Saturday, June 13, 2009

That's a Wrap

Tonight, Pennsylvania is the center of the hockey universe. The Pittsburgh Penguins defied the odds in winning a Game 7 on the road against the defending Stanley Cup champions and beat the Detroit Red Wings, 2-1 to win the Stanley Cup.

Not long after the horn sounded in Detroit, the Hershey Bears set an American Hockey League record in winning their tenth Calder Cup, a 4-1 win over the Manitoba Moose to close out that series in six games in Winnipeg.

Caps fans might not be pleased with the Penguin win, but it was well-earned. Several players stepped up in a big way for the Penguins in a manner befitting a champion. Marc-Andre Fleury forever silenced his critics (we being occasionally among them) with a sterling performance in a building that has been unkind to him in his young career, one capped by a diving save on a Nicklas Lidstrom drive in the dying moments of the contest. Maxime Talbot was the hero of Game 7, netting both goals for the Penguins in what would be the Triumph of the Grinders in the championship-deciding game, and the rest of the team cobbled together a superior defensive effort in holding a team that had scored 11 goals in three home games to a single tally.

As it was chronicled in many places, no team in any of the major North American team sports had won a Game 7 in the last 18 tries since 1980. It hadn’t been done in the NHL since the Montreal Canadiens did it against the Chicago Blackhawks in 1971, coincidentally the last time a team fell behind 2-0 on the road and came back to win the in the finals.

Congratulations to Evgeni Malkin (Conn Smythe winner), Sidney Crosby (youngest captain to win the Cup), Dan Bylsma (a mid-season replacement behind the bench who in no small way saved the Penguins’ season), and the rest of the Penguins. It was a Cup well-deserved.

For the Hershey Bears, it was another season in a long history of excellence. And perhaps the biggest part of this year’s contribution to that history was the performance of Alexandre Giroux. The Bears’ winger scored on a breakaway mid-way through the first period in tonight’s Game 6 against the Manitoba Moose to drive a stake into the heart of the fans in Winnipeg, giving the Bears a 3-0 lead on their way to the 4-1 win. For Giroux, it would be the emphatic exclamation point on a season for the ages – 60 regular season goals, 15 more in the playoffs, a total of 75 goals for the season that would be the highest total ever achieved in the AHL for the regular season and playoffs, combined.

But Giroux was hardly alone. Michal Neuvirth – this year’s winner of the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as Calder Cup MVP – announced loudly in these Calder Cup playoffs that he is a prospect to be reckoned with in the Capitals’ scheme of things. He posted a 16-6 record, a 1.92 goals against average (third in the Calder Cup playoffs and a Bears team record), a .932 save percentage (fourth), and four shutouts (tops in the Calder Cup playoffs). He became the first goalie in AHL history to win Games 6 and 7 of a playoff series with shutouts, turning the trick against arch-rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the second round of the playoffs.

Then there was Quintin Laing. On a March evening dominated by Alex Ovechkin’s “hot stuff” goal celebration, Laing skated in his only game for the Caps this season – a 5-2 win over Tampa Bay – and tore his spleen. It was an injury that was expected, at the time, to sideline him for the rest of the season. But Laing came back to play in nine Calder Cup playoff games and served as an inspiration to his teammates in their march to the championship.

For Bears head coach Bob Woods, it was probably especially satisfying. In leading the Bears to their tenth Calder Cup title, he can now claim a Cup as a player (1997 Bears), an assistant coach (2006 Bears), and head coach (2009 Bears). He’s earned his place in the long history of excellence achieved by the Bears.

While turnover is a part of any team from season to season, there might be a special poignancy attached to the Bears in this regard as this season comes to a close. There is a certain “graduation day” air attached to it. For players like Karl Alzner or Chris Bourque, it might be the last time they skate for the chocolate and white as they move onward and upward. It might be that guys like John Carlson and Michal Neuvirth – neither of whom started the year in Hershey – won’t be far behind. Oskar Osala could make the jump before too long. And for a player such as Alexandre Giroux, he might move on to another franchise to find a clearer path to the NHL. Bryan Helmer, who captained the team, and Graham Mink, who is in his second stint with the Bears, are unrestricted free agents this summer.

What a last eight months it’s been for the Keystone State. A World Series championship in Philadelphia, a Super Bowl Championship in Pittsburgh, a Stanley Cup championship in Pittsburgh, and a Calder Cup championship in Hershey. You might even throw in a Governor’s Cup for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees of the International League of minor league baseball. It's been a big year in Pennsylvania.

With tonight’s action, hockey comes to an end for the 2008-2009 season. The celebrating isn’t over yet for the Penguins and Bears, but for the rest of us, we’re already looking forward to next season. It can’t get here fast enough.

1 comment:

Stokley Rose said...

Great season, Peerless!! I look forward to your posts dragging us all through the dog days of summer and into September's preseason. I hope it is a quick 3 months.

Your incredible analysis has made me a smarter hockey fan and I thank you for another terrific season of blogging.