Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Top 10 Penguins moments of 2008

Before some enterprising blog gets on it, we better run down a list of the top 10 Penguins moments of the calendar year 2008, like Peerless is doing for the Caps. The top moments of 2007 can be found here. You know, on the 2007 recap we said it would be hard to top that year, but a magical playoff run sure did the trick. If 2009 can one-up 2008 we’re in for some fun for sure.

#10 Sidney Crosby creates memories at the Winter Classic

The game itself was not too good: the idea of a Winter Classic is a made for TV gimmick, and under heavy snow and in bone trembling cold is not really the best way to showcase the skill and speed of hockey to a nation of casual New Years Day watching folks. But when you talk of gimmicks, you talk about the shootout, so what better way for the NHL than to have their poster boy with “the game on his stick”. And of course he buries it.

Also what may be the longest lasting aspect of this game: it really cemented the fact the Pens would bring back their retro blue jerseys in the years to come. And the blue jerseys have done well, in pretty much every ranking you see they take the prize for being the best alternate jersey in the league.

#9 Penguins win first Atlantic Division title in 10 years

The old marketing slogan “Experience the Evolution” could at this point be retired, because the Pens had figuratively crawled out of the slime of a 23 win season just two seasons before this point and now were the champs of arguably the most balanced and competitive division year in and year out in hockey. To win the division with all the injuries and adversity battled through was the mark of a team coming full circle, knowing their destiny and going out to grab it. Of course no one sets out only to win a division championship; it’s a nice banner but not the only one a team strives for.

#8 Ground broken on new arena

Getting the funding secured was the #1 story of 2007, but a couple guys with shovels makes #8 this season. With the economy in such turmoil as it is right now the Penguins timing was perfect in getting locked into their new home when they did. It’s hard to imagine things playing out the same way if they deferred another year.

#7 Evgeni Malkin signs identical contract to Sidney Crosby

One of the biggest questions going into the off-season was how Evgeni Malkin’s contract situation would play out. Sure, Geno would still be under contract for 2008-09, but summer 2008 was the first time the Penguins could talk extension with him. Many people wondered if Malkin would accept less money than Crosby and if the Penguins would be willing to offer Malkin more money than their captain, if the Russian so demanded. Some even dreamt up ridiculous trade rumors that had a few Pens fans nervous (not us though).

At the end of the day, Malkin decided that he would sign the exact same deal Sidney Crosby got, five years at $8.7 million a season ($43.5 million total). This was huge, it showed Malkin obviously liked Pittsburgh and wanted to be here and prevented any media fed rumors about Crosby or Malkin being unhappy/jealous with the paychecks of one another. By taking a fifth year Malkin also forfeited one year of his unrestricted free agency, and by accepting a yearly salary at a rate moderately under what he could have gotten as a RFA it allows the Penguins to spend a little more to round out the roster.

#6 Crosby gets injured, Malkin picks up banner, doesn’t look back

January 18th, 2008 could have signaled the death knell of the Penguins season when Sidney Crosby slid into the end boards and suffering a high ankle sprain that would hamper him really right until the end of the year. Crosby was the defending Art Ross, Hart and Pearson trophy winner and was leading the scoring race at the time of injury. For most teams it might have been an excuse to slump down the standings. For the Penguins and Evgeni Malkin it was just a challenge.

Malkin put up 54 points (24 goals, 30 assists) in the last 36 games after the Crosby injury, rocketing the Penguins up the charts and into the Stanley Cup playoffs with a dangerous mix of momentum and confidence.

#5 Redemption: Pens sweep Sens
Spring 2007 saw the Senators as a dangerous team and the Penguins as the new kid’s just cutting their teeth on playoff experience. Ottawa dished out a lesson to Pittsburgh that year, quickly disposing the Penguins in five games. Fast forward a year to April 2008 and the situations couldn’t have been more reversed. Even though Ottawa won the Eastern Conference in 2007 and started out the 07-08 season with a blistering 25-8-4 record, they were in full on collapse mode by the time the playoffs started, sliding in as the #7 seed.

The Penguins easily won Game 1 4-0 on the strength of Senator killer Gary Roberts’ two goals (the last goals he’d score as a Penguin, by the way). The Pens rallied back 5-3 to win Game 2 with two goals from Petr Sykora and Ryan Malone. The Sens did show some life in this game and took a lead, giving their fan base hope of being competitive when the series shifted to Ottawa for the next two games.

Going into the 3rd period of game three, the score was 1-0 Penguins. Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal scored goals in the opening 1:30 of the period and it deflated the Sens and their crowd.

With the chance for a sweep the Penguins didn’t let their foot off the Senators’ necks, winning 3-1 on an effort capped off by a Crosby empty net goal.

#4 Pens defeat Rangers, end Jagr’s NHL career

The Penguins had an eight day layoff between the first and second round and it showed. The Rangers jumped out to a 3-0 lead just three minutes into the second period of Game 1 Mellon Arena and the fans were stunned. But the Penguins rallied back with quick strikes: Jarkko Ruutu and Pascal Dupuis scored goals :14 seconds apart to cut the score to 3-2. Then in the third period Petr Sykora and Marian Hossa scored goals :20 seconds apart to give the Pens a 4-3 lead. Scott Gomez knotted the game at 4, but an Evgeni Malkin powerplay goal with under two minutes in regulation gave the Pens the win.

In Game 2 the Rangers, not wanting to get in shootouts with the high powered Pens, tried to play a lot more conservatively. But the Penguins proved they could buckle down defensively as well as anyone in the league, winning a 2-0 game (last goal an empty net). Marc-Andre Fleury stopped all 26 shots thrown his way, while Henrik Lundqvist got 30 of 31.

Going to New York, the Penguins quickly jumped up 3-1 in the first period of Game 3 and then literally hung on for a 5-3 win. Fleury was sensational again, making 36 saves, while the Pens only had a total of 17 shots of their own. The Rangers though fought through when their backs were against the wall winning 3-0 in Game 4 on the strength of two goals by Jaromir Jagr (the second an empty netter) and 20 saves by Lundqvist.

In Game 5 the Penguins returned home and carried the play, badly outshooting the Rangers and had a 2-0 lead in the 3rd. NY would strike twice though and kick the game to over-time, as a last bit of life. 7 minutes into the overtime Marian Hossa scored the series clincher off a Crosby assists.

#3 Marian Hossa arrives, raises hell, leaves

Breaking this string of playoff recaps was a very important player for the Pens that stretch: Marian Hossa. In 2008 Hossa got a perfect situation coming to play with Sidney Crosby and scored 12 goals and 14 assists in 20 playoff games to forever banish his reputation of not being a playoff performer. Hossa’s superb skill made him a great winger and combination with Crosby, one that could have continued for many more years if the Slovak had accepted the Penguins long-term contract offer.

As you may have heard, however, it wasn’t to be. Hossa, who’s suffered through playing in Atlanta, was an unrestricted free agent and earned the right to go where he wanted to how long he wanted. He turned down the big bucks from Edmonton for a one-year deal from, of all places, Detroit. Saying he thought it gave him the best chance to win a Stanley Cup, Hossa turned his back on his new peers. It’s hard to argue his point as Detroit did just defeat Pittsburgh and wasn’t set to lose any key pieces for the 2008-09 season, but that didn’t make the wound hurt any less at the time.

The jury’s still out on if Hossa made the right decision and if his health will be in tact to still receive a long-term contract after this season, but we think as time progresses Pens fans will be able to remember and appreciate the run Hossa had in Pittsburgh. It may have lasted a total of 32 games and cost Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen and two prospects, but the trade was worth it. It gave the Penguins a shot and a mandate from management: just taking “the next step” is not enough, you guys are young but you need to believe you can go all the way any and every year.

#2 Orange Crushed: Pens destroy Philly, win Eastern Conference

As underdogs, the sixth seeded Flyers had gotten to the Eastern Conference finals by playing the Southeast Division champion Washington Capitals (beat them in 7 games) and the #1 seeded Montreal Canadiens (beat them in 5 games). Taking that road, especially a series win through a place like Montreal, really proves a battle tested team. The Pittsburgh/Philadelphia intense rivalry was on, a trip to the Stanley Cup finals loomed.

Game 1 was decided by Evgeni Malkin’s second goal of the night, a short-handed tally. The Penguins won game two by the same mark, 4-2, when Max Talbot scored the GWG in the 3rd. The series shifted to Philly but it was the Penguins who came out the gates strong, jumping up 2-0 in the opening frame and holding on to win the game 4-1.

For the third time in a row Pittsburgh was winning the series 3 games to 0, but the state sweep wasn’t to be, as the Flyers scored 3 goals in the first period of Game 4 and held off a two goal effort by Jordan Staal to win 4-2 after an empty netter. If Flyers fans thought their team making a massive comeback, they were sorely mistaken, as the Penguins completely dismantled the Flyers 6-0 in Game 5 back in Pittsburgh to win the Prince of Wales Trophy.

#1 Pens can’t equal Wings experience, lose in Cup finals

Not every story has a happy ending and this one didn’t for the Penguins. After getting through a conference about as easily as one can, they faced the very formidable and experienced Detroit Red Wings in the finals. Game 1 and 2 were a nightmare, Detroit won by a combined score of 7-0 and just sucked the life right out of a Penguins team with impressive puck control, Chris Osgood only had to make 41 saves in the first two games combined for his shutouts. At that point it seemed all but certain to be a short series, this time in the favor of the opposition.

But the Pens would battle back, Sidney Crosby was the first to puncture Osgood’s defenses, he did it twice in Game 3. Adam Hall added a third goal and then the Pens held off a furious Detroit rally to win Game 3 by the score of 3-2. In Game 4 Marian Hossa scored a goal 2:51 into the game, but Detroit’s captain Nicklas Lidstrom would answer a few minutes later. The score remained 1-1 until Jiri Hudler capped the scoring with a goal 2 minutes into the third period. Detroit now had a 3-1 series advantage and heading home they were determined to win the Cup.

The Penguins had other ideas, Hossa and Hall scored early goals, the first Pittsburgh had scored in the series on Detroit ice. Then the Red Wings roared back, scoring two goals in the second period and when Brian Rafalski scored a goal with about 10 minutes to go, catcalls for the Cup were in full volume. The clock kept ticking and it seemed the Penguins were going out with a whimper.

The Penguins pull their goalie for a final desperate push and then it happens. Boom—Maxime Talbot with 34 seconds left ties the game. The deflation of the crowd is tangible. The elation of the Pittsburgh players is off the charts. We’re headed to overtime. If the Red Wings were discouraged by Talbot’s goal, it didn’t last long; Detroit outshot the Pens 13-2 in the first over-time. Each time Marc-Andre Fleury had an answer. Shots in the 2nd OT were more even (8-7 for the Pens) but #1 defensemen Sergei Gonchar was injured and Ryan Whitney was playing about every other shift, and playing incredible. Then nine minutes into the 3rd overtime period Hudler takes a penalty. Gonchar does his Willis Reed impression and does more than just get back out there, he finds Evgeni Malkin. Malkin to Petr Sykora to the back of the net, the Penguins have just won the most thrilling and taxing game of the season.

Game 6 was back in Pittsburgh, but more of the same: Detroit outshooting the Pens and getting up to an early 2-0 lead. Malkin scored on a powerplay before the end of the second period to give the Pens hope that their hole was only one goal. The Red Wings clamped down again and eventual Conn Smythe winner Henrik Zetterberg scored to make it 3-1 with 13 minutes left in regulation. Again it went to full on desperation mode as the Pens hurled everything they had at Detroit. Gonchar scored a powerplay goal with just 1:30 left to make it 3-2. As the last seconds ticked off the Pens made what would be one final, final furious rush of trying to will a goal in but Crosby and Hossa’s last ditch effort trickled *just* wide as the horn blew.

That’s your series and the Red Wings skate the Cup on Mellon Arena ice. A tough scene to watch, to be sure, but even though the Penguins didn’t make it to the destination; the journey to get there was incredible. 2008 will be remembered for the incredible journey, the gaining momentum and the invaluable experience gained by the core of the team.

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