Pittsburgh and the Mystical Winger: A Penguins Tale of Lore

Do you like bad fan fiction? Do you like hockey?

If you answered “yes” to both of those questions, this post is for you!

 

There is a fairy tale that has been told in Pittsburgh for some time now.

It is a chronicle about one man in search of eternal glory – not only for himself, but for his people and his small, but loyal army. His name was Ray Shero and he dreamt of drinking from a hallowed cup, the most precious of trophies and the most coveted of possessions among his peers. And he wanted to drink from this great Cup more than once, for he was a great wizard, deserving of great riches and heavenly wealth.

But to achieve this, some thought, Shero would have to find a man first. Prophecy foretold that this man would one day arrive in Pittsburgh, through no easy means, and find great comfort and success on the wing of Sidney Crosby, the vaunted White Knight.

But to speak of Shero’s vaunted White Winger, one must first understand Crosby.

Crosby was no commoner, himself. He had already fulfilled a prophecy, one which named him “The Next One.” At the age of 18 and in his first NHL season, he had already salvaged a dying Penguins franchise and a wilting National Hockey League. He did this with the help of a great 66, called “Le Magnifique” by some and Mario Lemieux by all.

But even though Lemieux and Crosby brought the NHL back into the public’s favor after a devastating lockout in 2004-2005 and saved the Penguins franchise from bankruptcy and relocation, there was still work to be done.

For you see, the Penguins still existed, but only barely. Even with Crosby finishing sixth in league scoring with 102 points (39 goals, 63 assists) and a runner-up bid for rookie of the year, the Penguins still finished second from last in the NHL with 58 points. Even Lemieux couldn’t help his ill-gotten team, for he had grown old by then and could no longer carry the remaining weight of the franchise on his shoulders.

The team’s mediocrity didn’t last, though. The very next season, they finished second in the Atlantic Division with an astounding 105 points. Crosby had grown into the vision the hockey gods had projected. He led the NHL with 120 points (36 goals, 84 assists) and won the Hart Trophy, becoming the youngest player and only teenager to win a scoring title. Crosby was also named the league MVP and received the Lester B. Pearson Award as the most outstanding player, becoming the seventh player in NHL history to earn all three awards in one year.

In 2008, Shero found himself pulling strings at the trade deadline. His army wasn’t quite legendary, but it was something to behold. It was the best in the East. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury were all as formidable as anyone in the league and no one doubted the team’s greatness. But it seemed that they lacked a key piece to make them the best in all of hockey.

And that piece existed.

He was skating and shooting and scoring in the land of Atlanta, a land long forgotten by the hockey gods. It, perhaps, was shunned because of one evil winger that played there. Unfortunately, for Shero, he was the thought to be that piece. He was Marian Hossa, who later became known as the Dark Winger.

“We must have him,” Shero thought. And so he worked his great magic and the Penguins sent Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and a first-round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft to the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for the heralded Hossa, as well as Pascal Dupuis.

Hossa helped carry the mighty Guins to the finals that season. But victorious the team was not. For unbeknownst to the Penguins and Shero, Hossa was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He was a shape shifting evil doer, hell-bent on personal success with no connection to the mortal world.

He was not a team player.

So the Penguins lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games. Driven by only his greed for personal success, Hossa departed from the Land of Steel for the Hell of the Midwest – Detroit, in search of glory of the evil variety.

Without Hossa the following season, the Penguins repeated as Eastern Conference champions. They crossed into the darkness of Detroit once more, this time besting the Redwings in seven games to capture the Cup in a valiant effort that will live in lore forever.

They drank from Lord Stanley’s fabled Cup, but some say it was against the will of the hockey gods. You see, although Detroit may be an evil land, it had become the home of the hockey gods, thus earning the city the name “Hockey Town.” The gods had built their sanctuary in the midst of the downtrodden city around them and that sanctuary was known as “the Joe.” It was the Joe Louis Arena, the oldest arena in the NHL. And because the Penguins seized the Stanley Cup on Game 7 in the Joe, snatching it away from the sanctuary of the hockey gods, they were cursed, doomed to never reach the Finals again.

But legend had it that if the Penguins were to find the White Winger, one man pure and devoted to the game and its fans, a captain of his own domain so incorruptible that he could endure a terrible team for years and still remain up-beat; only then could the Penguins return to the Finals and hoist the Cup once more.

In the coming seasons, the Penguins were tremendous. But as remarkable as they were, the playoffs became their Achilles heel because of the hockey gods’ curse. Once 82 games of regular season had elapsed, the Penguins lapsed. And for the three years following the Cup victory, the Penguins were ousted in either the first or second round of the playoffs.

Great regular season success followed by despicable postseason defeat was a curse that Shero’s people had great trouble enduring.

At the start of the 2010-2011 season, the Penguins believed they could triumph despite the curse and the lack of the White Winger. The hockey gods feared they were right. So in the midst of Crosby’s greatest season ever, the gods sent a lightning bolt crashing from the heavens during the nationally televised Winter Classic. It struck Crosby in the form of a David Steckel hit to the head. It was a hit that sent shockwaves throughout Shero’s kingdom.

Some foretold he may never play again. He missed nearly two full seasons, but by power of magic and great strength, he became the man he once was.

From then on, the Penguins and its fans realized they indeed needed the White Winger to succeed. This had everyone going on “watch.”

First it was “Jagr watch.” That wasn’t to be. Jaromir Jagr, once a masterful winger for the Penguins in the days of the first and second Penguins Cups, succumbed to dark sorcery and chose evil over good. He signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in the summer of 2011.

The following summer, Crosby’s good friend Zach Parise became the next prospective winger for the Penguins. “Parise watch” was in full force and many Pittsburgh faithful believed the ex-Devil’s captain would bring his talent to the Penguins and vie for a Cup. But once again, the hockey gods vetoed the suspicions and cast him to the great north of Minnesota, where he collected a king’s ransom.

So the final White Winger watch brings us to modern times. Rumors were whispered across the hockey landscape that the Penguins were closer than ever to finding him. Truth be told, the Penguins signed a winger, a captain, who many thought would fulfill the prophecy. He was Brenden Morrow, a veteran captain of the Dallas Stars. He was a born leader and would be valued because of his insight into the game and his gritty style of play. He had long been a bastion of good will in a town where the hockey gods had not been kind to in quite some time. He was pure of heart and remained upbeat in an unsuccessful hockey town.

After quick consideration, the Penguins faithful decided he was close enough to the prophecy. He played the wing. He probably wouldn’t supplant the outstanding wingers Crosby already had (Dupuis and Chris Kunitz) but he would fill the second-line role that was needed badly.

The visions had changed scripture and it was no longer Sid’s winger, but the second line’s winger that would fulfill prophecy. Dreamers fell back down to earth and realists realized something great: This Penguins team was now built for a deep run in the playoffs.

After the addition of the mountain-of-a-man, troll defenseman Douglas Murray a day later, reality now became the prophecy. Shero had found his pieces. The missing rook and the absent bishop were now on the board and Pittsburgh was more than capable of a checkmate against any team in the league.

But there had been another winger in the land of hockey, one of great value. His name was Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla. He hailed from the west of Canada for many years and donned a “C” on his chest and a “C” over his heart. Some soothsayers claimed that he was that mystical winger who could fill the void in Pittsburgh. This, of course, was before it was filled by Morrow, so it could no longer be.

But the days following the Morrow signing, these same oracles still whispered about Iginla’s interest in Pittsburgh. Most folk responded to these whispers with “delusions of grandeur! For Shero is done. He has finished his work, so let us be merry now without conjecture and speculation from fools with unnamed sources.”

The doubters were right. On a dark Wednesday night, as the newly acquired Penguins traveled toward their new kingdoms, the oracles confirmed that Iginla had indeed agreed to become a Boston Bruin. Penguins fans were not pleased, but certainly not worried. Although the Bruins would be their toughest playoff adversary, Iginla’s addition would certainly not guarantee a Pittsburgh demise.

“So be it,” they said. “Let Iginla skate for Beantown. It shall make no difference.”

So Penguins fans laid their heads to their pillows and began to dream new dreams. These were dreams of a tougher Penguins team, one that could score and skate and deliver blows to the opposition. They would have been nightmares had they been dreamt by fans of any other team.

But while they all slept, the great Shero was wide-eye and sharp minded in his quarters. His phone in hand and wit ablaze, he conspired in the early morning hours, working magic not seen in Pittsburgh since 1991, when another great wizard GM by the name of Craig Patrick clouded the minds of the Hartford Whalers management and usurped Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings in exchange for Jeff Parker, Zarley Zalapski, and John Cullen.

Shero had landed Iginla.

With a flick of his wand, Shero sent a 2013 Penguins first round draft choice and prospect forwards Kenneth Agostino and Ben Hanowski to Calgary in exchange for a future hall of fame right winger. Presumably, Flames GM Jay Feaster had been rendered deaf and dumb with zero chance of cognitive ability. The forwards he acquired are both C-rated NCAA players and according to scribe Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, neither was listed in the top ten best prospects within the Penguins organization.

Which brings us to today.

Iginla is everything the hockey gods have spoken of and everything prophecy has written of the White Winger. Although he may not be Crosby’s winger, he is a veteran scorer and man of virtue and good faith. He has said he will assume any role that is asked of him and that is why many believe he is the man foretold to undo the gods’ curse.

But we must all remember the fickle whims of the hockey gods. Those whims change at the drop of a puck and we may never truly know what they desire to be. It does appear they are still angered by Shero and his mighty plan, however, for they have once again struck down the great Crosby, this time by casting a whirring puck from the stick of Brooks Orpik into Crosby’s face, breaking his jaw and casting his teeth into the land of wind and ghosts.  We do not know when he will return to Shero’s army.

We also do not know if he or Morrow are the men who the prophecy spoke of. They each fit the description, but it seems of Iginla more so. Once the regular season closes, only then will we know if Iginla is the winger who will return to Cup to Pittsburgh.

So it was written, so it may be.

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Top Ten Surprises of the 2011-2012 NHL Season

There is still more than a month left before the Stanley Cup playoffs, but this season has already given us plenty of excitement and surprise. So I thought it’d be fun to visit 10 of the biggest surprises this season has offered up so far. So without further ado…

10. The Detroit Red Wings record setting 23-straight wins at home.

Why is this surprising?

I know at first, it isn’t that hard to believe. There is a strong tradition of winning in Detroit and fan support there is always amongst the top in the league. But consider how long this record lasted before this season. The last team to hold the record was the Boston Bruins (22 straight) during 1929-30 and ’30-31. In those days, professional hockey was a much different game. Stars played entire careers with one team and dynasties were more frequent. The current game is ripe with parity and regardless of who you play, there’s always a chance of suffering a loss.

You also have to consider that during the streak, Detroit didn’t have their No. 1 goalie Jimmy Howard for a number of games during the final stretch. Howard’s fill-in – Joey MacDonald – won six straight to help break the record. For a backup to achieve a streak like that in pressure situations is pretty admirable.

9. The Buffalo Sabres are out of playoff contention.

Why is this surprising?

After last season, owner Terry Pegula vowed to spend heaps of money to turn Buffalo into a Stanley Cup contender. To sure up the blue line, he signed Christian Ehrhoff through 2021 at a cap hit of $4 million. He also brought on Robyn Regehr for about the same price through 2013. If that wasn’t enough, Pegula snapped up Ville Leino from Philadelphia to increase goal scoring at the hefty price of $4.5 million through 2017. It seemed that Buffalo was going to be a real contender in the 2011-2012 season. But so far, they have been a disappointment. They are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference. The stars Pegula brought in are having down years and their best player, goaltender Ryan Miller, just hasn’t looked himself for much of the season. He has had some injury problems and the backup Jhonas Enroth hasn’t been able to help during Miller’s absences. The Sabres still have a shot at making the postseason, but the team really needs to turn up the intensity in its remaining 17 games.

8. Concussions are increasing at a high rate.

Why is this surprising?

The expansion of Rule 48, plain and simple. After losing the face of the league (Sidney Crosby) and a number of others to concussions last season, NHL officials met in the offseason and expanded rule 48 to eliminate the dangerous hits to the head that were causing many of the concussions in the NHL. Check out this quote from an article written by Dan Rosen of NHL.com last year:

“There were hits this year that we want eliminated from the game and we need to make sure we don’t end up back in this situation again next year,” said former NHL veteran Mathieu Schneider, special assistant to NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr. “Without getting real specific, players and managers, and as my thinking would be, the Board of Governors and our Board, want to keep the physical play in and want to put some onus on guys being aware on the ice, but at the same time there are hits that we want to rid ourselves of. By expanding Rule 48, we’re hoping to be able to do that.”

That didn’t happen.

This is just a sample set of the players who suffered concussions this season so far: Sidney Crosby Claude Giroux, Mike Richards, Michael Sauer, Jeff Skinner, Joni Pitkanen, Kris Letang, Chris Pronger,  Zbynek Michalek, Robert Bortuzzo, Jay Beagle, Milan Michalek, Brayden Schenn, Radek Martinek, Marek Zidlicky, Nathan Gerbe, Nicklas Backstrom, Ryan Miller, James Reimer and Jonathan Toews.

Brendan Shanahan, the director of player discipline, has handed out his fair share of suspensions stemming from concussion-causing hits this season, but obviously the suspensions and the rule expansion haven’t done enough to take head-shots out of the game.

7. The Philadelphia Flyers are the highest scoring team in the NHL.

Why is this surprising?

This past offseason, the Flyers gutted the scoring of their team. They sent their captain Mike Richards to Los Angeles. From 2007-2011, he averaged 28 goals, 42 assists and 70 points per season. The Flyers also sent center Jeff Carter to the Blue Jackets. From 2007-2011, he averaged 36 goals, 30 assists and 66 points per season. And not to go unnoticed, Philadelphia also lost Ville Leino to Buffalo. Last season, he scored 19 goals, 34 assists and 53 points.

It seemed that the Flyers were losing a ton of firepower to free up cap room to sign goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. But despite those players and their juicy numbers going elsewhere, the Flyers have still averaged 3.25 goals per game. They have scored 208 goals this season, six more than second ranked Boston. The Flyers have managed to climb to the top of the scoring list by getting help from a number of different players. Scott Hartnell leads the team with 31 goals, followed by Claude Giroux’s 23 and 22 from Wayne Simmonds. Currently, the Flyers have 10 players with 10 or more goals.

6. Tampa Bay is 10th in the Eastern Conference.

Why is this surprising?

Last year, the Lightning was the team to beat in the postseason. After recovering from a 3-1 deficit against Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay surged to win three straight to win the series. Then they easily swept Washington in the second round. And in the Eastern Conference finals, it took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Bruins seven games to finish off the Lightning. Steven Stamkos was coming into his own (and is currently the league leader in goals (47) and points (80)) and the veteran leadership of Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier is still there. So what is so different between this year’s team and last year’s?

Goaltending.

Somehow, Dwayne Roloson was outstanding last season with the Bolts, especially in the playoffs. Everyone predicted that the 41-year-old net minder was too old to carry the team, but that’s exactly what he did. Now, it seems that his age has finally caught up to him. Add in the fact that the Tampa Bay blueliners are relatively poor and haven’t provided their goalies with much help all season long. But even though the situation for Tampa has looked dismal for most of this season, they remain only two points out of a playoff spot and six points back of the Southeast Division lead.

5. The Florida Panthers may win the Southeast Division.

Why is this surprising?

The Panthers haven’t made the postseason in 10 years. It is the longest drought in all of hockey.  Although the Southeast Division is shaky at best, the winner will reap the benefits of a No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Panthers have led the division for the majority of the season. Over the past few weeks, the position has wavered, allowing both the Winnipeg Jets and the Washington Capitals to claim the top spot for a few games. But the fact remains that the Panthers have been the best team in that division for the majority of the season and they probably deserve to win the Southeast.

Florida has been led by the stellar scoring line of Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg. Collectively, the three have scored 58 goals, 83 assists and 141 points. And even though the goaltending staff had to mix and match because of injuries (starter Jose Theodore has started only 37 games) it has managed to win 30 games between Theodore, Scott Clemmensen and Jacob Markstrom to post a solid .915 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.64. Those numbers may just be good enough for a division win come April.

4. The Washington Capitals are on the verge of missing the playoffs.

Why is this surprising?

For starters, Vegas gave the Caps 7/1 odds of winning the Stanley Cup before the season. The only other team given the same odds was the Vancouver Canucks, which came within a game of winning Lord Stanley’s hardware last season. The Caps were favorites for a win because of their scoring depth, with guys like Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom. They also had a solid defense with outstanding blue liner Mike Green and experienced veterans Dennis Wideman and Roman Hamrlik. Goaltending seemed like it could be an issue, but Washington management was confident that sending their previous starter Semyon Varlamov to Colorado wouldn’t hinder the 2011-2012 season because of the young talent of Michal Neuvirth, Braden Holtby and acquired veteran Tomas Vokoun.

But unfortunately for Washington, this season has been sub-par at best. They are ranked 21 in goals against per game and they rank 13th in goal scoring. After an 8-0 start, Washington has won more than two games in a row only three times this season. But because the Capitals are in the weak Southeast Division, they still stand a chance at making the playoffs and are currently only one point out of the playoff picture.

3. The Flyers goaltending woes continue.

Why is this surprising?

They Flyers haven’t had a dependable goaltender for close to a decade. After last season, the Flyers organization decided it had enough and on June 23, 2011, Philadelphia signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract. The length of the contract was unprecedented for goalies in the NHL, but the Flyers had good reason to think it was a good move. Bryzgalov was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy and a top-5 finalist for the Hart Trophy in the 2009–10 NHL season. His career goals-against average was an admirable 2.39 and his career save percentage was .915. He had also won more than 150 games in less than 10 seasons in the NHL. When the Flyers signed him, he was easily in the top-10 of goalies in the NHL and perhaps even the top five.

But this season has not been kind to Bryzgalov.

Although he has 23 wins this season, his save percentage is a paltry .898 (the worst of his career) and his goals-against average is 2.79, the second worst of his career. Bryz hasn’t looked comfortable between the pipes in Philly this season. And in the Winter Classic against the New York Rangers, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette elected to start last year’s No. 1 goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky. Bryzgalov was clearly upset with the decision and it was a clear sign that the team’s confidence in him has wavered. Philly still has a solid team with the most scoring in the league, but if Bryzgalov cannot find his mojo before the playoffs, the Flyers Stanley Cup hopes just may fade away this season.

2. St. Louis is only two points back of the overall lead in the NHL

Why is this surprising?

St. Louis has been a perennial bust. They have not won a playoff game since 2003-2004 and they haven’t won a playoff series since 2001-2002. The team also has not qualified for the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. But this season, after a 6-7 start that left St. Louis in 14th place in the Western Conference, the Blues fired head coach Davis Payne in favor of Ken Hitchcock, a man with more than 1,000 games of coaching experience and the 4th Blues head coach since 2006.

The move paid off.

Currently St. Louis is in second in the Western Conference and only one point back from first place Vancouver. The Blues have one of the best defenses in all of the NHL and are the league leaders in goals allowed per game (1.89), have allowed the fewest goals in the NHL (125) and are fourth in the NHL in plus/minus (plus-41). But best aspect of this team is between the pipes. Which leads us to…

1. Brian Elliott’s phenomenal year.

Why is this surprising?

No one could have predicted the year that goaltender Brian Elliott is having. His save percentage of .937 is second in the NHL and his goals-against average of 1.63 is tops in the league. The 26-year-old goalie also ranks third in shutouts with six. These stats are drastically better than his career numbers. In Elliott’s first four seasons – the majority of which were with the Ottawa Senators – his average save percentage was .912 and his goals-against average was 2.67. Elliott has only 20 wins this season, but that is only because he is effectively splitting time with Jaroslav Halak, who is having a tremendous season of his own. With these backstops holding the fort in St. Louis, who knows what the Blues will be capable of in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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