Monday, June 15, 2009

Day One-Hundred Fifty-Five: Champions (Part 2 of 2; or, Psyched for Satan)

All righty, kids. The parade (March of the Penguins, according to the MSM) is today at noon (eleven central), so it's time for my final thoughts on the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup Championship run. (Note: by the time I've finished, the parade will probably be over)

Continuing on from Saturday:


You know one guy I'm really happy for? Miroslav Satan (pronounced shuh-TAN. I remember reading an interview with this guy almost ten years ago when he said he generally doesn't leave his last name when he orders out for pizza). See, at the end of last season, the Pens lost some firepower: Marian Hossa bolted for Detroit, Ryan Malone, due a huge raise, was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Pens, ridiculously deep at center, were in need of some help on the wing. Sid and Geno proved they don't need All-Star wingers to make the big black-and-gold machine go, they just need competent offensive guys with decent hands and some creativity. GM Ray Shero signed Satan and former Cup champ (with the Tampa Bay Lightning, no less!) Ruslan Fedotenko to help fill the void.

Well, the two guys weren't quite as productive as Malone, but they did put up some decent numbers. However, as the trade deadline neared, Crosby made it plain that he wasn't particularly meshing with any of the options he'd been given at wing all season long, and it was apparent that the Penguins were still at least one piece away from really contending. Also apparent was that the team has lost quite a bit of what analysts were calling "sandpaper" in Malone and Gary Roberts over the summer and that they weren't going to last long in the grind of the post-season without some grit. Therefore, Shero (who, by the way, did an amazing job of putting this team together, and whose work is worthy of its own post) made some shrewd deals for the second time in two trade deadlines, unloading promising young blueliner Ryan Whitney (rendered expendable by Kris Letang's emergence) and some picks and turned them into Chris Kunitz from Anaheim and Bill Guerin from the Isles. (He also picked up Craig Adams; love me some checkers!)

What does this have to do with Satan? Well, see, there's this salary cap in the NHL, and these moves would put the Penguins over it if they didn't send someone to their minor league affiliate, so the 10-plus year veteran and perennial 20-goal winger was sent down to the American Hockey League for no reason other than his contract. Hey, somebody had to go down to make room.

This isn't terribly unusual in the NHL these days, but some players (especially European players who could just hop a plane and play in their home countries rather than accept the demotion) don't handle it well. Satan, however, accepted his new appointment and focused on playing a mentoring role to the Baby Pens for the rest of the season.

Now, the good news for Miroslav is that nobody gets paid during the playoffs, so the cap restrictions don't count, so due to his attitude and work ethic in the minors, he was called back up for the 2009 playoffs. He didn't play in the first round or the start of the second, but when aging Petr Sykora started to struggle, Satan was back in the lineup. He played fairly well, too, even if he didn't score much. Satan was benched after game five of the Final, but when Sykora got hurt in game six, Satan was back on the ice to help close things out in the deciding tilt. (Note: apparently, having an injured Petr Sykora on your roster is very good for your Cup chances--see the 2000 New Jersey Devils for details)

Bravo, Miro, for behaving like a true professional. Enjoy your first Cup ring.


Another guy to be thrilled for is Penguins young stud goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. I remember when the Pens traded up from the #3 overall pick in the draft to pick Fleury first overall. (I honestly do remember: it was the summer of 2003 and I was working at the Huron Playhouse in Ohio and had to borrow the school we were staying at's Internet to check out draft news that night) They called him a Patrick Roy-type goalie and instantly proclaimed him to be their guy going forward.

They threw Marc-Andre in the net while he was still pretty young behind some pretty bad teams, and he got shelled more than once. After a couple of seasons of marginal improvement, numbers-wise, many (self included, to my shame) were starting to believe the kid was all hype, and that he'd never aspire to Roy-esque credentials. (What made Roy great? Stanley Cup rings in his ears)

Last season, Fleury went down with a high-ankle sprain about halfway through the year. He missed a lot of games, and American-born (woohoo!) former Edmonton playoff goat (and current Red Wings backup) Ty Conklin stepped in and played the best season of his career in relief. There was talk of making Conklin the full-time starter, even after Fleury returned. Talk from everyone, that is, except the Penguins brass. Fleury was still the guy, no matter how well Ty played.

Apparently, the competition provided by Conklin's stellar play was what Fleury needed to take his game to the next level; when "The Flower" returned from injury, he silenced all the doubters, finally playing like a guy who should be taken first overall in the entry draft. There was no question who was "the guy" between the pipes in Pittsburgh.

Until, that is, the Stanley Cup Final, where the Red Wings took out the younger, greener Penguins in six games. Fleury was awesome at times, but for most of the series he didn't make The Big Save, as championship goaltenders have been known to do. With the exception of game five in Detroit, Fleury didn't exactly steal any games with his play, and anybody will tell you that no matter how good your team is, your goalie is probably going to have to win a game on his own at some point during your Cup run. Last year, Fleury wasn't that guy.

And he heard it all this year. And he heard it all during this year's playoffs, when he was prone to let in the occasional soft goal. And after the Pens went down two games to zero, it was all over the Internet how it was up to Marc-Andre to prove that he was a money goaltender. If he didn't play better, the series was over.

Well, he did play better. Better than he had the year before. And the team managed to tie things up at two headed back to game five in Detroit. Where he was shelled. Five goals in half a game before being pulled and replaced my Mathieu Garon in a 5-0 loss. The series headed back to Pittsburgh with a chance for the Wings to clinch in the Steel City for the second year in a row.

Regarding Roy: it is often said the man would give up a goal now and again, but there were nights when he simply would not give up THE goal, the one that would tie the score. If Roy's team was up three goals, the other team could hope to get two of their goals back, but there was no way they'd ever get the third. In game six, the Pens took a 2-0 lead into the third, when the Red Wings threw everything they had at the Penguins zone, getting one of their own with about ten minutes left. But MAF never let them get that second goal, and the series went to a game seven in Detroit.

For three days, everything you'd read was that game seven would come down to the play of Fleury. He'd been outstanding at home all playoffs, but only so-so on the road. He never played well in Detroit. The Red Wings fans rattled him. The unpredictability of the boards doomed him. Blah blah blah. Above all, Fleury had yet to prove to the world that he was a big-game goaltender.

Well, there's an accusation the kid will never hear again.


Oh, Marian Hossa.

This is really too good.

Last year, Hossa, an impending unrestricted free agent, was the biggest trade deadline target for Cup hopefuls. And Shero made a blockbuster trade to bring him to the Burgh, drawing from the wealth of quality prospects and young players the Pens had gained through years of sucking. Hossa made an instant impact and was a major force in the Penguins' near-championship run in 2008. In fact, the puck was on his stick at the goal mouth as time expired with the Penguins down one goal in game six.

At the end of the year, Shero made a fairly massive offer to keep Hossa locked up long-term. After all, Hossa had said publicly he was looking for a multi-year deal that was a certain dollar amount, and of the teams that made pitches, Pittsburgh's was most likely the richest, but he turned them down, saying he wanted to explore other options, but hadn't closed the door on Pittsburgh.

All well and good. That's his right, right?

Two days later, out comes the news: Hossa has signed with the Detroit Red Wings. More years? Nope. He signed a one-year deal. More money? Nope. He took about half what the Pens had offered. Hossa claimed it was nothing personal, but he wanted to win a Stanley Cup, and thought a year with Detroit would be his best chance to do that.

Hossa had an incredible season with Detroit. He was among the league's leading goal-scorers. The guy was dominant all year long. Headed into the playoffs, it looked like Hossa was well on his way to getting his wish.

And then came the Stanley Cup Final. In seven games, Hossa totaled exactly: Zero goals and three assists.

But at least he got to watch his old teammates skate around the ice on his new home rink with that big shiny cup!

Hossa later said publicly he didn't regret his choice. And that's good. I'm glad for him. Cuz we don't regret it for a moment, either.


All right, I've got the live feed from the victory parade on now.

There are so many more fantastic stories from this year's team.

Geno Malkin goes from being "The Guy Who Disappeared in the 2008 Playoffs" to "The Guy Who Won the Playoff MVP Award."

Sidney Crosby, touted as The Next One since he was sixteen years old, becomes the youngest captain ever to hoist the Stanley Cup. Also went through Alex the Rock Star Ovechkin on the way.

Guys like Craig Adams and Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke and Hall Gill, not the guys who are going to make headlines all that often, knew their job and did it so well they'll have their names engraved on the most famous trophy in the world for all to see long after they've retired.

This was the year promise and potential finally became perfection. This was a team that played as a team, despite its obviously top-heavy star power.

This was a team that won because of plays like Rob Scuderi dropping to his knees to make three saves with 20 seconds to go in game six while Marc-Andre Fleury scrambled back into position.

This was a team that won because superstars never believed themselves to be above the team, no matter how often the NHL and Versus told them they were.

This was a team that won because they learned from their past failures.

This was a team that won because they didn't give a damn what the numbers said, nor what the experts said, nor what hockey history said, nor what common sense said. They won because they played to win, period, regardless of the circumstances. They won because, at the end of the day, they refused to lose.

This was a team that won.