As a die hard hockey fan, when your team loses in the playoffs, it is 6 months of anticipation down the drain. Since I can remember I make it a priority in my life, not just to watch the Pens, but to see every shift of the 82 regular season games and the playoffs. My job requires me to travel and with that I have been fortunate to see my team play in Buffalo, Ottawa, Montreal, Detroit, Columbus, Minnesota, Chicago, and many other cities. It also means that I will travel to a lot of sports bars on the road to watch the Pens. I can probably tell you every sports bar between Ottawa and western Michigan that has the NHL Package. My wife will tell you that the reason I care about it so much is because it is my passion, and she is right but it is a lot more than that. I have had Penguins season tickets for 12 years and if I am in town, I am at the game right next to my dad.
When I was five my dad took me to my first hockey game in St. Louis at the Old Checkerdome. He still talks about the day in January when he took me to our 4th row seats and how he was amazed that a 5 year old could sit through a 2 1/2 hour game and all I did was watch and ask questions. As he said, "You weren't one of those kids who would get bored, complain, want food every 10 minutes, you just wanted to watch the game." To this day, if I am not at the game with my dad, I call him after the first period of every game. Eighty-two times a year we break down the period, talk about our day, and just catch up. Hockey and the love for our beloved Pens is a bond that we share and I wouldn't trade it for the world.
I remember in December, the Pens were beating the Buffalo Sabres on the road for their 12th straight victory. I was watching the game with my wife at a local Italian restaurant in Fox Chapel(she includes the Pens on our date night....even our wedding) and stepped away to call my dad after the first period. Rookie and first game call-up Dustin Jeffrey scored his first goal, the Pens were all over the Sabres. I couldn't wait to call my dad.
I consider myself a pretty honest fan. I am probably a little tougher on my team than most, and I try to look at my team from an unbiased opinion. This conversation was different. I saw something in the Pens that made me feel that they were ready to challenge for the Cup. I saw a balanced team with the best player in the league (Sidney Crosby), a dynamic player in Evgeni Malkin, and a much better defense than we saw in the 2010 squad. They were good! Six weeks later, Crosby and Malkin were hurt, (Malkin would tear his ACL 2 weeks later) and the balance on the team was eroding with injuries.
Maybe this is why the Game 7 loss hurts more than most. I feel like I have been punched in the gut. I didn't expect Pittsburgh to win the series. I picked Tampa. What hurts is as a fan, after witnessing my team sell off their players from 2002-04, I know they had a chance, a good chance to bring Lord Stanley home. Nowadays, you only have so many opportunities to win. In the salary cap era, it is hard to stay on top, and when you have a chance you better take full advantage. This season I thought was supposed to be the year they made a serious run, but they never had the chance. In my Rolodex of a brain, I will always wonder what could have been.
Well now on to Game 7. The Penguins jumped all over the Lightning the way I expected them to come out in Game 5. They won faceoffs, battles for loose pucks, and were peppering Tampa netminder Dwayne Roloson with shots. They left the first period scoreless but it felt like they were losing. The team had a hard time scoring all series, but when you play your best and you still can't cash in, you have to feel deflated. I have to give Roloson a lot of credit. Most analysts said the Penguins advantage in net would be a huge reason why they would win, but Roloson was not only stopping shots, he wasn't allowing rebounds. People, including myself, seem to forget how good he was in the playoffs in 2003 with Minnesota and 2006 with Edmonton. Rolson kept them in the game long enough for the Bolts to find their game in the 2nd.
Tampa came out in the 2nd and looked like the team that played 60 minutes of great hockey in Game 6. They regained the edge in the faceoff circle, used their speed in the neutral zone, stopped turnings pucks over, and created chances by driving to the net. The goal that Sean Bergenheim scored was a replay of his Game 6 goal. You would think the Pens would make an adjustment and know that Moore can make that pass, but they were out of position. Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen was wandering towards the Squirrel Hill Tunnel (Pittsburgh traffic nightmare) instead of covering the weak side defender and it was costly.
If your a Penguins fan, the theme of this series was the power play. Tampa scored 8 power play goals and Pittsburgh scored 1. The Lightning played with reckless abandon at times as they gave the black and gold chance after chance to get back in games, but with the exception of Tyler Kennedy in Game 4, they couldn't take advantage. As easy as it is to point the finger at the Penguins, you have to give the Lightning credit. They were constantly in the shooting lanes, they took away the front of the net, blocked shots, and they were tougher than the Penguins.
The 3rd period the Penguins took a lot of shots at Tampa, but with the exception of Tyler Kennedy almost putting home a rebound, the Pens were one shot and done. I thought what Tampa did well was make the Pens travel 200 feet to get a scoring chance. The Lightning forced the Pens back into their own end every time they had a chance to clear the puck. Pittsburgh had one final opportunity with the man advantage, but a season that had all the promise in the world had Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, and others out there for the final 90 seconds. This wasn't how I envisioned a series ending back in December, but the reality was and is, the Tampa Bay Lightning are a better, deeper team that the Pittsburgh Penguins.
As a take quick glance to next year, my boys have 10 unrestricted free agents. I don't expect to see Eric Godard, Mike Comrie, Dustin Johnson, Alexei Kovalev, or Chris Conner back. I wouldn't be shocked if Pascal Dupuis, Max Talbot and Mike Rupp are gone. There are a lot of character, hard working guys, who probably won't be back. To win in the NHL you need front line scorers and good role players. When you have that mix you are dangerous. This year the role players were forced to be front line players and that is why we are talking about the Penguins losing in the first round.
Going forward, I think the Lightning have as good a chance as any to beat the Capitals. They have experience, two good offensive lines, and a lethal power play. Tampa has to do a better job of staying out of the penalty box against Washington (they won't go 1-35 on the PP), and they need to be more aggressive on offense. The Penguins posed no threat on offense so Tampa could sit on leads without fear. Against Washington no lead is safe. Tampa needs to be aggressive against the Caps.
My 3 Penguins stars for the series.
3) Max Talbot - He was all over the ice and created offense, especially in Games 3-5.
2) Craig Adams - The man is a shot blocking machine. It is hard to believe we got him off of waivers in 2009. Craig Adams will help a team win the playoffs, I just hope he is with the Pens next year.
1) Marc Andre Fluery - People in Pittsburgh got on Fluery for his performance in Games 5 & 6, but the team around him failed in those games. Fluery was the reason they won game 1,3 and 4. He had all the pressure on him because his offense couldn't produce more than 2 goals and he came up big. People will remember the loss in game 7, but I hope they don't forget how well Fluery played. When the Pens were down 1-0, he made 3 or 4 great saves to keep the game in reach.
It has been fun writing about the playoff series. October seems like a long ways away.