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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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.”

The 2012-2013 NHL Season: What We’re All Missing Part 5

Penguins fans, don’t be mad.

Part 5 of WWAM is devoted to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Love em or hate em, they’re an interesting team. So give it a hate click or do it out of curiosity right here.

Continue to check out the Sportz Broz every few days to see a new review of each team as they’re posted. If you’re an NHL fan you won’t regret it.

NHL Head Shots Should Garner Longer Suspensions

Brendan Shanahan has been a little too busy this post season.

But unfortunately, he doesn’t have a choice.

Yesterday, the NHL’s senior vice president of the department of player safety handed down a one-game suspension to New York Rangers defenseman Brandon Prust for elbowing New Jersey Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov in the head on Saturday.

It was the 12th suspension Shanahan has doled out this postseason.

Now 12 suspensions in  77 total games this playoffs might not seem like many, but last year there were only four the entire postseason.

This trend raises a few different questions. Are players committing more suspendable hits than before? Is Shanahan just being more nit-picky? Maybe a little bit of both?

I don’t know for sure, but I believe that players are playing the same way they always have. But after the rash of concussions last season, the NHL is stiffening up on their tolerance levels of violent and dangerous hits.

Seemingly.

The problem is, even though Shanahan is handing out suspensions like arenas hand out rally towels, players aren’t changing the way they play the game. Of the 12 suspension this postseason, eight of them featured legitimate head shots. I know the intensity is ramped up in the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean reckless behavior should be ramped up as well.

The change to Rule 48 this offseason was supposed to eliminate head shots from the game, or at least decrease the number of them. But that hasn’t happened.Players are still consistently going out and hitting each other in dangerous manners.

It seems like the two most common dangerous hits players are still executing are hits to the head and boarding (which often result in head injuries). Every time I see a guy hit in the head or hit from behind into the boards, I wonder if any messages Shanahan are sending are getting through.

One problem might be with the messages themselves.

Out of the 12 suspensions given out this season, seven of them were for only one game. Of those seven incidents, four involved head shots.

The NHL needs to send a clear message that hits to the head won’t be tolerated. Ever. Suspending players for one game isn’t enough. The supplemental discipline needs to be far more severe if Shanahan wants to really get the players’ attention.

The latest was the Prust hit I previously mentioned. Here are the other three.

Philadelphia Flyers forward Claude Giroux delivers a hit to the head of Devils forward Dainas Zubrus on May 6.

Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom crosschecks Boston Bruins forward Rich Peverly on April 16.

Pittsburgh Penguins forward James Neal hits Philadelphia Flyers forwards Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux on April 15.

There were also two hits this postseason that were definite head shots that resulted in no suspension.

An elbow from San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Scott Nichol on April 14.

And probably the worst non-suspension incident this season involving Nashville Predators Captain Shea Weber and Detroit Redwings forward Henrik Zetterberg on April 11.

Weber was fined $2,500 for his actions, but was given no supplemental discipline.

It should have been easy to address Weber’s actions, so I don’t know what was more shocking; the fact that Weber slammed Zetterberg’s head into the glass repeatedly or the fact that Shanahan didn’t suspend Weber for a single game.

And when looking at Burns’ elbow, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between his and the shot delivered by Prust. Both were obvious elbows to the head that didn’t result in injury (and Burns even has a prior history of supplemental discipline). So why did Prust’s hit result in suspension while Burns’ did not?

Shanahan has to be more consistent with his rulings, especially when dealing with head shots.

In addition to the one-game suspensions (and incidents where no suspensions were given) there has been one head shot that resulted in a two-game suspension (Vancouver Canuck Byron Bitz boarding Los Angeles King Kyle Clifford on April 11), two head shots resulting in three-game suspensions (New York Ranger Carl Hagelin elbowing Ottawa Senator Daniel Alfredsson on April 14 and Chicago Blackhawk Andrew Shaw delivering a blow to the head of Phoenix Coyote goaltender Mike Smith on April 14) and one that garnered a 25-game suspension. The obvious outlier is the 25-game suspension to Phoenix Coyote Raffi Torres, stemming from a hit on Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa.

Shanahan makes his rulings by using three basic criteria: how the hit happened, if a player was injured and if the offending player is a repeat offender. Torres received such drastic supplemental discipline because he violated three different NHL rules during his hit (interference, charging and an illegal check to the head), Hossa suffered a severe injury and Torres has been previously suspended or fined five previous times for similar incidents.

I agreed with the 25-game suspension, but again, the inconsistency of Shanahan’s ruling is what upsets me. When Haglin elbowed Alfredsson in the head, Alfredsson also suffered a head injury. But Haglin received only a three-game suspension.

And yes, I know that Haglin didn’t have any prior history of similar offenses, but when it comes down to it, it should be ruled in a similar manner because it was a head shot that resulted in injury. That’s the only way players will start to adapt and stay away from such dangerous hits, whether they are throwing an elbow like Hagelin or leaving their feet to target the head like Torres.

I know Shanahan wants to base all of his rulings on the details of each individual incident because each hit is different. But the bottom line should be an automatic suspension for a hit to the head, say for 10 games. Then after the base 10, Shanahan can look at the specific details and add additional games, setting precedents for future incidents. Players would definitely think twice about getting their elbows or shoulders up high if there’s a chance they could miss the rest of a playoff series.

I know it’s a drastic solution, but right now there’s too much at risk when it comes to head injuries. More research needs to be done on how concussions affect the brain long term, but it’s starting to look pretty clear in both ex-NHL players and ex-NFL players that head shots can ruin lives. And until better equipment can be developed to protect these players, the actions of the players themselves must be the solution.

Develop consistency in the disciplinary action and make it harsh. The players may not like it, but it’ll protect them in the long run and that’s what the NHL should be concerned about above all else.

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.

2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round One Review and Round Two Predictions

Before I break down the second round and make my picks, I need to own up to my first round failures and collect a little cred for my successes. In the first round I went 3-5. We’ll start with my not so solid picks…

Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)

My pick: Vancouver in 5

Reality: Los Angeles in 5

This was obviously my biggest blunder of the first round. It was a 1/8 matchup and there wasn’t much in the cards that told me the Kings would pull off a massive upset (they had the opportunity to sweep Vancouver). I picked Vancouver because I just assumed they would score more goals than Los Angeles. The Kings just couldn’t put the puck in the net in the regular season and I figured they might fall off even more when the pressure came. But it was the opposite. Not only were the Kings able to score goals, they were able to score big, opportune goals. I have to give credit to Kings Captain Dustin Brown. Not only did he score a team-high four goals, two of them came shorthanded. Shorthanded goals not only change games, they can change a series. And I can’t fail to mention Kings netminder Jonathan Quick. He held the Western Conference’s highest scoring team to just eight goals in five games. He was cool under pressure, managed to hang onto rebounds and he looked every bit a Vezina candidate.

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Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6)

My pick: Chicago in 7

Reality: Phoenix in 6

There couldn’t have been more tension in this series. Five of the six games went to over time and it seemed like the Blackhawks relished the chance to tie games at the last minute. Because of their offensive abilities, I believed the Hawks would outscore the Coyotes. But this series came down to the goaltending matchups. Corey Crawford just wasn’t very good. He allowed soft goals on numerous occasions and there were times at which the media wondered if Ray Emery would start the next game. But Chicago coach Joel Quenneville stayed with his No. 1 guy and paid for it. At the other end of the ice, Phoenix reaped the rewards of amazing goalie play. Mike Smith was unbeatable at times. He probably didn’t receive as much attention as he deserved during the regular season, but trust me now that no one is going to over look Smith moving on in the post season. He is scary good right now.

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Nashville Predators vs. Detroit Redwings

My pick: Detroit in 6

Reality: Nashville in 5

This series proved to me that it’s not the same NHL as in recent years. I just had trouble imagining a second round without the Wings. I stand humbly corrected. The Redwings’ age started to show in this series and the stellar defense of Nashville proved it could shut down the hot hands of the Detroit club. Detroit averaged only 1.80 goals per game in five games, which was second to last ahead of a tie between Vancouver and San Jose. Nashville seemed comfortable on the road, which is tough considering how good Detroit has been at home this year. Winning tough road games proves a team can win a Cup and I believe Nashville has a legitimate shot now that they’ve taken down the gold standard of the NHL in five games.

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Boston Bruins vs. Washington Capitals

My pick: Boston in 5

Reality: Washington in 7

“I can’t picture a scenario in which Washington could win this series.”

I guess I couldn’t picture a rookie goaltender outplaying a Vezina and Conn Smythe winner, but that’s exactly what happened. Tim Thomas played a solid series, but Braden Holtby was outstanding. He didn’t turn any heads in the regular season, but he stepped up his game precisely when it mattered. I’m not going to say he was the sole reason Washington is advancing, but he was the main reason. I was unsure if the Caps could match the physicality of the defending champion Bruins, but they did to a tee. If there’s a single picture that illustrates this point, it’s this one:

Every time Alexander Ovechkin was on the ice, Zdeno Chara was there to lay a hit on him. But Ovi once again proved that he is a PHYSICAL scorer. He knocked down Chara numerous times and he never seemed intimidated by the biggest man to ever play in the NHL. The Caps battled every second they were on the ice and they played tight, defensive hockey, which is normally the hallmark of the Bruins. I didn’t give much credit to the Capitals before this series started but now I believe they have the ability to play the type of hockey that can get you deep into the playoffs.

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Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

My pick: Pittsburgh in 6

Reality: Philadelphia in 6

I have to make sure I don’t go off on a rant for this one. I can’t explain enough how much this rivalry means to Penguins fans and Flyers fans alike. Bragging rights are a big deal in Pennsylvania when it comes to hockey and now Pittsburgh will have a very sour taste in its mouth for at least six months until next season begins. Although the series ended 4-2 in favor of Philly, it might as well have been 4-0. The Flyers outplayed the Pens for the vast majority of the series and although their goalie Ilya Bryzgalov played poorly in just about every game, he was still better than Marc- Andre Fleury. Fleury was as bad as I’ve seen during his career in this post season. He had no puck control and he looked nervous. That’s pretty bad considering he’s won a Game 7 in a Stanley Cup Final on the road. But you can’t peg it all on him. The Pens defense (the blueliners and forwards alike) was shotty at best and Philadelphia’s bright stars Claude Giroux and Danny Briere were able to capitalize on numerous Pens’ mistakes. All the credit goes to Philly in this series and if they can figure out what the heck is going on between the pipes, they can be a Stanley Cup Champion this year.

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Now for the fun part…

St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks

My pick: St. Louis in 6

Reality: St. Louis in 5

Even though Antti Niemi won a Stanley Cup with Chicago, he didn’t posses that same ability for the Sharks in this series. St. Louis has some great young talent that played solid offensively and even better in the defensive zone. The Blues have a deep team and the second line of of Patrik Berglund, Alexander Steen and Andy McDonald combined for eight goals, including a pair of game-winners. McDonald scored four goals in five games and he notched the game-winning goal in Game 4. And backing up the team was the best goalie duo in the NHL. Even though Jaroslav Halak went down early with an injury, Brian Elliott stepped right in and played outstanding hockey. He was second to only Cory Schneider in goals against average and fourth in the playoffs in save percentage. It’s uncanny to have a pair of such good goaltenders and if St. Louis wants, they can still play both of these guys (assuming Halak is healthy) moving forward. The Blues are my Western Conference pick to make the Stanley Cup Final.

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New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators

My pick: New York in 7

Reality: New York in 7

This was a matchup of an offensive power versus defensive fortitude and in the playoffs, defense wins out. There were some moments in this series when I truly thought the Sens might upset the Blue Shirts. Ottawa played a fast-paced game and their speed nearly won out. But as the regular season illustrated, New York blocked a ton of shots and the best shot blocker was Henrik Lundqvist. And you have to give credit to New York in handling the probable Norris Trophy winner of Erik Karlsson. He was the leading scoring defenseman in the regular season, but he managed only one point (a goal) in seven games. On the blue line, the shutdown pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi did a solid job handling Jason Spezza and company (and Girardi even scored the game-winning goal in Game 7). It will be interesting to see how the Rangers handle the Capitals since they can be high flying like the Sens, but with a better overall defense (at least at this point). And by the way, the Rangers are my pick to make the Stanley Cup Final.

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Florida Panthers vs. New Jersey Devils

My pick: New Jersey in 6

Reality: New Jersey in 7

This series could have went either way. Sure, Florida was a No. 3 seed, but they were in a horrible division that seemed up for grabs at many points during the season. New Jersey had very little consistency during the regular season as well. So how did the Devils manage to capture this series?

Overall team consistency.

Rookie Adam Henrique had two goals (including the double overtime game winner in Game 7), Captain Zach Parise and Patrik Elias had two goals each and even fourth-liners Steve Bernier and Stephen Gionta had a pair a piece. And you can’t dismiss the experience factor that Marty Brodeur brings to the playoffs. His team trusts him behind them and when you trust your goalie, you play with more confidence and aggression up the ice.

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Now on to Round Two

I’m going to keep this short and sweet…

St. Louis Blues (2) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)

My pick: St. Louis in 7

Why: Halak/Elliott and the Blue’s penalty kill

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Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Nashville Predators (4)

My pick: Nashville in 6

Why: Pred’s D and slightly better goal tending

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New York Rangers  (1) vs. Washington Capitals (7)

My pick: New York in 6

Why: Defense Defense Defense (and King Henrik)

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Philadelphia Flyers (5) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

My pick: New Jersey in 7

Why: Devils’ ability to play tight, playoff-style hockey

Penguins Season on the Brink

Before the playoffs started, the Pittsburgh Penguins were the favorites to win it all.

Now, they may exit the postseason without a single win.

The star power of Sidney Crosby and company seems to have fallen by the wayside in exchange for poor decision making and horrendous defense.  Pittsburgh started out with a lead in all three games of this series, only to surrender it later in every game. They’ve managed to get 12 goals by Philadelphia net minder Ilya Bryzgalov to average four goals per game, but their defense has had the stopping power of a wet paper bag. Pittsburgh surrendered an unprecedented 20 goals to the Flyers so far. Gretzky’s Oilers couldn’t have won games if they were letting in an average of more than six every night.

As much as I hate to admit it, Marc-Andre Fleury is a key problem. He has looked shaky, given up soft goals on multiple occasions and he hasn’t risen to meet adversity like he has past post-seasons. Fleury used to give fans a gleam of optimism when the rest of the team was playing poorly. “At least Fleury looked good” was a commonly uttered sentiment after Penguins losses. But now, the Flower looks average and flustered.

But don’t put all the weight on Fleury’s shoulders. Even though he hasn’t played his best, the team in front of him hasn’t allowed him to. Every defenseman has made mistakes that have cost the Penguins goals. They have turned the puck over in all three zones, failed to get their sticks or bodies in passing and shooting lanes and they have been overaggressive in the offensive zone, stranding themselves behind the play. When the blueliners are out of position, the Flyers have been able to breakout with odd-man rushes.  And since Malkin, Crosby, Letang, Martin and others have all been guilty of turnovers in the neutral zone, all the Flyers need to do is wait. But they go a step further. The Flyers have been aggressive with the puck, even when they could probably sit back. They saw the Penguins surrender leads in the first two games because of complacency and Flyers coach Peter Peter Laviolette has never allowed his team to take their foot off the gas.

This pace has killed Pittsburgh. Even on occasions where they’ve managed to score quickly after Philadelphia has, they soon lose momentum and go back on their heels. How do they lose that momentum?

Penalties.

Chippy play and poorly-timed penalties used to be a characteristic of the Flyers. Now, the Penguins seem eager to get into the faces of the opposition to prove they aren’t intimidated at the expense of playing playoff hockey. Pittsburgh can play just as physically as Philly, but it can’t take them to the penalty box. Mistakes of frustration were highly evident in Game 3 and that left Pittsburgh shorthanded on the ice and the bench. Losing Letang was a huge blow. He runs the point on the power play and usually plays the most responsible and aggressive hockey of all the Pen’s defensemen. Without him, a bad defense suffered even more.

The team’s recent performance has come as a surprise to pundits and Pens fans alike, but it didnt come out of nowhere. During the final two weeks of the season, Pittsburgh seemed to lose some of its moxie and the team struggled to play the style of game it’s used to – north/south hockey with a high confidence level of the special teams. Now, special teams are a bigger liability than an asset.

The Pens have managed only three power play goals while allowing three shorthanded goals in the series. One of the hallmarks of this Penguins team is their stout defense on the penalty kill. Now, it looks like they are clueless shorthanded, allowing six power play goals in three games.

This series isn’t over yet. There is still a slim chance the Pens can win four in a row to defeat the Flyers. In the history of the NHL, there were three teams to come back from a 0-3 deficit to eventually win the series. But if the Penguins have any hopes of getting back in this series, there are three things they need to do:

  1. Fleury must be flawless. He cannot let in even one more soft goal. If he does, his confidence will be at an all-time low and the Flyers will take prey on him. If somehow, the Flower can return to his 09’ playoff form, his scorers should be able to net enough goals to win.
  2. The defensemen and forwards need to make quality decisions with the puck and not get over-aggressive. Dan Byslma’s system encourages the defense to move the puck quickly up ice and use speed to break into the offensive zone. This system only works if the players can use it smartly. The D needs to stay back and wait for the clean pass, not force the puck up ice. The forwards also need to hang onto the puck better and move the puck north, instead of making lateral passes across the ice. The Flyers take advantage of cross-ice passes and that leads them to odd-man rushes and breakaways.
  3. The Penguins need to stay disciplined. If you aren’t playing well on the penalty kill, you need to avoid putting guys in the box at all costs. If Fleury was flawless and Pens were able to get some shorthanded goals, they could afford to lose a man to an aggressive penalty every now and then. Right now, the PK is awful so they must stay disciplined.

The Penguins know they have the talent to win four straight and advance. It’s just a matter of mental fortitude and execution. If they can dig deep and play at the level they’re capable of, an epic comeback may just be possible.

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