Big Lead Sports Bar

2/22/2007

How Far We've Come

When you look at the 2006-07 Pittsburgh Penguins season, it's pretty remarkable. And I'm not just talking about the spectacular 33-18-9 record or the 75 points (3rd in the East). Everyone had high hopes for this team, but not this soon. When you look back at the early script for this season, it looks like a re-write at this point.
The hot preseason topic was whether or not to keep rookie Jordan Staal on the roster. As he lit his 25th lamp tonight, you wonder how the idea of not keeping him was even a remote possibility. I'd say the Pens made the right call in this personnel matter.
We move to the first game, where prospective owner Jim Balsillie dropped by to check in on his potential investment. He certainly made an impression in the booth, where he dropped an s-bomb on live TV. What a symbolic way to ultimately remember his flirtation with our city.

From the opening whistle of this season, this team exceeded expectations. They led off with an old-fashioned butt-kicking of the big, bad Philadelphia Flyers, shutting them out 4-0 in front of a raucous Pittsburgh crowd. The game would serve as a fitting start to a 7-0 record against the Broad Street Babies this year.

The opener was a big night for Marc-Andre Fleury, who would mature greatly in his third season. Fleury brought a career record of 17-41-2 and a 3.41 goals-against average into the campaign, numbers he's improved upon greatly. He currently stands at 29-13, with a 2.92 goals-against. Despite his recent "break" given by Michel Therrien, Fleury has solidified the position for this team for years to come.

The opening night lineup featured dead weight like John LeClair and Andre Roy, both of whom were put out of their misery and traded in for newer models. And don't forget, we had to wait five games for the unveiling of Evgeni Malkin in a regular season game. 29 goals and 38 assists later, and I'd say he's adapted to life in the Burgh quite well.

There are feel-good stories all around. Sergei Gonchar is to be praised for his 50 points and his off-the-ice mentoring of Malkin, even if he's not exactly qualified to give him lessons on what to wear.

Mark Recchi's made everyone forget the locker room friction of last season, with 22 goals (including #500) and 60 points at age 39. Ryan Whitney has come into his own, as he ranks fifth on the team in scoring. Eric Christensen is a shootout wizard. Michel Therrien was on the verge of being canned, now there's Coach of the Year talk. Mark Eaton is so beloved by fans that he gets his own photoshop contest. And Ronald Petrovicky will knock you out.

The most amazing part of this story and this season is that I've been able to write eight paragraphs and not mention Sid. This team has come so far in such a short span of time that the face of the NHL can experience a little goal slump and the players around him are good enough to overcome it. He is better than advertised, he's leading the league in scoring, and he's a polite, mannerly guy. He's a breath of fresh air in a world of PacMan Jones, Tank Johnson, and the Cincinnati Bengals. You'll never see him flying to Vegas and showering strippers with $81,000 in a garbage bag. He knows how to handle himself, and he's the perfect man to lead this team into the journey they're embarking on.

I know I haven't mentioned all of the great stories surrounding this squad. That would take way too many words to describe. But the highs feel even better when you consider the obstacles the team battles on a regular basis: the perception of Crosby as a whiner; the perceived return of the "garage league" in the way the game is called by the refs; and to a lesser extent (but important to Penguin fans), getting proper recognition and national coverage, especially when the "worldwide leader" doesn't seem to care much about the sport (geez, ESPN can't even get the right Penguins logo for their playoff matchup simulator!). What doesn't kill the Penguins makes them stronger. For all the hatred spewed from jealous teams, jealous coaches, jealous players, and jealous fans, the Pens have risen up to overcome the road blocks. That will only make this dangerous team even more formidable down the road.

For people waiting for the postseason to see something "special" happen, open your eyes. It's already going on around you. This team has already had a storybook season, regardless of what happens in the playoffs. This team is ready. They expect to win. We're lucky to watch them on a nightly basis. I believe there's a phrase for what this feels like:

The Pens did a nice job tonight pulling out a win at a place where they've traditionally struggled. Thibault played well, Colby saved the day, and the Pens are two points richer as a result. Next up is Tampa Bay at 5 PM on Sunday. Make sure to watch. You'll want to be a witness. The script has many more acts to follow.

7 comments:

Louis Lipps is my homeboy said...

My favorite part about the game tonight was that it was the type of game they would've lost last season, and even early this season.

A close, defensive struggle AND thier best player gets a penalty called on him late in regulation and spends 2 minutes in the box.

That they pulled out the type of game they'd made a habit of losing in the past against a team they've made a habit of losing to spoke volumes to me.

Coming up next, another game against a team that the Penguins can never seem to beat. And unlike the Panthers, this team is actually pretty good. It's especially big to me because I live in Tampa and may show up at this game if I can get a ticket.

(Not the Lightning are a hot ticket in this town, but when they play a northern team like the Pens, Wings, or Rangers they usually sell out.)

Side note, I've been going to see the Pens play the Bolts down here since the days when the Penguins were good, and Tampa was terrible... and we even lost to them a lot back then!! It got worse when we declined in the early-2000s and they got good. It was 2003 when I attended, I believe, 9-0 and 7-3 shellackings at the hands of the Lightning down here.

The ONLY two non-Penguins losses I went to out of the 10 Pens v. Bolts games I attended down here(it's sad I remember these):

A 1-1 tie in December of 2000 when I first moved here. I got free tickets about 8 rows up from center ice. It was right after Mario announced he was coming out of retirement and he was in the house that night as owner (he didn't start playing again for a few more weeks). We all still loved Jaromir Jagr then too (I believe he scored our goal that night).

And the poor 'bolts fans were outnumbered about 3-1 in the stands. Including a menacing guy in a Jagr T-shirt, with a 'stache and mullet who was threatening to beat up some old guy in a Lightning polo. The mullet guy's poor kids actually had to hold him back!!

Then, there was a January 2003 matchup that we won 3-2 (our only win in the Ice Palace/St. Pete Times Forum EVER!!!). It was the night before the Buccaneers played the Eagles for the NFC Championship, so no one really cared much when I bragged about the Lightning getting beat by my boys that night. Also, this was right before Kovalev got dealt to the Rangers.

Worse than the two blowouts I attended (which really tested my limits for drunk, bandwagon jumping, Tampa assholes) was the March 2001 game where Mario came back to Tampa, sold out their arena for the only time that year, and scored the Penguins only goal in a 5-1 ass beating laid on us by the then-sorry Lightning. Also, the Lightning announced over the P.A. that night their signing of Nicholai Khabibulin to a crowd who... well, didn't exactly know who the hell he was at the time(Tampa's not a big hockey town). I also brought a large sign that said "I paid to see #66".

Ok, I'll stop telling my Tampa hockey stories now, I doubt anyone's reading this anyways!

Louis Lipps is my homeboy said...

By the way, I'm just coming out and saying it: Malkin looks like a cro-magnon.

Brad said...

All the amazing things that happened this year...no recap of Crosby's continual run of Duquesne sorority chicks? No mention of GwenJen or Max Talbot's interesting party wardrobe? Off the ice, it had been a banner year, as well, God bless body paint.

russell lucas said...

Yeah, it's good times all around. All we need is to wake up some morning to the front page of the paper featuring a grip-and-grin between Mario and Ed Rendell, and the team will have turned things around to a degree not really imaginable last September.

And, yeah, the Jordan Staal thing is incredible. We all really thought Malkin would be a 30-goal guy right from the start (of course, we also thought Aleksey Morozov would be, too). I don't remember anyone who predicted he'd have any significant offensive contribution this year even if he stuck with the team.

Now it's clear he's way too talented to be a third line center under any circumstances. He's looking like a likely bet to match or exceed Eric's offensive output-- before scoring 45 times last year, Eric scored 11 goals in his full rookie season. Mike Lange said last night he's the best on the team at off-the-boards passes.

russell lucas said...

The "he'd" in the second para referred to Staal, btw.

And the "Eric" refers to his older bro.

Damned sloppiness.

Oh, and LLIMH, yeah, the Penguins have had a weird problem beating the Lightning over the years, but there was that great game in '95-'96 where 66 scored, what, 7 assists and a goal? Or was it 8 and 1? I can't quite remember, but it was fantastic.

russell lucas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
HotDog_Zanzabar said...

You're killing me Louis Lipps. That's too much to read before noon.