Chris Osgood shutting out the Penguins and proving his critics wrong? Marian Hossa held to an assist on a Valtteri Filppula goal? That I could live with.
Instead, it’s Ty Conklin getting the shutout, and Hossa scoring a back-breaking goal.
That’s Fate twisting the knife.
Once upon a time, Mario Lemieux would single-handedly turn around hockey games by sheer force of will.
The Penguins would have a rough 1st period, fall behind by 2 or 3 goals, and shamble around for the first 5:00 or so of the 2nd, just for good measure. Then Mario would get disgusted and say to himself, “Yes, I do have to carry the entire team tonight, so I better get started.”
And the Pens would then reel off 4 straight goals, and 66 would have a hand in all of them, and a 3-0 deficit would end up a 5-3 win. (Guess who got the empty netter?)
It was like Mario had a secret button hidden somewhere on the bench. One of those big red industrial emergency stop buttons with a Lucite molly guard marked “FUCK IT, WE’RE WINNING THIS GAME!”
Now I’m picturing Jordan Staal in last night’s Pens/Red Wings game. It’s the 3rd period, he’s just finished a shift, he’s back on the bench, and he has to adjust a shin guard. He leans over, and something catches his eye. There, mounted under the top sill of the dasher, is that red button. The inscription on the plastic cover tempts him. He wonders, “Is that hooked up to us or the Wings? Is this a trick? Can Coach see me? Nah, he’s giving Hasenfratz the stink eye over that interference call on Sid… It’s already 5-2, what’s the worst that could happen?”
One hat trick and a Grand Theft Datsyuk later, he’s partying with Ruslan Fedotenko. The Penguins have extracted a small measure of revenge on the Red Wings. The Detroit faithful are walking away frustrated by the night, and maybe a little worried about a real rematch in this year’s Finals.
The last three meetings between these clubs ended with two overtime wins for the Pens after game tying goals at the death and one near miss. When the Wings play perfect hockey for 60 minutes, they’ve proven that they can beat the Penguins. But the split second they show a weak spot in their defenses, the Pens attack it, break through it, and then it’s the Wings hanging on for dear life.
Last year, the Pens had a breakthrough game in November against the Ottawa Senators, defending Eastern Conference champions and off to a torrid start. From that day forward, they made strong, steady progress toward a division title, and laid waste to the Eastern Conference side of the playoff bracket. Could this be another November Breakthrough? Does this mean that the Penguins are finding that next level that will lead them to the promised land?
We may not need the button again this year.
Detroit, 1 year, $7.4 million.
Clearly, Marian Hossa isn’t happy with the long-term offers he’s seen. Nobody had the cap space to pay him what he thought he deserved, so he’s taking the one year deal and trying his luck with next year’s market.
If you want to join me in the cynical view, and say that Hossa only plays well in contract years, this is a smart move by the Red Wings. Hossa will be sure to play for his supper.
He was still worth it for the Penguins, though.
I was too in the moment last night. The event was foremost in my mind, but the implications weren’t. Then, on the commute home tonight, it hit me.
There was no reason to hurry.
No game, no live blog, no two or three nights of chores crammed into one to make room for games or live blogs.
No more hockey. No Cup to show for it. Just a ticket stub, a few cameraphone shots of the traditional dog pile photo, a few free hours Saturday night, and a dull ache that may not go away anytime soon. Just a dull ache, though. Not the sharp pain of hitting the wall in the first round, or what a sweep or a fold would have felt like.
Maybe the lack of seething animosity between Pittsburgh and Detroit is helping the loss go down easier. [Glares at the eastern half of the state.] After The Mural, the Rangers’ “Cindy the Diver” act, and, well, Philly being Philly, it was nice to have some mutual respect, and a plain, simple may-the-best-man-win series.
Make no mistake, the best men won. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team as positionally sound as the Red Wings. It seemed like, no matter what the Penguins did, the Red Wings would have somebody in position to intercept a pass, cut off a dump-in, pull a puck out of a scrum on the boards, or take a simple five-foot pass when a Detroit puck carrier was under pressure. More of a full-court press than a neutral zone trap. And against a team that had never seen it before, it was the perfect plan to gain a quick lead in the series. It took the Pens the first two games just to figure it out.
If Detroit had a weakness, it was their figurative right foot. As soon as they let up off the throttle, the Penguins, who never lacked for intensity even as they looked utterly confused, would strike. The Wings came out slow in Game 3, and the Pens jumped out to an early lead and held on for the win. With the Cup on its way to the ice in Game 5, the Penguins found another level of desperation, Miracle Max found a rebound on the right post, and a three-overtime legend was born.
The Red Wings didn’t make those mistakes in Game Six, though. Well, not until Jiri Hudler took a late penalty that let the Penguins close to 3-2 on a Marian Hossa deflection. They had one more furious six-man rush, but Hossa’s last put-back attempt was tantalizingly close, agonizingly late.
So what are we left with? An uneven start, a Thanksgiving turning point, Fleury’s high ankle sprain, Ty Conklin’s moment of glory, Crosby’s high ankle sprain, Evgeni Malkin’s breakthrough, and some of the most thrilling, entertaining hockey this town has seen in years.
So I find myself celebrating this season, even with sadness at the end.
After all, we could have been refusing to watch Detroit and Kansas City.
Sometimes, you just don’t your own strength. You don’t understand just how deep down you have to reach to find the will, to find the energy, to find something to carry you through the darkest time you’ve ever faced.
You’ve never faced it before.
Has a force so overwhelming ever turned your 2-1 lead into a 3-2 deficit with such swiftness and intensity? Have you ever felt so helpless on a field of play you’ve lived on for your entire life? Have you ever come within one minute of losing the championship? In the neutral zone, preventing a superstar from taking a shot on an empty net? Gaining the zone, chasing the puck into the corner? Working it to the slot? Throwing it at the net, hoping for a rebound? Standing at the post, with a sliver of daylight between cold, red iron and a sprawling goalie’s skate?
And what does it earn you? Another forty-nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds of life, doled out in twenty-minutes increments with no time outs, and no margin for error. Your next mistake could end everything.
So you lean into the storm. Weather it. Eventually, the relentless pressure that allowed them to take the lead from you will falter. Fatigue and doubt will settle in. Your will asserts itself. In the little battles, at the lines, along the boards, in your crease, your will begins to prevail.
And then it happens.
An opportunity you were thirty-five seconds from being denied is right there. Deep down, you knew that when that opportunity presented itself, when you had that chance, you’d take it.
See you Wednesday night.