team that lost 30 of its first 57 games and took them to an 18-3-4 finish. But some of the same worries that existed before he arrived remain and, this season, the Penguins won't have former coach Michel Therrien to blame if things go wrong.
The Penguins still have more offensive defensemen (Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski) than they do shutdown defenders _ especially now that the former No. 1 pair, Rob Scuderi (Kings) and Hal Gill (Canadiens), are elsewhere.
They're still searching for effective linemates for Crosby, just as they have since Hossa left. Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz were effective late last season, but Kunitz was invisible during the playoffs (1 goal in 24 games) and Guerin will be 39 in November.
The power play should be exceptional with Crosby and Malkin; instead it was a mediocre No. 20, although having Gonchar on the point all season should be a big help. Gonchar missed two-thirds of the 2008-09 season with a shoulder injury, and he wasn't as effective as usual once he returned (6 goals in 25 games).
The Olympics will be a major late-season distraction to Crosby, Malkin, Gonchar and maybe some others, too.
Of course, there probably are 29 NHL teams that would love to have these problems, as long as they had Crosby and Malkin.
"We've set the bar pretty high," Crosby said. "You have to be ready every night because you're going to see everyone's best."
Crosby is only 22, and Malkin only 23, yet each has won a Stanley Cup and has been an MVP (Crosby in the regular season, Malkin in the playoffs) and won a scoring title. Each offers numerous reasons to believe the Penguins could be a force for the next 10 years _ especially after they move into a new arena next season that will generate far more cash than 48-year-old Mellon Arena.
Guerin offers this: Crosby and Malkin are so competitive, and push each other so hard, he is certain that a lack of motivation will be the least of the Penguins' worries.
"I think our team's still going to be hungry," Guerin said. "I think we proved a lot to ourselves last year."
The Penguins managed to keep most of their major pieces, but one overlooked loss might be forward Petr Sykora. Despite being benched most of the playoffs because of a shoulder injury, Sykora scored 25 goals, third-most on the team. He also had 10 game-winning goals that represented nearly 1/4 of the Penguins' victories.
Sykora and Miroslav Satan (17 goals, 36 points) weren't offered new contracts.
The most significant pickups were shot-blocking defenseman Jay McKee and former Devils forward Mike Rupp. By signing Rupp, the Penguins have three of the last four players to score the game-winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals: Rupp, Ruslan Fedotenko (2004) and Max Talbot.
Talbot, who scored both goals as the Penguins won Game 7 in Detroit 2-1, will be out until at least mid-November with a shoulder injury, another loss offensively for a team that is heavily reliant on its two stars.
Fleury played all but four of the Penguins' final 76 games, an unusually heavy workload for a goalie these days, but it seems unlikely that longtime NHL netminder Brent Johnson will play significantly more games than former backups Dany Sabourin and Mathieu Garon.
"We've turned the page now," Crosby said of winning the Stanley Cup. "It's a great experience and everything and more you expect. Because you win it doesn't mean your career is over and you stop improving as a team."