April 25, 2009
The Pittsburgh Penguins, fresh off of a 3-0 loss in Game 5 to their intra-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, were playing in the critical sixth game of their first-round playoff series. A year earlier, during a white-hot Penguins white-out, a Pittsburgh fixture with fans dressed in white, they eliminated the Flyers in a 6-0 blowout to end the Eastern Conference Flyers.
The Broadway Bullies were out for revenge, and the Penguins seemed to be making like their real life counterparts: flightless birds. With an opportunity to win the series at home, they had been shutout. And now, in Game 6, goals seconds apart saw them reeling, victims of another three-goal deficit.
However, as the best birds do, they stayed together, banded as one unit. Staying the course was the way to go! Sticking with the system, given such natural young talent, would eventually cause the "ice to break." This was the same team that had overcome a 3-0 deficit against the Rangers one year earlier in an opening game 5-4 victory. It as just a matter of time. The "kids" were sure to strike.
With all of the momentum working against them, flashes of orange lighting up the electrified Philadelphia crowd and goal celebrations creating gleeful frivolity, Max Talbot challenged Dan Carcillo to fight him. As former teammates in the minors, Talbot knew the outcome of this request. He was the object, and Carcillo's first were the tool. There was an additional tool nobody was aware of....
Skating away to the penalty box following the tussle, Talbot looked up to the crowd, placed a lone finger to his lips, and shushed the Flyers faithful. In all likelihood, the comeback that was imminent was more the result of hard work and a great Penguins roster. Pens fans, however, know that there's still something to be said about the quiet confidence that Max Talbot showed in that critical, momentum-turning gesture.
It's that if you are that good, it's important to stay the course. Great things would come. The Pens won Game 6, 5-3.
April 25, 2011
Fate did all the shushing. Minus their young stars, and desperately trying to make up production through crafty veteran signings, the Penguins gave way to the Tampa Bay Lightning, blowing a 3-1 series lead. Bucket-pale play catapulted the Pens to three victories. However, these weren't the types of wins Pens fans were accustomed to, which clearly was never going to be the case. The Pens grinders kept the puck deep, held Tampa's sniper off of the board early and won games with great goal-tending and opportunism.
The Pens came out flying in Game 5, but they lost 8-2. They couldn't protect the lead, and their game plan—which catered to their current situation—didn't allow for magnificent offensive comebacks without utter compromise in the defensive end. However, like 2009, many faithful felt this was an aberration. In fact, had it not been for the gutty play of Martin St. Louis, Tampa would have had nary a goal in the series themselves.
Game 6 saw the Pens fall trail for most of the game. In Game 7, they gave up the first goal midway through the second period. Instead of adjusting their game plan to comeback, which resulted in blowout losses of 5-1 and 8-2 earlier in the series, this Pens team chose to stay the course, optimistically hoping for that lucky break or strange bounce of the puck.
There was no fight, no finger to the lips and no shushing. Staying the course for the 2011 Pens meant getting the lead and keeping it. And it meant losing 1-0 on that lone mid-point goal. No heroism would have changed a thing. The hard-working Penguins had simply to a face what the rest of hockey already knew: This wasn't the year. Their talented roster was depleted. And, in spite of a heroic, yeoman's effort in obtaining 106 regular season points and forcing a seven-game series, the Pens fell to the three-headed monster of Tampa Bay.
It sounds depressing.
Why Pittsburgh's failure was inevitable is lost on most people. Many responders will simply focus on the loss of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as the catalysts for the inevitable closure to their season. In truth, this is the catalyst. The reason is much deeper.
The Pens lost every favorable matchup afforded to them in the half-decade beforehand. Instead of chasing Crosby and Malkin and leaving strong role-players like Jordan Staal and Alexei Kovalev to feast on third-liners, the Zetterberg's of the league took away any and all offensive talent the Pens had left. Nevertheless, the team called a gut-check, and they finished with more points in a season than they had while healthy in any of the previous five years.
2011 was a great fable in real life.
"You don't know what you have until you lose it."
However, I feel that the experience the Penguins gained in their season-long run will make their balance and depth all the scarier heading into 2011-12. New winger James Neal will, with good fortune, get to finally play with Crosby when he returns. Talented, aged veteran Alexei Kovalev will get to finally reap the benefits that come with the matchups Crosby and Malkin draw. Imagine a Kovalev-Crosby-Neal line. Who knows what the future holds, even for Sid himself, but I believe Pens fans can all dream of great success.
A healthy Pens team in 2012 will be the clear favorite to win the Stanley Cup. And it won't be for the return of their superstars. It'll be for the experience and grit of a great team that showed its character.
Perhaps a new moral is being written as we speak.
"What doesn't glitter can still be gold." Or black and gold.