Thursday morning. 3:45 am.
My news anchor, Brad, enters the newsroom. Usually, he says “Good Morning.” Not this time. He strides up to me and says loudly, “Rematch!” Brad’s from Detroit and a rabid Red Wings fan. I am a rabid Pittsburgh Penguins fan. I hold up my hand for a high five and he slaps it. “Let’s have a great series!” we agree, and he continues to his desk as I turn my attention back to proofreading scripts for the newscast.
But as I sat there, I felt a little guilty. I just identified myself as a “rabid” Penguins fan. But I have a confession to make. Several short months ago, I wasn’t so rabid. In fact, I doubted very much that the Pens would even have an outside shot at the post season. They were in 10th place. They weren’t gelling as a team. The lines seemed out of sync. Even pairing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin together didn’t really yield the results everyone hoped they would. Okay, so Malkin and Crosby were the scoring leaders for most of the season. But that exalted statistic didn’t do much for the team itself. They would win one, lose 3. Win 2, lose 4. They’d win 6-0, then lose by the same margin. They’d blow 3 to 4 point leads and lose in overtime, or a shootout. Friends who are diehard Pens fans stuck with them, though. “Just wait,” they insisted, “they’ll turn things around.” Even my friend Doug, who is a New York Rangers fan, tried to boost my spirits. “It’s only December,” he reminded me. “There’s a lot of time left in the season.”
But I didn’t agree. By Christmas, I had lost most of my faith in the team. Oh, I still loved them as much as I ever did, but I had resigned myself to the fact that the Pens would be one of those teams who went to the Stanley Cup Finals one year, only to finish out of the running the next year. I told myself the Pens had lost too many key players, like Ryan Malone, who I considered to be the “swagger” of the Pens. Like Gary Roberts, who I considered to be the hard-nosed, grizzled veteran. Like Mark Recchi, who I considered to be the legacy of the team. Like Marian Hossa, who only joined the Pens in the post season run, but who fit in so well, it seemed as though he’d always been part of the black and gold. My husband kept telling me to calm down, that the Pens would make some decisions come trade time that would give the team the boost it needed. But to be brutally honest, I did not believe him. And listening to Coach Michel Therrien did not make me feel any better. He gave press conferences but he never SAID ANYTHING. The only thing I remember about any of his press conferences was “Call me Mike.” Huh??
Then, the Pens gave all of us the best Valentine’s Day present. On February 15, they fired Therrien and called Dan Bylsma up from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to man the helm of this decidedly listing ship. And something happened.
The Penguins started winning.
They won 18 of the next 25 games. They lost 7, including 4 in overtime. The Pens added a couple of key players at the trade deadline: feisty sharp shooter Chris Kunitz and solid veteran Bill Guerin. Other players stepped up: Maxime Talbot, Matt Cooke, Kris Letang. Sergei Gonchar came back. Malkin continued his tear up the scoring charts, with Sid right behind him. And the Pens steadily moved up the ranks. By the time the regular season wound down, they were 2nd in the Atlantic Division and had secured a solid playoff spot. And it seemed that the Pens just got stronger with every game, even ones they lost. And they looked like they were HAVING FUN OUT THERE!
What happened? I think that “Disco Dan” Bylsma injected some personality into the team. Was it his age? At 38, he’s the youngest head coach right now in the NHL. (Therrien is 46). And even though he doesn’t have a lot of head coaching experience (He was in his first season as the top guy for WBS), he seemed to “connect” with the guys. They fed off his energy and he fed off theirs. And it seemed to propel them; first, as they met the Philadelphia Flyers and won in 6 games. Then, the much-anticipated 2nd round match up with Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. This series went to 7 thrilling games, but the Pens kept their cool and prevailed. The Carolina Hurricanes came next, fresh off an upset of the Boston Bruins and hungry for their own return to the Stanley Cup Finals. But the Pens persevered here, too and swept the ‘Canes in 4 games to clinch the Eastern Conference Championship.
In the West, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings were also steadily blasting through the competition. They swept the Columbus Blue Jackets in 4 games. They battled the Anaheim Ducks in 7 games, then dispatched a tough young Chicago Blackhawks team in 5 games.
My faith wobbled in December, but as the Pens started believing in themselves and playing better, my faith grew stronger. I still feel a stab of guilt that I doubted, and once my friends who are Penguins fans read this, they may think less of me. But confession is good for the soul, isn’t it?
My husband did say “I told you so.” He told me that Guerin especially would be good for the team. He was absolutely right. So, I won’t begrudge Stu his moment in the sun.
This morning. 3:15.
My friend Rex sneaks over to Brad’s desk and tapes a Pittsburgh Penguins banner to Brad’s computer monitor. Then we get to work. 3:45 am. Brad comes striding into the newsroom. “Good Morning!” he booms. “Happy Friday!” we reply. We chat for a few seconds about the stories on tap for the newscast, then he makes his way to his desk. A few seconds of silence, then a booming laugh.
“Su! I think you need to come get this!” he calls out, and I rush over to rescue my beloved pennant. It’s now proudly affixed to the wall by my desk. Brad and I have a “friendly” wager. He thinks the Red Wings will win it in 6, like last year. I think the Pens will pull out an exciting upset in 7 games. The loser buys the winner breakfast in the cafeteria.
It’s a bet I can handle, no matter who wins the Cup.