Friday, June 23, 2017

All Rounds Done, Part Two

Time for some more closing thoughts about the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Since I already opined about the Nashville Predators who came up short, today's post focuses on the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the whole ball of wax for the second year in a row.

The blueprint
Last season, the Pens' championship ale was perfected with a brew of scoring depth, team defense, confident goaltending, and veteran leaders whose example was followed by high-performing whippersnappers. This season's was brewed with the same ingredients and strategy, although the steps taken to get it from raw material to finished product appeared quite different.

The 2016 Pens blew opponents out in dominating fashion and controlled the action for long stretches of time, whereas 2017's were usually outshot and often had to deal with their opponents controlling the action for long stretches of time -- yet they managed to win it all anyway, for they knew how to capitalize on opportunities, deal with pressure, and deliver in the clutch.

Last season Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin led the team in playoff points with 22, 19, and 18 respectively; this season they were the league's top three playoff points scorers with Malkin having 28, Crosby 27, and Kessel 23... Last season, rookie Bryan Rust impressed with 6 playoff goals, including the one that won the Eastern Conference Final; this season, rookie Jake Guentzel made an enormous splash by potting 13 playoff goals (second most by a rookie in NHL history) and accounting for 21 total playoff points (tied for the most ever by an NHL rookie).

If you think the above numbers suggest that the Pens scored at an even greater clip this post-season than last, you're not going crazy. Last spring they tallied 73 goals in 24 playoff games and this spring rang up 77 in 25, which works out to an increase of 0.04 per game... And while they had nail-biting victories like 1-0 over Ottawa in Game two of the ECF, they also enjoyed blowout victories like 7-0 over Ottawa in Game Five, 6-2 over Washington in Game Two of the second round, and 6-0 over Nashville in Game Five of the SCF... All of which puts a big asterisk on my previous remark about them controlling opponents last spring but getting controlled by opponents this spring. Clearly the Pens are a club that has mastered the art of being highly efficient, cashing in chances, and making opponents pay.

And on top of that there was the goaltender factor: Last year rookie Matt Murray took over for injured starter Marc-Andre Fleury and proceeded to play every post-season game steady as a rock. This time around, Murray got injured before Game One of Round One, so Fleury resumed his role as starter and proceeded to play every game of the first two rounds plus the first three of the ECF -- and played spectacular, rescuing the Pens several times by delivering victories in games they should have lost.

Murray, by then fully recovered, returned to the net for good in the second period of Game Three and was his usual solid self. And when the klieg lights shined brightest and hottest, he did something remarkable by pitching shutouts in the last two games of the SCF, thus taking a series that was tied 2-2 (and seemed to be tilting in Nashville's favor) and transforming it into a 4-2 Pittsburgh triumph that will appear fairly comfortable when looked at in history books.

Fleury is a 13-season veteran who ranks as Pittburgh's all-time winningest goalie and who has three Stanley Cups, two All-Star appearances, one Olympic gold, and one team MVP to his name. Murray, on the other hand, has played less than two full seasons in the NHL and has already won two Stanley Cups in a starting and starring role, something no other goalie in history has ever managed to pull off.

When you think about everything above, the blueprint the Penguins followed seems invincible. They were the best team this season and were going to win no matter what. Looking at things with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, Nashville never had a chance.


A Best Pen
Let's revisit the matter of Marc-Andre Fleury. If anyone ever makes a list of the all-time best Pittsburgh Penguins, Fleury won't rank #1 and probably won't be close, seeing as how the team's sweater has been worn by players whose names rank among the highest of cotton: Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Jaromir Jagr, Evgeni Malkin. Nevertheless, Fleury deserves to be on the list and recognized as one of the best Penguins ever.

A partial snapshot of his career success can be found three paragraphs above, and going back to how excellent he was in this year's second round, I will simply quote my own May 11th post: Washington frequently controlled long stretches of play in their offensive zone...They banked 32 or more shots on goal in five of the games and never registered less than 26, whereas Pittsburgh was thrice held to 18 or fewer shots on goal and only twice registered more than 22. For the series, the Caps outshot the Pens by a staggering 229-154. But in the end, none of that mattered...The reason Pittsburgh's superior efficiency was able to make a difference was that Marc-Andre Fleury's goaltending was nothing short of brilliant. He kept the Penguins in games until their snipers were able to ripple the nets and thereby fire darts through Washington hearts. He faced 75 more shots than Washington's Braden Holtby and surrendered fewer goals -- and many of his saves were so spectacular they qualified as grand larceny.

And check out the final three games he completed during this year's Stanley Cup run: A Game Seven shutout of Washington to win that series and a Game Two shutout of Ottawa to even the ECF, sandwiched around an overtime loss in which he gave up just one goal in regulation and finished with a .943 save percentage (i.e., a loss that was not his fault).

Fleury was not the first athlete to become known as a team-first guy, but he is probably the most accomplished athlete to be known more for that personality than for his accomplishments. Ever since he played his first NHL game (for the Penguins in October 2003) he has embraced the city and its fans and made it clear that playing in this town, for this team, was how he wanted to spend his entire career.

Fleury does what is best for the team and never lets his ego obscure the big picture. When he got sidelined by concussions in 2016, it was assumed that he would resume his starting role after he recovered, but the much younger Murray performed so well in relief that Fleury became a back-up after more than a decade as the top dog. He accepted that reality without complaining, and when called upon to fill in he continued to deliver by posting an 18-10-7 record during the 2016-17 regular season and 9-6 mark during the 2017 playoffs.

When Murray returned to the net during the ECF and Fleury was again relegated to back-up duty, he did not complain even though he was largely responsible for having gotten the team that far: He understood the reasoning and kept himself ready in case he was called upon again.

If George Harrison had been a hockey player, he would have been Marc-Andre Fleury, and if Fleury was a musician he would be Harrison: The impactful and influential yet unassuming Beatle, the one who played splendid guitar and composed "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Here Comes the Sun," "Something," "Taxman," and "Old Brown Shoe," the one without whom the band could not have been the same and yet was happy to sit back in the shadows while John and Paul got the headlines.

All of which makes current reality suck, even though it should be joyous after Fleury played a major role in the Pens winning their third championship in his time there... for realty is that the NHL has a salary cap; the 32-year-old Fleury has a contract with an annual cap hit of $5.75 million, whereas the 23-year-old Murray carries a cap hit of only $3.75 million; the rules prevent a team and player from ripping up an existing contract and writing a new one even if they want to; there was an expansion draft this week, in which teams could only protect one goaltender from being plucked off their roster by the NHL's new squad, the Las Vegas Golden Knights; and teams have to think long-term, not short-term... some time ago, this reality reared its ugly head and made it clear that there was no logical way for the Pens not to expose Fleury in the expansion draft, which meant that as the season wound down, everyone knew that Fleury's time in Pittsburgh was ending... and sure enough, when the expansion draft happened two days ago, the Golden Knights plucked him away from the city and team he loves.

This is excruciating if you have any emotional bones in your body, and becomes even more excruciating when you consider that Fleury's contract has a no movement clause. Under the rules of the expansion draft, that would have forced the Penguins to protect him, which would put their long-term future in jeopardy considering his age and cap hit versus Murray's; and so with an eye to that uncomfortable fact of life, the team approached him in February and asked him to waive the clause for the obvious reason. He agreed to do so because he understood the reality, and knew it was best for the franchise that had given him a chance all those years ago, and both sides kept their agreement secret until after the Stanley Cup was won twelve days ago. So yes, just like George Harrison always aimed to do what was best for the music and the band, Marc-Andre Fleury always aims to do what is best for the game and the team.

When players cleaned out their lockers last Thursday and spoke to the media for their final time as the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins, Fleury openly wept. When asked what he would miss most about Pittsburgh if Vegas came calling, he answered with a single word: "Everything." So yes, the business side of sports sucks, and life itself can suck even when you are standing on what appears to be its pinnacle and your bank account is flush.

Then came this Wednesday, when the Golden Knights picked him on what happened to be the 14th anniversary of the day he was selected by the Penguins in the 2003 entry draft. Fleury walked onto the stage to give what he expected would be "a quick wave," and was caught by surprise when the Vegas crowd erupted in a thunderous and prolonged standing ovation. In a post-draft fan forum, Golden Knights partisans chanted his name and one of them shouted "I love you," to which he responded by saying "I love you too."

The world would be a better place if more people had personalities like that of the high-achieving man from Sorel-Tracy, Quebec, the man whose masculinity is not drawn into question by the fact that fellow players call him "Flower" because that's what his name means in his native French.


Cros-Mal
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are among the best forwards to ever play the game, and they have spent their entire careers in the 'Burgh, They could have gone elsewhere and grabbed higher salaries by playing for teams that wouldn't need to find room under the cap for both of them. And if they played in larger and more media-centric markets like New York or Boston or Toronto, they would likely be getting more endorsement deals than they get playing in Western PA. But they are happy with their status in the City of Bridges and eager to pursue championships above all else, and so they remain.

"Sid and Geno" have a kind of loyalty that is in line with Marc-Andre Fleury's. Wedded to their long-term team success -- eleven straight playoff appearances, five trips to the conference finals, four conference championships, and three Stanley Cups including the first back-to-back Cups of the cap era -- that kind of loyalty will make their names go down in history much deeper than if they had left for other digs.

They are an interesting tandem. Both are superb shooters and superb passers, though Malkin is known more his sniping shots and Crosby more for his artful passes... Though known for speed and skill rather than fisticuffs, they are both (especially Malkin) more than willing to throw punches and get their hands dirty when the situation warrants it... Their offensive prowess has gotten so much press over the years that their defensive prowess goes almost unnoticed; however, if you pay attention to their defensive play you will see that it (especially Crosby's) is outstanding.

I mention Crosby and Malkin because how can I not? As good as they are as individual players, their careers are joined at the hip. As true as it is that this Penguins team would not have won the Cup without Fleury's brilliance against Washington, it is also true that they would not have won it without the scoring and leadership of the centermen from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia and Magnitogorsk, Russia. Despite how long they have played -- their careers are already approaching three times the length of the average NHL career -- they are still in their primes, having just finished 1-2 in points for this year's playoffs and with Crosby having led the league in goals during the regular season.

Previous generations were blessed to see Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay play simultaneously for the Red Wings, Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull for the Blackhawks, Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito for the Bruins, Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier for the Islanders, Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier for the Oilers, Mario Lemieuz and Jaromir Jagr for the Penguins, Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov for the Red Wings, and Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg for the Avalanche. Right now we have Crosby and Malkin to watch, and they right rank there with those other tandems.

It is often hard to appreciate something while it is happening. Appreciation usually comes only with benefit of hindsight. Hopefully, hockey fans today, even those who are Pittsburgh-haters, realize how special it is to watch Crosby and Malkin skate for the same organ-eye-zation.


Dynastic
As noted above, these Penguins are the first team to win back to back Cups in the salary cap era. Surely you've heard they are also the first team to pull off back to back Cups since Detroit a couple decades ago, back in 1997 and 1998.

And of course, the Penguins also won the Cup in 2009 (and went to the SCF in 2008) with some of the same important pieces that made up 2017's puzzle.

So do they count as a dynasty? I think so, especially when you consider how different the league is today than it was in the past.

And are they the best "modern" dynasty? There is certainly a fascinating debate to be had there, when we also have this decade's Blackhawks and the 1990's-2000's Red Wings and 1990's-2000's Devils to choose from. But I will save that debate for another time and another post, because I have said more than enough for today.

This was an outstanding Pittsburgh Penguins team and what they did will go down in history. It was fun to watch.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Summer Solstice



Because I do not like hot weather, summer is my least favorite season. But there are still things I enjoy about it, and surprisingly, some of them are specific to this sweat-soaked state in which I live. So here are some thoughts on summer’s first day:

I love Independence Day.

I love that there is one time of year when I am able to prefer chilled white wine over room temperature red wine.

I love when evening breezes carry the sweet scent of orange blossoms across Florida.

I love watching swallow-tailed kites, one of my favorite birds of prey, as they soar in the air and seem to stay up there forever without flapping their wings.

I love seeing hummingbirds hover around the blossoms of honeysuckle and aloe.

I love watching fireflies illuminate the woods at dusk.

I love San Diego.

And I love the dramatic pulse of Florida’s afternoon storms, when black clouds darken the sky and spew lighting and thunder and unleash torrents of blinding rain – only to blow away and be replaced by sunny skies in less than an hour.

Friday, June 16, 2017

All Rounds Done, Part One

Just like that, it was done. The Stanley Cup Final was suddenly over and the Pittsburgh Penguins were once again the champs.

Below are some thoughts about the 2017 SCF now that it has come to an end, and rather than do one post I will do two: This one focuses on the Nashville Predators who came up short, and the next will focus on the Penguins who came up big.

The Whistle
First, let's put to bed the matter of "the whistle," since it has been subjected to vitriol not just from Predators fans but from the unfathomably large population of Pittsburgh haters that lives from coast to coast.

A minute into the second period of the decisive Game Six, with the score tied at zero, Filip Forsberg fired a shot that Matt Murray stopped. From the spot where referee Kevin Pollock was watching, Murray appeared to have also caught it. Unable to see the puck, Pollock did what refs are supposed to do when it's not in the net and they can't see it in the crease: He blew the play dead.

It's almost certain that Pollock thought Murray was holding the puck, but he wasn't. Murray was turned almost perpendicular to the goal line, and the puck landed on the other side of his frame so that his own body blocked it from Pollock's view. Nashville's Colton Sissons saw it sitting there and managed to make a move and jab it home -- but not until an instant after the whistle sounded, and thus there was no goal.

To recap: The call was in keeping with the rules and therefore was not wrong. But it still sucked, and royally so, because Pollock blew the whistle so quick. If I was reffing I would have spent more time looking for the puck before deciding I couldn't see it. I would have at least tried to get a view from another angle. However, none of that changes the fact that the call was per the rules.

Regardless, the main purpose of this segment is not to say that the call was legalistically correct; it is to point out that the call was not the reason Pittsburgh won and Nashville lost on Sunday. Pollock called the play dead with two-thirds of the game left to play, and then he and the rest of the officiating crew more than made up for it by allowing the Predators to ignore the rulebook for the rest of the night. The Predators, including sainted Pekka Rinne, committed many obvious penalties and literally were literally not called for even one of them.

Every single power play after Pollock's whistle (and even before it) belonged to the Preds, including a stint of 5-on-3 during the third, yet they barely generated any chances during all those golden gift-wrapped opportunities. Do I really need to point out that that is not how a champion performs when everything is on the line? A champion does what Pittsburgh did: Rise up and snuff out its opponent's chances. Hence, Pittsburgh is a champion and Nashville is not. Sounds harsh, is true.

A radio host here in Tampa who is extraordinarily knowledgeable about hockey, and who was openly rooting against the Penguins, moaned on Monday that the Preds "never recovered" from the blown-dead call. That sentiment has been echoed across the fruited plain. Here's my problem: A championship team is, by definition, a team that will not lose over one crap-luck call that happens when two-thirds of a deciding game remains to be played -- especially when the overwhelming majority of calls throughout the game go for them rather than against them, and when they get four power plays and their opponent gets zero. Champions capitalize on at least one power play when the grail is in sight. Champions take the one crap-luck call and use it as gas to pour on their competitive fire; and as a result, that fire burns so hot it scorches the earth and leads them away from defeat and straight to victory.

The '85 Bears, '99 Rams, Joe Montana 49'ers... 1980's Miami Hurricanes, 1990's Nebraska Cornhuskers, 2010 Auburn Tigers... 2002 Red Wings, Gretzky-Messier Oilers, LaFleur-Dryden Habs... Can you imagine any of those teams wilting and losing due to one shitty-but-not-wrong call not going their way? Of course not, because wilting and losing over spilled milk is the opposite of what champions do. Champions wipe up the spilled milk and burn down the kitchen.

A team capable of getting derailed by a lone unfavorable call early in a contest is a team not capable of winning a championship -- at least not yet. I believe that even if Sissons's goal had stood, the Penguins should have found a way to win on Sunday. I suspect this series wasn't going to a seventh game no matter what, especially when you look at how the Penguins kept improving all the way from the beginning of Game One through the end of Game Six.


Which is not...
...to take anything away from the Spring 2017 edition of the Nashville Predators. These Preds were a great group of guys supported by a great swath of fans, and they accomplished a lot and I loved watching them play. Their future is bright and they may yet get to drink from the Cup.

They and their fans should realize that before the Gretzky-Messier Oilers became the dynasty remembered for winning five Cups in seven years, they reached the SCF and got swept by a New York Islanders squad that had won the three previous Cups. The Oilers were overflowing with Hall of Fame talent in 1983, but those future Hall of Famers needed to have their asses handed to them by champions in order to learn how to become champions themselves.

The 1993-94 Red Wings had the best record in the Western Conference, but got bounced in the first round of the playoffs by bottom-seeded San Jose... The following year they had the best record in the entire NHL, only to get swept in the SCF by fifth-seeded New Jersey... And the year after that they had the best record in NHL history, yet failed to make it to the SCF because they fell in the third round to eventual champ Colorado... It was not until the year after that, in their fourth kick at the can, that those Wings finally broke through and won it all -- and today, all anyone remembers about that era is that the Wings won back to back Cups in '97 and '98 and three Cups in the five calendar years from June '97 through June '02.

Your time may come, Nashville... or it may not, since sports are capricious... but there is more reason for you to be happy and optimistic than there is for you to be sullen and cynical, so you should seize the former mindset as you skate into next season.


Depth and youth
One of the Penguins' defining traits during their consecutive title runs has been how deep their talent runs, and how their resulting ability to get bushels of goals from anywhere on their roster makes them so hard to put away. Well, if these playoffs taught us anything, it's that the team from Music City is almost as strong in that regard.

We all knew coming in that the Preds were deep on the blue line, but most of us thought their forward depth was not remarkable, and boy did we find out we were wrong! Yes, there is the oft-cited fact that the Preds' 14 game-winning goals during the playoffs were scored by 12 different players -- but then there is the less-cited fact that 19 different Preds, including 15 forwards, scored goals for them during the playoffs (nearly equaling the all-time record of 21 players and 16 forwards, which was set three decades ago by the '87 Flyers).

Of their eight players who recorded double-digit points in the playoffs, four are under the age of 25 and the oldest (P.K. Subban) is just 28. Their three highest scorers from the regular season (Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg) are 24, 24, and 22, respectively, and all three of them were impact players during the post-season as well, as Forberg led the team with 16 playoff points and Arvidsson and Johansen finished tied for third at 13. Damn.

The depth gets even more impressive when you consider the unlikely stories of Pontus Aberg (who has the coolest name in all of sports) and Frederick Gaudreau... Prior to this post-season, the 23-year-old Aberg had played in only 15 NHL games and scored only one NHL goal; but then he tallied three assists and two goals in the post-season, including what was arguably this year's best playoff goal of anyone from any team, plus the game-winner in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Final... Meanwhile, prior to this post-season the 24-year-old Gaudreau had played in only nine NHL games without scoring a single goal; but then he bagged three goals in the Stanley Cup Final, including the game-winners in the only two SCF games the Preds won... I don't believe this is coincidence. I believe there is something special and infectious in the team's culture, something that infuses everyone who enters the locker room and laces up skates and pulls on a sweater emblazoned with a saber-toothed cat.

If you're on the Nashville bandwagon, you gotta be enthused by demographics like those above, for they provide ample reason to believe your team will be a competitor well into the foreseeable future.


But be that as it may..
...it would be unwise for the Preds and their fans to take their eye off of Father Time, for he is undefeated and lurks in the locker rooms of all teams... and he is on the prowl with a chance to take out key contributors even on this impressively young club.

No matter how much we talk bout Nashville's balanced scoring and well-oiled defensive corps, we all know that goaltender Pekka Rinne was their best player during their playoff run, and we all know they wouldn't have gotten so close to Xanadu without him playing so spectacularly. Rinne will turn 35 before Thanksgiving gets here, and while I believe he has a few more good years in him, there's no denying that he is at the age where Father Time could pounce at any time and make his skills deteriorate drastically.

Should Father Time strikes Rinne, to whom will the Preds turn to protect their net? Do you really believe Juuse Saros has what it takes to deliver a title, to steal wins against contenders when the Preds' skaters are struggling to score?

Father Time is also breathing down the neck of team captain Mike Underwood Fisher, who turned 37 last week and has now logged 17 seasons in the NHL. You won't find Fisher putting up Arvidsson-like stats these days, but you will find him doing tons of other things that are vitally important for a team to contend. He is a force in the face-off circle, blocks shots, sets up teammates, and provides invaluable leadership. His steady character (he's an avowed Christian who exhibits calm in the midst of storms) affects teammates in positive ways and is the kind of thing that can make a difference in the clutch.

Fisher's contract ends at the end of this month and there is no doubt that if he plays in the NHL next year, he will once again do so for the Nashville Predators. But what if he decides to hang up his skates instead of signing a new contract? What if he does sign another contract, only to have Father Time strike in the near future and render him unable to contribute like before?

The Predators' youth is impressive and suggests they will be competitive for a long time... but their chances of winning it all will go down if Rinne and/or Fisher are no loner as effective as they have been... in fact, their chances will go way down if Rinne is the one whose effectiveness takes a big drop... and so it would behoove the Predators to keep the pedal to the metal and keep pushing to win now, rather than listen to the sirens who sing about the promise of "the future."


In closing...
...you were a great story, Nashville/Smashville, and you should continue to be, but the Penguins were better... and although a fine line is thinner than gossamer, it is still there, and the difference between "almost there" and "there" is simultaneously tiny and huge... and while on the one hand that sucks, on the other hand it means you had a helluva run... you're not best-in-the-world material this spring, but you are second-best-in-the-world material, and that ain't bad.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Flag Day

Prayers to Steve Scalise tonight, and may James Hodgkinson and his ilk spend eternity rotting in Hell.

But I will wait for another time to opine any further about the politically motivated mass murder Hodgkinson tried to pull off this morning.

Today is Flag Day, so let our thoughts simply go there for the time being. Here again is my post from 2011 "illustrating" the lyrics to God Bless America, using photographs I've taken throughout our country:


God bless America...


Land that I love...


Stand beside her and guide her...


Through the night...


With the light from above...


From the mountains...



To the prairies...

To the oceans white with foam...

God bless America...

My home sweet home...


Note: The final picture was taken by Kelly Noel.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

D-Day

73 years ago this morning, human beings from the naval forces of eight Allied nations laid their lives on the line in ways most of us can hardly fathom. Two-thirds of them were from the U.S.U.K., and Canada.

Traveling in ships and amphibious vessels, they set sail from England in the pre-dawn hours of June 6, 1944, bound for the Normandy beaches of Nazi-controlled France. It was the first time since the 1600’s that any invading military had crossed the perilous waters of the English Channel, and as day broke tens of thousands of troops disembarked from their landing crafts and plunged into Hell on Earth.

Slogging first through waves and then through sand, they were sitting ducks for the Nazi gunners positioned on shore. Bullets rained on them amidst a cacophony of explosive reverberations. The men at the fronts of the landing crafts were the first ones to step on the beach, and they stepped onto it knowing they were likely to get shot. Each of them was acutely aware he might be entering the final seconds of his life.

Approximately 10,000 Allied men were killed or wounded that day. However, in bearing that brunt of brutality, those who were first on the scene helped clear the way for 100,000 of their fellow soldiers to reach shore and advance against the enemy, freeing occupied towns as they went. By the end of the month more than 800,000 men had done so, and the war’s momentum had swung in the Allies’ favor. Within a year the Nazis surrendered unconditionally.

In military parlance, the phrase “D-Day” refers to the first day of any operation, but in the public’s mind, it will always refer to the events on the beaches of Normandy. Now the men who braved the bullets on that distant shore are dying away at a rapid rate. Let us give them our thanks while they are still alive to hear it.

After all, we might never have tasted freedom if not for the valor of the soldiers of '44. Because of that, we must resolve to pass their story on to our children, so that they may pass it on to theirs, to preserve what Abraham Lincoln referred to as "the mystic chords" of our nation's memory.