If you didn't enjoy this year's Stanley Cup Final, please check your pulse. If you found the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs to be somewhat boring, please get a CAT Scan. If you didn't hold your breath last night for the final minute in Game Seven between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings, you're probably already dead. While I say that the conspiracy theorists be damned, this was the best Stanley Cup Playoffs in a long, long time. Detroit - the high octane offensive and suffocating defensive team - played superb hockey through four rounds and just came up short. Pittsburgh - battling arch-rivals, former teammates, and the same team that paraded around the Mellon Arena with the Stanley Cup last year - put what may have been a season to forget behind them after erasing all those memories with the Stanley Cup win last night.
I admit that I am a Penguins fan. I have a lot of Penguins-themed merchandise around the hockey basement, and my favorite player while growing up was Mario Lemieux. I'm sure you might be thinking that it's bias time since I am a Penguins fan, but that's not the case. I hope.
You see, Detroit played well last night. In fact, they played good enough to win the Stanley Cup if it hadn't been for a determined Penguins team. If there had been any effort lower than what the Penguins displayed last night, I would be congratulating the Red Wings right now for the second year in a row. The Red Wings were good enough to win the Stanley Cup last night. The only problem was that the Penguins were better on June 12, 2009.
Tonight's victory over the Red Wings for the Penguins will be memorable. They exorcised the demons that the Red Wings seem to bring last season by pushing this series to seven games, and then went into Joe Louis and played their hearts out. They erased the 10th-place standing they sat in at March 25. They erased the doubters who said that this team would feel the hangover from last season. They erased a dismal showing in Game Five of the Final where they lost 5-0 to the Red Wings. They erased two 2-0 deficits to higher-seeded teams.
But this needs to be said: the Red Wings did not choke. Not in this writer's view. They played well enough to win the game had Pittsburgh not brought 110% effort. Again, anything less than that amount of effort would mean a Stanley Cup parade in Detroit. The only difference is that the Penguins were the better team on June 12, 2009.
And I'm not going to browbeat Marian Hossa for his decision to leave the Penguins during free agency last year. That's the beauty of free agency: he can choose where he wants to play, and he made a fairly basic choice in opting to go with the most successful team of the new millenium in order to win a Stanley Cup. However, it is my belief that with Hossa leaving the Penguins, it actually made the Penguins better as they could afford to go out and trade for Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin, and Craig Adams, and sign Ruslan Fedotenko as a free agent. That money would have been tied up in Hossa long-term, and I may be writing about the Red Wings had that happened. Hindsight is 20/20, but we learn from history. And Marian Hossa is now oh-fer-two in Stanley Cup Finals.
The Red Wings' dynasty is nowhere close to being over. Heck, even the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s had a few slips along the way as Montreal won in 1986 and arch-rival Calgary won in 1989. The Red Wings have a number of players signed long-term, and all of these players are major cogs to their success: Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Franzen as examples. They had the emergence of some very good, young players this post-season as well, namely Helm, Ericsson, and Abdelkader. No, the Red Wings will still be dangerous next season and in future seasons. And with the sour taste of defeat in their mouths, they might just be the hungriest team next season. Beware of the Big Red Machine next season, NHL.
But today is PhotoBlog in a different way. Today is all about last night's win, and the images that should be locked in Penguins fans' minds for a long time. This is why you follow for 82 games and 16 wins in the playoffs. This is why you wear the colours of your team. This is why you live and die with each shot and save. This is why hockey is religion.
- The last time the Penguins had a team photo with the Stanley Cup was 1992. It seems like it was a hundred years ago.
- If you didn't gasp when Lidstrom took that shot with two seconds left, you had already passed out. Which means you missed Fleury's Cup-saving save.
- Euphoria on the bench as the final horn sounds. In particular, Guerin, Cooke, and Kunitz.
- Max Talbot - your unsung hero for the Pittsburgh Penguins as he nets both goals in the Game Seven 2-1 win.
- Can the effort of Jordan Staal be described? His short-handed goal was huge, but when he demanded the checking role against Zetterberg's line, that is character in spades.
- Evgeni Malkin was named as the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for being the Playoff MVP. Much like #66, his play did a lot of the talking rather than talking through the media.
- Sidney Crosby became the youngest captain to win the Stanley Cup.
- If you don't think head coach Dan Bylsma was a major cog in bringing the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh, consider these numbers. In 25 regular season games, Bylsma went 18-3-4 as the Penguins coach, good for a .720 winning percentage. He took over with the Penguins sitting at 59 points in 10th-place in the East. The Penguins finished fourth in the Conference with 99 points - a 40-point improvement over 18 games! In 49 games, including the playoffs, his coaching record is 34-11-4. Extrapolating that to an 82-game schedule, Bylsma's record would be an astounding 57-18-7 for 121 points! That would have been four points better than the President's Trophy winners in San Jose!
- Of course, the Penguins always talked about playing as a team, so when Crosby took the Stanley Cup from Gary Bettman, he skated into the middle of his team and celebrated with them.
- The celebratory pictures of the team winning the Stanley Cup took place at centre ice, and all hands were on-deck for this one, including owner Mario Lemieux to the far right. The hardest trophy to win in sports brings about the biggest jubilation for players, as seen on Matt Cooke's face. And that's how he'll be remembered.
- Of course, I won't forget about Mario Lemieux's contribution. From rescuing the team in bankruptcy to getting a new arena deal to handing the management of the team over to Executive VP and GM Ray Shero, both Mario and Nathalie Lemieux had a considerable effort in this win. And they enjoyed it with the celebratory champagne.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!