Saturday, June 13, 2009

Welcome Back to Pittsburgh, Lord Stanley

I'd like to welcome Lord Stanley's official representative, Cup, back to Pittsburgh. It's been a while since your last visit, Cup, and a few things have changed.

What's that? Oh, yes, you are not mistaken, in fact that was the soft, sexy caress of Mario Lemieux's hands on you last night, but he doesn't play hockey any more. He owns the team now. Yes. Owns. No, I'm not kidding.

The Pirates? Oh, it really has been a while since you were here. They didn't win any titles and they've been just soul-crushingly horrible since you've left, but they have a pretty new ballfield, so they've got that going for them.

Yeah, a few other things have changed around here since then, too. We have a new Mayor. Sigh. I'll just leave it at that. And the housing boom that hit the rest of the country? Well, we never had that, but it's cool because when it all crashed and burned and brought the entire nation's economy down with it, it had a negligible impact here. In fact, ironically enough, Pittsburgh is being touted as a model of fiscal responsibility and good old American, ah, something or other involving character, I think. The city's in the New York Times all the time. Suddenly, they love us, though we're not so sure if the feeling is mutual.

Oh, yeah, that new Steelers coach that you met when you were here in 1992? He stayed for a long time and had a very good run. He finally won a Super Bowl in the 2005-2006 season, but then he retired and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina where he very publicly started rooting for the Carolina Hurricanes. Now he's about as popular around here as Marian "goal-less in the seven most important games of his career" Hosebag (tm Smiley). I guess those two can start golfing together any time.

You'll be spending your summer with a new bunch of guys, so let's get you up to speed on your hosts.

Let's start with Sidney Crosby, the youngest captain ever to tote you around the ice. (Notice, I didn't say 'hoist.' Why do people always say 'hoist?') Anyway, Sid's been touted as the great savior of the game since he was about 9 years old, which is good amount of pressure to carry around, but he never complains about it; he just works harder than he did the day before and, in spite of his youth, the guys in the Pens locker room would follow him to the ends of the earth. He's pretty much an assist machine. Just ask the old-timer and relative Pittsburgh newcomer, Billy Guerin, about what it's like to receive a pass from Sid right on the tape as he's perched in the goal mouth. He's rarely demonstrative and his game is less flashy than a few others, but he is a complete player in every way. He has fantastic hands and great vision and sees things opening up two and three moments before anybody else on the ice does.

The other guy I'm sure you'll be spending a lot of time with is Geno Malkin, the young Russian phenom who hauled in the Conn Smythe trophy, even as Detroit netminder Chris Osgood was thinking about where he'd display it in his home. Malkin's an amazing player. He can just physically take over a game and in Game 7, with Sid out with knee injury for much of the game, Geno threw himself all over the ice with reckless abandon to preserve the Pens victory. His english isn't great, but he's a good kid and he hasn't even reached his peak as a hockey player yet. Oh, don't be surprised if his mother uses you to serve her famous borscht.

Max Talbot is a local superstar, as he'll be the first to tell you, as much for his ebullient personality as his gritty style of play. He plays every shift with his foot flush on the gas peddle. His Game 7 heroics were the stuff made of legends. First, he and Geno irritated Brad Stuart into turning over the puck near the goal and then he buried it by going five-hole on Osgood. The second goal, the one that turned out to be the game winner, was again started when Talbot, this time teamed up with Chris Kunitz, badgered Stuart into another stupid turnover, this one at the blue line. Talbot raced towards Osgood, considered a cross-ice pass, reconsidered it, and lifted the puck over Osgood's shoulder. Top shelf, as Talbot himself would describe it. You'll have a lot of fun out with Max and I'm sure you'll get a lot of attention from the ladies.

Some of these guys aren't so young, and surely you remember Guerin from the old days with the New Jersey Devils, and Petr Sykora, too, from his 2000 performance with those Devils. Sergei Gonchar's been waiting a long time to meet you, but he was so anxious to do so that he played his usual steadying role after suffering a nasty knee injury in the Capitals series; we'll probably find out that he was skating with zero cartilage and ruptured ligaments in his knee ever since, but still played around 20 minutes a game. In Game 7, he logged of 24 minutes time, so yeah, I'd say he was pretty desperate to spend some time with you.

Even old Miro Satan made a return trip from Wilkes-Barre himself, just in the hopes he might dance with you.

The coach? Yeah, that's a crazy story to go from coaching in the AHL in Wilkes-Barre on Valentine's Day to winning the Stanley Cup just a few months later. It is stranger than fiction, indeed. By the way, is it kinda gay of me to have reading glasses that look like Bylsma's glasses? Even a little bit?

But this team is surprisingly deep and so many contributed. Jordan Staal is not even old enough to drink legally in Pennsylvania, but he was a penalty killing machine all playoffs and scored a short-handed goal in Game 4 that probably turned the whole series around. Tyler Kennedy is a grinder if there ever was one and he ended up having the game winner in Game 6. Line-mate Matt Cooke crushed everything within his vision in a red sweater. So did defenseman, Brooks Orpik. But then, he did that last year, so nobody was really surprised. Rob Scuderi single-handedly saved Game 6 with his in-goal heroics.

Well, yes I was getting to that. I was just saving the best for last, because, appropriately enough, so did he. Marc-Andre Fleury is a lithe, acrobatic guy, more of a dancer in net than a jock. They list him at 6' 2" and 180 pounds, but you'll see what a crock that is when you meet him. Perhaps Flower stands 6' 2" in his skates and weighs 180 in all of his gear, skates and stick included. He catches a lot of heat from the media and some of the fans love to disparage him, maybe because he seems so delicate, a trait which masks his iron will. Certain folks will dismiss his performance by pointing to his playoff goals against average (2.61 -- ranks 9th among playoff goalies), or his save percentage (.908 --10th among playoff goalies), but I'd direct you to his post-season wins: 16. It's the only number that matters. It must be said that he's had some rough moments. He let in two flukey goals off those funky springboards in Detroit in Game 1, then he let in a soft goal against Justin Abdelkader (who?) in Game 2. His brilliance in Games 3 and 4 was overshadowed by the Pens offensive firepower. Yeah, I know. He was horrible in Game 5. Just horrible. But when his team needed him most, he turned in back to back brilliant performances in Games 6 and 7 and he fought up until the very final moment, making a spectacular save on Niklas Lidstrom with less than one second left in Game 7. It was a save worthy the Mount Rushmore of saves, one of the Seven Wonders of the World kinda things.

It took a moment, after the clock wound down to zero, for anybody to realize that he had done it, and that the Pens had done it. With that, any questions about Fleury's capacity to perform in the clutch, to come up big in big moments, were answered. He went into a building that had his number, against a team that had his number, a team that circled like vultures for the last 20 minutes of action, and he stoned them. He just fucking stoned them. To be the best, you have to beat the best. That's what Fleury and the Pens did and that, my old friend, takes some stones.

So, welcome back. Give our best to Lord Stanley and enjoy your stay in Pittsburgh. You should get used to it. I can envision you spending a lot of summers here.

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