Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I'm Back...For A Look Back

Now that I finally have access to a high-speed Internet connection, I believe it's time to rev this blog up once again. Much has changed since I last posted here - most notably, I've gotten married and moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., in search of a hockey broadcasting career. Currently I'm a PR intern for the Kalamazoo Wings of the International Hockey League. Now that the business of reacquainting myself is out of the way, let's get on with the content.

During my inaugural Web surf using this Comcast cable modem (which took almost two weeks to arrive after I ordered it, but that's a shameless digression), I visited the Pensblog for the usual dose of Pittsburgh Penguins-related merriment. Today's post on the recent Dark Ages of the Pens (2001-2006) took me back to a time when being a 'Guins fan meant you were a fan for life, or you were a sporting sadist, or both.

While the first three seasons in that stretch were newsworthy, if only because they followed a streak of 11 straight years in the playoffs for the Penguins, the 2005-06 season arguably was the most interesting out of the four consecutive losers that preceded the team's current run of success.

Allow me to count the reasons why:
1. Hockey was back, and presumably new and improved after the first full season to be cancelled in the history of major North American pro sports.
2. The Pens had improbably came out on top in the only draft lottery in the history of the NHL in which every team had at least a nominal chance to win. The prize, of course, was Sir Sidney Crosby.
3. Craig Patrick, in what proved to be his final season as the Pens' general manager, had signed a group of free agents that looked awfully impressive on paper - former Pen Mark Recchi, power forward John LeClair, erstwhile sniper Zigmund Palffy, and the talented and enigmatic (at least for the first half of 05-06) defenseman Sergei Gonchar. As it turned out, this awfully impressive group produced simply awful results on the ice.
4. Oh yeah, Mario was back after a full year of rest, which seemed to be just the remedy for a man who was having trouble staying on the ice at the end of his breathtaking career.

Of course, Penguins fans know that the squad was a collosal disappointment, going winless in its first nine contests (0-4-5) en route to getting head coach Eddie Olczyk fired in December and a 22-46-14 final record. That last-in-the-Atlantic finish earned the Pens the right to draft Jordan Staal, so it wasn't all terrible, just like the previous three basement-dwelling teams helped the Pens reel in Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Crosby.

And now, courtesy of NHL.com's game highlights archive (which conveniently begins with the season in question), the Polish Prodigy presents your 2005-2006 Pittsburgh Penguins, likely the last black and gold-clad squad to miss the playoffs in a long time.

October 7, 2005: The Pens drop their first ever shootout at what will end up being a Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes squad. Crosby shows his first real spark of greatness on the set-up to tie the score late in the third.

October 8: The next night, Pittsburgh held its home opener and dropped a wild 7-6 overtime decision to the Bruins. Crosby drilled home his first goal in the NHL, and Mario had a big night, scoring a pair. Mysteriously, this video is missing the OT game-winner by Glen Murray, which is just as well considering I was there to see the Pens blow two separate two-goal leads. At this point, we suspected something might be amiss.

October 27: Finally! I still have the Post-Gazette news clipping somewhere for this game, as the Penguins came back from 4-0 down less than 10 minutes into the first period to pick up their first victory of the season, 7-5 over the Atlanta Thrashers. We'll see more of them later.

November 10: A 3-2 shootout win over Montreal is notable for two reasons. 1) Mario scores the final goal of his NHL life and 2) Sid wins it in memorable fashion.

November 22: Once again, I was there. (Sensing a theme?) Sid and fellow super rookie Alex Ovechkin get together for the first time, and Crosby's squad comes out on top. Watch for a highlight reel goal and spinning assist from No. 87.

December 8: The game that probably broke Eddie O's back. Just a terrible effort at home against the Minnesota Wild. Watch and puke.

December 16: Mario's last game and Michel Therrien's first as Penguins head coach. Michel Ouellet scored his first goal as well, if you care. Pens fall to Buffalo 4-3 in overtime.

December 31: Back to some uplifting stuff. Crosby beats the Rangers in OT on New Year's Eve. Could the Pens be turning it around?

January 5, 2006: Ilya Kovalchuk nets a hat trick for the homestanding Thrashers, taunting Crosby after the Kid took a penalty that lead to Kovalchuk's second tally. Easy to forget how reckless Sid could be in his rookie season; he's matured so much since then.

January 10: In response to my previous question about the Pens getting things together, the answer is no. This sorry performance against the Oilers led to Therrien's famous rant on the ineptitude of his team's defense.

BONUS - The postgame press conference:

February 10: After dropping 15 of 16 leading up the Olympic break, the Penguins finally break through and improbably beat the surging Hurricanes in Raleigh.

March 24: Ryan Malone scores on "an impossible play" (credit: Mike Lange) to get the Penguins off and running against the Islanders at the Igloo, then Sid finishes yet again in the extra frame. I swear this is the last time I'll write this: I was there for this one!

April 17: And to wrap it up, Crosby picks up three assists in the final home game of the 05-06 slate to reach the 100-point milestone. Lange absolutely nails the call on the 100th point: "Let it be said: One hundred!" Just another reason why he's in the Hockey Hall of Fame.


There you have it. I hope you enjoyed the trip back in time as much as I did. For a last-place team, there were a good amount of highlights, but of course the lows were as bad as anything I've seen in 10+ years of following the Flightless Fowl. Nonetheless, it's worthwhile if only to appreciate how far the team has come in three short years.

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