Imagine for a second that you are Chris Kunitz, winger for the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s your job is to stand in front of the opponents net and create havoc during power plays. Easy enough, right?
Well, I didn’t mention that it’s the end of the second period and your legs are burning. They’re on fire. As you dig your blades into the ice, trying to maintain position in front of the goalie – defensemen are slashing your legs. They’re kicking the back of your skates. They’re cross-checking areas of your back that are already black-and-blue from months of previous abuse.
But you hold your ground. Just as the power play is winding down and the fans at Mellon Arena are on the edge of their seats, demanding your teammates to shoo-ooot, the puck slides to a wide-open Sergei Gonchar. This man, your teammate and friend, can make a six ounce disc of vulcanized rubber fly through the air at 95 miles-per-hour.
And he’s aiming for the top-corner of the net – which is located about four inches to the left your face.
As he winds up, stick raised up to the Igloo’s dilapidated gray dome, you have a choice. You can flinch and get out of the way, or you can stand your ground. Either way, your name won’t show up in the box score.
What would you do?
Let that thought marinate. We’ll come back to it, I promise.
Face it, you’d cower in fear, and that’s why you’re not a hockey player
With the NHL’s regular season barreling toward its conclusion, there is good news and bad news for Penguins fans.
Here’s the bad news: Alexander Ovechkin may very well win the Hart Trophy, the NHL’s Most Valuable Player Award, on the back of strong media hype. He scores more goals than Evgeni Malkin, and unfortunately, he is more fluent in English as well. In the eyes of the voters – members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association – those factors may weigh more heavily on their decision than the fact that Malkin is clearly the league’s most irresistible force.
The NHL, more than any other professional sport, is obsessively self-conscious about its image, mainly due to its faltering status as a major national sport. Ovechkin is volatile. His spastic swagger and premeditated goal celebrations have landed him on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, a show that typically puts tennis, golf and cycling ahead of hockey on its pecking order.
In 2009, any press is good press for the NHL. Crosby’s pitch-perfect sound bytes and Malkin’s blushing, Babel Fishy post-game interviews (while incredibly awesome), do not generate the media buzz that the NHL desperately craves.
For that reason, Penguins fans may be fuming when Ovechkin flashes his toothless grin next to the Hart Trophy this spring.
Unclench your teeth and keep reading, Pens fans. Good news is on the way.
The good news for Penguins fans is that hockey players don’t grow up playing mini-hockey until their knees are purple for individual recognition. Hockey fans don’t stay up until 4 a.m. waiting for Elvis to leave the building during overtime marathons because they like drinking seven cups of coffee to stay awake at work the next day. Hockey moms and dads don’t chisel snow off their Ford Explorers before break-of-dawn practices so that one day, their sons can hoist an MVP trophy.
They make these sacrifices for the Lord.
If Jaromir Jagr’s face in that picture doesn’t give you goosebumps, you shouldn’t be reading this blog.
Ovechkin may take home the individual honors, but the NHL playoffs are not a test of skill, they are a test of grit, courage and an examination of intestinal fortitude. By adding Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin at the trade deadline, the Penguins made a more significant move than adding Hossa at last year’s deadline. Comparatively.
Without Hossa, last year’s team likely would have made the same Stanley Cup run in a relatively weak Eastern Conference. There’s no denying Hossa’s impact – Crosby was fantastic in the finals because he finally had a talented winger to take the heat off. However, as talented as last year’s Penguins were, they weren’t equipped to win the most important battle – the war in front of the net.
Detroit’s fearless, hulking, gingerbearded duo of Thomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen set up camp in front of Marc-Andre Fleury and didn’t budge for the entire six game series. They took the accompanying slashes, they took the gloves to the face and spears to the gut, and they refused to back down. They refused to drift off into the corners. Because of Holmstrom and Franzen’s blitzkrieg of Fleury’s crease, Detroit lifted the Cup.
After Hossa’s off-season departure, Penguins fans begged General Manager Ray Shero for a sexy replacement. They wanted the return of Jagr. They pined for Marian Gaborik and Nokali Zherdev – talented players with cap-eating contracts and doughy dispositions.
Certainly, those guys would have won regular season games and racked up phenominal stats. They would have played on the fringes and finished spectacular one-timers served up on a platter by Sid.
In that alternate universe, the Penguins might be three or four spots higher in the Eastern Conference right now. But when the playoffs start in just a two weeks, and the ice suddenly becomes much more claustrophobic, those talented wingers wouldn’t help the Penguins get over the hump. Ray Shero was thinking big picture. He was thinking ugly.
Meet the coldhearted S.O.B. who will help the Penguins win the Stanley Cup. Oops, wrong picture. One moment.
That’s more like it. The Pens need Cooke to make the front of the net an ugly place to be.
Losing Hossa was a disappointment, but losing Ryan Malone’s presence in front of the net left, literally, a gaping hole. With Malone gone, the Penguins lost their ugly. By acquiring players like Matt Cooke, Kunitz and Geurin, the Pens now have a corps of three hardnosed grinders who can win the war in front of the net this playoff season.
The impact of Kunitz and Geurin has been obvious, but Cooke’s influence since moving up to Malkin’s second line has been more subtle. Two weeks ago in the Pens’ 4-3 victory over the Rangers, Cooke posted up in front of the net and scored a second-effort rebound goal from his knees. It was far from pretty, but it was a playoff goal – the kind of haphazard, off-balance chip-shot that players like Cooke don’t give up on.
Players like Zherdev, Gaborik, and yes, even Hossa, may have been awe-inspiring playing next to Sid during the wide-open regular season, but they wouldn’t bring the missing piece to the table: those shambling, stumbling, second-effort, ping-pong, “Where’s the puck? It’s in the net!” type goals.
Or, in a word, fortitude. The Red Wings had a half-ounce more fortitude than the Penguins last year. This year? It might be a different story. Which brings us back to our original question:
You’re staring down a Sergei Gonchar slapshot. If you flinch, no one blames you. If you don’t, you might catch a 95 mph slapshot to the catch, or you might screen the goaltender and help create a goal that no one will remember you for, except your teammates.
Do you flinch?
During the Pens’ 6-2 win over the Atlanta Thrashers last month, Chris Kunitz didn’t flinch. The net did.
It was a small act of sacrifice, barely noticeable on tape. But it’s that kind of commitment and toughness that gets your name etched on Lord Stanley.