So they young Pens finally crested the proverbial mountain and overcame 2 - 0 and 3 - 2 series defecits to conquer the Wings and win the first (of what could be many) Stanley Cup of the Sidney Crosby era. As a Rangers fan I am not obligated to feel anything other than disgust and envy when a hated division rival succeeds where the Rangers have failed for the last 14 seasons. I wish that instead of Sidney being handed the cup by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and raising it high overhead, that it was Chris Drury and the other Rangers standing on the ice ready to receive the cup. Alas, that was not the case. Therefore in the interest of sportsmanship, I humbly offer my congratulations to the Penguins and their fans.
Despite my displeasure at seeing the Pens win the series, there are some people that I am happy to see be a part of this celebration. Here they are in no particular order:
Mario Lemieux - The former captain and two-time Stanley Cup winner as a player may have saved the Penguins franchise twice from moving on to other pastures. The first being when the Penguins were "awarded" the 1st overall selection in the 1984 draft and the second time when he assumed ownership of the struggling franchise in 1999. Mario's dedication to keeping hockey in Pittsburgh and the fortuitous draw that saw the Penguins win the right to draft Crosby now has Pittsburgh sitting atop the NHL landscape again. With a new arena and several young stars, Pittsburgh hockey is alive and well and Lemieux deserves a lion's share of the credit.
Dan Bylsma - Before the season had started, I could not have told you that Bylsma was coaching the Pens entry in the AHL. I was familiar with him as a role player with the Kings and the Pens but was somewhat surprised when he was tabbed to replace Michel Therrien during the season as head coach. When Bylsma assumed the reigns, the Pens were not playing good hockey and there was a chance that they could even miss the playoffs. Bylsma came in and pushed the right buttons and guided this team to the Cup. I was most impressed that the team didn't collapse after dropping the first two games to Detroit and also survived two elimination games in the series. It wouldn't have been surprising to see a young team like the Pens fold up but they perservered and now own the hardware. That's a positive reflection of their coaches.
Ray Shero - Like father, like son. Ray, the son of former Flyers' GM Fred Shero, now has a Stanley Cup championship just like his dad. Granted, Ray walked into a great situation with a Pens squad brimming with talent. Any time you inherit a roster with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Ryan Whitney (who was flipped for Chris Kunitz), Brooks Orpik, and Marc-Andre Fleury your chances of competing for a Cup are quite strong. Of course you don't just win a cup with 5 or 6 very good players; you need complementary role players to step up and make key contributions when it matters. Depth is critical when navigation a long, arduous run through the playoffs. The hardest part as a GM can be to find the right ingredients to mix with your star players. Shero finally found a successful mixture as some of Shero's acquisitions like Kunitz, Hal Gill and Ruslan Fedotenko all played important roles in the playoffs. Shero also made the gutsy move to fire Therrien less than a year after a Cup Finals loss to the Red Wings and replaced him with Bylsma.
Hal Gill - At 6'7" and 250 pounds, Gill is an imposing figure on the ice. Despite his size, however, Gill doesn't play a real physical game. He uses his reach to disrupt passing lanes and his strength to tie up opposing forwards. Gill tends to be part of the unheralded crew that only gets noticed when he blunders. He definitely doesn't have the snarl of a Chris Pronger or even a Zdeno Chara and I think that has caused him to earn a bad rap. I've seen Gill at some of his best moments though. Who was always on the ice to contain Jaromir Jagr when the Rangers matched up with the Pens? That's right, it was Hal Gill. And Gill did a pretty good job containing one of the more electric players in the NHL. I feel good for Gill now that he is a Stanley Cup champion; he definitely deserves it.
The Fans - How could I write something like this without mentioning the faithful fans of the Penguins? When there was talk of the team being sold and moved, there was no mention that lack of fan support was the reason. Instead it was the difficulty in staying competitive financially in an outdated arena like Mellon arena. The fans have aways been there to support their team. They certainly are as passionate about their team as any group of fans out there and I say congratulations to you. You have been through a lot of ups-and-downs with the Pens and you must feel great knowing you are the champs.
I'm not listing players like Crosby or Malkin. Crosby is still a little whiner and Malkin, while a great player, borders on dirty. Malkin took a very careless penalty in game 6 that gave the Wings a chance to tie the score late on a power play. I've seen him "slew-foot" players, I have seen him take too many bad penalties for me to feel good for him.
There you have it, my reluctant hand shake with the Penguins players and fans. Hopefully, I didn't take too long to get into the hand shake line like the captain of some team that shall remain anonymous.