Friday, April 29, 2011

15 Things to Love about the 2010-2011 Pittsburgh Penguins

With the season at a close, the bitter disappointment of losing in the playoffs lingering on our pierogi-loving palates, there is still so much to be thankful for. Its pretty easy to be a Penguins fan and I was thinking about that when I ran across Michael Farber's 20 Things to Love about Hockey at Sports Illustrated.

Here are 15 Things I loved about this past season (of course, I could make a long list of things not to love about this season, leading off with the inconsistency of the disciplinary action of the NHL, but that's for another day perhaps.)

1. 24/7. If you say you didn't love every bleeping second of '24/7' I'll dispatch Steve Downie to make a dangerous run at you (not that that would cause the NHL to suspend him, mind you.)

The HBO crews did an incredible job of filming and putting together a cohesive narrative in zero time flat. I know Pittsburgh fans hate Alex Ovechkin, but I found that he had a certain, strangely appealing rakish quality. He's really the guy I love to hate, unlike guys who I hate-hate (say Zdeno Chara or Steve Downie.) No, the hockey world is a much more entertaining one with Ovie in it. How wonderful for us that the Penguins and Capitals set up so beautifully as diametrically opposed teams. On the one hand, you've got Dan Bylsma's business cool demeanor juxtaposed against Bruce Boudreau; Ovie, with his tattooed, Eurotrash badboy thing contrasted with Sidney Crosby. The Pens franchise with three Stanley Cups and the Caps with their history as choking dogs (per Tony Kornheiser.) Thank you, hockey gods. Thank you.

2. The Build-Up to the Winter Classic. With the Winter Classic upon us, I was dispatched to the Strip District to get some 'wedding' kielbassi from S & D Polish Deli. (If you haven't had it, the wedding kielbassi is twice smoked and the best damned kielbassi I've ever had in my life. Hands down. Go. Get some. Now!) It was the usual Strip day -- T-shirt vendors all cranked up with a myriad of Winter Classic and Penguins T's available (plus lots of riffs on 'Obitchkin' and what have you), bodies jammed into PennMac, lines out the door at DeLuca's. The best part was, as Dickie Dunn might say, the spirit of the thing.

3. Sid's scoring streak. Cheesy mustache notwithstanding, that was one helluva ride. 25 games with at least one point and 26 goals in that time period. As we used to say about Mario -- Magnificent. We are lucky bunch of yinzers to get to watch this guy on a regular basis.

4. Flower Power. No question Marc-Andre Fleury struggled early. No question he lays an occasional stink bomb from time to time. But there is no single player more responsible for their heroic run to the post-season than Fleury. At times, he makes it look effortless. At other times, you marvel at his ability to change directions, get from one side of the crease to the other. The guy keeps getting better and was frankly hosed that he wasn't even a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. At least the fans got it, after the Game 7 loss to Tampa, with chants of "Fleury! Fleury!" raining down on the ice. Thanks, Pittsburgh. Thanks for getting it.

5. The win streak. Twelve is better than Eleven. I view that as a hockey koan for the ages.

6. The Penalty Kill from Hell. None were better than the Penguins penalty kill, effective 86.1% of the time in the regular season. They were so good at it that there were times, sick as I am, I was actually excited for the Pens to go on the kill. (Good thing, too, because the Pens were short-handed 324 times -- second in the NHL right behind Montreal.) Still, it was a strange thing of beauty to watch, that penalty kill -- bodies flying, men taking pucks in their faces and shoulders and feet, Fleury making impossible stops. It was like watching a two-minute version of "300." Only with more plot and better dialogue.

7. The Kids Are All Right. Testy, Conner, Jeffrey, Lovejoy and Tangradi. For a while there, the Penguins had to run a daily shuttle bus to Wilkes-Barre to replenish the troops. And the young guys, all of them, performed admirably. The best of the bunch, I think, was Ben Lovejoy. He also gave me one of my favorite moments of '24/7' with his, "we're going to find the guys who did this and, probably do nothing about it" comment.

8. Eggo laying out Colton Orr. Hypocrite much? Me? Guilty as charged. I'm not a fan of hockey fights. I think the league can and should do away with them, as well as ALL shots to the head. (I'm actually getting tired of writing about the league's need to consistently, seriously clamp down on head shots.) But I have to admit, my inner Ulf Sammuelson came out in full-throated appreciation when Deryk Engelland dropped Colton Orr like a side of beef. Night, night, Colton.

9. The Killer M's, Martin and Michalek. Ray Shero always does a good job in the off-season, but the additions of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek were two of his very finest signings. No way on earth do the Pens finish the season with 106 points and just miss winning their division by an eyelash without these guys.

10. The New Barn. Okay, I fess up. I like old stuff. I am a proper Pittsburgher, always suspicious of change. So I worried that the new place would be too nice, encourage too many suits, and be quieter than the old place where we could be ourselves in the rough and ramshackle, dingy but comfy atmosphere of the Igloo. But Consol is awesome. It is really loud and bright, with great sight lines and, though it is new and shiny, we're still all packed in there. And the fans are still the same fans as before. It feels broken in already -- a good thing. Plus, there's a Tim Horton's on the 200 level. Mmmmm ... donuts.

11. Mario's TV. Chicago has their hockey song (great), and Detroit has the squid (bizarre but great), but Pittsburgh has Mario's TV. I love that fans pack in to sit outside, in the shadow of the old barn, to watch the game. I love that we call it 'Mario's TV.' I love that it is representative of what Pittsburghers have long understood intuitively -- sports are no good if they are not shared experiences. If you meet somebody who doesn't love Mario's TV, tell them, "It's a Pittsburgh thing. You wouldn't understand."

12. The maturation of TK. Tyler Kennedy skates hard every shift. He has always done that. After Sid and Geno went down, it looked to me like he tried to do more. Not that he tried to do too much, but that he was doing more. He is a player who has really come into his game, understands what he can do, what he needs to do, and what his line-mates can do. It's a joy to watch a player like that.

13. Disco Dan. If this guy doesn't win the Jack Adams' Trophy, I'm going to demand on a congressional investigation. I always feel confident with Bylsma behind the bench. I'll take my chances with him any day.

14. James Neal's OT. Sure, the euphoria was short-lived, but tell me you weren't up, jumping up and down and shouting in pure, unadulterated joy when Neal sent that puck in over Dwayne Roloson's right shoulder in the second overtime of Game 4 in Tampa?
15. 2011-2012 Season. It's my thinking that the Penguins -- the guys who were able to suit up and play in the absence of Crosby and Malkin -- will be that much better next year. I think they learned about themselves and how to win without two of the best players on the planet. Assuming Sid and Geno are healthy and ready to go next year, the Penguins should be that much better, poised to make a serious run at Sir Stanley. Also, it should be fun to watch. Perhaps Timbuk 3 said it best.

See you in the fall, Puckheads.

[24/7 image from; Fleury image and Engelland & Orr image both from Justin K. Aller/Getty Images; Sid & Geno from Yahoo Sports.]

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