First off, Happy New Year to you and yours.
A tumultuous 2011 has come and gone. With a new year comes a renewed hope that we never have to endure a year like that again.
Personally, 2011 was a great year for me. My wife and I finally settled into a home and have been working on making it how we want it with help from our families.
But, that’s enough about me.
This is about the unfathomable Pandora’s Box of a 2011 we endured as fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
We barely even got to celebrate the calendar changing from 2010 to 2011 before the now all-too-familiar pins and needles feelings began.
The hype surrounding the Winter Classic at Heinz Field had everyone excited for some prime time hockey. Even though the game suffered because of weather, it was still great for the sport.
The Penguins had just gotten Jordan Staal back in the lineup after a series of freak accidents dating back to their playoff series loss to the Habs in the spring.
Things were supposed to be returning to normal. The formidable triumvirate of centers was back.
And then it happened.
I don’t remember much about the game, mainly because the Steckel hit on Crosby is forever engrained in my brain.
Well, that and me saying, “Please be okay Sid,” no less than 100 times in succession during intermission.
He managed to finish the game and even suited up against the Tampa Bay Lightning a few days later.
And then it happened…again.
Crosby went behind the net and took a high hit from behind from Victor Hedman. He got up in obvious discomfort and walked down the tunnel to the locker room.
Little did we know it was the last time we’d see him play for over 10 months.
Even when the news broke that it was a concussion, most of us still felt like the Pens would be okay because Malkin and Staal were still around.
And then it happened.
Malkin went into the corner and Buffalo’s Tyler Myers fell on his leg. He got up and hobbled off the ice and down the tunnel.
Again, little did we know it would be the last time we would see him play in 2010-11.
The collision left Malkin with a torn ACL and MCL. His season was over, but there was hope that Crosby would return.
As the team trudged toward the playoffs, we endured countless overtime and shootout games. Every point became more and more valuable as the Pens and Flyers battled for the division crown.
The Pens fell short of winning the Atlantic Division, but were able to hold on to fourth place to secure home ice in the first round against Tampa Bay.
I don’t think anyone expected the Penguins to jump out to a 3-1 lead in the series, much less blow that 3-1 lead.
As the final horn sounded on a 1-0 loss in Game 7, I found myself taking solace in the fact that the insanity of the past four months was over.
None of it made sense. It was like we were trapped in some bizarro world.
It’s a tough pill to swallow watching your team’s top two stars go down with season-ending injuries and then to watch the wheels come off the wagon with a 3-1 series lead.
It was no one person’s fault. I’m still convinced that the wear and tear of the stretch drive exhausted the Penguins.
I enjoyed the following two months of watching playoff hockey without a bottle of Tums nearby or having to go through my own ritualistic game day routines.
The burning questions about who General Manager Ray Shero would keep and who he would go get were always there, but could anyone have really envisioned what went down on July 1?
I made it well known here that I wanted no part of Jaromir Jagr coming back to Pittsburgh. So far this season, he’s performing well, but I want to see if this keeps up once the season reaches the 50-game mark.
Regardless, the rumors of his return were everywhere. On Twitter, you couldn’t go more than a couple minutes without #JagrWatch popping up.
Nobody knew where he was at times.
Apparently some turtles on the runway in New York delayed the process even more. The whole situation was just really bizarre.
And then it happened.
The Pens made him a fair offer. The Flyers made him a better offer and any chance he had of patching things up in Pittsburgh went out the window.
Sure, statistically he’s the second best player to play here in Pittsburgh. There’s no denying what he did for this team during his time here. However, there’s no denying what he did to this team either.
To make matters worse, Game 7 hero Max Talbot also signed in Philly within minutes of the Jagr signing.
I realize Talbot was asking for more money than the Pens were even considering giving him. That’s fine and good for Max that he was able to cash in.
However, to see two former fan favorites sign in Philadelphia in the blink of an eye was a swift kick to the gut.
Then, Mike Rupp also signed with the New York Rangers. It was pretty apparent that Rupp wasn’t going to be back, but he was another guy who was well-liked both on and off the ice.
Then, things started to look up.
The Penguins released videos of Malkin training in Russia with Sergei Gonchar.
Even in those workouts, you could see he had a renewed focus and determination. He was going to come back with a vengeance.
The news on Crosby started to become more encouraging too. He even held a press conference with doctors to say he expected to play at some point this season.
Malkin was in and out of the lineup early on with knee soreness, which really wasn’t all that unexpected.
However, as the season got underway, more players started to go down with injuries. It seemed like the end of the previous season all over again.
Guys were getting called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and getting hurt. The injury list was unfathomable at times.
But then, a glimmer of hope.
Crosby was progressing and was eventually cleared for full contact. When he made his return to the lineup, the Penguins were practically at 100 percent for the first time in 11 months.
In typical Crosby fashion, he scored a highlight reel goal to get things started and finished with four points on the night.
He was flying and was just starting to get his game legs back.
And then it happened.
In a game against the Boston Bruins on Dec. 5, Crosby was hit with an elbow by David Krejci while battling for a puck along the boards.
He finished the game, but apparently began to experience concussion-like symptoms and would be out indefinitely.
We still don’t know much about his recovery, or if this is a new concussion or something related to the previous one.
Currently, Kris Letang, Robert Bortuzzo and Crosby are out with either a concussion or symptoms.
Dozens of other concussions have been suffered around the league this season. Yet, the league continues to hand out inconsistent supplemental discipline for illegal hits.
The positive thing to come from this past year is that we got a glimpse of what the future holds. The prospects have stepped up and done a fantastic job.
Their performance says a lot about the job that Shero and Dan Bylsma have done with the young players in the system.
2011 began with a 3-1 loss to the Capitals in the Winter Classic, and it ended with a 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils.
Oh, and Pascal Dupuis and Arron Asham were both injured and could not continue against the Devils.
All in all, it seems like a fitting end to a year many of us would like to forget, but won’t be able to.
May the new year shine bright on you all and on the Penguins.
You can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CaseySheaPens.
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