Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup seasons are like Star Wars movies—you can expect another one every year or two for the foreseeable future and there's nothing anyone can do to stop them.
The NHL has replaced the boring predictability of the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings winning the Stanley Cup every other year with the somehow more boring predictability of the Penguins winning a third straight title in 2018. Last year's version stripped away the stars you enjoyed from the original—Kris Letang was recast as Ron Hainsey while Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray shared the coveted goaltender role like Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy shared Charles Xavier in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
We're two paragraphs deep into an NHL column and already we're at two movie references. It's officially hockey season.
Much the same way it doesn't matter to anyone who is directing Episode IX, it doesn't matter if the Penguins add Matt Duchene between now and the trade deadline—you're seeing the Penguins win a third straight Stanley Cup and, much like when JJ Abrams gets his hands on something, it really won't be all that different than the thing you already watched and enjoyed.
During the playoffs, we all get caught in the minutiae of every series and sometimes lose sight of the big story when that big story doesn't really change for two months. People spent days on whether Chris Neil and Tanner Glass deserved lineup spots during the Rangers-Senators second-round series. There was a conspiracy theory that Matt Niskanen and Alex Ovechkin coordinated the assassination of Sidney Crosby that lingered for a week. Offside reviews? Unsuspended dirty hits? It was something new every day.
The Penguins winning and advancing without Letang should have been the story every day. They won 16 games without one of the five best defensemen on the planet and yet "Jake Guentzel is the real MVP" was more of a story during the Final. The only reason the Senators were within a goal of bouncing the Penguins was because Letang wasn't there to routinely break Guy Boucher's evil trap for 25 minutes a night.
There's no guarantee Letang is in the lineup next April, May and June, but the Penguins go from "elite team" to "good luck pushing a series with them beyond six games" with Letang playing 30 minutes a night. Religious types are always looking for miracles, like tears coming from a Virgin Mary statue in a small Mexican church, yet no one asked Pope Francis to look into the Penguins replacing Letang with Ron Hainsey and winning a championship.
Three games worth of "Will coach Boucher use Neil tonight?" when God was showing us His presence in Hainsey's ice time and our alleged hockey super-fan Pope never even tweeted about it. It should have been at least referenced in The Young Pope with Jude Law watching a Final game while drinking a Cherry Coke Zero.
Just by having Letang, the reigning champions are guaranteed to be better than they were a year ago, and that doesn't even consider what the roster will look like once the team acquires Duchene to be its third-line center.
So while the Penguins are improved, last season's closest rivals are actually worse.
After consecutive Presidents' Trophies followed by consecutive playoff pants-poopings against the Penguins, the Capitals will be even less of an issue, if that's even possible. Maybe the Penguins will have to beat the Caps in the first round instead of the second round, an inconvenience on the same level of rescheduling a family vacation. It breaks tradition but you've worked so hard the past three years that you could use the two weeks of massages a little earlier this year.
The Blue Jackets? Garbage then, garbage now. The Senators? That's not happening again. Montreal? The Rangers? Non and no. Toronto's entire plan for making the leap to the next level was "dump a ton of money on 38-year-old Patrick Marleau." Letang and Sidney Crosby could quit hockey in March to work on a Netflix series about two Canadians in their early-30s who rob banks to support their dangerous caffeine addiction and the Penguins would still find a way to win 12 games in the East.
The Western Conference is a desert wasteland so Evgeni Malkin could join Crosby and Letang as a writing consultant for the Final and the Penguins are still winning a third straight championship.
The Senators pushed the Penguins to double overtime in a seventh game because of luck, injuries and referees' refusal to call penalties, and those factors could come into play in any series involving the Penguins, but it's something they've already overcome and will likely overcome again barring a major injury at a bad time.
It's still the Penguins and everyone else, and everyone else needs to get lucky to prevent the NHL's first three-peat champion of the salary cap era.
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