To the 2010-11 Pittsburgh Penguins: THANK YOU

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Well, the end of the 2010-11 season for the Pittsburgh Penguins is officially over. After a very tight game last night, they lost the series to Tampa. It was one of the best games in the series; the Pens just couldn’t find the net behind Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson.

As I wound out last night after watching the handshake and the stick-raising to the fans at Consol Energy Center, I realized this was a season of “what if…” I’m actually proud of my favored team for putting together an exhilarating run after January’s misfortunes. They could’ve just packed it in and settled for “next year-itis.” Instead, I watched a group of guys pull together and make one fantastic second-half of the season.

I’m sure everyone plays the ‘what-if’ game after their team of choice bows out. So indulge me while I do the same.

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  • What if Sidney Crosby hadn’t accidentally collided with Caps center David Steckel during the Winter Classic, and then boarded the next game by the Lightning’s Victor Hedman? Crosby was on pace for a record season in goals and points; it took the current crop of league leaders about a month to overtake his stats.
  • What if winger Evgeni Malkin hadn’t taken that bad tumble and torn his ACL and MCL?
  • What if Matt Cooke had had a change of heart and play months earlier, instead of waiting for a 10 game suspension and the first playoff series? Even then, we’ll have to wait for next season (with whatever team he ends up with) to find out if he even turns over his declared ‘new leaf.’
  • What if goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had been his Game 1 self in Games 5 or 6 of the series with Tampa?
  • What if Alexi Kovalev had actually been the Kovalev of old?
  • What if the team had just collapsed and turned in average performances to finish out the season?

There’s a lot more than that short list, I know.

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What it comes down to though, is that I’m cool with the Pens season ending last night. They got seven games farther into the playoffs than I had thought after Sid went down and Malkin went out for the season. To stand up and pull the Lightning along for a full seven game series? Awesome. Frankly, I was concerned that if the Penguins had won last night, they definitely would not have made it past round two; with either the Flyers or the Caps as the possible opponents, it would’ve been embarrassing. As much as I loathe to give either of those teams credit (though I do give the Caps more credit than the Flyers; it’s just Caps fans that annoy me, not the team), it would’ve been a very brutal – and most likely short – playoff series. That would’ve been a more embarrassing end to this wonderful run by a team plagued with injuries, shortcomings, and deficiencies.

No, a round one loss to Tampa in a to-the-tilt series-ender, I’m content with.

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This was a team that, quite frankly, impressed me from the top down. The magnitude of their task is truly astounding when you consider they were without their two top scorers for half the season. Dan Bylsma is my second-favorite coach ever (behind Badger Bob Johnson) for his calm, cool demeanor, his passion, his professionalism, and his leadership. All of those qualities truly infused this team and you saw that naked desire in the last half of the season. Grinding out the wins, doing what it took to get the points, and nearly everyone stepped up to the plate when it counted most. So what if they couldn’t quite get over that last hill last night? It doesn’t take away from the fact that this team has impressed me. Being a 27 year fan, I can honestly say from here that this is one of the best group of guys wearing the black-and-gold in recent memory, right up there with the 2009 Cup team. But it’s that integrity and commitment that impressed me most, and I really hope GM Ray Shero can find a way to hold onto that core for next year.

That said, I’ll quietly root for the Caps to take it all, including the Cup. Not because I believe in that team or because I live here in DC. Only because, if they win the Cup – I’ll actually be able to see it in person during the year it’s here. And this is a win-win for me, because if the Caps lose? I get another summer of antagonizing my Caps fan friends.

I can live with that.

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