Saturday, November 18, 2006

Flightless Waterfowl

I’m trying to like the Penguins. I really am. I feel guilty, because absolutely everybody everywhere says that Pittsburgh is one of the most interesting things going. I’m supposed to be dazzled and thrilled by these guys. I’m supposed to believe that they’re going to ‘save’ hockey. This is the future, they tell me, this is the New NHL.

So I’ve been trying to catch Penguins games when I can, I’ve been trying to pay attention to them when they turn up in the news and whatnot. I’ve even been deliberately trying to watch them with an uncritical eye. Most other teams I just watch and whatever strikes me, strikes me- bad, good, weird, whatever. But with the Penguins, God help me, I’ve been trying to find thinks to love, or at least things to respect.

Here’s what I’ve come up with: Crosby. I’ve bought the hype, I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid®, I am a believer. Sidney Crosby is the Greatest Thing to Happen to Hockey since [insert whatever you think the last great thing to happen to hockey was here]. Please, no indignant emails from irate fans telling me how wonderful he is. I promise someday I will write odes in praise of Sidney Crosby, I will climb to the top of the mountain and scream his greatness to the heavens. Give me Sidney Crosby and I will show you the truth about Canada.

However, even the might of The Savior doesn’t make Pittsburgh a good hockey team. If we can, just for a moment, let’s bracket [Sidney Crosby] and talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins. I’m sorry, I know you hate to hear it, I know if you follow hockey right now you probably have a gigantic crush on Pittsburgh, but tear your lustful gaze off the teenage boys for a minute and look at the stats for the team as a whole: they’re neck and neck with the Islanders in a competition for 3rd place in a division that’s only marginally more competitive then Central. The Florida Panthers, 5th place in the Southeast, have the same points as the Penguins. They’re not even in the top half of the League. I’m supposed to be going into raptures over a team that’s 8-7-2? Why?

Okay, forget the numbers. Let’s say the numbers are lying, the true glamour of the Penguins is something qualitative, not quantitative. After all, they make for some great highlight reel footage, right? I mean, virtually every game they play, even when they get their asses whooped overall, there’s at least one pretty stylish goal, yeah? And hey, I’m a style junkie, so I should definitely be able to get a fix off a Penguins game. But the problem is, when Crosby isn’t on the ice, even with Malkin and Staal-che, they’re remarkable mainly for how totally unremarkable they are. They can make some great shots, but they’re weak on the basics of the game. Their coordination is terrible- without Crosby they tend to default to a sort of base standard of 5 indecisive guys trying to decide where to go for dinner- “What do you want?” “I dunno. What do you want?” “We could get chicken.” “Do you want chicken?” “I dunno.” “The burrito place is closer.” “Which burrito place?” “You know, the one with the sign.” “Do you want burritos?” “I dunno.” Imagine 43 minutes of that in hockey form. Any one of them individually might be great at any given moment, but as a group, they’re pretty much a loss. It’s a team of guys who seem to make each other worse, not better. They drop passes, they lose control of the puck, they habitually shoot way wide of whatever it is they’re aiming at. Also, their play is strangely unphysical, or physical in a silly sort of way, like Talbot punching that guy in the back of the head last night. If you’re going to fight, than fight, but that kind of shit just looks cheap, half-assed, and immature. I know everybody calls them ‘kids’, but seriously, most of them are nearly as old as I am or older, and even I could probably manage less lame fighting than that, assuming of course that I was stupid enough to start a fight in a hockey game, or with a hockey player under any circumstances for that matter.

Yet, in spite of all this, in spite of their unimpressive record and very inconsistent play, the commentators act as if Pittsburgh was among the best teams in the League. Listening to the game last night, you’d think that the Sabres were some sort of backwater underdog fortunate to be able to hold off the ferocious and terrifying onslaught of the magnificent Penguins. Every time Crosby, Malkin, or Staal got within the range in which they might possibly have been able to touch the puck- even if they never actually did- you’d hear some old white guy goin’ on about what a great play it was that almost led to a goal. Has some sort of universal hockey law gone into effect which prohibits criticism of Pittsburgh? Is it just because Crosby et al. are so beloved that, like all lovers, we are incapable of seeing any fault in them? Are we all afraid that if anyone mentions the gaping holes in the Penguins’ collective game, dear Sidney will get upset, take his stick and go home? Because I’ve seen the dude play, and I don’t think that’s going to happen.

The best the Penguins have to offer will always and inevitably end up in the highlight clips, therefore, there’s no reason to watch the actual games. Everything between the money shots is filler. The really worthwhile teams- the ones who might actually save hockey, if you're one of those who believes that hockey needs salvation- are the ones that manage to make their whole game gorgeous, or at least shot through with threads of beauty or brutality or kink or craziness or grace. I fell for hockey over a nearly random play that I caught on a television I was barely even paying attention to, which is another story for another time, but the point was that the team I was watching was capable of making even the most ordinary bits of the game into something amazing. The Penguins, as a group, just can’t do that. I hope some day they can, I believe it is probably within their ability (yes, even without the venerable Sidney), and if and when that day comes I’ll be ecstatic. But for now, I’ve got more interesting things to watch. See ya at Le Centre Bell, darari.

1 comment:

The Puck Stops Here said...

Pittsburgh would likely become a great team if they can keep their core together as they all hit their primes. I don't think its likely that they will keep their core together due to reduced free agency ages and salary caps.

Lots of hype for something that probably wont get a chance to happen.