Some leftover stuff from a tremendous Final series.
First, it's somewhat incredible that the Penguins had pretty much hit rock-bottom after a deflating loss to the woeful New York Islanders on Feb. 16. Pittsburgh was 10th in the Eastern Conference and a spot in the playoffs was laughable at best, let alone winning a round, reaching the finals or actually winning the whole thing.
Reaching the playoffs became something of a pipe dream, though in the back of our heads, we thought, "Well, if we can get there, then anything can happen." But getting there was the tough part and I didn't expect it to happen.
Then there was the coaching change. The trade of Ryan Whitney for Chris Kunitz and a prospect. Bill Guerin was brought on board for one last run at the Cup. Two moves that were so important. Those two players became top-liners, allowing other players to move into roles more suited for them, adding to the Penguins' depth.
Pittsburgh not just clinched a playoff spot but ended up as the fourth seed, which became home-ice advantage for two series. I'm not sure how far many fans expected the Penguins to advance, but I for one didn't expect a return to the finals, due to a number of factors (short offseason, the overseas trip to Sweden, being in playoff mode for so long, and simply not being as good as last year.)
A victory over Philadelphia in the first round was particularly sweet, as the Flyers are unquestionably Pittsburgh's biggest rival, but the Penguins weren't as impressive in victory as last year, when they steamrolled their way to the final. They got past Washington's scary-good offense and then had to face Cam Ward, who was possibly the NHL's hottest goalie over the last two months.
Once getting past Carolina, winning the Stanley Cup became plausible. Pittsburgh got better as the playoffs progressed and it actually was a better unit than last year, despite the misgivings from that first-round series.
The Penguins seem to play better when they're in trouble. They were one of the best teams, record-wise, when trailing after two periods. In the finals, twice they fell behind in critical situations - 2-0 and 3-2 - and rebounded to win. They essentially played elimination games in Games 3 and 4, while 6 and 7 were actual potential season-ending games. They came through each test with flying colors, and that's why they're now the champions.
I'll be honest when I say, before Game 6, that the one thing I was really hoping for was a win so Detroit wouldn't celebrate in Pittsburgh again. If the Penguins won Game 6, I didn't know if they'd win in Detroit, where they've played some awful games. I just didn't want to see, in person, the Cup awarded again.
It was nice, to say the least, to be able to return the favor.
I don't know if I can pick one memory from the playoffs that stands out. There are a lot to choose from. In the first round, there's Bill Guerin's overtime-winner in Game 2. Or Marc-Andre Fleury's absolutely sick save on Jeff Carter earlier in that game. Max Talbot probably trumps both with his fight against Daniel Carcillo in Game 6, when Talbot put a finger to his lips as he skated to the penalty box, telling the Flyers fans to "Shhh." Pittsburgh then erased a 3-0 deficit and went on to eliminate Philadelphia, 5-3.
That fight would be a really good option, especially seeing as how Talbot ended up with the Cup-winning goal. In the second round, there's Evgeni Malkin's OT winner when I superstitiously stayed in my car after driving home from work, or Sidney Crosby's breakaway that capped a 6-2 win. Or Malkin's unbelievable hat-trick goal in game 2 against Carolina, or Talbot's fluke goal in Game 4 against the Canes.
That's just to name a few, and I'm ecstatic I can have this debate. The Penguins had a phenomenal season and they were a pleasure to watch. So, from me, a hearty thank you for all those memories.
Now, some random stats and observations:
**Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin recorded 36 points, the most in the postseason since 1993. He became just the fifth player since 1968 to lead the regular- and postseason in scoring. The others: Guy LaFleur, Wayne Gretzky, Phil Esposito and Mario Lemieux.
**The Penguins are 9-0 in the playoffs when Max Talbot scores.
**I've seen people criticizing Sidney Crosby for having only three points in the finals. But know what? It's a team game. Crosby carried the team to the finals and sooner or later, someone else had to step up his game. Jordan Staal did. He scored two of the series' biggest goals. Max Talbot did. He got the Cup winner. Marc-Andre Fleury did. Tyler Kennedy did. The defense as a whole did.
Crosby still had more goals in the series than Marian Hossa and Nicklas Lidstrom combined, and it was a game-winner. He still finished with 15 goals - to lead all players - and 31 points in the playoffs.
**The Penguins clinched each series this postseason on the road. Neither of their first two Cups were won on home ice.
**Pittsburgh spit in the face of a number of statistical trends that were going against it. First, the home team had been 12-2 in Game 7 of the finals. The road team hadn't won since 1971. In this series, the home team had been 6-0. No coach who had been hired in midseason won the Stanley Cup since that same 1971 team, the Montreal Canadiens, led by Al MacNeil. Detroit was 11-1 at home in this postseason. And, which was widely discussed, the Penguins became the first team since the 1984 Edmonton Oilers to lose in the finals one year then win the Cup the next.
**No team in any of the three major sports won a road Game 7 to win a championship since baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979, who also pulled off the feat in...1971.
**No team had trailed 2-0 in a series twice in one postseason and still won the Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh dropped the first two games in Washington before winning in seven games. Only one other team lost the first two games in the finals on the road and still won the Cup in seven games.
**I missed the telecasts of the games in Pittsburgh, since I attended each game, but did it really take until Game 7 for NBC to begin discussing how the rulebook was thrown out for the finals? And it took the Penguins getting away with some violations before they finally talked about it? Both teams got away with a large number of penalties. I wonder if the NHL officials realize that was a problem, and I wonder if they're at all embarrassed at how loosely the series was called. Penguins defenseman Hal Gill alone probably should've been called for at least a half dozen infractions.
I don't blame the players for getting away with penalties. If they're not going to be called for them, then by all means do it. But the rules shouldn't have changed for the finals, and it was clear they did, which is ridiculous.
**Max Talbot became just the third player to score both his team's goals in a finals game 7. The others were now-teammate Ruslan Fedotenko, then with Tampa Bay in 2004, and Vancouver's Trevor Linden in 1994. Fedotenko's Lightning won the Stanley Cup, Linden's Canucks didn't.
**This year's series ended in a similar way to last year's. In Game 6 last year, the Penguins had one last chance as time expired to tie the game, but missed the cage. This year, the Red Wings had one last shot in the final second to tie things up that was stopped.
**For the second straight year, there was something notable about the captains. Last year, Nicklas Lidstrom became the first European captain to hoist the Cup. This year, Sidney Crosby became the youngest captain to do so.
I think that's about all. Congratulations to the Penguins players, coaches and the rest of the organization, on winning, and to the Red Wings for another stellar season.