LCS Hockey: Born Again
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June 26, 2019
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Blown Away




Marc-Andre Fleury
photo by Matthieu Masquelet

The Pittsburgh Penguins are back in the Stanley Cup Finals. Be honest. How many of you saw this coming?

Letís have Mr. Peabody set the WABAC machine to February 15. The Pens were fresh off a St. Valentineís Day Massacre in Toronto, losing 6-2 to the pitiful Maple Leafs. To be fair, the Maple Leafs are very good. Theyíre only terrible when compared to other professional hockey teams.

In the wake of the disastrous defeat, the Pens sat tenth in the Wales, five points out of the final playoff spot. Things were, shall we say, ďtroublingĒ? Shall we say ďhopelessĒ? We shall say hopeless.

The humiliating loss in Toronto was the straw that broke Ray Sheroís back. Michel Therrien got the boot, Dan Bylsma assumed the bench, and Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, and Craig Adams bolstered the wings. Whole new team. And the Pens responded, going 18-3-4 down the stretch to vault all the way to fourth in the conference.

Give credit to Shero for having the guts to admit he built a flawed team and needed to fix it. Give him even more credit for overhauling the wings without surrendering Jordan Staal or Kris Letang. Shero also had the Charlie Browns to tab Bylsma, who didnít even have a full year of minor-league coaching under his belt.

Dan Byslma? Who canceled? No oneís laughing now. I keep waiting for this guy to crack, but he never does. He could have folded in the Philly series after the Pens blew Game Five on home ice. Dropping the first two against the Caps was another test. So was squandering Game Six in overtime at the Igloo, forcing the team to travel into Washington for Game Seven.

But Bylsma never wavered. He didnít embarrass his players. He didnít cry about the refs. His poise is remarkable. Heís always calm and controlled, no matter the situation. Joel Quenneville should take notes. Then again, Quenneville would probably just blame the pen.

Bylsma had his boys rolling in Game Four against the Hurricanes. Despite surrendering the opening goal to Eric Staal, the Penguins delivered their best performance of the series, putting the Hurricanes out of their misery with a surgical 4-1 win.

Carolina was simply outclassed. While the Hurricanes put forth an honest effort each night, they didnít have the horses to run with Kid Crosby and Geno Malkin. Carolina fans should be proud, though. Few teams have enjoyed more memorable runs to the conference finals. They had no business beating New Jersey, and that Game Seven is an all-time classic. And they toppled the mighty Bruins, winning a second consecutive Game Seven on the road. Thatís quality. Keep your head up.


TURNING POINT
Game Four swung on Max Talbotís freakish tally at 18:34 of the first period. With the score tied 1-1, Tablot swiped the puck from Niclas Wallin at the Penguin stripe and busted into the Carolina zone one-on-one against Anton Babchuk. Talbot cut to the outside and fired a wrist shot off Babchuk that arced like a Clayton Kershaw curveball and tumbled over Cam Wardís glove for the 2-1 lead.

Ward was Carolinaís only hope entering the series. He had to stand on his head to give the Canes any chance. Didnít happen. Yet there was still hope he could rally to steal Game Four and prevent the sweep. Seeing that floater elude his glove ended any such nonsense.

And it was fitting Talbot scored it. Mad Max was flying the entire series, and his goal in Game Two was the true turning point. If you recall, the Canes carried a 3-2 lead into the second period, and Ward still seemed capable of larceny. But Talbot streaked in and uncorked a slapper short-side to tie the score and dispel any notions of Wardís invulnerability. That was the goal that broke Ward. It was all downhill from there.


IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCES Ė CAROLINA

Eric Staal: Look who showed up. Staal the Elder was a force, lugging the puck with determined confidence and firing five shots on net. It was far too little too late. He finished the series with one goal, one assist, and a minus-7. Hard to get happy after that one.

Not Chad LaRose: What was LaRose thinking when he gave Jordan Staal the olí pickle-stabber behind the knee? The Canes were trailing 3-1 and already shorthanded when LaRose busted out the monkeyshine. Thankfully, Staal was able to regain his balance before crashing into the endboards. But it was a real dangerous play and handed the Pens a two-man advantage. Not so LaSmart, LaJackass.


IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCES Ė PITTSBURGH

Marc-Andre Fleury: The Flower was brilliant in Game One but painfully average in Games Two and Three. So when Eric Staal wrapped in his first of the series early in the opening frame, it looked like it could be another long night. But Fleury was flawless the rest of the way, playing a strong positional game highlighted by a few spectacular reflex saves on deflections. It was championship-caliber netminding.

Sidney Crosby: Sid had his usual solid game, and when the outcome was still in doubt, he stepped up and made the decisive play.

Crosby and Bill Guerin combined to steal the puck from Babchuk at the right point and went the other way on a two-on-one against Joni Pitkanen. Crosby orchestrated the break to perfection, hesitating just long enough to allow Guerin to barrel into the open behind Pitkanen before threading the needle. On a normal chance like that, you have to wait to see if the pass gets through. But when itís Sid, you know the puck is getting through. Thereís never a doubt.

The Hurricanes actually did a great job containing Crosby and Malkin. Sid didnít register a single shot, and Geno had just one. But when the game was up for grabs, Crosby delivered the big play. Thatís who he is; itís what he does.

And good to see Crosby carry the Prince of Wales Trophy. Superstitions are for suckers.

Jordan Staal: Staal the Younger was a beast. His line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy set the tone all series when it came to establishing the forecheck, and Game Four was no different. They had a dominant shift near the end of the first period that all but broke Carolinaís will. And Staal punctuated it with a destruction of Scott Walker that had to make Aaron Ward smile.


Weíll have more on the Pens on tonightís fake radio show. Until then, (sunshine) Detroit.




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