1. The Penguins Will Make the Playoffs –
I’m in the camp that believes Mike Sullivan’s sample size isn’t big enough to indicate how well he will do on the Penguins bench. I don’t believe he will do worse than Mike Johnston did with what he was given to work with, because very few English-speaking adult males could. The Pens will officially hit the midpoint of their regular season Saturday in Montreal, and I expect them to have a big second half simply because they can.
Let’s clarify that for a second. I sure as heck don’t expect a Cup this year–not that I expected one to begin with. Their defense will still let them down, and the sport will still be strategized and policed in a manner that the Penguins’ stars will not have room to play to their true potential. The 2008-09 Penguins, the last ones to win it all, were one of the greatest examples of a switch being flipped in NHL history, trumped only by the 1991-92 Penguins. The current state of the Pittsburgh Penguins is the result of multi-layered failure by many people, not all of whom work for the Pittsburgh Penguins, at many times. Sullivan is a hockey coach, not a miracle worker.
History won’t be made, but signs of a turnaround are already present. Evgeni Malkin has risen above team- and league-wide scoring woes and has become quite the leader. Sidney Crosby is finally starting to look like his old, dangerous self. Players have stood up for each other, or, in Kris Letang’s recent case, for themselves. The power play is coming around, and the offense, in general, has played more purposefully under the new boss. Meanwhile, Marc-Andre Fleury, in a sane world, would be a Vezina Trophy and perhaps long-shot league MVP candidate right now.
The gap between the haves and have-nots in the NHL is not as big as it once was, but the gap between the Pens and playoff contention is even smaller–one point entering this weekend, to be precise. Sullivan can’t completely change the DNA of that locker room in less than a year, but his team will play well enough to offset the madness of the first half.
2. The Panthers Will Make More Strides Under Pat Narduzzi –
Had Paul Chryst stayed for a fourth season at Pitt, 2015 would have been a make-or-break year for him. The Panthers would have had to show tangible progress under his watch, or else Steve Pederson, or whomever the athletic director would have been in that alternate universe, would have had a very tough decision to make this offseason. Would a fourth year of Chryst on the Pitt sideline have been successful? Would the decision-maker have made the right decision? Fortunately, we never had to find out.
This approaching season, Pitt football, for the first time since the Dave Wannstedt era, and just the second time since its quarterback was the official spokesman for Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza (cha-ching!), will win ten games. This will be achieved with a 9-3 regular season and a victory in an ACC “Tier One” bowl game. And for the first time since we Feared the ‘Stache, the Panthers will show tangible progress.
It’s funny how we hardly ever hear anymore how much Pitt fans, closet and otherwise, miss Wannstedt, isn’t it? Never mind that he couldn’t beat Navy with four cracks at Heinz Field’s south end zone from one yard out, NFL talent on his offensive line, and a future NFL tailback running through holes all night long that the entirety of Section 132 could have penetrated–and that’s the tip of his iceberg. As bad as things used to be around here, what in blue-and-gold hell made those people think that same guy could have kept up with the Clemsons and Florida States of the world, let alone the version of Navy Narduzzi had to prepare his team for?
Okay, so maybe we shouldn’t break our arms patting the Nard-Dog on the back for an 8-5 season that included rocky home losses to quality opponents and a disappointing showing in the Military Bowl against another quality opponent. But let’s not kid ourselves: anyone who can’t see the difference between Chryst and Narduzzi hasn’t been paying attention. Unheralded players became stars. Talk of the “process” of winning turned into talk of winning, period. Defensively, the Panthers were liberated, ditto on offense, where Narduzzi took chances that Chryst would not–and quite frankly, he and erstwhile OC Jim Chaney probably should have taken more. Pitt showed toughness in tenuous games it hadn’t shown previously.
Chryst would have been scuffling just to get to .500 with the 2015 Panthers, and might not have made it. Narduzzi will have the 2016 Panthers in serious contention for the Coastal Division crown that will only turn more serious when James Conner makes his triumphant return.
Pitt has legitimate depth behind Conner in its backfield. It has an offensive line that can protect Nate Peterman, who gets one more year to prove himself while Narduzzi grooms his other QBs and prays, along with the rest of us, that Thomas MacVittie is the Chosen One Pitt has sought for years at that position. It has a defense that is now, at the very least, well coached, if not yet well peopled, at every spot. And although Tyler Boyd is a virtually impossible act to follow, the sum of Pitt’s remaining parts can certainly fill that hole. In addition, it has a manageable home schedule (e.g.: Villanova, Syracuse, Virginia Tech) that mitigates a less forgiving road schedule (e.g.: Oklahoma State, Clemson).
When put in perspective, it’s easy to call the 2015 season a success for Pitt. It won’t be easy to call the 2016 season a success without Conner kicking cancer and the Panthers kicking Penn State’s butt, among others. Plan accordingly, because both are going to happen.
3. The Riverhounds Will Beat an MLS Team in the U.S. Open Cup –
Back in June, when the Hounds hosted D.C. United, a Supporters’ Shield challenger at the time, there were times when it looked like this prediction might come to fruition a year early. Pittsburgh didn’t play well at all after forcing extra time, but even extra time was not without its chances.
Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr, the two best players from that team (Vincent, reportedly, even got a look from United scouts), are officially back for 2016, as is stalwart goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap for a second tour of duty. In addition, head coach Mark Steffens, whose team is coming off just its second USL playoff berth ever, has added pieces up front with a little bit of MLS experience, Corey Hertzog and Zak Boggs from the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies (the team they beat for the right to play D.C.), and seems intent on revamping his defense.
Domestic cups are a big deal in pro soccer internationally. In America, to an MLS side, it’s more tantamount to college basketball’s NIT. Teams want to use the opportunity to give their youngsters a look and focus their energies on winning the MLS Cup.
For soccer in Pittsburgh, however, that game against DCU meant more than the minutiae of the game itself. It showed in the work ethic of the Riverhounds that night.
They haven’t upset an MLS team in the Open Cup since Colorado Rapids were ambushed at Bethel Park High School in 2001. The time is right to catch one of them napping.
4. The Pirates Will Win a Playoff Game –
Interpret that however you wish. If you’re a Pirate fan, this winter has been an underwhelming one, but winning winter means nothing–just ask the Washington Nationals. Nevertheless, this management team, still haunted by the proverbial sins of the father, probably doesn’t get enough credit for stabilizing the organization and putting an exciting product on the field despite notable instances of roster attrition in recent years, the latest and most notable being Neil Walker.
Unlike most of the yinzer front-runners, I’m not yet ready to pick up my pitchfork over the Walker trade until I see what Ray Searage, the best pitching coach in the majors, can do with Jon Niese, one of his new projects. More to the point, I wholly expect Alen Hanson to thrive as the eventual everyday second baseman when J-Hay isn’t doing his best Lee Lacy impression. In time, he will make those righteously indignant fans forget Walker the same way Andrew McCutchen made them forget Nate McLouth.
Would I like to see the Pirates swim against their own stream more often for the sake of acquiring impact players? Absolutely, especially if it means bringing in a (natural) first baseman that we’ve, you know, actually heard of. Inevitably, they’ll have to swallow their organizational pride in order to get what they want, as the Kansas City Royals’ front office can attest. In any event, with this mostly intact offense and its usual brand of consistently consistent pitching, plus a healthy Jung-Ho Kang, this team will still be fun to watch.
You can’t pick your division. You can only worry about beating the teams in it. Economically, the Pirates are never going to have a fair fight with the Cardinals or Cubs, and there’s no guarantee they’ll finish ahead of either this year. But with the Royals winning a championship and the Cubs cementing themselves as a sexy 2016 World Series pick, it’s time for the next-most put-upon fanbase in baseball to get a little good postseason karma thrown its way for a change–even if it’s just a harried pitcher dropping the ball (literally, if possible) for one magical night.
5. The Bengals Will (Finally) Win a Playoff Game –
I’m less of a believer in jinxes, curses or what-have-you than ever before. The Pirates’ renaissance had a lot to do with that. I believe in good football, bad football and mediocre football. But a lot of other people think the hex hanging over sports in Ohio* (*Non-Buckeyes only) will stay put Saturday night.
Speaking of the Pirates, it strikes me that Marvin Lewis is to Cincinnati what Jim Leyland was to Pittsburgh–too anal retentive for his own good when the stakes are raised. He is as big a reason as any that the Who-Deys are staring a quarter-century of postseason futility in the face. Too bad that, in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, Mike Tomlin, a Super Bowl-winning coach who some feel rode the coattails of the last Super Bowl-winning coach, has his own demons to exorcise.
Since Tomlin lost that Wild Card game four years ago to Tim Tebow–I repeat, Tim Tebow–he has been, by Steeler standards, an adequate coach at best. Too often the Steelers have been held back by his own hubris, not unlike how the Penguins were held back at the same time by Dan Bylsma’s. Too often they have looked too unprepared to win winnable games, not unlike Saturday’s.
The Bengals may not have Andy Dalton, but they still have A.J. Green ready to line up against a secondary that could be charitably described as suspect. They don’t have anything resembling a running game to worry about when the Steelers have the ball, and we saw how well that worked out in last year’s Wild Card round when the Steelers tried to bleed offense from Ben Tate. Furthermore, the Ben who really matters has been turnover-prone lately, and he already did everything in his power to hand one game to the Bengals on a silver platter. Never put it past history to repeat.
Credit the Steelers for not giving up. They handled their business in Cleveland and accidented their way into this thing because the Browns are still the Browns, and the Jets are still the Jets. Granted, the Bengals are still the Bengals, but the Bengals are also due, and you might as well throw a dart to determine which version of the Steelers will show up at a given time. I could very easily see Cincinnati winning 17-13, which, of course, could only mean one thing:
The Steelers will win 27-10.