PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 11: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his first period goal against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 11, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
It's that moment after a Goro double-fisted punch right in the jaw. You're lying face down on the ground, unable to string a cohesive thought together because your brains closely resemble scrambled eggs. Once the initial shock is over, some people are able to get up and walk away, but others remain encased in the knockout blow, replaying different scenarios as if a timemachine was at the ready.
Irregardless of your position, getting eliminated from the playoffs sucks. Call Pittsburgh Penguins fans arrogant (oh wait...), but it really was a punch in the face that will sting for many months to come because of how much wasted potential was lost on the Wells Fargo Center ice.
Instead of dissecting every bad line change or shot that met iron, I want to inject a dose of morphine by reliving some of the happier times we saw this season before they were sent to the golf course by a better a more deserving team. Never forget that despite the short playoff run, this team is beyond blessed. They're here for us to enjoy and I intend to appreciate every second of this team.
For the record, I'm not counting milestones or stretches of good play (like Pascal Dupuis' ridiculous NHL-leading 17-game point streak). These are actual moments that really stuck out in my memory and can be pinpointed in a video. I've put them in the order they occurred in the season.
So without further ado:
The Real Deal Makes His Grand Entrance
Is there anything jaw-dropping about the goal itself? Not really. What made this moment so memorable and smile-inducing is what it represented. James Neal, who couldn't seem to find a gaping net on an empty rink, scored the first goal of the 2011-2012 season for the Pens on the road. Pens fans tip-toed gingerly (pun intended) around the idea of keeping Neal when he was unable to produce following his acquisition. Getting that goal right off the bat must have been a huge relief for Neal and it was the start of a fantastic 40-goal season, very worthy of the contract extension Ray Shero granted him in February.
"Justice Has Been Served"
The buildup was as bizarre as hockey gets: It was the start of the third period, Pens leading the New Jersey Devils 1-0. The refs sent Devils winger (and ex-Penguin) Petr Sykora to the box, charging him with a double minor on a high sticking penalty. Seems like protocol... if Sykora was the actual offender. Rather, it was Patrik Elias who quickly skated back to the bench scott-free. The refs never noticed, despite a roaring Pens team. To everyone's horror, Ilya Kovalchuk led a rush down the ice just over a minute into the four-minute penalty and, of all people, Elias netted the shorthanded goal. There was nothing the refs could do at that point but say "oops, sorry," and move on. The hockey gods took note of this, however, and Chris Kunitz scored a power play goal a minute later to put the Pens back in the lead. Justice was truly served.
There's always an extra fire in a player when he faces an ex-team. It was no different for Neal when he faced the Dallas Stars for the first time since they released him and Niskanen for the services of Alex Goligoski. Needless to say, Neal made is clear who got the better end of the bargain, scoring two power play goals including the game-winner. Matt Cooke's penalty shot was the cherry on top.
Evgeni Malkin Shows Gabriel Ladeskog/Semyon Varlamov What's Up
Plays like this are why Malkin was placed on this earth, plain and simpe. First he wins the puck battle along the boards to maintain possession and then pulls a move that looks like the puck is a yoyo to his stick. Landeskog even mentioned on Twitter that this play was one of his most embarrassing moments on the ice.
The King Has Returned
Goosebumps. If this isn't at the top of your list, then there is something wrong with you. Sidney Crosby' goal sent Pittsburgh into a frenzy of emotions from relief, exhilaration, shock, and tears. After the rest of the world collectively picked up their jaws from the floor, I could only chuckle. Was anyone really surprised this was how Crosby would kick off his (first) comeback? Just pure emotion and relief from Crosby, enough of it to make a die-hard Pens fan's heart hurt. Crosby's goal celebration says it all.
The Penalty Kill of the Ages
(Start at 6:30)
The Pens were up 3-2 against the Carolina Hurricanes in the closing minutes of the game when the penalty trouble started. The Pens were whistled down for too many men with about two and half minutes left but then 20 seconds later, Pascal Dupuis went off on a holding penalty. 5 on 3. With 32 seconds left on the 5 on 3, Cooke then takes a tripping penalty. Pens fans were nervously bouncing in their seats, just wishing time would melt away. Then with 18 seconds left, both Craig Adams and Eric Staal leave the ice with roughing penalties. Dupuis, Cooke, and Adams: three of the Pens best penalty killers, all in the box. But Brent Johnson and the nouveau penalty killing unit managed to hold their ground and stop the Canes from scoring. Unbelievable effort from the Pens for a December game, especially Johnson who had a really rough year.
Welcome to the Pens, Simon Despres
For some NHL players, their first career goal is an ugly one, but special nonetheless. While it isn't the prettiest, Despres's first NHL goal was sharp and demonstrated the potential this kid has and will bring as a full-time defenseman (which will be sooner rather than later). No fan base can fight the smile when an esteemed prospect nets his first NHL goal.
Brooks Orpik Gives Daniel Paille Wings (With a Side of Free Candy)
There's a different kind of satisfaction that comes from witnessing a huge, clean hit. It sends a message, it can change momentum, and it just feels good. This one undoubtedly sent Pens fans to their feet. Open-ice hit of the year.
Malkin, the Russian Ballerina
Shootouts are a controversial addition to the NHL, but they certainly provide some entertainment as well. Malkin's spin-o-rama against the Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens during the shootout was one of those moments. There's always a certain risk that comes with attempting a creative, over-the-top move like that but Malkin luckily pulled it off. Is it worth the risk? Probably not, but when you have hands like Malkin, there is little you can't accomplish.
Down Two Men, Cooke Delivers
In a 2-2 game against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pens were about to kill a 5 on 3 penalty when Kimmo Timonen mishandled the puck at the blue line. Cooke was off to the races and absolutely smoked Timonen. He not only beat Timonen to the puck, but settled the bouncing puck and stuffed it behind Ilya Bryzgalov while being hooked all the way. The fact that Cooke managed to get the shot off was impressive enough, but scoring as well just shows the athleticism of the pesky winger. 3 on 5 goals are a rare breed and it's nice to see Cooke be the one to score it.
Malkin Shows Shades of Mario
From blue line to goal line, there are no words to describe the moves Malkin pulls from his bag of tricks. This is another dandy, despite it being the Pens' sixth goal in an 8-1 blowout of the Tampa Bay Lightning. As the title on the videos indicates "Goal of the Year Candidate." Yeah, I think so.
(Credit to number87)
I feel like I have to tread softly when referencing "smile-worthy moments" from the Pens/Flyers series, but this was probably the best moment. That collective moment when Pens fans everywhere believed that we had a chance. It may have been the last happy moment of the Pens' season, but it was wonderful enough to send fans into fits of ecstasy. The win felt that good. And although the pure bliss that came from the win was short-lived, it gives us something to hold on to as we head into the lengthy and miserable offseason.
I know there are many more moments that I did not include, so I invite everyone to share their favorite moments (or favorite anything) from this season.