The Penguins In Review: The 2012-13 Regular Season

Consol Energy Center

It’s tough to believe that the regular season is over already. The most ridiculous lockout since the last hockey lockout robbed us of 34 Penguins games this year and although that already seems like quite a bit of missed hockey, it’s even more devastating when you break it down to the number of absent regulation periods (102) and missing minutes (2,040). And not to put salt in the wound, but if Sidney Crosby hadn’t missed any games during the season and averaged his regular 21:06 of ice time per game, that means we also missed out on nearly 12 hours of watching the greatest player in the world do his thing.

 But let’s focus on what we did get to watch.

TEAM IN REVIEW

 To put it simply, the Pittsburgh Penguins were quite an amazing team to watch. They went 36-12-0 and acquired 72 points in route to capturing their first Atlantic Division title since 2008 and their first regular season conference crown in two decades, when they were captained by Mario Lemieux, backstopped by Tom Barrasso, and competed in the Prince of Wales Conference with the likes of the Quebec Nordiques and the Hartford Whalers.

 Like that team from 1993, these Penguins looked unstoppable in the regular season and are considered amongst the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. The 1992-93 Pens finished with 56 wins and 119 points. This year’s team was on pace for 61 wins and 122 points. That would have made them the winningest team in franchise history and given them the second most wins in NHL history, behind only the 1996 Detroit Red Wings who finished with 62.

 They never lost more than two games in a row and they became the first team in NHL history to win every game in the month of March (and at the same time becoming the first franchise to record a 10-game win streak in each of three consecutive seasons). That was during a streak in which the Pens won 15 in a row, tying the 1981-82 New York Islanders for the second longest win-streak in NHL history.

 Although this Pittsburgh team was relatively sound in most facets of the game, it was their offense that drove their success. Despite the shortened season, they still put a heck of a lot of pucks into the nets. They were first in the NHL in goals, with 162, which put them on pace to score 276 in 82 games. Much of their success came on the power play, which netted 42 goals and clicked at 24.7 percent, good enough for second best in the league.

 Defensively, the Pens weren’t firing on all cylinders for the duration of the season but they eventually found their way. Once they worked out some early season troubles leading to too much up and down hockey (that were exemplified by a disheartening 6-5 loss to the Flyers on February 20th and a 7-6 overtime win in Montreal on March 2), they really found the winning combination of scoring and defense. Through the first half of games, the Penguins gave up four or more goals eight times. Through the second half, they chiseled that number down to five games. It still wasn’t elite defense, but it got the job done by helping to win 20 of their last 24 games.

Over the course of the season, Pittsburgh averaged 2.48 goals against per game (12th in the NHL) and their goalie tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury (23-8 in 31 starts) and Tomas Vokoun (13-4 in 17 starts) combined for a .917 save percentage and 2.42 goals against. They might not be Vezina-type numbers, but they were good enough to help rack up the second-best record in the NHL and the best one-goal game win percentage in the league.

 But as good as Pittsburgh was in most areas of the game, they were pretty awful when it came to the penalty kill. They finished 25th in the league with a PK percentage of 79.6. Comparatively, the best PK team in the league, the Ottawa Senators, killed penalties at 88 percent. What’s most disconcerting about the Penguins penalty killing woes is that they’re one the worst teams in the league at it on the road. In the Stanley Cup playoffs, the ability to excel on the road is critical for deep Cup runs. The Pens killed only 75.5 percent of penalties on the road and allowed 24 power play goals. The only team that allowed more was the Colorado Avalanche, a.k.a. the worst team in the Western Conference.

PLAYERS IN REVIEW

 Now it’s time to fire through the whole Penguins roster of 2012-13 and conduct a quick review of their bodies of work.

Craig Adams- Adams was one of the six iron men on the team this season, playing in all 48 games. That’s somewhat surprising considering his playing style. He was third on the team in hits (107) and eighth on the team in blocked shots (37). He may not have much offensive savvy (three goals and six assists), but he’s a valuable penalty killer and a fearless defender. He’ll be one of the first guys penciled into coach Dan Bylsma’s everyday playoff lineup once the team becomes completely healthy because he’s such a solid shorthanded asset.

 Marc-Andre Fleury

Marc-Andre Fleury

As I mentioned before, MAF won’t win the Vezina this year, but if he ends the season hoisting the Stanley Cup, nothing else matters. He didn’t have elite statistics this season. He was 19th in save percentage (.916) and 17th in goals against average (2.39). But he did finish tied for second in wins (23) and the only reason that number wasn’t higher is because the Penguins actually had a backup they could trust to give Fleury some rest. In the end, the Flower was consistent and always gave the team a chance to win. He has a Stanley Cup pedigree and no one wants to avenge last season’s early playoff exit more than he does. I expect the same form from the Cup year to return this week and so does Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Rob Rossi.

 Beau Bennett– The rookie winger from California might have entered the NHL as a skinny greenhorn, but he’s left a tremendous impression on anyone that’s seen his work this season. We could see him grow up before our eyes, learning to see the ice better and better each game. He developed great chemistry with his line mates whether he was playing on the second line or the fourth. He has a slick touch to his puck handling and he’s certainly not afraid to run guys into the boards and grind the puck out from behind the net. I really hope Bylsma finds a spot on his playoff roster for this youngster because he will make the most out of any ice time he receives.

 Robert Bortuzzo– Borts, as he’s affectionately referred to by teammates, may have trouble cracking the playoff roster. But that’s not an indictment of his play during the season. He scored his first two NHL goals, but any offensive production he brings is frankly a bonus. Where this big-bodied D-man plays his best is in his own zone, tying up bodies around the net. In 15 games, he blocked 14 shots and registered 18 hits. He’s also developing a reputation as a tough guy, dropping the gloves three times. Bortuzzo is yet another example of the quality defensive depth the Penguins organization still has, even after trading away some quality defensive prospects this season.

 Matt Cooke– This will be remembered by most as the season that Matt Cooke sliced Erik Karlsson’s Achilles tendon, drawing ridiculous accusations from the Ottawa Senators brass, boorish comments from ex-goon analysts and insulting comparisons from loose-lipped announcers. But in actuality, the dirty Matt Cooke is long gone. The new Matt Cooke has struck a balance of grit and skill and when he’s playing on the edge (without going over it) Cooke is a dynamic penalty killer and a scoring threat to boot. His offensive production was down slightly this season, but it was wrong to expect the same level of production this season as he had last year, when he spent time on lines with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He did, however, have his worst plus/minus (-2) as a Penguin this year so hopefully the postseason will change his fortune in that regard.

 Sidney Crosby

Sidney Crosby

I think I’ve spent more time writing about injuries to Sidney Crosby than anything else on this blog. And I can’t tell you what it is (Bad luck? Unintended voodoo?), but I’ve been in attendance for the two most serious afflictions he’s suffered. I was at the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh when David Steckel concussed him and I was at the Consol Energy Center when Brooks Orpik’s errant shot broke his jaw and gave him a hockey smile. But had that puck missed him, he would be collecting an Art Ross Trophy at the end of the season in addition to a possible Hart Trophy. But there’s no use hashing out hypotheticals. What we know for sure is that Crosby is still the best player in the world and once he returns to action, we all expect him to resume his torrid scoring pace.

 Simon Despres– Despres has progressed well in his young career and this season he certainly showed us glimpses of his true value as a skilled defensive player. There are still some rough patches to iron out, including some panicky play where he’ll sling the puck into dangerous areas, but it’s all on pace and in due time. Bylsma needs to learn to trust Despres to play against more “physical” teams because it looks like that shouldn’t be an issue for him. He may not see time in the playoffs, but if Brooks Orpik remains out with a lower body injury, Despres’ puck moving ability and skill could be an asset against the young and speedy Islanders. It’s not likely that he’ll get the nod ahead of Deryk Engelland, though.

Pascal Dupuis

Pascal Dupuis

NHL players usually hit their primes around their mid-20s. By 30 they’re typically on the downswing of their careers and by their mid-30s, it’s not uncommon for them to trade in their hockey sticks for golf clubs. But not Pascal Dupuis. At the age of  34, this Canadian winger has been downright prolific this season, leading the NHL with a plus-31 and tying for third with 17 even strength goals. He finished third amongst Penguins with 31 points and led the club with 140 shots. He became a quality point man on the power play and continued to be one of the best penalty killers in Pittsburgh. He can switch between playing wing and center and in his younger days he even played some defense. This man can do everything and he’s hilarious, too. What’s not to like?

Mark Eaton– Mark Eaton doesn’t have point this season. He has only eight shots on goal and his shot blocks and hit totals don’t rank anywhere prominently in the NHL. Mark Eaton doesn’t get noticed and that’s been the best part about his play. He quietly executes on the blue line every night and he doesn’t make mistakes. He’s brought a calming veteran presence to this Penguins club and the proof is in its record since he arrived. In the 23 games he’s played with the Pens this year, they’ve lost three times. Call it a coincidence if you like, but he may be the most overlooked defensive piece that the Penguins have had all year.

 Deryk Engelland– Engelland had a decent season overall, but it was nothing to email home about. He certainly has progressed since the days in which his sole purpose in hockey was to cave in the face of the other team’s tough guy, but he isn’t at the level of a top-six defenseman (and I doubt he’ll ever reach that level). His physical style is welcomed in front of the Penguins net, but he can get out of position at times and he isn’t a great skater. His usefulness can plummet in the playoffs, where fights are few and far between, but as long as Bylsma doubts Simon Despres’ physicality, Engl will be the sixth defenseman until Orpik is ready.

 Tanner Glass– A glance a Glass’ numbers will make it seem like he didn’t have a very good season and they’d pretty much be correct. Don’t get me wrong. He’s one of the hardest working Pens and he’s eats up time on the penalty kill, but here’s what I’m hoping is just a bad coincidence: the Penguins penalty kill is awful and its key components are largely unchanged from the past few seasons when they were among the best in the league. Glass is one of the few different components. Do I think he single-highhandedly destroyed their PK somehow? Absolutely not. Do I think he’s helping it? Not necessarily. It’s great that he adds grit and sticks up for his teammates, every team needs guys like that. But I’m just not sold on his value after this short season. Hopefully, he can flip a switch like the Arron Ashams of the world and turn into an asset in the postseason. If he doesn’t show something right off the bat, he shouldn’t dress.

 Jarome Iginla

Jarome Iginla

Iginla’s trade was obviously the blockbuster deal of the NHL this season. After spending his entire career in Calgary, he decided he wanted to win some hockey games and dropped his no trade clause to play with his old Olympic buddy Sidney Crosby. I attended his first game as a Penguin and the crowd was about as receptive as it possibly could have been. And now after only 13 games of service to the city of Pittsburgh, I know why Calgary was so upset to see him go. How has a howitzer of a slap shot, a pearly white smile that he displays frequently and he’s already developed serious chemistry with the rest of the team. He sold his house in Calgary so it seems like he won’t be returning there at season’s end, so the question remains: Can/will the Pens sign him to an extension for 2013-14 and beyond? Because at the right price, I wouldn’t mind seeing him do this in a Penguins uniform for a few more years.

 Dustin Jeffrey– I can only imagine the frustration of Dustin Jeffrey. He’s a young, decent hockey player on one of the best teams in the NHL but there is no room at the inn. He’s been with the organization since 2007-08 and has bounced back and forth between the AHL and NHL so much that he probably forgets what jersey to put on when he arrives at the rink. But lately, he can assume that a suit and tie is the appropriate uni. He played quite a bit in March but was a scratch for all but three games in April. And unless things go terribly awry in the injury department, it’s likely that DJ has played in his last game of the season. Six points and a plus-1 in 24 games should hardly be convincing otherwise.

 Jussi Jokinen- You might not have believed me if I told you that Jokinen would be the most efficient addition to the 2013 Penguins roster when Ray Shero brought him on board on deadline day, but that’s exactly what he’s been. When he shoots, it goes in. It’s that simple. The Juice has 13 shots on goal in 10 games and he’s scored on seven of them (and added four assists). That’s the best shooting percentage on the team. He’s also been the second-best Penguin in the face-off circle (57.9 percent). It should scare other teams that he might be relegated to the fourth line once the Penguins become healthy, because he has top-six talent.

 Tyler Kennedy– TK had arguably his worst season as a Penguin. He finished with six goals, five assists and was a minus-6. He did manage to put 100 shots on goal, but that’s hardly an exception for him. He’s always had a shoot first (shoot always) mentality and while he has seemed to elevate his game in past seasons when players went down because of injury, that really wasn’t the case this year. He got opportunities to center the first line when Sidney Crosby went down, but he struggled to inject any flow to his game and he was quickly relegated back to the third and fourth lines. For whatever reason, Bylsma loves Kennedy. I would pick him to be a healthy scratch once the Pens are healthy again, but knowing Disco, TK will be out there blasting off-target shots as soon as the postseason begins.

 Chris Kunitz

Chris Kunitz

I present for your consideration, the 2012-13 statistics of one Christopher Kunitz: 22 goals, 30 assists, 52 points, plus-30, nine power play goals, five game-winning goals, 19.5 shooting percentage, 113 shots, all 48 games played. He was easily the best Penguin not named Sidney this year. For awhile, he was in the running for the Rocket Richard and Art Ross trophies. The only question remaining about Kunitz is where he’ll play once the Penguins are healthy. Crosby said that he feels more comfortable with Kunitz and Dupuis on his wings, but it shouldn’t matter where they are plugged in. Whether its on the first line with Crosby and Dupuis or on the second with Malkin and Neal, his presence can make it the best line in the NHL. Pretty good for a 33-year-old undrafted free agent.

 Kris Letang– He’s the best defenseman in hockey and he should be recognized as such by being awarded the Norris Trophy. Letang tied another Norris front-runner, P.K. Subban, with 38 points and did him four better when it came to plus/minus. Letang’s odds were narrowed because he played in seven fewer games than Subban and scored six fewer goals, but he ate up two more minutes per game than Subban and was in the penalty box far less as well. Unfortunately, I don’t have a vote for the NHL awards but he deserves the hardware because he plays the game better than any other blue-liner in the league.

 Steve MacIntyre– What can I say about Mac? He played in one game with the big club this year and basically served as a bodyguard for Matt Cooke. He’s a big bruiser that doesn’t do much and his type will eventually be phased out of the game someday. But for now, it’s hard not to love the big lug because of one time he defended his teammates by beating up the entire other team. I’ll just say I’m glad he’s on our side.

 Evgeni Malkin

Evgeni Malkin

Last season, Evgeni Malkin finished the regular season with 50 goals and 109 points to lock up the NHL scoring title. He was also won the Ted Lindsay Award (Most Outstanding Player) and was voted the league MVP. This season, Geno had nine goals and 24 assist, which put him on pace for 15 goals and 41 assists in an 82-game campaign. Those numbers would represent the second-worst statistical year of his career, with the worst coming in a season in which he played only 43 games. He did have injury problems this year as well, but Malkin might as well have fallen off the face of the earth. Thankfully, there’s still the postseason to redeem himself. He’s played some of his best hockey in the Stanley Cup playoffs, most notably in 2009 when he when the Conn Smythe trophy as the postseason MVP. His odds for winning a second Conn Smythe are 20/1 this year.

 Paul Martin– At the end of last season, Paul Martin was public enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh. He had a putrid year and because of his $5 million per year salary, it didn’t seem likely that any other team would take him off our hands. We became stuck with Paul Martin. Now, thank god we’re stuck with Paul Martin. He was easily the team’s comeback player of the year. Just consider the numbers. This season he has four more goals in 39 fewer games. He has nearly as many assists this year (17) as he did last year (25). His plus/minus is five points better. When it comes to the intangibles, it’s also been night and day. Last year, he struggled in the offensive zone, especially when he was on the point during the power play. This season, he’s calm and collected in the offensive zone. There is no panic and he has seemingly always made the right pass or shot at the perfect time. And with 52 games played in the Stanley Cup playoffs, his experience is welcomed with open arms at this time of year. A $5 million Paul Martin? Hell, that’s a bargain.

 Brenden Morrow– Brendan Morrow has been a Penguin for only 15 games and already he’s a cult hero in Pittsburgh. The blue collar fans love his style of play. They love that he parks in front of the net and raises hell on ice for defensemen and goaltenders. They love that he’s averaged nearly a point per game since he’s arrived. But I think Pens fans really love him because he seems to play with such passion and emotion, even after 850 career NHL games. And what’s the most telling fact? When he scores, he beams. It’s like every time the puck zings off his stick into the net, it’s the first time he’s ever scored, and this is a man who has 249 career goals. Fans enjoy when it’s clear that players are having fun representing their city. And it doesn’t hurt that Morrow put the beat down on local villain Subban and yelled from the penalty box “You have five minutes to think about what I’m going to do to you when we get out there.”

Douglas Murray

Douglas Murray

In his former lives, Douglas Murray was a bouncer, a boulder, a bull dog and a beef cow. In this life, he’s a slow-skating mountain troll who doesn’t feel pain and clears the ice of human debris.  After Morrow, Murray might be the next favorite addition to the Penguins because of his strength, size and because he might be a slightly cleaner reincarnation of Ulf Samuelsson. Between his time in San Jose and Pittsburgh this season, Murray has 89 hits and 98 blocked shots, which both rank second amongst Pen’s D-men. He has the second worst plus/minus on the team, but other than that he certainly has made a positive influence in the Burgh.

 James Neal– The Real Deal James Neal hammered home 21 goals this season, nine of them coming on the power play. He still has one of the most wicked shots in hockey, a release so quick that the opposition can’t get in front of it quick enough (skaters and goalies all included). I wondered how Neal would look upon returning from a concussion, but my fears were alleviated by a four-point regular season finale complete with a hat trick off of eight shots. Neal is yet another power play specialist within the Penguins roster that will do some major damage in the postseason, especially off of a face off play that is so quick, the announcers can’t call the goal until the puck is in the net for five seconds.

 Matt Niskanen– Niksanen is another one of those Penguins players that rarely gets talked about because there’s never a need to do so. He’s been one of the most quietly consistent Penguins since he joined the team and this year was no different. He didn’t exactly wear out the net twine but he was able to put together a respectable season with 14 points, two game-winning goals and was a  plus-4. This was a carry over from last year’s playoffs, in which the former Dallas Star lead the Penguins in almost all major statistical categories in terms of shots against, goals against and Corsi.Pair his play on the ice with his recently received “Good Guy” Award and you have a quality person and D-man in Matt Niskanen.

 Brooks Orpik

Brooks Orpik

Orpik is the second-biggest question mark remaining on the Penguins roster heading into the postseason (with the first obviously being Crosby). He suffered a lower-body injury last week against the Buffalo Sabres that kept him out of the final two regular-season games. He did skate by himself this week but is listed as day to day. Orpik is an important cog in a Penguins defense that struggled in the beginning of the year, only to turn it around in mid-season. His potential absence could leave a glaring hole in front of the net. He was clearly the best defensive defenseman for the Penguins, leading the team in hits (119), blocked shots (114) and games played (46). I’ll feel a lot better about the back end once Orpik and his demonic bulging eyes are back on the ice.

 Dylan Reese– Reese played in three NHL contests this season and registered one shot on goal. He’s currently playing for the Baby Pens in the first round of the AHL playoffs. He grew up in Pittsburgh, so that’s nice. Moving on…

 Trevor Smith– If it doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry, it shouldn’t. Mr. Smith played in one game this year. I was at that game in March and didn’t know he had played in it. He registered zero stats during 10:24 of ice time.

 Brandon Sutter– Now that the season is over, we can finally compare the stats of Sutter and Jordan Staal and see which team won the trade! Although this doesn’t necessarily work in a black and white comparison, it’s still fun to see. Sutter finished with one more goal than Staal, but the ex-Penguin racked up 13 more assists. The glaring difference was their plus/minus numbers. Sutter finished with a plus-3 (the second-best of his career) while Staal finished a minus-18, easily the worst of his career. Sutsy finished with five game-winning goals. Staal had one. There wasn’t a huge difference between the two, but given where the Pens are right now, I’d say that Shero has no regrets. And given Sutter’s family pedigree and style of play, I cannot wait to see what kind of force he can be in the playoffs.

 Joe Vitale– I always admired Joe Vitale’s game. He hustles like he’s Bryce Harper on ice, he drills guys into the boards and while he doesn’t often fill the net, he scored one of the prettiest elevation goals of this shortened NHL season. He has a skill set that would be utilized a lot more were he not on a superstar-loaded team. He still managed to get on the ice 33 times this year, however that was the best number on his stat sheet. He was a minus-7 with two goals and three assists. I would have liked to see him get some more time this year simply because he’s fun to watch, but a healthy roster will probably relegate him to the press box for the remainder of the season. He has one year left on his contract after this season and then becomes a restricted free agent. Given his overall lack of production and the fact he’ll be 28 years old, that might be the last season we see him in a Penguins sweater.

 Tomas Vokoun

Tomas Vokoun

Much can be said about all of Ray Shero’s 2012-13 acquisitions, but the best of them all was Tomas Vokoun. Fleury was overworked when he entered last year’s playoffs because of the Penguins’ hesitance to start Brent Johnson more than a handful of times during the regular season. With the installation of Vokoun, the Pens were able to rest Fleury without worrying about their backup getting lit up. Vokoun’s veteran presence has seemed to push the Flower to become more focused and better rested. And heading into the postseason, Fleury is by far the most important person to be in peak condition both mentally and physically.

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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.

What? Wow! Really? Jarome Iginla is headed for the Steel City

This post was originally written on Friday, March 29.

It was early Thursday morning and I couldn’t believe what I was reading. As I scrolled down on my Twitter timeline, numerous Pittsburgh hockey reporters, as well as national reporters, were speaking of possible line combinations for Jarome Iginla and various Pittsburgh Penguins players.

“This doesn’t make sense,” I thought. “Are they saying what WOULD have happened?”

Before I took a long shower, TSN had reported that the Boston Bruins had agreed to terms with Iginla. In exchange for the veteran winger, Boston would send center Alex Khokhlachev, defenseman Matt Bartkowski and a first-round pick to the Calgary Flames.

I was hardly surprised about Boston acquiring the long time Flames captain.Since Iginla had to waive a no-trade clause, he had reportedly drawn up a short list of teams he would play for. It was believed that list was comprised of Pittsburgh, Boston, the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks. And since Pittsburgh had already acquired a veteran winger in Brenden Morrow, they probably had taken themselves out of the hunt.

There was a flood of tweets, more than one hundred since I had been away from my computer. But as I scrolled farther down on my timeline, I started to see “breaking news.” My heart jumped up into my throat and my eyes became the size of pucks. That’s when I found the tweet that confirmed my excitement.

Bob McKenzie's Tweet

I wanted to call every Penguins fan I knew, but it was around 2 a.m. so I figured it wasn’t an option. So I texted every Pens fan I knew and gave them the best news they could wake up to.

But the truth is, I was completely happy with the Penguins before they landed Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla. They were in the midst of a 12-game win streak and earlier than week, Penguins GM Ray Shero acquired Morrow and bruising defenseman Douglas Murray from the San Jose Sharks.

Morrow was a captain for the Dallas Stars for seven years. He had played 835 games in his career, all with Dallas, and he had scored 528 points (243 goals and 285 assists). The 34-year-old winger wasn’t a prolific scorer, but he brought experience (clearly), grit and a net-front presence. Morrow played a solid defensive game and he forechecked relentlessly.

Those attributes were the only thing missing in the Penguins offense. They would beat teams because they played an up-tempo game and usually scored a ton of goals. Grinding games out wasn’t quite their forte.

The other net-front presence they were lacking was that in the defensive zone. I can easily say that the worst area for the Penguins was in their goalie’s shadow. They were having trouble clearing guys away from the crease and greasy goals were on the ledger in almost all of their losses.

Murray was a pick-up to solve that deficiency. He looks like he’s skating in taffy but when Murray posts up in front of the net, there’s no offensive player in this league that can move him. He’s 245 pounds of angry muscle. If you’re loitering on his property, don’t expect to stay standing.

Pittsburgh lacked some grittiness, net-front presence and defensive zone muscle. They solved it with Morrow and Murray, and lost only peanuts in the process. They were as square as a postage stamp.

But just because something is seemingly perfect doesn’t mean you can’t improve upon it. That’s why Shero continued to pursue Iginla, even after he’d added some great pieces.

The 35-year-old Iginla might not be as fleet of foot as he once was, but there’s no denying what he’ll bring to the city of Pittsburgh. The man has amassed 1,095 points (525 goals and 570 assists) in 1,219 career games, all with Calgary. He’s a six-time all-star, has two “Rocket” Richard Trophies, one Art Ross Trophy, one Lester B. Pearson Award, one King Clancy Memorial Trophy and a Mark Messier Leadership Award.

Iginla has bagged all those points and all that hardware basically despite his team (with the only exception being 2003, the year Calgary lost in the Stanley Cup Finals). The Flames just haven’t put the talent around Iginla to contend much. He’s never played with a center even close to being as talented as Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

And you can’t underestimate the toughness he brings, either. He has only missed one game in the last six seasons, and that was on Wednesday when he was held out because of the trade. He has 831 career penalty minutes and he’s not afraid of the fisticuffs: Iggy has dropped the gloves 62 times in his career.

It’s not clear yet where the Penguins will insert Iginla in their line scheme. He’s a clear fit with Crosby on the first line because the two already know each other well and have solid chemistry; he set up Crosby for the Golden Goal in Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

But coach Dan Bylsma told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis line “is one of the best lines in hockey right now” and “I think we’re going to continue to see those three guys play together.”

He’s right. That line has three of the NHL’s top-13 scorers and the chemistry is mesmerizing to behold. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

The best option would probably be for Iginla to drop down to the second line to play on the right side of Malkin. James Neal usually plays on the right wing, but he wouldn’t have any difficulty switching to the left considering that is his natural position anyway. That would drop Morrow down to the third line to play with Brandon Sutter and Matt Cooke.

That set up would make the top three lines quite possibly the best in the game. It would contain two top lines of pure scoring with deep talent and the greasiest, grittiest and most defensively-sound third line in hockey.

What a matchup nightmare.

Yahoo Sports hockey blogger Greg Wyshynski probably put it best: “The Pittsburgh Penguins are an all-star team. They’re something you’d create in a video game. They’re all the hockey cards you don’t throw away.”

The Penguins might not have needed Jerome Iginla, but they got him, and if they don’t win the Stanley Cup this year, they might go down as the biggest disappointment in NHL history.

No pressure.

Should the NHL mandate visors?

Yes. Here’s two simple equations to illustrate the point:

Vision = good.

Blindness = bad.

Ever since New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal took a puck to the eye on March 5, the hockey world has been buzzing about whether or not the NHL should grandfather in a mandatory visor rule.

Staal will make a full recovery, but after watching the video, it’s no surprise plenty of players don’t have an issue with that mandate.

Since 2006, the AHL has demanded that all its players wear visors. The majority of draft picks that reach the NHL do so via a call up from the AHL, so anyone who has played in the AHL from 2006 on is used to wearing the devices – that’s a large portion of NHL players. And according to the NHLPA, 73 percent of NHL players already wear the protective plastic that partially or fully cover their faces.

That percentage reflects the fact that NHL players are wising up. The game is getting faster and more dangerous as players continue to evolve into even greater athletic marvels than their predecessors. The puck is traveling faster and sticks are getting lighter. Odds are greater that a deflected puck or an errant stick will inflict major damage to an unfortunate skater in their paths. Just ask Bryan Berard, Manny Malhotra and Chris Pronger.

But there are still a number of players who oppose a mandatory visor rule, despite an overwhelming amount of evidence that supports the change.

Many of these players are grinders, fighters and checkers. They are men employed to beat guys up, protect super-stars and take up space to block shots and prevent offense. They value toughness and the respect they garner from other players around the league.

These players cite a variety of reasons why they don’t want visors. Here are their excuses and my responses:

1. “Visors obstruct my vision and ability to play the puck.” You aren’t in the league for your ability to play the puck. You take the body. You knock guys down. You block shots. And even if you are a skill player and think a visor obstructs your vision too much to effectively play the puck, ask the elite skill players in the league like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk and the other 73 percent of players how much negative impact a visor has on their vision. If they can get used to some fogginess and water droplets in front of their eyes, so can you.

2. “If I wear one, my peers will think less of me.” This isn’t high school and being a tough guy isn’t everything, even in the NHL. Do you want your kids to have a cyclops father? How would your mother feel watching you scream in agony on live TV because of an accident that could have been avoided? There are much worse things in life (like, I dunno, blindness) than guys like George Parros or Colton Orr thinking you’re a sissy. Blaze a path and be a leader that other tough guys can follow. If you make your living by protecting other players on the ice, rallying for mandatory visors would make you a greater protector than any fist you’ve thrown or any check you’ve delivered.

3. “If I instigate a fight while wearing a visor, I’ll get an extra two-minute penalty. Plus it’s hard to challenge anyone with a visor on.” This is actually a legitimate point. According to Rule 46.6:

If a player penalized as an instigator of an altercation is wearing a face shield (including a goalkeeper), he shall be assessed an additional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Should the player (including a goalkeeper) who instigates the fight be wearing a face shield, but removes it before instigating the altercation, the additional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty shall not apply.

In the heat of battle, nobody with a visor is going to take off their helmet before defending a teammate who just took a cheap shot. And fighting someone with a visor on is considered dirty. This is situation the NHL to needs to remedy by removing the instigator rule and mandating visors. That’s what they did in the AHL and it hasn’t changed players from being physical or fighting. And since the NHL doesn’t want to cut out fighting altogether, it should make those changes.

4. “It’s my body and I should get to decide how to best protect it.” This is true in theory, but in professional sports, commissioners and other league officials have the duty to protect their players the best way they see fit, such as the mandatory use of the HANS device in NASCAR or the helmet rule in the NHL, which was grandfathered into the league in 1979. And here’s the beauty of grandfathering in the visor rule: If you didn’t wear a visor prior to whenever the rule was enacted, guess what? You’d be allowed to play without one! It would only affect players who signed their contract after the rule was placed. You’re old school? Fine, don’t wear one and accept the consequences if something bad happens. Everyone else? Too bad, these are the rules and we’d like you to have both eye balls and a lengthy career. All professional sports need to move forward in protecting their players because this isn’t ancient Rome, it’s the 21st century. A league’s investment in player safety is an investment in that league’s longevity.

5. “It’ll take too long to get used to it.” How long is too long? Two days? Three? If the rule is enacted, it will be done so during the offseason in the summer. That will give all of the remaining holdouts months to adapt to their new protective devices. Just ask Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, a perennial tough guy who’s played more than 600 NHL games without a visor. He began wearing one in practice a few days after the Staal incident. A day later, he was comfortable enough to wear it during a game on March 14. He’s worn it for every game since. He said there was no noticeable difference and his play hasn’t suffered, either. And coincidentally, he was hit with a shot near his face during a matchup against the Rangers three days after he began using the visor.

Who knows what would have happened otherwise.

The GMs have already agreed on grandfathering visors and the NHLPA will poll players this summer to decide on whether or not to do the same.  If the players and the competition committee decide to approve the change, it will be up to the NHL Board of Governors to give the thumbs up before it is inked into the rule book.

The remaining 27 percent of visor-less players stand to be the only people that could block the rule. They need to stop making excuses and realize how precious their health is. This requires the abandonment of antiquated hockey tradition and the adoption of progressive thinking to protect themselves for their own sakes and those of their families and fans.

Like Orpik told Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “I guess there really isn’t a valid excuse to not wear one anymore.”

A quick thought on Pittsburgh patience

We live in a right now, knee jerk, gotta have it yesterday, instantaneous society. It’s a fact that’s tough to argue against when fewer and fewer people are willing to wait a day for their news in a paper and prefer to get breaking information over their Twitter feed, whether it’s confirmed as true or not. It’s a reactionary culture that’s quick to condemn, redeem or otherwise forget anyone or anything that seems to impact our existence at any given time.

Because sports tend to be a large part of many of our lives, it’s not surprising how quickly we decide what the state of our teams are or will be in the near future.

A good example is the firing today of Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike Brown after FIVE games. Did he deserve it? Maybe, but it seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to say the least.

Or how about the Duke lacrosse scandal a few years ago? That team was condemned by the media and public for alleged sexual assault crimes, only to be pardoned after due process and ultimately forgiven.

As difficult as it may be and as frustrating as it sounds, everybody needs to slow down and take a breath. We must all wait a bit to gather our thoughts and let the world play out before we pound the gavel and execute or dismiss. And because of recent events in the Steel City, this is especially true for Pittsburgh sports fans.

Last Sunday, the Steelers executed their finest win of the season, defeating the Super Bowl champion Giants 24-20. And despite horrendous officiating, the Steelers dominated much more than the final score suggested. Eli Manning – the owner of two very large rings and two MVPs to go with them – was held to just 125 yards and completed only 10 completions on 24 attempts. The Giants passing game was stagnant. Their run game was stifled (the G-Men racked up only 68 yards on the ground).

Not only was it an outstanding defensive performance reminiscent of the Steel Curtain teams fans fondly remember, the black and gold also put together a sound performance on the offensive side of the ball. Ben Roethlisberger went 21-30 and threw for 216 yards, two touchdowns and one pick. Back-up running back Isaac Redman carried the ball 26 times for 147 yards and a touchdown. The offensive line opened up holes big enough to drive a garbage truck through. The pass game clicked. The run game cruised. Everything went to plan.

Just about every way you look at it, this game was in stark contrast to what the Steelers looked like through the first five games of the season. At that point, they were 2-3 and suffered brutal losses including two to the Raiders and Titans, two of the worst teams in the league. Pittsburgh ranked dead-last in rushing and the defense allowed an average of 23 points per game while blowing a number of fourth-quarter leads.

They just didn’t look like the Steelers. Had the Browns changed their colors to black and gold? Did Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau go on mental vacations?

But after leaving Tennessee with their tail between their legs following a 26-23 loss, it seemed like something started to click. The game plans looked better and the execution was far superior. They went into Cincinnati and shut down Andy Dalton and A.J. Green (who is a top-five receiver in the NFL this year). Pittsburgh trounced rookie phenom and the Redskins 27-12. They finally looked like the Steelers again and everyone’s doubts went out the window and started to drown at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers.

But the problem is, there was never any reason to hit the panic button in the first place, even after losing to Oakland and Tennessee. Sure, the team looked out of sorts, but it was still quite early in the season and the rest of the AFC (minus the Houston Texans) looked no better. Pundits on national radio and television were killing the Steelers. Colin Cowheard of ESPN Radio said that the Steelers were too old defensively and they couldn’t produce well enough to be an upper-echelon team. Now the Steelers are 5-3, only one game back of first place in the AFC North and everyone is once again calling them contenders.

Here’s some advice to all fans and media: Avoid the waffling in the first place and wait until at least halfway through a season before declaring this or that about any team in professional sports. There’s something called a turnaround and we should all be well aware of it by watching the Giants the past few years. If they’ve taught us anything, it’s that all you have to do is make it to the postseason and then anything is possible.

Pirates fans learned this lesson the hard way over the last two years. The team started off their last two campaigns in excellent fashion. Both teams spent time in first place in the NL central division and it appeared that they would be locks to end 19- and 20-year losing skids. But both collapsed. We were all left wondering what happened and how it was possible. But it certainly was possible, if it wasn’t realistic, for both the 2011 and 2012 Pirates to blow up winning seasons because that’s sports. It’s not predictable in many cases for better or for worse. That’s what makes them great in the first place. Anything can happen.

And even now after Pirates owner Bob Nutting has decided that his inexperienced, sometimes hair-brained front office is staying intact, that doesn’t mean the team can’t have a winning season in 2013. Does it seem likely? Absolutely not. But stranger things have happened. I suppose it might be easier to expect the Pirates to be bad next season so that if we are surprised, it’s a pleasant one.

The same goes for the Penguins last year. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fluery, we’ve come to expect greatness from the Penguins recently. Not just Pittsburghers either. Last season, Vegas had the Penguins pegged as the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup. And after the regular season, it looked increasingly likely. The Pens finished second in the East and with Sidney Crosby finally healthy again and Evgeni Malkin having assumed the role of best player in the world, the only team that could beat the Penguins was the Penguins.But then they clashed with the Flyers in a less-than-heroic fashion and were defeated in six games. And entire season blew up in two weeks. Fluery, who had won a Cup in 2009, looked like Swiss cheeses as pucks easily found their way past him. Evgeni Malkin didn’t look the same as he did as the MVP in the regular season. Everyone let their expectations get the better of them because the Penguins were SUPPOSED to win. And should the NHL season happen this year, the Penguins are again the favorites to win it all.

Let’s just hold off on that judgement now.

Is it possible the Penguins and Pirates will collapse again? Yes. Is it likely? For the Penguins, no. For the Pirates. Maybe. But we shouldn’t engrave Sidney Crosby on the Cup yet and we shouldn’t fire Clint Hurdle before the season begins.

It’s best not to let any expectations get in the way of our sports. Just watch, listen and enjoy. Let the surprises work themselves out and let fate do what it does.

The 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope may have put it best when he said “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

Penguins Unexpected Playoff Exit Only Adds Drama

The Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated in six games by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

I know, it still sounds awful and I’m still distraught about it.

I’ve been trying to find the positivity in a losing series in which the Pens gave up 11 power play goals and three shorties and Marc-Andre Fleury gave up 26 goals with a 4.63 goals against average and a .834 save percentage.

I found that, if nothing else, the Penguins’ hatred of the Flyers grew in those six games and so did mine. It may seem like a small positive – if a positive at all – but the intensity that rivalries inject into sports adds about as much drama as you can dream up.

That’s why we watch sports, after all. The drama of every shot, every hit and every swing of a bat, stick, racket or club can keep fans on the edge of their seats because of what is at stake. It’s supremely entertaining because sports is the ultimate reality show. You never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes, the odds are pretty good that you can guess what may come next, but there is no sure thing in sports, as in life.

The Penguins’ postseason was a great example of that unpredictability. They went into the playoffs as the odds-on favorite to bring home the Stanley Cup. Sports Illustrated featured a cover line that read “Who will stop the Penguins?” on the NHL playoffs preview issue (pictured right).

Sidney Crosby was healthy again, Evgeni Malkin had won a scoring title and Marc-Andre Fleury was playing the way he did when he won the Cup in 2009. Pittsburgh Tribune Review Pens beat writer Josh Yohe wrote a blog entitled “10 Reasons Penguins Can Win Stanley Cup” even before the Penguins really turned it on with Crosby’s return. But once the regular season ended, it all collapsed at the hands of the Penguins most hated rival.

This is a theme not uncommon to sports.

If you’re a Yankees fan, it was reasonable to guess that after Enter Sandman boomed from the loudspeakers, Mariano Rivera was going to jog out of the bullpen and sit down the next three batters to win a ball game.

Then without warning, Rivera slipped on the warning track while shagging fly balls and tore his ACL, leaving his career in jeopardy.

If you were a fan of the “old” Tiger Woods – which coincidentally was the young Tiger Woods – you could be almost certain that he was going to win a tournament if he went into the final day of a tournament at the top of the leader board.

But then Tiger got into a car accident, some strange events unfolded and now he hasn’t won a major or much else since.

It’s the drama of not knowing that drives a fan. It’s all about hope. It’s that hope for “the feeling” you get when your team wins at the risk of getting “that other feeling” when your team loses. I hoped the Pens would oust the Flyers from the playoffs. It didn’t happen. I hope the Steelers can make a decent run at a Super Bowl this year, but maybe they won’t. I’m willing to put in all the enthusiasm I can to root for my teams even though I’m risking major disappointment. I’ve bought into the risk vs. reward just like most fans out there.

So even though the Penguins lost to the Flyers, it only fueled my desire to see the black and gold take the ice next season and defeat the orange and black and hopefully the Penguins share my sentiments. I’ve accepted defeat and disappointment this season because I know a Cup might come next season in dramatic fashion. Flyers in 6 wasn’t the end of the world, it was just part of the evolution of the rivalry. Maybe Pittsburgh will face Philadelphia in the postseason next year and the rivalry will be even more intense. That’s what I’m hoping at least, because in sports, you never know and that’s what makes it great.

Sidney Crosby: So Far Soooooo Good

A less-than-amazing shot by yours truly.

It is common knowledge that when healthy, Sidney Crosby is one of (if not the best) hockey players in the world. And just to remind you why this is common knowledge, let’s take a quick look at what Sid has done so far after his second return this season.

Tonight marks the fifth game back for Sidney Crosby after he suffered a neck/head injury in only his eighth game this season. Since his comeback against the New York Rangers on March 15 in Madison Square Garden Sid has been nothing short of extraordinary, as usual. In the four games back, he has notched nine assists, is a plus-7 and has won 50.7 percent of his face offs. Sure, the goal scoring hasn’t been where he would like it to be, but there is no doubt that will come. If you look at the chances he has had to score goals so far, he has been absolutely robbed.

But let’s focus on the assists right now.

Sid has become a specialist in distributing the puck. He is a pass-first player right now, and with the guns he has around him, no one is complaining. On the power play, he has mostly played the point, but Dan Bylsma allows his PP to rotate around the offensive zone so there is constant movement, so it’s not uncommon for Sid to end up next to the net, on the half wall or in the slot. Regardless of where Crosby ends up, he is always finding a passing lane to the player that has the best position for a shot on goal. Much of the time, Crosby will take a quick look and then play the puck blindly to one of his teammates, to the dismay and astonishment of the penalty killers around him. Two such plays were in New Jersey and in the last game against Winnipeg.

You can see that even after losing his footing and getting pounded from behind by a defender, Sid is cool as a cucumber and sends the puck the width of the ice to Geno, who no one but Sid knew was there.

http://video.penguins.nhl.com/videocenter/console?hlg=20112012,2,1090

In the above link, there are a few things to note. Check out how quickly Sid acquires the puck with his head up and finds a teammate instantly for a quick shot on net. This happened twice with Tyler Kennedy when Sid was below the goal line, a la Wayne Gretzky. In a different situation, Sid finds Evgeni Malkin to his right on a 6-on-5 delayed penalty situation. Crosby has a clear shot to the net, but he knows there is a howitzer a few feet away from him at a different angle to the goaltender. The goalie was square to Crosby when he gets the puck, so Sid changes the angle to a different teammate. It is brilliant, unselfish hockey.

Speaking of Tyler Kennedy, let’s address the line that Crosby is on during 5-on-5 play. It is a nontraditional third line of Matt Cooke, Sidney Crosby and Tyler Kennedy. In the four games that Sid has been back, his line-mates have been filling the net. Cooke has four goals since Crosby’s return and Kennedy has two. Before Crosby’s return, Cooke had gone eight games without a goal, then notched four in his next four. Kennedy had gone 18 games without a goal before burying two in one night. These two players were in the right position and regardless of where Crosby was, he put the puck on their tape with precision.

Even though Crosby has played only 12 games this season, he is averaging 1.75 points per game. That puts him on pace to score 38 points this season (and believe me, those won’t all be assists). And one most fun to examine is where Sid ranks in assists this season. He has 19 and ranks 217th in the NHL. But that is still better than 655 other NHL players right now. This counts players that may have played even fewer games than Sid, but still, interesting to note.

Once again, it’s the status quo in Pittsburgh for Sidney Crosby and in a word it simply means: Greatness.

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