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Penguins Marching

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There’s an inherent risk in dealing assets for a player who’s in the final year of his contract in any sport, and that’s only exacerbated in this ultra-short NHL season. Yet here we have Penguins general manager Ray Shero, trading for not one but three players who are slated to hit unrestricted free agency come July.

These aren’t just any rent-a-players. Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla had only known one team for the entirety of their careers before this week, spending nearly three combined decades toiling away for a pair of Western Conference teams that weren’t exactly regular championship contenders. The Stars got to the Stanley Cup finals in Morrow’s 1999-00 rookie season and  made it as far as the conference finals once since. In Iginla’s entire 16-year career with Calgary, the Flames won a playoff series in only ONE season – their run to the Cup finals in 2003-04. Throw in the acquisition of San Jose’s salad-challenged defenseman Douglas Murray, a hulking man who has been made out to be the love child of Hal Gill and Godzilla and may have dated Tiger Woods’ ex-wife, and that’s three pending free agents brought in over four days who have never worn another jersey.

“The team on paper doesn’t mean too much,” Shero told the Penguins’ official website. “We have to do it on the ice.”

So even though Shero only had to give up one solid prospect (Joe Morrow) and one desirable draft pick (a 2013 No. 1 that will mostly likely be 29th or 30th), it’s safe to say the Penguins are, for lack of a better term, “all in.” Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang will be around next year, but Morrow, Iginla, and fellow free agents Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke and Craig Adams might not be.

Even though Pittsburgh is riding a 13-game winning streak that’s the NHL’s longest in 12 years, Shero’s moves were the right ones.

But they’ve also upped the ante to a potentially dangerous degree. If this were the NBA, where the best team is going to emerge out of a seven-game series 98 times out of 100, the Penguins would have essentially just locked up their fourth Stanley Cup. Instead, the pressure is on more than ever.

Win and the moves look brilliant regardless of where Morrow and Iginla are cashing their checks next season. Do anything short of accepting the Cup from Gary Bettman’s cold, weaselly hands in late June and this season is an absolute failure. It’s another season of Crosby and Malkin’s primes in which they’ve failed to skate around hoisting the world’s heaviest drinking glass. It’s another offseason of wondering who’s coming and going. It’s another nine months of questioning who’s skating on the wings of the two best players in the world.

This isn’t the NBA. A No. 8 seed won the Cup last June after dominating the postseason like they were the Canadiens of the mid-1970s. The champion Kings beat a New Jersey team that finished fourth in its own division in the regular season. Two years before that, the East’s seventh-best team played in the finals. Considering the 48-game sample size we’re dealing with in 2013, who’s to say the Penguins will even get out of the first round? That, by the way, is something they haven’t done in either of their last two trips to the playoffs.

Barring some missteps down the stretch, the Penguins will finish with the East’s best record and home-ice advantage until at least the finals. Problem is, no top seed in the East has played for the Cup since Tampa Bay in 2004.

Shero’s all in, and he did the right thing. But for a team that will only have 12 games to get adjusted to its new trio, the urgency to win is all on like no team in recent memory.

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