Saturday, June 13, 2009

Day One-Hundred Fifty-Three: Champions (Part 1 of 2)

I realized how long this post was going to get, and it's been a long day at my place, so I'm going to break my final thoughts on the hockey season into two parts.

First off, wow. Just, wow, wow, wow. Pittsburgh beats Detroit twice in a row, including the season finale in Motown, to win their first Stanley Cup in seventeen years. (For the record, I became a Pens fan/NHL fan the year immediately following their last Cup championship)

Everything in the world said the Pens would lose last night.

32 of 33 teams to win games 1 and 2 at home in the Final (as Detroit did) went on to win the Cup.

14 of 18 home teams have won game 7 in the Cup final (last visiting team before last night to do it was in the early '70s).

Detroit had won 4 of the previous 11 Stanley Cups and had something like 30 Cup rings scattered across their roster (as opposed to 4 or 5 for the Pens).

The Red Wings had only lost one game at Joe Louis Arena all playoffs, and that was in round 2 against Anaheim over a month ago.

Detroit's coach is fairly widely accepted as one of the best in the league, while Pittsburgh's coach began this season in the American Hockey League.

Oh, and Pittsburgh had lost ALL THREE games in Detroit this series by a combine score of 13-2, including a 5-0 blowout in game five.

Finally, don't dismiss the fact that these Red Wings beat these Penguins to the Cup only a year before.

You know how I've been saying that there are just these "weird things" that happen in hockey, some things you can just count on?

Well, the Pens blew that completely out the window last night. And it was awesome.

First off, recent history said that the Pens wouldn't even make it out of the second round. The defending Stanley Cup loser just never comes back the next year. It doesn't happen. In over a decade, Cup losers had combined for one series win. Until this year. No twenty-one-year-old team captain had ever won a Stanley Cup. Until this year. Heck, no Russian had ever won the Conn Smythe (Playoff MVP) award before. Until this year.

You sensing a theme?

I can't tell you how great this series and victory feel, both as a Pens fan but also as an Avs fan/Red Wings mortal enemy (not literally, of course). The inherent smugness of most Wings fans (that I know, not making a blanket statement here) has been intolerable all playoffs long, especially this rematch series. (Also, the Wings fans' ovation as Sidney Crosby left the ice huddled over in pain was downright sickening) I suppose a bit of smugness can't help but creep its way in when you've had a run of success like Detroit has for the past fifteen or so years. Nevertheless, it's always nice when that talk finally stops. And it isn't as through the Wings didn't play a great series, especially while missing their best player for the first four games and both their top forward and top defenseman the last few games against Chicago. Lots to be proud of in Motown.

This year, however, belongs to the boys from the Steel City.



First off, what can you say about that magic burrito? It may be disgusting, but it sure seems to have worked. However, if this is, as many believe, the first of many, many long playoff runs for this young Pens team, how many burritos is Dan Bylsma going to have to consume within days of one another over the next decade or so???

I fear for the poor man's long-term health...


Speaking of Bylsma, anyone else find the resemblance to Noah Bennett a little unsettling?

Really, though, what an amazing story this guy was. He started this year coaching the Penguin's minor-league affiliate. Nobody anticipated there would a coaching change; heck, Michel Therrien had just taken these young Pens to a Cup Final in 2008. Nevertheless, February rolls around, something like two months to go in the season, and Sid's crew is five points OUT of the playoff picture??? The ax fell on Therrien, and Bylsma was brought up as an interim. They figure, if he succeeds, great! If he doesn't, they can just send him back to Wilkes-Barrie next year. After all, nobody really expects the rookie coach from the AHL to make too much noise, especially with a team that was already on the outside looking in.

What happens next? The Penguins to bonkers, finishing with one of the best records in the league over the past two months, grinding their way by the rough-and-tumble arch-rival Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, upsetting the #2 Washington Capitals in the second round (more on that in a bit), sweeping through the equally-red-hot Carolina Hurricanes in the Conference Final, and finally defying all odds and all hockey logic and cutting the head off the Big Winged Beast to capture the Cup--something that all those Mario Lemieux/Jaromir Jagr-led teams were unable to accomplish from the mid-1990's through the early 2000's.

And the rookie coach of the year award goes to...


Max Talbot.

Max. Freaking. Talbot.

At the very beginning of the playoffs, I remember saying to Kim, "You always love to have a guy like Max Talbot on your team in the playoffs."

Talbot's not a guy who's going to score a ton of goals for you, especially when you've got unbelievable offenseve depth up and down your roster. (I mean really. You had Petr Sykora on the bench, for crying out loud? I realize he's lost a step, but dang!) He is, however, one of those work-his-tail-off-all-the-time type guys, and he excels at the inglorious. He's a great penalty-killer, for example, and a good energy guy. Game six of the first round against the Flyers, Talbot squared off against one of the biggest goons on a team stocked with big goons while the Pens were down 3-0. He got pounded, but the whole team pointed to Max's pounding as the turning point in the game. The guys were so fired up at his fearlessness and his willingness to take one for the team that they took it to Philly the rest of the game and send 'em golfing with a 4-3 win. He's the quintessential unsung hero who's just an all-around good guy off the ice as well.

So when that guy scores both goals in a 2-1 game seven win in the Stanley Cup Final? You just have to feel good for him.


I don't think I've mentioned the "Old Guy Rule" on here yet. It seems like every year, the team that wins the Cup has some venerable older player toward the end of their career who has never won the thing before, and they rally around this gentleman in a "Win It For (Blank)" type campaign:

2008: Dallas Drake, Detroit
2007: Teemu Selanne and Rod Niedermayer, Anaheim
2006: Rod Brind'Amour and Glen Wesley, Carolina
2004: Dave Andreychuk, Tampa Bay
2002: Dominik Hasek, Detroit
2001: Ray Bourque, Colorado


This year? Welcome to the club, Sergei Gonchar!! (Whose only previous Stanley Cup attempts, 2008 with the Pens and 1998 with the Caps, were ended by...the Detroit Red Wings! Oh, the karma is everywhere!)

Speaking of karma, I'll post the Marian Hossa storyline tomorrow. Classic!


Finally (for tonight), the Pens' Cup run highlights what I think is one of the most exciting things the NHL has going for it right now, and it's something I was talking to Tarvis about recently: Most of the league's premier players at this point in history are in their mid-twenties or lower. On the Pens' side of the ice, you had Crosby and Malkin as well as Jordan Staal (who was a monster in the Final) and Marc-Andre Fleury (more on him tomorrow as well). They blew by Hurricanes' superstar (and Jordan's older brother) Eric Staal and a goalie named Cam Ward who had a pretty great season of his own. The Caps were as stacked with young guns as the Pens were, with most dynamic offensive player in the game, Alex Ovechkin, and some stud teammates like Semin, Green, and Backstrom. Even the Flyers gave us Carter and Richards. Other twenty-something superstars on the post-season stage this year:

Getzlaf, Perry, and Ryan for Anaheim.
Kessel, and Wheeler in Boston.
Phaneuf in Calgary.
The Sedin twins in Vancouver.
Lundqvist and yet another Staal in New York.
Zajac and Parise in New Jersey.
Setoguchi and Pavelski in San Jose.
Kane, Toews, Byfuglien, Versteeg, and Sharp in Chicago.
Perron, and Oshie in Saint Louis.
Nash, Mason, Russell, Brassard, and Filatov in Columbus.

And these are just the teams that were "in". There is going to be some exciting, dynamic NHL hockey for at least the next decade. And from the looks of things, the Penguins will be right in the thick of it each and every year.