All that you fashion, all that you make
All that you build, all that you break
All that you measure, all that you steal
All this you can leave behind
- U2, Walk On
We fashioned the Pittsburgh Penguins as Stanley Cup contenders back in October. They earned 102 regular season points, won the Atlantic Division crown, and exacted revenge on three bitter rivals in the playoffs. They stole a game from the Detroit Red Wings in what will be remembered as one of Pittsburgh's most glorious sporting moments. An 82 game regular season gave birth to a euphoric Stanley Cup run, the emergence of legendary figures, and enough storylines to make every single day of the season intriguing.
Putting this season behind us and moving forward feels much like saying goodbye to Colby Armstrong, pictured above: hard to do, but necessary in order to get that one step closer to the Stanley Cup. There will be much salary cap discussion on this site and elsewhere in the coming weeks. Such discussion will occur because this off-season is unimaginably important. It will happen because fans are already excited for next year and beyond with this young team. But it will also serve as a distraction, a blinder of sorts as to what it is we are leaving behind...
The length of an NHL season makes you forget. A perfect and insanely ironic example of this is that on opening night, I got in a fight with a Red Wings fan. Ok, not a fight, but we traded words. Thinking back to that incident some eight months ago, it is remarkable to consider everything that happened between the two Detroit-oriented encounters.
It seems hard to remember now, but the Pens did not start out well. Bad officiating and stifling Devils D reminded us that our young superstars weren't going to score highlight reel goals every night. Four third period goals from the Leafs a few days later didn't help matters. Discomforting themes were rising to the surface: inconsistent play from Fleury, lack of production from Crosby (which made roughly 25 too many headlines), and most notably, a growing hatred of Mark Recchi being on the top line. We hit rock bottom at DoubtAboutIt with this absurd post from me. Desperate times, to say the least. Going into Thanksgiving, the Penguins were 8-11-2. Eight. Eleven. And two.
And then a little thing I like to call "The Thanksgiving Game" happened. With their backs against the wall in Ottawa, the Penguins launched multiple comebacks and fights to beat the red hot Senators 6-5 in a shootout. The play of the Pens picked up, and things grew brighter. Recchi looked to be on the way out. Hossa rumors began. Everything culminated in the Winter Classic in Buffalo, which we blogged live. Momentum was building, and a large portion of the credit goes to Ty Conklin. His play in the stead of Marc-Andre Fleury will be talked about for years to come.
If the injury to Fleury wasn't enough, the game's most talented player went down a few weeks later (great picture, Sam). What transpired following Crosby's injury seems all the more frustrating after the Stanley Cup Finals, but it cannot be denied: Evgeni Malkin, for a brief period of time, became the best player in the NHL. MVP talk began.
If that wasn't enough to get Pens fans excited, Ray Shero helped us remember what it feels like to say "with the brass of a riverboat gambler." Marian Hossa was a Penguin, along with some guy named Hall Gill and Pascal Dupuis. Sam weighed in with some analysis, as did a bevy of notable Pittsburgh characters. But even in the excitement surrounding the trade, there was a lingering feeling of sadness, one that will likely return this summer in some form. Colby Armstrong, a kid who had been through the tough times, a player that played the way Pittsburghers admired, was gone. For this reason alone, it seemed, some people had problems with the trade. Hossa's injury cause more concern as they Penguins and their fans readied themselves for a long playoff run.
The very first game against the Senators justified a year-long campaign from The Pensblog, an effort to recognize a man that is more of a Spartan than a hockey player. I simply call it The Gary Roberts Game. After two goals and an offering to fight every player on the Sens while being escorted from the ice, it was clear that the Senators were no match for Gary Roberts, or the Pens. Last years demons were erased, and the Jagr-led Rangers now stood in the Penguins' path.
After a thrilling Game 1, the trend became clear: another despised foe, another easy conquest. Marian Hossa began scoring big time goals, including the series clincher in the overtime of Game 5. People readied themselves for the Flyers series, Sam correctly told everyone it'd be Pens in 5, and it turned out that Versus gave the Pens more problems than the Flyers. Mike Lange took us to the promised land after a 6-0 win in Game 5 against the Flyers that might have been the single most fulfilling moment of the playoffs.
Yet the Game 5 win seemed to be ancient history after Game 1 of the Red Wings series. Game 2 wasn't much better. A stellar performance in Game 3 gave the team hope, but a home loss in Game 4 sent the Penguins packing for Detroit in a 3-1 hole.
As the minutes ticked by in the third period of Game 5, it was hard not to think retrospectively. This Penguins team had been so enjoyable to watch, from their never give up attitude to the grittines showed by Ryan Malone in coming back from numerous broken noses. It became more and more of a reality that some of my favorite players would go the way of Colby Armstrong very soon. I didn't want the season to end, but the feeling that we were "a year away" was insurmountable.
What happened next everyone already knows. Talbot. Three OT's. Fleury's 55. Sykora calling his shot. Everything has already been said about that fateful night in Detroit. It was one of the most admirable performances by a sports team that I will ever see, with desire and determination overcoming the odds at every turn.
The Penguins lost in six games to the Detroit Red Wings in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals. They lost arguably their two best players to injuries for portions of the season. They boldly convinced a fan base that, as players and an organization, they believed in one another, so much so that deadline blockbusters and improbable three-overtime-comebacks were approached with resolute execution and a steadfast belief in their mission. A fan base asked questions about what Gary Roberts would do, and Tyler Conklin provided answers about his ability to guard the pipes in a time of turmoil.
For a blog that is nearing its one year anniversary, we couldn't have asked for anything more from our Pittsburgh Penguins this year. They were gritty, they were admirable in victory and defeat, and they were fun. I look at Colby Armstrong on top of this post and wonder...who else will be a former Pens player? But when I think about beating the Flyers for the first time in the playoffs...about game winners from Hossa...about staying up until 4am watching replays of Petr Sykora putting the grittines of Ryan Malone and Sergei Gonchar behind his wrister...then it becomes clear that the Pens were right all along: you can't win a Cup without sacrifice.
To the Pittsburgh Penguins, their fans, our readers, and all of the diehard writers and bloggers alike we've met along the way...
Thank you. You made this fun, and you even turned the 'stache into a hockey fan.