Saturday, June 13, 2009

FROM:"THE PEN'S IN YOUR HAND" TO:"THE CUP'S IN YOUR HANDS"

As the Pittsburgh Penguins dressed for last night's game against the Red Wings, each player was given a shirt to wear under his game jersey that read, "The Pen's In Your hand". Dan Bylsma's message was abundantly clear. The team would write their own destiny on this night and it was up to them to write the ending to this epic series that they wanted. I'd say that Bylsma clearly got his money's worth out of those tee shirts as game seven ended with the Stanley Cup in their hands.

Despite saying that they planned a fast start to this game, the Pens started slowly as nerves were clearly evident. The champion Detroit Red Wings tried playing the role of the aggressor early as Zetterberg was stopped by Fleury and there were several big hits by assorted Wings.

It wasn't until the 10;40 mark that Pittsburgh started to relax and really play good hockey. Tyler Kennedy was stopped twice by Osgood, then at 8:35 Detroit's Stewart was called for slashing. The Pens had the first power play of the night, a gigantic opportunity.

You could sense the urgency in the team's play as they began a relentless assault of Detroit's net. After an extended time in the Detroit zone and tremendous pressure, the Penguins managed two good shots, but no goal. But the shots now stood at 5-4 Pittsburgh and the Pens were now carrying the play. Kennedy and Staal were both stopped by Osgood, then with under two minutes Fleury stopped Maltby with a glove save from point blank range.

At the :30 second mark, Max Talbot had a great opportunity that as it turned out would have been the first goal of an eventual hat trick, had it gone in. The period ended at 0-0, but given the way games have gone for the Pens in Detroit, I thought it was an excellent start. Fleury seemed to have his "A" game and the team's play had gotten stronger as the period progressed. There was plenty of reason to feel optimistic as there were only 40 minutes separating the Pens from their third Stanley Cup.

ABOVE: The gladiator, max Talbot. He has a way of silencing crowds at away games.

The second period saw Max Talbot score right out of the box at the 18:45 mark as Max scooped up a turnover from the left corner behind the Detroit goal, wheeled around and wristed it past Osgood for the first score of the game. The pace quickened shortly thereafter as Malkin was robbed by Osgood. Fleury returned the favor to Filpula, then Matt Cooke became the surprised beneficiary of a breakout pass but couldn't convert. With the shots 13-7 Pens, Pittsburgh was looking stronger than ever when disaster struck.

Johan Franzen crashed into Sid along the sideboards with a vicious hip check that unbeknownst to the fans in attendance and the world watching on NBC would turn out to be a knee injury. As Crosby left the ice in obvious pain, a great cheer went up from the Detroit crowd in an obvious display of bad sportsmanship. Several minutes later, during an in-game interview by NBC's Pierre Maguire, Bylsma would say that Sid had suffered "an injury to his mid-section" but would return. He never came back in the second period. Did Bylsma know it was a knee or was he just being evasive?


But the Pens never looked back. Max Talbot, now moved to center the Crosby line, combined on a two on one breakaway using Kunitz as a decoy. Talbot rifled the shot from Osgood's right side over his left shoulder for his second goal of the game. Osgood appeared to be slightly out of position, but no Penguins were seen to be complaining as the local boys went up 2-0.

Detroit has had a multitude of offsides in this game and their entire offense had taken on a disjointed appearance. Then, in the final 2:30 of the period, the Wings suddenly regained their stride and began piling on the scoring chances. Datsyuk was robbed by Fleury at 2:12 and Zetterberg and Datsyuk again were stopped as time expired in the second. Had this period gone another 20 seconds, Detroit would have more than likely scored.

Meanwhile attention turned once again to Sidney Crosby, who had never returned after his injury. For Crosby to have missed 15 minutes of the second period, his injury either must be very severe or is not responding to pain killers I speculated.

With the score 2-0, NBC's Mike Emerick noted that in the entire history of game sevens there have only been three shutouts. Could M.A.F. get number four? Against this team, it seemed like too much to hope for.

To my surprise, Sidney Crosby came out for the third period warmups, but you could tell that he was being being very cautious with his movements. I wasn't expecting much.

In the third, Mark Eaton was called for tripping at 17:22 but that penalty was killed with no damage. At about the 10:00 mark, Sid was successful in lobbying for some ice time but quickly removed himself after it became apparent that he couldn't keep up with the Datsyuks and Zetterbergs of the world.

At the 8:41 mark there was a tv timeout and by this time, the Red Wings had taken on the look of a very frustrated and desperate team. The Penguins, meanwhile had gone into a quasi- defensive shell so as not to allow any odd man rushes. By the time the 7:00 mark had rolled by, the shots were 5-0 Detroit. Could the Pens possibly hang on?

Less than a minute later Detroit's Jonathan Ericsson would give the big crowd at Joe Louis Arena some reason for hope as he beat Fleury on a slapper to make it 2-1. Detroit was right back in the game and their intensity level automatically was wratcheted-up. At 4:15, Evgeni Malkin completed the Pens' offensive showing of the period by collecting their only shot. For Malkin, who created some good opportunities in this game, he would be held off the score sheet for the second time as would be the injured Crosby.

At 3:23, Crosby sat on the bench, obviously unable to go in this biggest game of his young career. The Red Wings were buzzing like angry bees at an attacking bear and we only had a one goal lead. This game had suddenly taken on the appearance of a potential overtime finish...or even worse.

To reinforce what I'm saying about the gravity of the situation, Niklas Cromwell slammed a shot off the crossbar at 2:10 that bounced up and away and not down and into harm's way. The same hockey gods who earlier in the series had the Penguins hitting posts were now exacting their sweet revenge on the Wings. Yes, sometimes the breaks do have a way of evening themselves out.

At 1:17, Detroit called a timeout and immediately thereafter they pulled Osgood. In the waning seconds of this landmark series, Detroit's Zetterberg and Datsyuk again managed to get very dangerous shots on Fleury, the final one a save for the annals of Pittsburgh hockey history as he dove across the crease to make an incredible stop to end the game.

As the pandemonium broke loose among the Penguins, the Wings dropped their heads or put their heads down on their arms against the top of the boards near their bench. After the Penguins finished celebrating among themselves, the fine tradition of shaking hands began. Marian Hossa had an ashen look on his face. After not scoring a goal and gathering only one assist in the finals, his series against Pittsburgh had been an unmitigated disaster. Not only that, Hossa more than likely cost himself many millions of dollars in the long run as it's highly unlikely that he would again be able to command the same near-insane bidding for his services that went on last year. With his one year contract up and the Detroit media all over him, it would be surprising to see Hossa re-up in Detroit.

Meanwhile, Detroit's Mike Babcock was very gracious to Sidney Crosby. He could be overheard in the line congratulating him and saying, "You showed great leadership out there." While Babcock's style can have a way of sometimes irritating the media, I have found him to be very forthcoming in his assessments. For example, after game six he said, "I thought they dominated the first 32 minutes," and..."Yes I thought our guys looked tired."After the handshakes were over, the Detroit players vamoosed to their locker room...except for their coach. He wanted to see his former player, Dan Bylsma, get to lift the Stanley Cup. Again, a classy gesture on his part. Last year the Penguins watched the cup presentation.
ABOVE: If the shoe fits, Detroit, then you'll have to wear it!

As for the Detroit fans in supposed "Hockeytown", they showed little of the class that the Penguins fans had shown a year ago. Last year, after a heartbreaking loss in game six, the Penguins fans sat in their seats as the Stanley Cup made its' appearance. They politely applauded the superior Red Wings team that had defeated their beloved Penguins.

In fact, Detroit's fans showed zero class. They nearly booed Commissioner Gary Bettman out of the arena and continued booing as Sidney Crosby was handed the beloved cup. Sidney, God Bless him, appeared to be unaffected by this classless act. Either that, or he has a hearing problem that none of us is aware of. However, when asked later at the podium by a Detroit writer whether he heard the cheering when he was coming off the ice hurt, Crosby said that, "He really wasn't paying attention and was thinking about his injury." Later he added that, "I play in a lot of tough buildings, so I don't let crowd noise affect me." True. After hearing "Crosby sucks" chanted by classless hockey fans everywhere, you would kind of get numb to it after awhile. To the writer's credit, he noted that, "As a Detroiter, I was very disappointed by that."

ABOVE: We could be seeing a lot of these shots over the next decade!

But nothing was going to ruin this night for "The face of the NHL". He had finally won his treasure, the first of surely many to come. With a young cast around him, and a terrific coach, general manager and owner/s, and a new arena coming, the sky is the limit for this franchise. I fully expect this team to win the cup again next year at Mellon Arena. In the last series ever to be played there, the Penguins will amazingly go up against Detroit again next year in the finals as the battle for league supremacy continues between the NHL's two top teams. For the "rubber match" though, the Pens will win it on home ice and then the venerable, old, Mellon Arena will be retired. GAME NOTES:Evgeni Malkin received the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs...Meanwhile, Crosby became the youngest captain in the history of the NHL to raise the cup...The last team to win a game seven on the road after trailing 2-0 in any sport was the 1979 Pittsburgh Prates...The last man to raise the cup, in another in a long line of classy moves by him, was Mario Lemieux. Mario received a thunderous ovation from the remaining Detroit fans as well...Alby Oxenreiter had his finest hour as a sportscaster as he doggedly collected interviews on the ice. Oxenreiter, though, ran into an exuberant equipment manager Dana Heinze on the runway to the locker room. Heinze, not realizing that he was on live television gushed, "Alby, I can't f___ing believe it!. Meanwhile, back in the surprisingly calm environment in the locker room, Evgeni Malkin was chugging champagne from a magnum bottle. Those Russians know how to handle their alcohol...The scene switched to the South Side of Pittsburgh where a delirious sea of yinzers was celebrating in the middle of Carson Street. Rick Earle, WPXI's reporter was swallowed up by this mob of humanity. Back in the studio, David Johnson looked genuinely concerned for his colleague...Back in Detroit, Paul Steigerwald, dressed to look like an undertaker, waxed eloquently on the Penguins season. Meanwhile, WPXI's camera signal kept repeatedly breaking up which was a major distraction to the production....The scene shifted back later to the South Side where a phalanx of motorcycle police and officers on horseback were determined to clear the streets of the revelers. Dressed in full riot gear, they were prepared for the worst kind of altercation. It seemed like excessive overkill. There was no violence or damage, only people who had too much to drink celebrating...Back in Detroit, Sidney Crosby was now on the podium. He disclosed that he had jammed his knee and that he couldn't stop or turn properly. "I didn't want to cost us the game," Crosby said. I'm playing against Dytszuk and Zetterberg. One misstep and they're gone."...With this victory in a championship, Pittsburgh's sports teams continue their amazing winning percentage. When the chips are on the line, they are now 9-1 in games that decide a championship (either a SuperBowl or game seven). Their overall record in championship situations over the last 50 years is 12-2 (6-1 Steelers, 3-0 Pirates and 3-1 Penguins for an amazing combined championship winning percentage of .857. After another Steeler title in February followed by a Stanley Cup in June, is it any wonder why Pittsburgh is once again being called,
"The City of Champions"?
ABOVE: After an interminably-long absence since 1992, the Cup will be back where it truly belongs, above a bar on Carson Street. Get used to seeing this for the next, oh, ten years or so.