When you fall down on the journey up the mountain, the disappointment of not making it to the top makes it difficult to appreciate just how far you have gotten.
Yes, on one hand the Penguins suffered a disappointing end on Wednesday night in their quest to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, suffering a 5-2 setback to the Montreal Canadiens in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Mellon Arena, but the Igloo finale should instead be remembered as yet another indication of just how far hockey has come in Pittsburgh the past five years thanks to a courageous hockey team and the best fans in the world.
Right off the bat it was not the start the Penguins envisioned as Pittsburgh was penalized 10 seconds into the contest, surrendered a power-play marker just 22 seconds later and fell behind by a 4-0 count 5:14 into the second period.
But one of the reasons why the Penguins have been able to be one of the National Hockey League’s top teams the past four seasons – winning the Stanley Cup last season, advancing to the Final in both ’09 and ’08 and picking up over 100 points in three of the past four regular seasons – is the fan support at Mellon Arena.
Instead of throwing in the towel at that point, the Penguins and their fans rallied together. Chris Kunitz
breathed new life into the old barn at 8:36 when a loose puck caromed right to his stick at the side of the net and he slammed a shot under the pads of Jaroslav Halak to get the Penguins on the board, making it 4-1.
The place went bonkers later in the period when Jordan Staal
re-directed a center-point shot from Alexei Ponikarovsky over Halak to cut the deficit in half, 4-2.
In fact, it felt like the roof was going to blow off the place at the ensuing television timeout when Evgeni Malkin
’s dad, Vladimir, was shown on the scoreboard. When play resumed, no question feeding off the electricity the crowd was generating, the Penguins came within inches of getting a third goal right before the second intermission as the fans continued to roar with approval.
Head coach Dan Bylsma and the players appreciated the backing the fans gave them as they tried to make the historic comeback.
“This was probably the best Mellon Arena that I can remember,” Bylsma said. “They were great in the second period. It was an awesome third period when ‘Renegade’ went right until the end. I think a few (fans) are still out there.
“Class, energy – they were awesome. I am disappointed for them and not letting them see more games here. I know it is a huge disappointment. They were awesome. I thought we were going to give them a really good ending halfway through that game. I know our guys did too.”
The fans haven’t just supported the Penguins since the league returned from the lockout five years ago, they have been the backbone of one of the greatest turnarounds in sports history.
Between 2002-2006 the Penguins finished in last place in four straight campaigns, but the revival since then has been unprecedented.
Thanks to such young, marquee talent like Crosby, Malkin, Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury
, the Penguins have become the toast of the town while Mellon Arena has been THE place to be. Since Feb. 14, 2007 – a span of 166 regular-season and postseason contests – the amazing fans that make up the Steel City have sold out EVERY game.
Not only do the fans come in high numbers, their unwavering support has helped lift the team when they needed it most – most notably Game 6 against Detroit last June – when the Penguins needed a win to force the decisive Game 7.
The fans were every bit as impressive on Wednesday as they were that night, and that’s an indelible memory that will last for this team throughout the summer as they regroup and move across the street to the sparkling CONSOL Energy Center next season ready to continue this great tradition that Penguins hockey has become.
“This one will probably be right up there for sure knowing this was the last game and knowing how these fans were,” Bylsma said. “I don’t know if I’ve heard it louder at Mellon Arena than I heard it tonight for that period of time.”
The Penguins never could muster up the remaining tallies they needed to draw even with the Canadiens, but that didn’t stop the great Pittsburgh fans from saluting their hockey heroes for everything this team has accomplished the past three postseasons.
While most buildings would have emptied right about the time Brian Gionta made it 5-2 Montreal at the 10-minute mark of the third period, Penguins fans stuck around right to the end. They erupted into “Let’s Go Pens!” and “Crosby! Crosby! Crosby!” chants as the players left the ice, almost letting the team know, ‘we are proud of everything you have accomplished and we will be back on your side with a vengeance when the 2010-11 season commences.’
Yes, the Penguins wanted to give their fans a longer run than what transpired, but knowing how much their efforts are appreciated means a lot no matter what the ending happened to be.
“The crowd and the way that they responded when we were down 4-0 was pretty incredible,” Crosby said. “I think that we can almost say thank you for that. We appreciate it. That’s the loudest that I ever heard it. It’s not the way that we wanted to finish here, but they should be proud in the way that they supported us here for sure.”