In year of change, look for Bowman, Penguins at end New teams spur new alignments


The Pittsburgh Penguins and Scotty Bowman may wind up in the Stanley Cup final again next spring, but this time, Bowman won't be standing behind their bench.

After an off-season of new alignments, coaching changes and two new franchises, the National Hockey League begins its new season tonight with Pittsburgh again looking like a dominant force. And Bowman, who has coached six Stanley Cup winners, will be trying to work his wizardry one more time, this time as head coach of the Detroit Red Wings.

The Penguins, now coached by Eddie Johnston, are in the tough new Northeast Division with Stanley Cup champion Montreal. But the Penguins have so much talent, they have to be considered the odds-on favorites to win their third Cup in four years.

Mario Lemieux, still recuperating from back surgery and out for at least a few games, is the team leader. His health may be the Penguins' biggest problem.

But Pittsburgh helped itself more than any other team in the off-season. The Penguins strengthened a rugged defense by adding Marty McSorley from the Los Angeles Kings. And they further bolstered the offense with a 20-year-old Swedish rookie, Markus Naslund, who could be a 30-goal scorer in his first NHL season.

Certainly, there is no question of talent, with Lemieux, Kevin Stevens, Rick Tocchet, Ron Francis and goalie Tom Barrasso.

"We're here for one thing -- to win the Stanley Cup," said Johnston, who is in his second stint as Penguins coach. "The challenge is tremendous, but the talent is here. There isn't any doubt we can win another Stanley Cup."

In Detroit, Bowman takes over behind the bench from Bryan Murray and sees opportunity knocking. He has an offense, led by Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, that scored a league-high and franchise-record 369 goals during the 1992-93 regular season.

"The Red Wings are at the very top of the league right now," said Bowman. "This team has been close, especially the last two years."

He plans to take them over the top for the first time since the 1954-55 season.

Murray, who continues as the Red Wings general manager, said Bowman has been putting in long hours during the preseason, working on the smallest details.

"I think if any player on our team has a concern about winning or about having the confidence that we're going to have the right players on the ice in key situations, all they have to do is look at Scotty and that should end it," Murray said. "I think the coaching change is significant for us. He's been there. He's won six Stanley Cups. No one can point at him and say he hasn't had success."

On paper, Pittsburgh looks very good. And so does Detroit.

But paper can turn into yesterday's trash much easier than it can be made into confetti for a Stanley Cup celebration.

"There are a lot of hazards along the way," said Murray. "Injuries, player development, good goalkeeping, a lot of things go into it. But there aren't any secrets. Talent, size, strength, a break or two and a little luck -- that's what it takes."

But the odds aren't good. Over the past 20 years, only six teams have a Stanley Cup.

"You'd think there would be more," said Harry Neale, a commentator for "Hockey Night in Canada," who tried to capture the Cup for over eight years as head coach at Vancouver and Detroit. "Maybe there is a formula. A lot of teams get close, but only a select few have won. I don't think that's an accident."

Last season demonstrated just how hard it is to go all the way.

Pittsburgh finished the regular season on a 17-game unbeaten streak and seemed poised to sweep into the championship series and run away with its third straight Stanley Cup. The Penguins got knocked out in the second round by the New York Islanders, the third-best team in the Patrick Division.

In fact, all four teams that finished in third place in their respective divisions during the regular season made the Stanley Cup semifinals.

And Montreal, with no 100-point scorers and the team with the sixth-best record overall, won the final fight.

"We have a real good chance of winning," said Murray. "But who can predict in this league?"

It evidently takes two kinds of teams to win the NHL championship.

First, it takes a long-distance runner, just to get through the 84-game regular season.

And then it takes a group of tenacious fighters to make it through the every-other-night playoff sprint required to grasp the Cup.

The Canadiens, whose talent wasn't the best a year ago, had the strongest heart. Who will have it this year?

Tonight begins the season-long journey to the answer.

But for now, all anyone has to go on is what is written on paper, and on paper it looks like Penguins and Red Wings all the way.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad