Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Top 10 Penguins Moments of 2007

It's almost the end of another calender year, and you know what that means: a lot of recaps everywhere telling you the top 10 ______ of every subject you can think of.

So why not a Pittsburgh Penguins top 10 moments of a truly monumental and exciting calander year of 2007? But first the darkest moment of the year and the high-water mark moment.

Be warned: This is a Crosby-centric list. But keep in mind this is a Crosby-centric team in a Crosby-centric league, and you are just living in a Crosby-centric world.

If you have a college education (or were brought up in the South) you probably know the high water mark is informally what is called the furthest point at the battle of Gettysburg that Southern troops advanced towards Union lines. Similarly, this mark for the 2007 Penguins was:


Sunday April 15: :52 of the first period, Game 3

Playing in the first home playoff game since May 19, 2001, Gary Roberts beat Ottawa goalie Ray Emery just :52 seconds into the contest. The crowd was electric and even though it seemed like the visitors were overall more experienced and more ready; they were on the clearly ropes. The series was tied 1-1, as the Pens earned a hard fought victory in Ottawa and it seemed the pressure on the previously snake-bitten Sens was compounding right before our very eyes yet again.

Unfortunately, it wasn't to be for the Pens, as the future Eastern Conference champs steadied themselves; survived the early storm of emotion and would go on to dominate the Penguins 9-2 on the scoreboard from this point in the series, winning this game and the next two more to send the Penguins packing.


Wednesday January 3: Lemieux & co. tour Kansas City

When you talk dark days, perhaps never a day looked more bleak than Wednesday January 3 rd, 2007. A grim reminder to set the stage: right before Christmas 2006 the state awarded the Pittsburgh slot license to a competitors enterprise and not the Penguins guaranteed partner. Ever since Lemieux took ownership of the team out of bankruptcy in 1999 there had been a complete inability for him, the city, county and state government to come to an agreement for a new multi-use arena that was clearly needed. The Penguins lease at Mellon Arena was over in June, so for all intents and purposes nothing legally tied them to Pittsburgh. On top of that, Kansas City was putting the final touches on what is, by all accounts, a tremendous facility.

"We are meeting with officials in Kansas City today as part of our effort to explore all of our options regarding a new arena," Lemieux said in a statement on the team's website. "We have heard many great things about their new building, which is scheduled to open in time for the start of the 2007-08 NHL season."

That is a chilling quote. Whether this was posturing with the politicians by Mario or a legit threat is unknown. To be sure a statement like this showed his leverage to up the pressure on local leaders who had long dragged their feet on financing a building that, to be fair, they couldn't afford and shouldn't have been above other dire needs in the city (education, roads, fire/police pay, etc).

So they finally did the reasonable thing and worked together. The Penguins are pitching in for their new barn (instead of getting a free one in KC), the state and city are helping out, but it couldn't have been financed without the contribution made by Don Barden, the winner of the Pittsburgh slots. Just proving that honest negotiations can get somewhere, but unfortunately when it comes to local government and a private business, the ones in the middle getting jerked around will be the fans.

Now, on to the countdown...

# 10 Saturday June 23: Angelo Esposito drafted

Angelo Esposito was the #1 ranked prospect by many scouting services just months before the draft. At the beginning of 2007 if you told Penguins fans they would draft Esposito there would probably be a deep sigh as a response, because surely Espo would be a top pick. It wasn't to be for Angelo, as teams quickly fell out of love with him. In hockey, players get scouted for so long that it's easy to pick players apart, and Esposito had been considered the cream of the 2007 class for a very long time so there was no place for him to go but down.

Further heightening his disappointment was when his boyhood favorite team, the Montreal Canadiens, skipped him. And then in the Canada/Russia super series Esposito's sore groin prevented him from playing. Canada dominated the series without him (a former national captain) and many of the forward units were cemented chemistry wise. Esposito became only the 2nd player in Canadian history to be cut 3 straight times by the WJC team (the other being Red Wing Daniel Cleary).

But his immense promise is still there, the skill that captivated scouts is still there. From pick #20 he could be an incredible pick, but it won't be for 2007 to decide.

#9 Monday February 27th: Gary Roberts acquired

One of the first things mentioned when you talk about the old Stanley Cup days are the impact of bold trade deadline deals that put the Penguins over the top. Stories of additions like Ron Francis and Rick Tocchet that provided skill, strength and grit needed for the playoffs.

One day we may look back and say the same, and surely a tipping point will be the acquisition of Gary Roberts. The man that launched a thousand jobbings, no one is tougher or has more fire than Roberts. Plus if his conditioning regimen and work ethic in general gets absorbed by the young nucleus of players, Roberts' impact will be felt years after the 41 year old hangs up his skates (and stare) for the last time.

#8 Capped off on Monday March 5th: Penguins sweep Flyers in 2006-07 series

After all those years of losing, especially in Philadelphia, how refreshing it was to see the Flyers slump to last place and the upstart Penguins to beat them 8 times. Now Philly fans, with their pre-CBA huge budget knows what it felt like to be in the basement, to watch a crap team play crap games and lose every night.

The joy of victory is especially sweet when it comes at a rival's expense and the Flyers surprising free fall in 2006-07 was beautiful. Crosby feasted against them statistically, the defense made Philadelphia's attack look rudimentary for the most past, it was the best of all worlds when the Pens and Flyers matched up. And it's something that will probably never happen again, so you gotta enjoy it while you can.

#7 Saturday December 8th 2007: Mark Recchi's Pittsburgh Era Ends

Sure it's easy to remember Mark Recchi for how he went out as a turnover machine, but a player who's been so solid (1361 games, 513 goals, 832 assists = 1345 points) deserves mentioning. Recchi began a 4th round pick in 1988 (a few months before Jordan Staal was born) and overcame height issues to carve out a great career. 3 stints with the Penguins only added up to 389 games; less than 5 full seasons. But the Recchin Ball had a point per game (154g + 231a), but it's still not enough to make the franchises' top 10.

Interesting Recchi fact: he led the 1990-91 Stanley Cup Penguins in scoring during the regular season. Lemieux only played 26 games, but only special players can claim something like that.

So kudos to Recchi, his tenure with the Penguins ended with hurt feelings and not in a storybook fashion, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't be honored as a great Penguin institution.

#6 Early July: Ryan Whitney and Sidney Crosby make bank

Locking up core players is a must in today's NHL. Sidney Crosby made a commitment to the Penguins organization when he extended for 5 seasons, forgoing his chance at unrestricted free agency for one year. Many fans may have wanted him to sign longer, but it simply doesn't make sense of a player of Crosby's supreme skill to be locked in forever at today's price....Suppose the game grows like it has been and the max. player contract rises to $13 million in about 6 years.

Crosby's worth every penny of his not so subtle $8.7 million. Being recognized as the best player in the game, he could have taken the Penguins for the maximum but he didn't. Being a member of the union, it would have been fair to the other players for Sidney to sign for $5-6 million, so he had to command a price so that other young guys like Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Alex Ovechkin could have their ceiling set high.

Keeping Whitney in the fold is crucial too. He broke out for 59 points in the 06-07 season and has shown excellent chemistry on the powerplay with Crosby. Plus his cap value ($4 million) is pretty reasonable and it's back-loaded so it keeps climbing. Good for the Pens since they're taking advantage of paying him more once new revenue streams from the new arena kicks in. Smart business all the way around.

#5 Thursday May 31st: Sidney Crosby named youngest permanent NHL captain

Surprising only observers who don't follow the Penguins that closely, there was press conference held to formally announce Crosby as the Penguins captain, replacing Mario Lemieux. Outsiders cried he was too young and whined too much, but people with a clue knew no one had the respect of the lockeroom better than Sidney with his other-worldly humbleness, quiet calm in the lockeroom and clearly leading by example on the ice. Plus with veteran leaders like Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts, Sergei Gonchar and Darryl Sydor there would be no shortage of fiery players that could stand up and demand accountability.

Crosby becomes the 12th full-time Penguins captain and figures to keep it for a long, long time.

# 4 Thursday June 14: Evgeni Malkin wins the Calder

For another team, having a rookie of the year candidate might be a top 5 story. Ho-hum, the Penguins had two of the three nominees at the summer 2007 ceremony, and Evgeni Malkin, as expected, was the runaway winner.

Malkin becomes only the 2nd Penguin to ever win the Calder Trophy (the other being his boss) and deserved the honor.

His whirlwind season started of course in the much publicized summer where he had to sneak out of his training camp activities in Finland, hang low for a few days before getting everything in order to make the trip to America. Then, in this totally foreign land at the age of 20, Malkin had to play in smaller rinks and the North American strategies of physicality, dump and chase mentality. With players, coaches, media and fans speaking in a tongue he, at first, knew nothing of. In a culture probably polar opposite from what he experience his whole life. Plus with a regular season almost twice as long as he was used to.

How did he respond? 78 games, 33 goals and 52 assists for 85 points. Malkin has overcome a lot of adversity already and still is one of the league's best and most skilled players. It's scary to think of how he could be in 4-5 years down the line once he gets his bearings up to speed on and off the ice.

# 3 Thursday June 14: Sidney Crosby youngest to win Ross, Hart, Pearson

This story should probably be higher. After all, it's unheard of for a teenager to come into a sport and dominate his older peers like Sidney Crosby did. And he was rewarded with the trifecta: the Art Ross Trophy for being the league's leading scorer, the Hart Trophy for being named MVP by the media, and perhaps most importantly the Lester B. Pearson award for being named MVP by the players vote.

However Crosby is a team guy and would be the first to point out the team's accomplishments first, so we'll leave this at #3, even though if 2007 wasn't so extraordinary of a year it might very well be #1 any other year. Also, Mario Lemieux (playing in the era of Gretzky) only won 3 Hart Trophy's. It's crazy to wrap your head around thinking that Crosby is already chiseling away at Lemieux's records and achievements but he is.

#2 April 2007: Biggest single season improvement in franchise history

"The Penguins finish the season 47-24-11 with 105 points and in second place in the Atlantic Division. The 47-point improvement over last year's total of 58 points is the fourth-largest turnaround in NHL history."
Not much more to say than that, it was a whirwind season the culminated in a terrific ending; the Pens went from the absolute basement to 2 points away from winning one of the more competitive divisions in hockey. Credit goes to every single player and every coach that busted tail to make it happen.

#1 Finalized Tuesday March 13: The Penguins and Pittsburgh agree on arena deal

As we mentioned in the Darkest Moment, things were not looking good as 2007 began for the Penguins to even finish the calendar in Pittsburgh. But earnest negotiations finally got underway and real headway was made. The official announcement was made in March as the Penguins were surging towards the playoffs: the team would stay for the next 30 years, the basic agreement for a new arena was made.

Mario Lemieux himself announced it to a capacity crowd during a game that none will soon forget. The ovation, the joy, the realization that after so much uncertainty, and given how bad things looked just weeks ago, it was all over. The emotional rollercoaster (with all its highs and lows) was done. The Penguins were staying where they belonged. It was all the more symbolic how Lemieux then pretty much fell from the spotlight completely, turning things over to Crosby and Malkin. After all, it is their show now, time for the next generation to wow us.

I'm not sure I could say I wish every year was as eventful as 2007, but in the end it was all worth it. The heartache of losing to the Senators or how the team has stumbled out of the gates in the 2007-08 campaign just gets overwhelmed by what guys like Crosby and Malkin personally achieved; as well as the steps the entire organization took. Guys like Maxime Talbot, Ryan Whitney, Brooks Orpik, Erik Christensen and Mark Eaton really cemented themselves as key players in whatever their niche or role was.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….Sometimes all in the same week, sometimes all in the same game. 2007 will surely be a year not to forgotten by Penguins fans....May 2008 bring 10 more exciting moments and yet a higher "high water mark".

So what did I get wrong? What clearly obvious moment wasn't recognized? Use the comments to give some feedback and make me look foolish. It's your obligation as a blog reader.

1 comment:

Sams_Dog said...

Great list. The #1 may be the biggest moment for the Pens in the last ten years, save drafting Crosby.