In which we've never been so happy to be lost for words.
I’m not even sure what to write after that game.
As sports go, this is an age where hyperbole is passed out like Orpik hands out hits and candy, and it’s still tough to put into words just how good the Pens looked tonight.
I guess it was JUST the Islanders, who are either an up-and-coming team in a tailspin or a team that has regressed a full year in the last 15 games. Yes, they threw some rookie goaltender to the wolves tonight in part because DiPietro can’t walk from here to the end of the block without injuring himself. So maybe we reserve complete judgment until a few weeks from now, once this all settles in and they’ve worked up better than a 60-minute sample as a healthy team. It’s a long season. Not too high, not too low.
As Pens fans, we’ve been incredibly blessed, sometimes more than we realize and that’s probably why so many fans of opposing teams hate us. Some fans have had just a couple years’ flirtation with a game-changing superstar – Pavel Bure in Florida, for instance. Other fans’ teams have been defined by 35+ years of Maybes and Almosts and What Might Have Beens (mostly directed at our friends down the Beltway, but I’ve long been a fan of the Canucks as well as the Pens, and this one is heartbreakingly familiar).
Instead, the last 25 years have given Pens fans three Cups and a library of games in which we get to cheer on someone who is so much better than everyone else on the ice some nights, it’s almost not fair. Lemieux has shelves of games like that. I saw Jagr in that playoff series in ’99 against New Jersey, when he was playing at 50%, maybe 60% and was STILL the best player on the ice. Sid against Washington in 2009. Geno against Carolina. Sid against Ottawa in 2010.
Crosby has emerged as the best player in the NHL because he has evolved. There isn’t an elite player who is better in all three zones. He quickly worked his way into dominance in the faceoff circle – no small feat for a player of his age. Remember the old “overhyped Adam Oates” tag? That went away in 2009 when he realized he was pretty good at this goal-scoring game, too.
Then came last year, when he was on pace for 132 points and what would’ve been the best post-lockout season to date. He was making a mockery of the NHL scoring race when he was lost for the year to the concussion. Chalk up another What Might Have Been, this one the most heart-rendering of all, especially for player and team.
Thoughts of “What could Sid do this year” turned to “We just hope there’s a Sid to watch this year.” Cleared to practice. Cleared for contact. And while I think everyone tempered expectations, you couldn’t help but watch him at camp or in the footage of his practices, listen to those who saw him each day at practice, especially guys like Bourque and Errey – guys who know these things – and wonder if he was really going to be that dominant. Could he really top last year?
(NSFW, just in case.)
Go back and watch that reaction to his first goal scored last night.
Get beyond the expletive-laced reaction – the one that you probably repeated when you jumped out of your seat at Consol, off your stool at the bar or out of your couch at home.
That was a primal scream – a spontaneous combustion of nearly a year of frustration, confusion, anger and finally relief.
Go back to the numerous shots of him on the bench, or especially to the one that most stood out most – the extra few seconds he lingered on the ice, raising both hands and cracking a very noticeable & appreciative grin to the crowd after being named the game’s first star. The last time I remembered seeing a player react so genuinely to such an ovation was Lemieux’s farewell tour in 1997, when Mario soaked in the final ovations in his last regular season game and playoff game at home, knowing it was about to end.
Obviously, circumstances aren't quite the same with Crosby. But between the "eff yeah", the shots of him on the bench and the way he reacted to the crowd at the end, there seemed something beyond just savoring that moment. There was an appreciation for what he lost last year, perhaps very much fueled by the realization that he, like we, once took his career for granted.
If those reactions were any indication, we may be watching a Sidney Crosby that's no longer just pushing to improve some facet of his game like someone working on a project. We may now be watching a Sidney Crosby driven to play his best game for the most basic of reasons – the notion that something he loves, something that he has made such a defining part of him was nearly taken away.
We may be watching a player who is truly playing every game, every shift as if it were his last. And there may be no greater motivation for Crosby.
And that, friends, is a very frightening proposition for the rest of the NHL.
(Equal parts awful and fitting.)
And while I'm on my late 80's kick, Axl, your thoughts?
You're next, Hitchcock.