A Date with Destiny

Hearken back…

Stanley Cup Finals (2008)…

The Pittsburgh Penguins found themselves like Cinderella at the ball, in the Stanley Cup Finals facing the storied and formidable Detroit Red Wings. For me, it might as well have been USA versus USSR in the 1980 Olympics, it was that gut-wrenching.

We all felt the overwhelming crush of the first game and then the second when our boys found themselves slapped around the ice much like they were in the first round against the Senators the previous season. We stood behind them, willing them to fight to stay alive, and out of sheer will they scratched and clawed to make it a brave game.

We stayed up through the multiple overtime sets when Petr Sykora joked during an intermission that he’d score the sudden-death game-winner–and did.

Maybe, like me, you were one of the ones who got an interesting e-mail the next day from a friend with a doctored photo of Babe Ruth calling his shot superimposed by Petr Sykora at the plate, signaling with  his hockey stick. It was inspiring.

Our boys had a chance.

Back in the ‘burgh, home ice, for Game 6 and a chance to even the series at 3 apiece. I never felt sicker than when that final horn blared the death knell of one hell of a season. It was hard to watch them, stunned, drained, shredded, slumped on the ice, backs against the boards. An epic denouement. Lord Stanley’s Cup was in our house but not in our hands. The photo of Evgeni Malkin standing alone near the Stanley Cup Finals ice stamp was a haunting and compelling image. The scene as all those whited-out Penguins faithful, with class, stayed and stood for the victor as the Red Wings relished in holding the Cup. We felt the sting as if we had been in those skates and sweaters, too.

And we vowed we’d be back.

Stanley Cup Finals (2009)

The path this year began in a high-powered, promising way with one of the best starts in franchise history, and then like that, the bottom fell out. Through 82 games of soul-searching, fumbling, struggling, but never saying die, they pulled themselves up by their skate laces. If nothing else can be said about this team (from the first to last guy), it is one seriously cohesive unit.

In the face of critics and nay-sayers and hand-wringers, they have managed to let it all roll off of broad, matured shoulders. Old souls in young bodies.

NHL 2009 - Carolina Hurricanes vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

  • They had to earn their way into a playoff spot–unlike last season where they shot to second seed in the conference and home ice.
  • They had to fight and rally through two physically demanding rounds–unlike last season where they sailed through the first three rounds.
  • They have progressed steadily but quickly under Dan Bylsma who has shown his ability to read his players individually and collectively, leaving them confident and well-prepared–unlike last season when they didn’t really know any better and really hadn’t an idea just what THAT level of hockey was all about. Detroit was only too happy to initiate them and maybe to their own present and future peril.
  • At last season’s end, fans and pundits worried out loud about the loss of Hossa, Roberts, and Malone, but as Mark Madden pointed out in his radio talk show on Friday, if Hossa stayed, we might be looking at key players with much shorter contracts and the possibility of Malkin going to another team.

    Instead, the loss has paid dividends thanks to Ray Shero’s shrewd dealing:

    • To join Sidney Crosby (who when his contract was due took less to make room to keep others in the future), contracts of 4 or more years for Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, and Marc-Andre Fleury completed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, giving the Pens a solid corps, and defensive insurance in Brooks Orpik.
    • Add to that the late season acquisitions of Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, and Craig Adams.
    • What you find is depth from 1st line to last, especially as the prodigal son Miroslav Satan arose from AHL purgatory to show some of his best work all season in the playoffs.

    Let’s not forget that every guy who played this year contributed mightily whether for every game or for a short stint.

    • When Gonchar was down, Goligosky answered the bell. Philippe Boucher continues to sniper with a Howitzer.
    • Cooke and Kennedy meshed with Jordan Staal to become one of the best shut-down third lines that could generate a spark with their grinding cycle work.
    • Max Talbot and Pascal Depuis played anywhere they could be of service, getting time on every one of the four lines and contributing mightily in penalty-kill situations. An unfortunate injury sidelined Mike Zogomanis, but when healthy, he is one of the deadliest in the face-off circle.
    • Eric Goddard and Paul Bissonnette enforced when it was needed, but they made skilled contributions as well.
    • Ruslan Fedotenko has come on to be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs and worked throughout the season to try to keep the team sparked and competitive.
    • Kris Letang has grown in confidence and skill. He is fearless, and not to be outdone is Mark Eaton whose defensive skill has also morphed into an offensive threat.
    • Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill have developed into a strong defensive pairing, facing the likes of Ovechkin and Eric Staal with little difficulty.

    It’s scary just how calm and loose this year’s Pittsburgh Penguins team really is. And maybe it’s a little maddening for the reporters who try to get some juicy tidbit out of them in interviews. In the hopes of a spark, they ask about the re-match, feelings about Hossa, the adversity, back-to-back games or too much time between games, and always, they are left a little diappointed. 

    These players are even keeled, unflappable, and take it all in stride. It’s good to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals. They don’t think too much about the rivalry or how Hossa left. The adversity has made them stronger, and they know what they can do and the kind of character that’s in the locker room. Each knows he has a specific role to play and plays it with 110% intensity, stressing time and again the need to “play the right way.” Back-to-backs are the nature of the beast. They faced many during the regular season, faced them in the playoffs already. Not a big deal. And too much time? They’re glad it’s not a 10-day lay-off because, well, they’d rather be playing hockey.

    They are a better, healthier, and more psychologically ready team than the Penguins of 2008, but they needed the early play-off spanking in 2007 to prepare them for the 2008 run, and they needed the 2008 finals defeat to prepare them for this run.

    Yeah, that’s still hard to say (as a fan), but if we are going to be honest with ourselves as the Penguins have been with themselves, then we have to agree. This is going to be one hell of a series.

    NHL 2009 - Carolina Hurricanes vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

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