Saturday, 30 May 2009

Hockey Rant in Canada: Why The Penguins Will Win the Stanley Cup

Hockey Rant in Canada
Why the Penguins Will Win the Stanley Cup

This is primarily a rebuttal to Puck Daddy's assertion that, despite their hunger for redemption and for the Cup, the Pens don't have it in them to win the Cup.

He's on crack, and here's why.

He takes the time to list off the comparative competitive talents of both teams, which are quite well matched, all things considered, claims that the addition of one Evgeni Malkin is what will be the difference maker this year for the Pens, but that it won't be enough, even with an injury-plagued Detroit roster, because the weak link is Marc-Andre Fleury.

Now, I'll be perfectly honest: Fleury is not my favourite goalie. Nor is he, by any stretch of the imagination, the best goalie in the league, let alone in the entire world. But he is a good goalie and, on many days, he makes highlight-reel butterfly saves that land him in the "elite goaltenders" category. He has had regrettable moments, 'that goal' being one of them (if you don't know what I'm refering to, count yourself as lucky), but every player, particularly goalies, who make it to games of any consequence are bound to have moments they would rather take back, pucks they would rather have not fumbled. But, to get to those high-pressure games, you either need incredible talent or incredible luck, and the latter is, more often than not, a result of the former. And no one can deny that Marc-Andre Fleury has talent. You can make any argument you like about how, after going first overall in 2003, he has not lived up to expectations, but don't tell me that he's not a good goalie. He's made mistakes. Everyone's made mistakes. Everyone's memories are just more finely tuned during the playoffs, so mistakes made then are less easy to forget. And he fumbled a HUGE goal last year. But to fumble that goal, he had to make it to the Cup final first. As a starter.

If you think that doesn't make him hungrier for a perfect series, you're high. To assume that having screwed up would not make someone with incredible talent determined to ensure that he doesn't repeat his mistake is a painful underestimation of both his drive to succeed and his determination not to become "that goalie who dropped two SCF series' to Detroit."

Don't underestimate the smiling boy in the goalie mask. As much as he may not be a honours graduate of the Ken Dryden Goalie School of Not-Smiling, he's still a goalie. Don't expect him to be the same guy we saw last year. Or do so, but do so at your own peril. Just because he's happy-go-lucky, doesn't mean he can't, and won't, keep you from finding the back of his net.

My second issue with Puck Daddy's whole argument is that he essentially says it's going to come down to goal-tending. "[I]t's between the pipes where I'm most weary," Puck Daddy writes. First, I can't help wondering if he meant wary, not weary, and secondly, I think this is probably the dumbest assumption that can be made about this series. This is not going to be a goal-tenders series. Goal-tending is, admittedly, one of Pittsburgh's easier areas to critique, but the reason it is, is because there's not much else you can critique other than a few defensive fumbles. I mean, even the Pens' power-play seems to have returned from it's sabbatical.

By saying that this series will com down to goal-tending, he ignores the main reason that Pittsburgh is in the Stanley Cup Final. Pittsburgh has been an offensive powerhouse so far, and they show no real interest in slowing that down. Bill Guerin's F-U Carolina goal in Game 3 was evidence that just because they're up 5-2, doesn't mean the Penguins are going to show their opponents any mercy by laying off their attempts to score. Guerin scores. Pens win 6-2. The goal was when I knew with about 98% certainty that the Pens were going to sweep Carolina in the Eastern Conferece Final.

This year's Stanley Cup Final series is going to be Sid and Geno and Guerin against Franzen and Zetterberg and Cleary and Filppula. It's going to be Nicklas Lidstrom against Sergei Gonchar. It's going to come down to special teams, and self-restraint and good defence. And good offence.

Pittsburgh's top 10 scorers have out-scored Detroit's top ten scorers 134-123 so far this post season. Sure, it's been different circumstances, but if we want to get into the secondary scoring debate, be my guest.

(Detroit has Cleary (14 pts) and Filppula (14), Pittsburgh has Guerin (14) and Kunitz (12).
Detroit has Lidstrom (13), Pittsburgh has Gonchar (12).
Detroit has Hossa (12), Pittsburgh has Fedetonko (11).
Detroit has Huddler (9) and Samuelsson (9), Pittsburgh has Talbot (7) and Cooke (7).
Detroit has Brian Rafalski (8) and Niklas Kronwall (7), Pittsburgh has Kris Letang (9) and Mark Eaton (7).

Sure, Pittsburgh's secondary scorers are, for the most part, a point or two behind Detroit's. But when Sidney Crosby and Geno Malkin have 56 points between them, compared to Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg's collective 37 points, Pens fan can rest easy, at least someone is scoring.

Pittsburgh has offensive talent, and they are going to use it. Detroit has defensive talent, and they are going to use that.

But Pittsburgh's defence ain't so bad. If Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik are in top form, Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang can keep their turnovers to a minimum, Hall Gill can refrain from scoring inconvenient own goals, Philippe Boucher can quietly avert the apocalypse, and Mark Eaton can score us a goal or two... well, I have a feeling the Pens won't be relying solely on Marc-Andre Fleury's goal-tending skills to keep Detroit's offense in line. There's a reason why the goalie is the last line of defence: because there are other ways to win a game than by not-losing it.

Detroit can't rely on good goal-tending, great defence and a few soft goals to win them this Cup, they will need to bring a lot more to the ice, and I don't doubt that they will try to bring it. But to say that this series will come down to goal-tending disregards Pittsburgh's most obvious strength: Evgeni Malkin sure as heck won't be handed the Art Ross Trophy on June 18th based on his good looks.

The Penguins can score. The Red Wings will shut down a lot of scoring opportunities, that's a given, but the fact that the Pens have out-shot their opponents in all but three playoff games (two of which they won by multiple goal margins anyways) indicates that if nothing else, Detroit's defencemen will be kept busy this series. While it's true that more shots on goal doesn't necessarily mean a win (the Pens out-shot teams in four games and still lost - granted, three of those four games were lost by a single goal to the Capitals...), the more shots you take, the better your chances of scoring, and the more you score, the better your chances of winning.

Pittsburgh can score. And they are going to score. Provided that Sid and Geno don't both break their ankles, none of the Wings stoop low enough to attack Gonchar with a knee on knee hit, and the rest of Pittsburgh's defence doesn't spontaenously combust during Game One, Marc-Andre Fleury's job will not be to win the Pens this series, it will be to do his part to make sure they don't lose it. Fleury needs to do his job, but he doesn't need to carry this team. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar will do that; it's their job as Captain and Alternate captains and they have shown just how ready they are to do that job all season and all post-season.

There is one last matter to address: injuries. Topping the list are Datsyuk, Listrom, Ericsson, Draper and Gonchar. As of writing this, Lidstrom and Ericsson are in. Gonchar seems to be stable. Chris Draper is out, for tonight at least. Part of me is actually a little bit wary of Detroit's injuries. Detroit is deep. They can afford a couple games without a couple guys and still be fine. Hell, they can go a couple games and probably have just as decent a shot at winning those games. I hope the Penguins remember that last year, Detroit had a few guys bashed up by the final... and look how that ended. Injuries in Detroit won't be the reason why the Penguins can win this, it will just make it a little bit easier on a few shifts. Detroit is going to be tough to beat, but I think that Pittsburgh is going to beat them.

The Pens may not have the best defencemen, or the best goalie, but they have the league's top scorer, a captain who routinely takes it upon himself to either open scoring, tie up games or win them, and Max Talbot.

I'll admit it: I have a soft spot for Mad Max. He's clutch. I'm sort of in love with his clutch. And then he says things like, There’s nothing I’d like more than to be able to shake Marian’s hand at the end of this series, look him in the eye and say, ‘You chose the wrong team.’ I can't help but feel like, even if the rest of them refuse to say it as frankly, all of the Penguins who played in the final with Hossa are thinking something similar. The fact that Max is willing to say it out loud just reinforces the fact that while this is a business and a job, there are still some incredibly personal motivations at work.

You can give me all the Detroit-is-better-because-they-play-like-a-well-oiled-machine BS you like. It won't change the fact that one of the ineffable things in hockey (and in life), one of the things that makes clutch goals or spectacular saves, one of the things that changes fates and turns games around is GRIT. You can't train that into a player, they either have it or they don't. A player needs skill to go far, but sometimes you see mediocre players make incredible plays, and when that happens, it's usually the guys with grit making it happen. It's guys like Max Talbot and Petr Sykora, guys like Tyler Kennedy and Jordan Staal, it's guys who just don't quit. They have talent, but more than talent, they have heart, and when their hearts begin to burst with want it elevates them to a level that even a sport psychologist can't create.

Mike Babcock may be able to manipulate his team in some incredible (positive) ways, but at the end of the day, he take his psych degree and can shove it where the sun don't shine, because you can't manipulate something that isn't there to begin with. You can't create passion, you can only channel it, hone it, give it a chance to produce something special. I'm not saying Detroit has no grit, or no passion, because we all know they have those things. I'm just saying that Pittsburgh has those things too, in spades. And Dan Bylsma has found some way to bring out the best in his team: in one hundred days Bylsma took them from being out of playoff spot to a second, consecutive Eastern Conference Championship. Something is working. And I don't think we've seen the end product. I don't think we've seen the Pens at 100%.

Tonight we will. Tonight we'll see what they are made of, and we'll see if they have what it takes to take this series. And I'm betting we'll see something that's only been hinted at so far: we'll see a team that may not be perfect, but can still be the best, despite its imperfections. Fleury isn't perfect, but he's good. And this series is going to be about so much more than goal-tending.

To twist a few of Puck Daddy's final words: This isn't to say that Fleury's going to win the series for Pittsburgh. But I can't see him losing it with this team.

Pittsburgh's got enough to win. As long as they believe in what they do have, and do their best to minimize the negative consequences of their imperfections, this series is theirs.

Puck Daddy claims that this series is "a bit of head vs. heart, logic against emotion" series, and that the sense of climactic inevitability of a Pens win is hard to ignore. He claims that it will come down to logic, and he claims that logic is on the side of the Red Wings. Actually, logic is not on the side of the Red Wings. And it sells the Pens short to say that they are merely playing with heart, or it gives the Wing too much undue credit to say that they can win simply by playing a logical, heady game. The Wings are an excellent team, but the teams they had to beat to get to the Final were no more difficult than the teams the Penguins had to beat. I'm the first one to admit that Carolina was a blow-out, but then Chicago only put up a little bit more of a fight...

To claim that the Pens have gotten to a second consecutive Stanley Cup final, simply by playing with heart, and that they will lose the Cup final when faced with 'logic', does one of two things, both of which invalidate his point: either it overestimates the value of playing a logical game, since no one else in the Eastern Conference was playing with enough 'logic' to beat the Pens' 'heart', or it seriously underestimates the value of the 'heart' the Pens have been bringing to the face-off circle.

In 1972, the Soviets nearly beat Canada in a best of 8 series. Canada went into the series thinking it was the best, only to be given a lesson in how the game could be played a different way. Canada was caught off-guard. The Soviets system was a system and therein lay its eventual downfall. In hockey, a system is fine, until your opponents figure out your system. Then you need the unexpected, you need to plays made on instinct and instinct isn't a coherent thought. Instinct is not logical, instinct is simply a feeling, and feelings come from from the heart. Or the gut. Either way, they do not leave room for rationalization, most often because there is simply no time.

There is no time for Sid to think, he just acts. And so does Geno. And so does Max. And sometimes they get lucky. And if they act enough times, and are lucky enough times, it stops being luck, and starts being something they can count on. They can count on doing the unexpected, and it's difficult to shut down what you don't know is coming.

That is why the Penguins are going to win the Stanley Cup. You can say all you want about goal-tending. You can compare points production and secondary scoring. You can pick apart defensive strategies. You can ignore all the times underdog teams with 'grit' and 'heart' have come back to win big games in the Olympics or the Junior Worlds, or the Stanley Cup finals.

Or you can cheer for the supposed 'underdogs' who really aren't really at any logical disadvantage. The Pens lost last year, but history only repeats itself when you refuse to learn lessons from it. Pittsburgh's learned its lesson, and now they're going to school the Red Wings in a little thing called redemption. Detroit is the safe bet for those who have no imagination, but for those of us who embrace change and evolution and the fact that the team that will hit the ice tonight is not the same team that faced off against Detroit last year, it's easy to see that Detroit's sense of security is misplaced. They do not have this one in the bag. They are going to have to fight for it. And they are going to lose.

Puck Daddy is right about one thing, though: come handshake time, everyone is going to be focussed on Marian Hossa, and I hope to God that Max has the nerve to tell him he chose the wrong team. Because he did.


Anonymous said...

Your posts make my life.

You should honestly read these to the boys before the games, they get me so motivated, I'm sure they'll do the same for them.

You could be like their mental mascot.

Iceburgh gets the fans pumped, well Mer gets the Penguins pumped =]

Susan said...

Another great post! I hope Max makes his comment to Hossa,and I hope the camera catches it. This is sure to be a very good series, probably better than last year and with a different outcome, I am sure.

Val said...

puck daddy is a schmuck daddy!

I like what underdogobsessed said except you are their mental mascot!

mer said...

@ underdogobsessed - I'll talk to Ray, see if I can get paid to be their motivational speaker :P that would be the life...