Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Pittsburgh Penguins are your 2009 Stanley Cup Champions

I've been waiting a long time to see the Pittsburgh Penguins win a 3rd Stanley Cup. I was barely a hockey fan when they won their first two championships in 1991 and 1992. I knew little of the rules of the game and I watched only a few of the games in those playoff runs. I remember watching the clinching game 6 of the 1991 Stanley Cup Final, but I wasn't really aware of what it meant to be a hockey fan.

Two years later at Georgetown, I was surrounded by sports fans of all kinds. I bet all of my friends on my dorm floor that the Penguins would repeat (or "threepeat") in 1993. And when the Penguins won 16 or 17 straight games at the end of the regular season, it seemed like a safe bet. Sadly, the Penguins lost in the conference semifinals, and I learned not to bet on my teams again.

Since then, I've watched the Penguins falter in the conference finals in 1996 and again in 2001, and then last year in the Stanley Cup Final. When the Penguins were in 10th place in February, I didn't expect them to even make the playoffs. They switched coaches and went on a tear. When they were down 2-0 to the Capitals, I thought Ovechkin had their number. Then the Pens came back to blow out the Caps in game 7 in Washington. They swept the Carolina Hurricanes, something I never expected, and that put them back in the Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings. They were overmatched by last year's Red Wings squad, and I feared the same fate would befall them this year. When they were down 2-0 to the Wings, once again I thought all was lost. I should have had more faith in my team. They won every must-win game, beating the Wings at home in games 3, 4, and 6, and in the process overcoming a terrible 5-0 blowout in game 5. Going into game 7, all I could think was "anything can happen."

The Penguins played out of their minds in game 7. They controlled the puck, clogged the area in front of their net, and blocked shots as much as possible. Marc-Andre Fleury deserves all the credit in the world for bouncing back from a disastrous performance in game 5 to allow only two goals in the last two games. The Penguins played most of game 7 without team captain Sidney Crosby, who left the game early in the 2nd period with an injury and only played two shifts in the 3rd. Throughout game 7, my heart was in my throat. I thought I got worked up for Steelers games, but it turns out that it's easier for me to watch football than hockey. In football, I scream at the TV on every play, but each play is only 10 seconds long. Then I get a break and a chance to breathe. During game 7, I held my breath every time the Wings got the puck into the Penguins' zone. As the game wore on and I saw my team playing their game for the first time all series at Joe Louis Arena, I was able to relax a little. Then the Wings tied the game and I was back to hyperventilating and trying not to scream at the TV.

When it was over I nearly forgot to cheer. I saw my team carry the Stanley Cup around the rink. Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Fleury, Staal, and the rest will have their names on the Cup along with Lemieux, Jagr, Ron Francis, and the rest of my heroes from those great teams in the early 1990s. It was a great night for hockey. Now I need to make room for a Penguins poster on my Steelers championship wall.

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