WHAT A SEASON!!!
It was February 14 the Penguins where out of the playoff picture and just faced a slaughter by the hands of one of the worst teams the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Being the arm chair hockey analyst I am and the fact I have been a Pens fan since I was knee high I had little hope for my Pengweenies..
A coaching change had to be dealt with and if you remember back to February the team was missing something. Myself never really believing a coaching change will turn a team around welcomed the change of a bench boss. At the time of the decision I wouldn't know Dan Bylsma if I where to run him over with my bike. I knew he was the coach for the AHL affiliate for the Pens and that's about it. I don't recall any other time a coach has come in mid season to coach his team to the cup final other then Scotty Bowman when he did it when the Pens won their second Cup. Considering at the time many good experienced NHL coaches where available at the time including Pat Quinn who just came off a World Junior Gold Medal for Canada. Remember the Penguins where playing without Gonchar and Kunitz and Guerin where yet to arrive. Nonetheless Bylsma's presence behind the bench had an immediate impact on the club. The power play was revamped, the team started hitting more and playing aggressive. Rather then waiting for chances they where creating chances. This was around the same time “The Sarge” was healthy enough to get back into the line up. Which no question boosted the struggling Pens not only on the Power Play but defensively as well.
Shortly after a trade was made a week or so before the trade deadline shipping Ryan Whitney to Anaheim for Chris Kunitz and a top prospect. With the addition of Kunitz this immediately sparked Sidney Crosby. Now going into the deadline the Pens where still a couple points out with a new coach Gonchar back and an legitimate NHL winger to play with Crosby. Ray Shero was not done yet. Probably looking back now the acquisition of Bill Guerin from the Islanders was probably the best move by any team at the deadline. Guerin added the much needed veteran leadership and grit the Penguins lost with such players most notably Gary Roberts. This turned an OK first line with Crosby to a pretty damn good first line. Still with all these pieces of the puzzle in place the Pens where still fighting for their playoff lives and as a Penguins fan was not quit feeling confident going into the playoffs after a terrible mid season. But a remarkable thing happened, then Penguins when on a huge roll and reminded me of the Oilers a couple seasons ago. Their playoff season started about a month before everyone else. Simply because they had to make it and then try and go deep. So many think this is a disadvantage for some teams but I see it as a good thing. If a team is feeling good about themselves going into the playoffs anything could happen and the Oilers did it and lost to Carolina. This was all I was thinking about was this Oilers team that clawed their way in and where a force going into the playoffs, because their war started weeks before everybody else. Being a believer in the “real” NHL season starts mid April I was feeling confident my boys could do something as long as they just made it in. Looking back now how they sealed up that last spot for home ice on the last day of regular season action was more then I could of ever asked for. Without home ice in advantage in the Flyers and Cans series I truly believe a different outcome could of happened.
I recall after the Detroit Red Wings finished off my Pens last season in game 6 to capture the Cup that I truly believed this season would be a repeat of the 2 teams. Not even a gambling man would put money on a prediction like this but at the time maybe because of emotion I thought Detroit and Pittsburgh where the 2 best teams in the league. With the departure of Marian Hossa and many other key Penguins, this was a much different team going into this seasons play-off run. Detroit meanwhile only had minor changes other then Hossa join the club.
Now, I don't want to get into a series by series analysts here but that Washington series in the second round was probably the most exciting series I have seen in any sport in a long time! Not only did Sidney Crosby close the book on all the Crosby vs OV talk but showed the hockey world he was the real deal. To take a team down 2 games going home and pretty much having a battle of the stars with Crosby coming out as victor. This is the type of play-off magic that makes good teams Champions. Don't forget about Malkin, if this guy is not the MVP of the league then I don't know who is. When the Pens where down in 10th place in February “Gino” was the only one keeping this team afloat. Leading the league in points for most of the season and taking his team to a Stanley Cup this to me is an MVP. Not surprise Malkin was named play-off MVP. Marc-Andre Fleury honestly had me a little worried in the series vs Detroit. He seamed fragile late in the series and needed constant support by his team-mates which also gave me an indication Fleury might be his own worst enemy in terms of keeping his focus. One thing with Fleury is that he made some great series winning saves including the spectacular save on Lidstrom with seconds left in the game to hold the 1 nothing lead and securing the Cup for the Pens. Sometimes great goalies like Fleury get forgotten in the mix with a super-star offence like the Penguins example Grant Fuhr and I couldn't be happier for the young net-minder.
One thing is The Pittsburgh Penguins won a Cup as a young group of guys and they will remember this for the rest of their lives. This Cup win couldn't of happened to a better young group of players. If you are a Penguin fan like myself you can be guaranteed a great hockey team for years to come as long as this key group stays together.
The league is considering having an award for the best or top GM in the NHL. If this where the case now I would have to say Shero would be a heavy favourite to win such an award. I will never question another GM move by Ray Shero ever again! GO PENS GO