Well friends, its here. The Stanley Cup Final. I debated not writing a column for the final, because any of you reading already know; I am a die-hard Penguins fan. Can I really be an analyst in this condition of euphoria? So I am not going to write an analytical column here, more of an opinion column. For those of you who liked my previous format, I am sorry! Reality is that I was not going to pick against my Pens here, so why be disingenuous with you, the good reader.
First question I want to cover off for you is “how does a Hamilton, Ontario kid become a Penguins fan? Well, please let me present you with “Exhibit A”:
I was at this game, the single greatest sporting event of my life, at the wonderful age of 13! Yes, I know, by this point in history, five hundred thousand people attended this game. I am pretty sure I still have my ticket stub, and my oldest friend Scotty Carrick was right there beside me. It was a magical tournament, and an incredible game. Copps Coliseum was brand new back then, full of unrealized hope of an NHL dream that never came to be. Ottawa stole what really should have been Hamilton’s franchise (along with greed in Toronto).
Do I think NHL hockey would have survived in Hamilton? No, I am one of the few dissenters who consider Hamilton home. Reality is that the corporate base is not there to support a team. It would have thrived for 5 years, but then I think the glamour would have faded, and attendance dwindled. Face it, the Hammer has always been considered a “walk up city”, and walk up attendance is not a recipe for success in today’s NHL. Ask the Ticats, the Bulldogs, and countless failed pro franchises that called this city home!
Now, if they had built the shiny new arena at Clappison’s Corners like I would have…well that is a discussion for another time.
So there I was, a lifelong hockey fan at the impressionable age of 13, mystified by this graceful giant. 66. Yes, I had enjoyed the early Gretzky years like all kids my age. He is the Great One after all. But anyone who has known me over the years knows I have always wanted to be a little outside the crowded bus, so the Penguins were a natural fit. And the colors fit my background, as the black and gold was the same as our hometown Ticats. OskeeWeewee!!!
The rest is history. Mario became a key figure in my formative years. That first black 66 jersey my Mom and Dad bought me Christmas of 87 may be the most worn garment in the history of mankind. It became known later in my life as simply “The Jersey”. It saw bush parties and countless street hockey games. No it does not fit any longer, but I do still have it. And 66 was my number for a long time, in fact throughout high school. It was not until my university days that I finally decided to retire #66. Why? Because I was now starting out on my attempt at ice hockey, and anybody as terrible as I was could not be running around the Double Rinks wearing #66. It was a travesty!
Even in my short, nondescript Bulldogs football career, 66 came calling. Of course, entering that first tryout, I had dreams of being a corner back, which would not have worked well for that number. However, my inability to run with any speed soon saw me as a special teams ace, and backup center and linebacker. You know, slow, smart guy positions!
And of course, I threw in my Zoids jersey, which harkens back to our Hillcrest Hockey League days. (Why am I suddenly humming Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days”?
The Stanley Cup runs of ’91 and ’92 were some of the greatest memories of my childhood. I was finding myself in highschool, but those runs brought so much joy. Of course, the party at Dave Whitworth’s when Kevin Steven’s had his face (and life) rearranged, and thus the Penguins dynasty, was a dark spot!
One more video clip. Some times, I swear Bob Cole is the narrator of my life inside my head! Oh Baby!
I loved those Penguins teams, and have come to love this one.
OK, enough nostalgia. You asked why I was a Penguins fan, now you know!
On to the series. As I said earlier, I would be dishonest to do anything but pick the Penguins. So I will just move on from that, other than saying Penguins in 6!
What I do want to say is that I expect this to be a great series. Both teams seem to have taken a little bit of the Chicago model, trying to play the game with high speed and high discipline, but have added depth to the equation. Of course, the early Chicago teams also preached that depth, but in a salary cap world, that is impossible to maintain.
Massive props to the Blackhawks organization for the job they have done in steering through their cap issues to maintain competitiveness. They have managed it better than the Penguins, Bruins and Kings.
The Sharks have really been a great story. Those beards on Thornton and Burns are absolute beauties, but they may be overshadowing their play, which has been stellar.
But it has not just been the bearded ones. Pavelski and Couture have been stellar as well, and Patrick Marleau (the Grey Beard and original Sharks pick) has chipped in as well. Joel Ward has been the glue guy getting the unsung goals…you think Washington misses him?
I see two distinct advantages for the Sharks – their Power Play and their defensive depth.
First, the Power Play for the Sharks has been lethal at 27%. Given the personnel they put out there, two one-time shots being fed beautiful sauce by Thornton, plus the ultimate rover in Burns, it is going to be very difficult to contain. Which is why if I had one word for Coach Sully, it would be this “Play the series 5 on 5”. I think that is the Pens best chance. The Sharks special teams combined score(PP+PK), which I have sited throughout the playoffs, is 107.4%. Surprisingly, the Penguins are slightly worse at 107%, but I think that is inflated a little by earlier rounds. If I am the Penguins, I don’t want that to be a key in this series. I do admit that their penalty killing has been a strength, but I would rather not go to that well too often here.
Second, I feel the key factor that could win this series for the Sharks is their defensive depth. I could make an argument that would satisfy most fans that Burns and Letang are both great, and for fairness, call them a wash. After that, especially with the Trevor Daley injury, I don’t think I could formulate an argument to say that the Penguins can match the next three the Sharks put out – Vlasic, Braun and old friend Paul Martin are simply better than anyone the Pens have.
So, why do I think the Penguins still prevail. Speed kills. Both teams have shown an ability through the playoffs to dictate the game. The biggest take away from the last two rounds for me has been that Penguins speed. Against both the Capitals and the Lightning, the series started with a lot of “Ya, but the Penguins didn’t play a team this good, and this fast”. And both series ended with “Wow, the Penguins at their best made the Caps/ Bolts look slow”. I am betting that is the case here again.
I also love the newly named “HBK Line” as a key difference.
You know at times in this series, San Jose will be able to contain the Crosby line. You never know when Malkin will decide he wants to play. But this HBK line gets premium matchups for that reason, and their speed has been a huge advantage. Hagelin is so fast, and so good on the backcheck. Bonino has embraced his role, and knows he can’t skate with these guys 200 ft, but he can get them the puck. And my punching bag Phil “Cheeseburger” Kessel has been dare I say clutch in these playoffs. If the Final ended right now, and the Penguins won, I am pretty sure he is holding the Conn Smythe. And if that happens, Gary Roberts is never going to see him this summer!
Letang, who may be my favorite current Penguin, has been a pillar of strength playing half of each game for the Penguins. My fear hear is that 3 rounds already in the books, plus these heavy Sharks forwards making him pay every trip into the zone, will break him down. He doesn’t have the dependable Daley to give him a breather and help drive play any longer. More than any other single skater (goalies don’t count, too easy. Goalies are always key this time of year!), “Tanger” is the linchpin to this series. If he can drive possession and keep the Penguins from getting trapped in their own zone, well, all I can say is…start carving his name back into that mug!
For those of you not watching playoff hockey this year, shame on you. The hockey has been great. And please stop the inane “but their are no Canadian teams”, because why does that matter when we have all these Canadian boys to cheer for?
Are you kidding me?
Enjoy the games everyone, you know I will be, win or lose! And I will have to hit the booze to tolerate Glenn Healy! #BecauseHealyWontShutUp!