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, so much so that he seized the role of starter going forward. But 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 is 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 in the background 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 and the near certainty that Vegas would have plucked goalie-of-the-future Murray off of Pittsburgh's roster; and so with an eye on that uncomfortable fact of life, the team approached Fleury in February and asked him to waive his no movement 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 surname means in his native French.

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.

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.

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