Another season, another heck of a ride. It’s not the ride we feared we were in for back in October. It’s not the ride we were thrilled to be on in November. It’s not the one that punched us in the gut both in early January and again in February. The roller coaster that we rode with this team from mid February until last night is one that I’m not sure will ever be duplicated. It had daily highs and lows with more twists and turns than any engineer could have built into a ride. And, though it didn’t quite end the way we hoped, it was an exciting ride.
I think I speak on behalf of everyone here at PenguinPoop when I say Thank You to everyone with the Penguins. Sometimes it’s a love-hate relationship with the fans, whether it’s adjusting to a new arena or wondering why a coach can’t get a power play working, but we know that everyone in the organization works extremely hard so that we can enjoy the greatest sport on earth. Sometimes all Pens fans take for granted what a first class organization we have here, but it’s true.
Despite the transitional woes of the move from the Igloo, it was a glorious moment to see Mario on skates at center ice on opening night. To see his years of hard work for the team and the city finally come to fruition. After a rough start to the season, when the team found its groove they took us on a whirlwind journey that included a 12 game winning streak. Watching the team win and the guys have so much fun doing so was contagious.
During that time, we witnessed greatness. Never done amazing, Sidney Crosby reached further into his bag of tricks and became a goal scoring machine during his 25 game point streak. We all watched in awe as “the Kid” dazzled us night after night and as his “mustache” became a symbol of something more than a weak attempt at facial hair growth.
The build up to the big weekend here in Pittsburgh was incredibly exciting. When HBO announced that they would be filming “24/7: Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic, ” I think it sparked a lot of interest. Fans were excited to see what it would be like. I don’t think that anyone expected it to be as amazing as it was. The behind-the-seasons footage of these rival teams, sporting two of the league’s biggest stars, leading up to one of the league’s premier events was amazing. The two very different styles of the coaches and teams, as well as different paths the teams were on at the time of the filming made the show intriguing.
The show was the perfect lead-in to the big week here in Pittsburgh. The celebration kicked off with a RMU game and then the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins playing the Hershey Bears, the AHL affiliates of the Pens and Caps, playing at the CEC on Thursday night. Friday morning brought out the inner “child” in all of us when Pens greats of the past laced them up for the Alumni game. What a thrill to see the likes of Francis, Stevens, Coffey, Trottier, and others out there on the ice. Not to mention seeing Mario play one more time.
While New Year’s Day was wet here in the Burgh, it couldn’t dry up the pride in hosting the 2011 Winter Classic. Despite the rain and the outcome of the game, there was nothing better than being at Heinz Field and seeing nearly 70,000 hockey fans watch a game under the lights. You couldn’t help but get that feeling that you were a part of something special.
From that point on, it seemed like our world spiraled downward. Two hits to the head of Crosby caused and/or contributed to a concussion that we have since learned was much more serious than originally thought. We hoped that Geno would step in and become the hero like he did the last time Crosby was out with an injury. But, it wasn’t happening that way and he seemed to be bothered by a nagging knee injury. About a month after Sid went out, Malkin went down. This time it was his other knee that would require surgery and put him out for the rest of the season.
Following Crosby’s injury, and especially after Malkin’s, the hits just kept on coming. It seemed like the team couldn’t go a string of multiple games without losing a player to some kind of injury. The reinforcements kept coming up from the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins. It got to the point where call-ups were needed to replace call-ups who got hurt. I pointed out in my last “Bombs Away” that I remembered the day that they had to use a mini-van to bring up four guys on a game day to join the guys that were already here.
I also mention in that post these qualities: Heart, passion, determination, commitment, character, chemistry, hunger, belief. That’s what we saw an endless supply of for those two or so months. From both the NHLers and especially the kids brought up from WBS. Our team was outmatched night after night on a skill level. But, they outworked every team they played and never gave up no matter how much adversity they faced. They won a few games, played a lot of OTs, and went to a lot of shootouts. But a point here and a point there add up.
Game after game, we watched as this team would not quit. They didn’t care that no one outside of the organization or their fans (and not even all of them) thought they could win games, they were going to give 110% every game. It was edge-of-your seat hockey, but boy was it fun to watch.
By the time the Pens started to get healthy bodies back and players were returned to WBS, a look at the standings left everyone else in the hockey world scratching their heads. How was it that a team that was missing Crosby and Malkin and that had been plagued with injuries not only in the playoff hunt, but playing for the division and conference titles and near the top of the league? Like I said in my last post, those intangibles I listed above will beat out talent alone every time. You never count out a team who is willing to play like that.
In the end, the very end, the Pens didn’t end up winning the conference or the division. They did end up with an impressive 106 points and home ice for the playoffs though. Yes, the playoff run was short again this year. But, that’s not the point. There will be plenty of time over the coming days and weeks to look at what went wrong during the season and this playoff round.
As we take time to sit back and reflect on this past season, as the sting of last night starts to fade, we will be able to appreciate more and more that what we witnessed this season really was something special. Sometimes, the most magical things don’t always come in the form of winning. Everyone on that team should be holding their heads high today, because the story of this season isn’t last night or the past two weeks, but the journey to get there.
So, thank you from this fan, and I think most fans, for pouring your heart and souls into another season…and letting us watch. We’ll see you at camp!