Thursday, December 17, 2009

Brighter Days Ahead for Defending Champs

By Mark Edwards

SAGINAW, Michigan--After the champagne is gone, the parade is over, and crumbs dot the world's finest cereal bowl, reality sets in. You are the defending Stanley Cup champions and every hot shot in town will be gunning for you.

On September 30th, 2009, Saginaw faithful and general manager Tom Lusty did not seem fazed one bit by the lofty expectations that come with a title defense. And for good reason. Last October, Lusty's Saginaw Spirit built a colossal lead and never looked back. With the end game in play, Lusty acquired a second 1st round selection to boost his chances in 2009-2010.

Saginaw used both 1st round picks on elite goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Cam Ward - two selections that none would criticize at the time. All engines go. Start printing T-shirts. Another year, another cup. That would just be too simple, wouldn't it?

Hockey is the fastest sport on Earth, not counting NASCAR or Jai alai, and a team's fortunes can crumble faster than a Joe Sakic wrister. A freak injury and multiple slow starts later, the defending champs find themselves underachieving. No one could predict Cam Ward getting his left quadricep lacerated by Rick Nash's skate blade, but are Saginaw's repeat-season struggles really that surprising?

In addition to being the coolest championship trophy in sports, the Stanley Cup has become one of the hardest to retain. Quite a change. Until Montreal ended the Pittsburgh Penguins' two-year cup run in 1993, it seemed that the Stanley Cup was available only for long-term leasing. The Flyers won it in 1974 and '75. For the next four year it was monopolized by the Montreal Canadiens, who were dethroned by the New York Islanders, who won four straight titles before yielding to the Edmonton Oilers, who won five Cups between 1984 and '90. No NHL team has won back-to-back since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and '98.

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