Quite simply, as we all know-- this is the end of the line for the season. And what a season it's been:
- Coming off a 102 game season where they fell just short of the Stanley Cup, everyone said it'd be Hangover City for the Pittsburgh Penguins with the "curse" of losing in the Finals. But the only Hangover here is the one in in theatres.
- Pens fans have been around 251 days since this season began back in early October 2008. We've seen fall, winter, spring and while not officially summer -- it sure feels like it. A full circle of the seasons.
- We've watched them play in three countries, two continents and in 22 different cities and five different time zones through 105 games.
- We've gone through two coaches, four goalies and 36 different skaters lace 'em up.
- We've seen injuries, trades, rumors and everything in between. In the course of this season alone, we've waved goodbye to old friends in Ryan Whitney, Darryl Sydor and Dany Sabourin. And we've welcomed Philippe Boucher, Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin, Craig Adams, Mathieu Garon and Mike Zigomanis to the squad, in varying roles.
- We've braced when Sergei Gonchar was hurt in the pre-season, but welcomed the contributions of Alex Goligoski and the continued development of Kris Letang.
- We've watched the Penguins be absolutely dominant for shifts, periods and games at a time and we've seen them be absolutely dreadful for the same stretches. The Penguins were mired in the bottom half of the standings all the way up to February.
- We endured the dismissal of Michel Therrien, a stern but necessary taskmasker who out-grew his time and the blossoming of Dan Bylsma, who before this season had exactly 0 games of head coaching experience. Not that you'd know it by watching.
- We've witnessed Evgeni Malkin win his first Art Ross Trophy, the 13th in 21 seasons for Penguin players.
- We've cheered them as they gritted their way into the playoffs and then dispatched Mike Richards and the hated Philadelphia Flyers in six physical, gruesome games.
- We watched Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin go toe-to-toe for seven magnificent games until the Pens depth in net and defense carried the day. Marc-Andre Fleury robbed Ovechkin in Game 7 and that turned everything around, enabling the Pens to blow out the Caps 6-2 on the road in the deciding game.
- We then braced for the Hurricane from the challenge of the "Cardiac Canes". It became obvious they couldn't match Crosby and Malkin and the Pens shrugged them away in four straight hard fought but decisive wins.
- And then the rematch everyone was waiting for against Detroit. Marian Hossa, the treacherous dog who thought he had a better chance of winning with the Red Wings, but ironically ensured Pittsburgh's place in the Finals by allowing them the salary cap space to sign or acquire Brooks Orpik, Miroslav Satan and the veteran Bill Guerin. The six mainly back and forth even games (save one) that saw the home team prevailing each time so far. With the decider to come.
- And it doesn't even mention all the big goals and huge smiles from Max Talbot, Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke....Or the willingness of enforcers like Eric Godard and Paul Bissonnette to drop the gloves ad standup for their teammates with a fight. Haven't mentioned the big hits that Brooks Orpik delivered like free candy on Halloween or the selfless blocking shots that guys like Mark Eaton and Rob Scuderi did every single game out there.
- And very little recognition of the captain Sidney Crosby who, for a change, was in the shadow of Malkin. Crosby recorded a very quiet 100 point season but often was the best and most consistent player on the Penguins.
And now here we are. Game 7. 60 minutes (maybe more) that will decide if this season ultimately fades away into obscurity or is the stuff of legend for years to come in Pittsburgh sporting lore.
In the salary cap world, we all know things will never be the same when the final horn has blown. After last season Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Georges Laraque, Adam Hall and Jarkko Ruutu all went on that path away from Pittsburgh. And after tomorrow night Rob "The Piece" Scuderi, Hal Gill, Petr Sykora, Ruslan Fedotenko, Miroslav Satan, Bill Guerin, Philippe Boucher, Mathieu Garon are all unrestricted free agents. And, of course win or lose, most of them will never wear the black and vegas gold again. That's just the way it is.
Before it's all said and done though there's one more game to be played. As Ray Shero's daddy famously said: "Win together today, and we walk together forever". At this point, those words ring more true than ever.
Go get 'em, boys. Go get 'em.
(As a cheesy aside, thank you to all the Pensburghers....It's been an honor to ride on this journey with you all...Win or lose, we've got a lot of material ready to go for the post-season including: draft coverage, prospect updates and season reviews for every significant Penguin player which'll require your input to determine final grades as we close the book on this baby. So don't go anywhere....Even though we're at the end of a season, it's only the beginning for Pensburgh, so do stick around. And, of course, enjoy the last game, it only comes around once in a lifetime.)