Wednesday, June 4, 2008

There Are Always The Next Eight Years

Sigh. It's like...it's like on a whim you buy a Powerball ticket. "I won't play when it's under $100 million. Too small potatoes for me. But now that it's up to $185 million, sure, I'm in." The first four numbers match your ticket. And then you start thinking. Which island you should visit first. What color car you'll drive on Tuesdays. Money you never imagined having is already being spent. And just like that, the next two numbers are meaningless and your ticket is just a piece of paper. The money you didn't expect to have didn't come along, but for some reason it stings just a bit.

Right up front, let's make this clear. Detroit is the superior team. All six of their defensemen are remarkable skaters and while their offense isn't of the mind blowing variety, they do enough up front to get the job done. Their forecheck is aggressive, their defensemen challenge at the blue line and when they get a turnover in any zone, it's moved 50 feet up ice almost instantly.

On top of that, the Penguins could not overcome the whims of the cosmos and the whims and of the officials. In the first two minutes of the game, Johan Franzen flat out ran over Marc Andre Fleury behind the net. Put a shoulder right into his back. No call. When it became legal to run over the goalie behind the net is beyond me. I guess after the fuss over goalie interference in Game 5. I'm just happy it wasn't the other way around with Ruutu hitting Osgood. Osgood would've have dived so hard he would have hit his head on the ice and gotten a concussion, and Ruutu would've gotten a 35-game suspension.

Minutes later, when Darryl Sydor put his stick on Kirk Maltby's foot, Maltby, the gritty veteran, a heart and soul character guy, fought through the obstruction by doing a child's somersault. Naturally, the refs caught that one. Or they at least caught a Red Wing on the ice and figured something must've happened.

On the ensuing power play, Brian Rafalski's shot was going four feet wide of the net. He may have actually been shooting for the camera hole in the corner glass. So of course the puck hits Hal Gill in the legs and deflects into the top corner. Perfect. Just perfect.

Later in the period, Petr Sykora was hooked so badly that a Red Wing stick was literally up the back of this jersey. Sykora was turned into a flag. Good no call there! And another good no call on Andreas Lilja tripping Marian Hossa in the neutral zone when Hossa was still five feet from the puck. Lilja will step up on a guy who isn't looking and is nowhere near a clearing pass and take his legs out, but if the puck is in his defensive corner with Gary Roberts on his back, he's bailing out like a pilot who's plane is on fire. It takes real guts and grit to win the Stanley Cup! Just ask Andreas Lilja! The Lilja and Franzen plays were so ridiculous that even Pierre McGuire was calling for a penalty. When that happens, you know it's bad.

I just wanted the officials to start calling this stuff as a deterrent. Our power play was certainly no guarantee to work. The second 5-on-3 advantage of the series came up empty. The best moment may have been Osgood hooking Hossa as he went behind the net. Somebody please run Osgood through the Zamboni doors. Please!

Malkin wanted it on that 5-on-3. You could see it in the way he was calling for the puck and rifling it on net every chance he got. In fact, Malkin had his best game in three weeks. The good news from that is maybe he's not hurt after all. (UPDATE: Ah ha!) The bad news is maybe he had all of the confidence of an ugly high school boy the day before the Sadie Hawkins Dance. But hey, he's only 20. When I was 20, my confidence level was so low I just assumed every girl on the street was repulsed by me whether I knew them or not. And usually when they did get to know me, that repulsion was confirmed. Here's Malkin, playing hockey at a level he's never seen before, much tougher than the Olympics, and doing it in front of huge crowds. He found his way in Games 5 and 6, realized that he actually did belong at the party and will be a force in the playoffs next year and every year after. Fitting that he fired a rocket to get the Pens on the board last night.

But, in the end, we just couldn't overcome Detroit's swarming presence and two more crazy bounces. On the winning goal, if the puck is two inches in any direction from where it was, Fleury simply smothers it when he lays down. But the puck was in the exact millimeter of the ice where Fleury's tailbone could squeeze the edge of the puck and flip it into the net like a tiddlywink. You could take Fleury and a puck on to the ice this morning and not recreate that bounce with fifty tries. "Sit here! No here! Wait, let me move the puck here! It's just not working!"

And for us, with three seconds left in the game, Hossa sweeps the puck along the crease, where it harmlessly slides away. It didn't hit Osgood's glove, it didn't hit a rut, it didn't hit a stick, it didn't hit a mask, it didn't hit Hal Gill's leg, it didn't hit Fleury's tailbone, it didn't go in. In a series against a superior opponent, where the Penguins looked overwhelmed at times, they were a combined four inches from possibly forcing a Game 7.

Nobody expected them to go this far. In September, the consensus was probably, "Get back to the playoffs, win a series, get that under your belts and keep building for the future." Instead, they ripped into the finals with a 12-2 mark with Malkin and Crosby trading pole position for the Conn Smythe from night to night. The cornerstones of the franchise are only 23, 20, 20 and 19 years old. Ryan Whitney, who's all of 26, could play his way back on to that list next year. That doesn't even count Sergei Gonchar, one of the best defensemen in the league, going into the fourth year of a five year contract.

This team will look different next fall without question. Brooks Orpik, Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Mark Eaton, Georges Laraque...that entire list will not be back. Marian Hossa at times was the best Penguin in the finals. I can't even imagine what his playoff performance did to his price tag. You could've put a contract ticker under him and it would've been screaming upwards like the national debt clock. Today, Pens fans are trying to talk themselves into the most optimistic Hossa scenarios the human mind can conjure up. "He already likes it here so much that he'll take less to stay!" "In even years, we'll pay him $7 million and Malkin $2 million, and in odd years, we'll flip it!"

But maybe it doesn't have to be that fantastic to work out. Georges Laraque, who is terrific in every way, makes $1.3 million and is unrestricted. That's a lot of money for the occasional fight and great cycling behind the net. He could be replaced with a younger goon making $600,000. Somebody who's willing to throw down if Crosby is even insulted. Mark Eaton is probably gone, which would free up another $1.6 million. If he stays, maybe Darryl Sydor and his $2.5 million go. Either one of those guys can be replaced by a full season of Kris Letang at $625,000. Gonchar only has two more years left on his deal, making $6 million and then $5.5 million. When that deal is up, he'll be 36 and maybe won't be back. We're well under the cap (which is going up next year), the ownership is ready to spend and we have enough role players making under $1 million a year that we could possibly squeeze Hossa in even with new deals for Malone and Fleury. It's possible, it's possible.

And if not, if Boston wants to throw $8.1 million a year at Hossa and we don't want to match it, okay. There are guys out there. Kristian Huselius could thrive next to Crosby in an offensive system that's far, far, far away from Mike Keenan. Nikolai Zherdev could maybe get his game together with Gonchar's tutelage. This team will look different next year, but they'll still come in as the favorite in the Wales. Losing in the championship is worse than losing in any other round of the playoffs, no matter what sport we're discussing. But this isn't Calgary or Edmonton having an incredible run and then coming up short. This is the 1983 Oilers getting swept by the Islanders before winning four Cups. This is the 1995 Red Wings losing to New Jersey, then losing to Colorado in 1996 before winning back-to-back Cups. The future is bright for this team, and it won't be happening in Kansas City. That alone is reason to be happy this morning.

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