Who are you?! These Pens are 'alright'
It was a total surprise. Completely unexpected.
Who would have thought I would meet Roger Daltrey's mother-in-law at the same coffee shop I visit every morning?
For you younger readers, Roger Daltrey is the lead singer of The Who, not to be confused with Chris Daughtry, the best fourth-place finisher ever from "American Idol." I bring up this chance meeting because it came on the same day I planned to write this column about the surprising and unexpected success of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Anyone familiar with The Who's history knows one of their biggest hits was "The Kids are Alright." Well, these kids in Pittsburgh are better than all right. And for those who predicted it was going to be a "teenage wasteland" in Steel Town, those same prognosticators should add "We Won't Get Fooled Again" to their iPods.
Some critics will still say the Penguins' recent success will fade, but this team is scary good and will be even better come April.
The obvious reasons why:
• It begins with face of the franchise, Sid "The Kid" Crosby. The 19-year-old phenom continues to lead the NHL scoring race with 95 points heading into Thursday's games. I guess the old clothes dryer he used to use for shooting drills as a kid has really paid off.
• The Penguins are one of the league's hottest teams. Before a loss to the New York Islanders on Monday, Pittsburgh was riding a 16-game points streak. With a 32-18-9 record, the Pens already have more wins than in each of the past four seasons, four seasons in which they did not make the playoffs.
So those are obvious reasons. But here are five things you may not know about this group of "Happy Feet" on skates.
• Jellin' at the Mellon and beyond: The Penguins are playing to 95 percent capacity at the Mellon Arena. The Mellon might be archaic, but Pittsburgh's die-hard hockey fans know a good thing when they see it, and they're paying to see it right now. Sorry, Kansas City. Keep the Pens in Pitt! Oh, by the way, when Crosby and the gang hit the road, they're the league's third biggest draw (the Pens recently gave the Phoenix Coyotes their first home sellout).
As for TV ratings in Pittsburgh, they are up 34 percent on Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh, the highest percentage increase in the league and the best since the 2000-01. A perfect example -- Super Bowl Sunday. Pittsburgh's game against Montreal got a 7.2 rating. That's astronomical for hockey. Want more? Last week's Penguins-Maple Leafs tilt helped attract the highest-rated audience of the season on Canada's CBC.
• They draft well: The last seven first-round draft picks for the Penguins are all currently playing on the team and are making significant contributions. That's rare in any sport. The "Magnificent 7" are Crosby, Jordan Staal, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Whitney, Colby Armstrong and yes, even Brooks Orpik.
Staal leads the league in shorthanded goals (five) and became the youngest player to record a hat trick in that Feb. 10 game vs. Toronto. But, if you ask Jordan, he would tell you he'd like to duplicate what older brother Eric accomplished with Carolina last season -- win a Stanley Cup.
• What Pittsburgh has in common with Edmonton: Besides the fact both teams were financially strapped at one time or another, the Penguins resemble the Oilers of over two decades ago, when, in the season of 1981-82, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey each scored 20 or more goals in a season before their 21st birthdays. That feat hadn't been repeated since Staal, Crosby and Malkin pulled it off this season. Don't tell me something that worked in the '80s can't work now. We did see Prince perform during halftime of the Super Bowl, right?
• Excellent accommodations: It has been well-documented that Crosby has been living with legend Mario Lemieux and his family since the Kid's NHL arrival last season, but it's worth pointing out again what this has meant to Crosby's development, on and off the ice. The formula worked so well in his rookie season, Crosby continues to make the Lemieux house his home. Staal, 18, bunks with 39-year-old teammate Mark Recchi, and Malkin, 20, shares a home with fellow countryman and veteran Sergei Gonchar (age 32). Can you imagine this in any other sport? It would be like LeBron James sharing a crib with Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Would never happen.
• Family matters: It does when you're talking about Penguins coach Michel Therrien. His dad Jerry brought hockey into his life at age 7. The two were in the stands at the old Montreal Forum to watch the legendary Jean Beliveau score his 500th goal. More than three decades later, a series of strokes has left his dad blind and bedridden in Montreal. Michel knows firsthand how close father-son relationships can be. It's one of the reasons why, for the first time in team history, the Penguins recently held a "dad's trip," when players were joined by their fathers on a two-day road stint.
One of the funnier moments from the trip was when Therrien stood up at the team dinner and imposed a curfew that night for all the players. He added (with tongue firmly placed in cheek) if the Pens lost the next night, players and dads could not use golf carts for their outing the next day. The Penguins went 2-0 on the trip. Right now, Therrien is a strong candidate for the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year. He has fought for respect and is earning it.
The kids are all right, and then some, in Pittsburgh. Make sure you see the march of the Penguins, coming to a hockey arena near you.
Hooked on hockey, Linda Cohn is an anchor for ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS. She has been with the network since 1992 and promises a gluttony of glove saves in her weekly column. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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