Lacing Up: Closing the Laces on 2012
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Joshua Neal: Matt, it’s so hard to believe that another calendar year is in the books. I think each year goes by faster than the last one that I can remember. As depressing as that may be in many senses, it’s not bad in all senses; and neither you nor I have gotten to the stage where our memories have completely betrayed us. So, let’s look back at the hockey landscape in the year of 2012, tying up the loose ends, if you will, for this edition of “Lacing Up.”
One of my favorite things about hockey has always been how fast-paced it was, how the tiniest detail or decision can make the difference between a win and a loss, a goal or no goal, a nifty deke or getting posterized into the boards. Hockey is a sport of emotion, motion, momentum, and moments. The way that my memory works, though, deals mainly in the last of the list – the moments are what I remember the most. Matt, this has been a year that has taken us through some incredibly great moments as well as some dark ones. There were inspiring victories and upsetting defeats. There were new faces, old faces in new places, and even an old face that returned to the old place where he started his career. The memorable moments are not in short supply. So let’s talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Hop over the boards and jump out on whichever one you’d like to start with this time.
Matt Paul: Let’s start it out ugly, Josh, as we’ll save the best for last. We’ve been avoiding this topic like the plague in “Lacing Up,” we we’ve tried to provide our readership with something different to digest. But what kind of year in review would this be if we ignored the second half? Of course, I’m talking about the lockout.
What we’ve experienced in the second half of 2012 is something we had hoped was solved with the cancellation of the 2004-05 season. It’s a shame, really, because we’re not just missing half of a season of hockey (and let’s hope it’s no more than that), we’re missing the twilight of some players’ careers and the dawn of others’ — and maybe most important to Penguins fans, we’re missing a part of the prime of many players. Teemu Selanne has said he won’t return to the NHL if the lockout cancels the season. Nail Yakupov could be three months into a Calder Trophy campaign. And Sidney Crosby is missing more time after battling concussion and neck injuries for the previous year and a half. This is a black mark on the league, and one that will last for years.
Josh, speaking of Crosby, 2012 has been rough on the league’s face, hasn’t it?
Josh: Indeed it has. Crosby was brilliant, for a flash, in 2012. However, the year of 2012 was one filled with frustration for the Penguins’ captain who also has continued to basically be the face of the NHL. After a return in 2011 that saw Sid play somewhere in the vicinity of 12 games, he sat again with concussion/mystery neck injury symptoms. Then, for about 2 months, Sid came back, and the Penguins scored about 4 or 5 goals each game and lost very rarely. Unfortunately, in that span, the Penguins also completely forgot how to play defense. I say that in jest, but it is basically the truth. Sid took his team into the playoffs and the team suffered a borderline embarrassing 4-2 series ousting to the rival Flyers that was much worse than the series final indicates. To make matters worse, a lot of people say that Crosby’s lack of focus allowed the Flyers to get inside his head, throwing the entire Penguins team off their game and falling into the trap they had set. Crosby also put up with criticisms from coaches and players around the league for the style of play he utilizes while simultaneously decrying concussions – New York Rangers coach John Tortorella was animated to this point, calling Crosby one of two (the other being Malkin) “whining stars.”
Sid is a confident player, so I won’t say that the beginning of the 2012-2013 gave him an opportunity to prove something to himself, but I will say that he had some very vocal critics who, despite their partisan opinions, looked more right than wrong in many ways after the campaign Crosby turned in last year. I have zero doubts Sid would have come back with a full offseason training regimen and been primed to REtake the league by storm. And what do you know, the guy’s in his prime and healthy, and now dollar signs keep him from being able to get out on the ice. That has to be about the most frustrating calendar year possible for a guy who makes a salary in the high-9-figures.
While the lockout, and specifically Sidney Crosby’s experience with it has probably been one of the ugliest moments for the NHL and hockey this year, it’s not all bad. There were certainly some good times, which we’ll get to. Some were great hockey plays, some were great hockey stories, and some were just plain funny. Matt, pick your poison.
Matt: My poison? How about James Neal? The man arrived in Pittsburgh in 2011 to high expectations that were not met. Yet, when the 2011-12 season began, he began an assault on the league that saw him finish the season with 40 goals (4th in the NHL) and 81 points (7th in the NHL). To most, he arrived out of nowhere; but to those who watched him play (and didn’t just focus on his lack of goals), this emergence wasn’t all that surprising. Then again, I’m not sure anyone would have expected quite the season he had. In fact, his season was so dominant that DobberHockey.com ranks him as the second best Eastern Conference left winger, behind only Alex Ovechkin. I wonder where he would rank among all left wingers in the NHL? It can’t be much lower than 3rd or 4th, am I right?
Anyway, what stands out to you in terms of a 2012 calendar year highlight?
Josh: I’m going to drill down to an individual moment here, or at least an individual game. January 31, 2012 may just be any other day, and if you just gave me the day, I admittedly had to look up the day on which this particular game happened. The Penguins were playing Toronto and were going through a bit of a rough patch in their season, and losing ground in the conference and the division. Don’t get me wrong, the playoffs weren’t in question, but it’s frustrating as a fan when the team puts clunker after clunker up for a few weeks. This night started no differently, as the Pens found themselves trailing 4-1 in the third period. And that was even mild. This particular game may have been one of Fleury’s best performances of the season… and he let in four goals because of some bad defensive plays. This was one of those games where you’d take a bent up street sign at the blue line in place of the way Paul Martin was playing. Even Bob Errey began talking about “planting seeds for tomorrow night” (it was a home-and-home set of games against the Leafs).
But we saw something out of the Pens that we didn’t get for basically the entire previous season. If I’m not mistaken, the 2010-2011 Pens team that was plagued by injury didn’t register a single win in a game where they trailed by 2 or more goals. Here, the character guys and role guys chipped in, and the Penguins roared back with 3 third period goals. One by the specialist, Steve Sullivan. Then Joe Vitale did the dirty work and stuck one home with 5 minutes to go. Pretty close to that point, I can remember feeling like there really wasn’t a way the Pens would lose. Time dwindled down until Neal fired a wrister which ever so fortunately Evgeni Malkin took right off the “A” on his chest to tie it up with seconds remaining. Fleury made some incredible saves in Overtime, and then Malkin (who was on some kind of filthy streak of scoring shootout goals) notched the winner in the skill competition. I had to watch the recap several times (via NHL.com) just because of how awesome that game was to me. Now, it’s certainly no Game 7 vs. Detroit for the Cup, and in the long term of the season that individual game didn’t mean much. But I think the character of the Pens showed through in that game, and it was probably my most memorable moment of the season itself.
Matt: Josh, that’s a game I recall vaguely, but one that understandably resonated with you. In general, 2012 wasn’t the most positive of year’s on the hockey front. As we’ve discussed, the lockout prevented hockey from being played after Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals on June 11, and Sidney Crosby saw limited action throughout the year due to injury. But I’m the kind of guy who likes to look at everything in a positive light. I like my glass to be half full, you know? So, with that being said, let’s just be reminded that 2012 was the year that allowed for the return of a fully-healthy Sidney Crosby, who proved that he remains atop the list of elite players in the NHL. For a while — a long while — there was major concern that hockey in Pittsburgh might be permanently Crosby-less. So his return and re-emergence, to me, trumps everything and will continue to be the biggest story out of 2012.