February's short calendar has not been kind to Western Pennsylvania, especially on this less-than-super Sunday.
Freezing sub-zero temperatures, Treacherous road conditions, heaping snow, and frustrating power outages have laid heavier on the hearts and minds of Pittsburghers than they have on the city's frozen streets.
Many, if not all, of us over the years have found comfort from the cold, solace from problems, and pride in trying times in Penguins hockey.
In many ways this weekend, our comfort, pride, and faith were put on full-frontal assault.
Though the Penguins are to be commended for taking their lackluster travel arrangements in stride, there will be no excuses made in that department.
The Penguins showed up for the game with enough rest and time to prepare. Judging by the Pens’ play against Montreal, one could argue that the team has been preparing for today’s battle in Washington more than yesterday’s half-hearted loss to the Canadiens.
The opening face-off was taken at noon, and it became apparent early on that the Penguins were in the same emotional state as their fan base, playing with tangible desperation and emotion in the first period.
From the starting line, the game was everything you would expect out of a iconic NHL rivalry game on national television, thanks to NBC.
Crosby exerted his dominance and unmatched skill, Ovechkin demonstrated his breathtaking scoring ability, the role players on both teams played with intense emotion, Pierre McGuire showed more hair than mental stability, Mike Milbury called a game almost as well as he made the Boston Bruins the apex of NHL hockey, and Pittsburgh was pushed to overtime by another fierce rival.
Unlike the two previous Sundays, the black and gold came up on the losing end in overtime, extending their losing streak to back to back games, in just as many days.
Between the peaks and valleys of emotion over the weekend, we can take away a lot of good, bad, and ugly.
- Chris Kunitz returned to the lineup and demonstrated his worth to Sidney Crosby’s line instantly. For weeks I have heard Penguins fans everywhere banter back and forth on radio talk shows and Twitter about Ray Shero needing to find a way to bring in a winger to play with Sid that is not afraid to forecheck hard, bang bodies, crash the net, and open up space for Crosby. If Penguins fans are attempting to find this guy on the Carolina Hurricanes’ roster, they’re searching in the wrong place. That guy is mending a strained abdominal in a hockey arena locker room.
- Jordan Staal continues to be a man possessed. Staal has shown that he can assert himself physically as well as any center in the league at the moment, but with four points and three goals, including two goals in today’s game, in his last three games, he’s barreling his way onto the score-sheet to boot. If Team Canada isn’t going to appreciate Staal’s worth, so be it. The defending champions will.
- Sidney Crosby continues to score as well as anyone in the league, and he proved that today by burying two high-skill goals early in the contest. But Crosby’s biggest impression today was in ways statistics cannot measure. He showed grit, poise, toughness, and since it’s NBC Sunday, a whole lot of leadership. Crosby entered the season having as many flaws as cup rings, and will exit this season with more numbers than the caloric content of Bruce Boudreau’s Super Bowl party buffet.
- Kris Letang’s play today should take his name off the trading block of even the most grandiose of Letang naysayers. He was responsible on the blue line in the offensive zone, showed precision on the breakout, and was a glaring ray of sunshine in a Pittsburgh defensive corp that is doing it’s best to become a metaphor for the road conditions they faced on their five hour bus ride last night.
- Don’t think for a minute that Evgeni Malkin wasn’t the Geno we’ve all come to know and love this afternoon. But watching Mark Letestu’s energy on the third line recently, and witnessing the wrecking ball of chemistry that Staal and Geno have had together lately, shows me that the last two games' line combinations are going to strike fear in the hearts of the Eastern Conference much more than today’s. Having Staal and Geno playing at that level together gives Pittsburgh a top six that can out-skate, out-check, out-work, and yes, to all of the hasty Kovalchuk and Ovechkin cheerleaders, out-score anyone. It also makes the team's lineup much more manageable come deadline day.
- Mark Eaton has earned his two million dollar salary against the Maple Leafs and Rangers this season, but not against the threats to the Pens that will be faced in the playoffs. His flair for being out of position and having an absence of defensive zone discipline have made his spot in the nightly lineup as expendable as Alexander Ovechkin’s orthodontist.
- Jay McKee was a name we all hoped would make us forget about Rob Scuderi’s SoCal jaunt last summer. Today’s game he once again was the catalyst for quality scoring chances from the opposition. To put it bluntly, McKee was a massively liability today for Pittsburgh. Washington’s Eric Fehr isn’t the third star in what was potentially the game of the year, if Pittsburgh defensive stalwarts of years past are in similar situations. In key moments, of key games, McKee has given Ray Shero more reasons to consider dealing him than I have given out the use of the syllable “Kee” in the last sentence.
- I am the last person you will find to throw Marc-Andre Fleury under the bus, especially at a pivotal point in the season, but the Flower hasn’t shown his true colors in recent play, today in particular. I strongly believe that MAF’s current inconsistency is in his head, not his body, and the ship will be straightened soon. Until then, we’re left to wonder what effect the team’s flappable defensive play has had on Fleury’s confidence.
The skepticism that comes with a heart-breaking, emotional loss like today’s.
This weekend, the Penguins took on the emotionally annoying task of doing battle with the Habs in Montreal, played the hottest team in the NHL on the road in back to back games, in back to back days, and came away with a fourth of our potential point total in both of those games.
To put that in perspective, I’ll offer some hypothetical food for thought : If the Penguins were to play as flawed as they have this weekend, but still emerge victorious this weekend, then drop the next two games at home, (both of which are divisional opponents unlike the teams besting the Pens yesterday and today) in the same fashion we chalked up our most recent losses, we would be spending much more time working on our Chicken Little impersonations during the Olympic break than enjoying Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby giving Penguins fans valid reasons to sport attire backing foreign countries in international competition.
Like it or not, taking our frustrations out on lesser opponents in the final three games before the break will rectify most of the on-the-ice problems the team is having. Besides, as much as the ensuing media onslaught arriving today and tomorrow would have you believe otherwise, the last two games count the same as the next, with an available argument being present for the next two games actually being more urgent. The regular season’s goal for Pittsburgh should be (for now) the Atlantic Division crown. To be a division’s best, you must beat the division’s worst. That is precisely who the Pens will do battle with twice in the friendly confines of Mellon Arena, in the next five days.
The problems that can be fixed off the ice are going to be fixed. The Pittsburgh Penguins have had more question marks in the wake of the all-star breaks of both the previous seasons. General Manager Ray Shero did not put the Penguins in a position to contend for, and win, Stanley Cup championships by turning a blind eye to the team’s glaring problems. This year will be no different.
Set aside the Ovechkin-esque cockiness by the Capitals fans that you're tired of seeing when you check other people’s Facebook statuses. They “rocked the red” in the first two games of their playoff series against the Penguins last year. Things turned out fine for the flightless birds. Take the cackling Flyers fans on Twitter with a grain of salt - they are not going to be a threat to you when they cannot bury the puck more than once against the injury-depleted Minnesota Wild. Turn the other cheek when Pierre McGuire gets giddy on NHL Live tomorrow afternoon, ranting and raving about Ovechkin's contribution to the game of hockey. Actually scratch that last thought - no one should move any cheeks when Pierre McGuire is getting excited.
Think about the nights that our injured reserve list was so extensive that Chris Lee and Nate Geunin were the men responsible for shutting down players the likes of Tomas Vanek and Patrick Marleau. Think back to the times that the team’s depth was compromised so much that the only time a Malkin jersey was seen in action in Mellon Arena was the Augustiner-laden yinzer in the Rita’s Ice line and the only instance of a healthy Max Talbot was buying a Beamer on the commercial breaks.
Are those nights ringing a bell?
Good. Now take a look at the standings.
Despite the early reports of the Penguins season ending sour this afternoon in our nation's capital, the Penguins are still in fourth place, have the third-best record in the conference, and are only two points out from tying New Jersey for the division lead, and are playing with nearly the identical roster that won a championship less than a year ago; a roster that will be improved on within the next month.
The truly elite this time of year peak in the ides of spring, not the throes of winter. Everyone who has spent time and emotion exaggerating Pittsburgh’s demise in the backstretches of the last two seasons knows this all too well.
The Penguins weathered the weekend’s storm and gave the Caps everything they had. Eventually, the smoke in DC will clear. In Pittsburgh, eventually the ice on the parkway will melt, the temperatures along the rivers will slowly rise, the power will come back on in a living room, and we’ll turn our backs to days like today. The team will rise from the storm a stronger entity, and so will we, as both fans and people.
After all, that’s why we’re champions.