When I found out I had the opportunity to go to Games 1 and 2 of our heroes' first playoff series in a kindergartener's lifetime, that's all I could muster up the wherewithal to say.
All I had to do was take three vacation days, drive to and from Pittsburgh, and pay for lodging. I mean, most people would look at that and say "you're out of your mind." But those who matter knew this was a "can't pass up moment" for me, so I took it.
I woke up Wednesday around 5:30 a.m. and got my proverbial spit together to make this trip. Pretty simple, but I'm all over the place as a person and am void of any sort of routine, so I wanted to give myself ample time.
The trip was actually quite pleasant. The Belt was its cranky self, but the rest of the trip was smooth and sunny. Great driving weather.
I am a big WFUV fan, so I spent the first hour or so of the trip with them, before having to switch over to my iPod.
When I got closer to Pittsburgh, I tuned into some Pittsburgh sports talk. I realized about eight minutes in it was a bad record. The message: We are the Jolly Green Giants of the East and we are going to stomp all over our opponents.
It was clear that this city's approach to this first round tilt with the team with no track record was simple, take care of business.
I got to my room at a chancy motel in the Oakland, neighborhood of Pittsburgh where the colleges reside. It was a pretty cool spot. It was a good mix of small city charm + college town.Game 1
I got to the arena early, explored, and then began to sweat. Everyone in the building was giving off the same aura -- we're here to take care of business.
The Pens in-arena operations are all class. Vibrant and engaging. They keep the fans in the game without getting cheesy. It doesn't come off as a place that would have a Spongebob SquarePants Day because they don't have to.
The people are there to root for their Penguins.
The first goal was a big celebration. It was pretty much saying to the world, "Yeah, this is how it is supposed to be."
The next goals were treated like exclamation points on the headline, "Penguins Are For Real!!!!"
The Islanders were running around. I know it was said all over the place, but it was their first friggin' playoff game. They were handed their lunch and instead of throwing a tantrum, they learned from it.
I will say this about the city of Pittsburgh -- they LOVE their Penguins. I wasn't of age for Mario's heyday -- just caught the tail end of his career, really. So I never really saw THOSE Penguins, I really know only of the city of THESE Penguins.
I remember the dark times for the city and organization -- before Le Magnifique saved them. I remember thinking this would not be a good thing for the sport if Pittsburgh loses their team.
Now, I hold nothing but disdain for the Penguin organization. Arrogant, entitled, and sneaky -- the lot of them. I thought this was a reflection of their fanbase.
After game one I could see, this is not the case.
I went with my pal to a bar called, The Souper Bowl, right across from Consol Energy Center. Small dive, one Penguin Wearin' Patron said this place was a "Classic Pittsburgh bar."
We were welcomed into their bar. Everyone bought us a beer for coming to the game. I'm not sure this would be normal treatment for a Flyer, Ranger, or Capital. But they had no problems with the Islanders.
They wanted to know more about Tavares and Okposo. They asked me how we got Visnovsky. It was good people all around. They told me who their "Rushmore's" were (most were Lemieux, Sid, Geno, and Barrasso). They explained the Igloo was their Coliseum.
The heart of the fanbase was a concerned, but true bunch. They didn't take what was happening for granted. Just like we won't when we are where they are
in a few years next year.
The Islanders, like me, were welcome guests to watch the Penguins entertain through round one.
I wasn't feeling confident after the 5-0 debacle, so I agreed. "Yeah, I hope we can find a way to steal one at the Coliseum. Give her an excuse to strut her stuff again."
I found my way home and slept in on Thursday. Did some work remotely, and then explored town.
Pittsburgh, to me, is a smaller version of Chicago. Wide, clean, and progressing. Everyone was nice. There was Penguins gear everywhere. Everyone who was on the street was wearing a jersey. The Penguins over time have had some pretty cool threads, so this was pretty cool to see. Plus, you never see hundreds of Islander jerseys walking around town on an off-day.
I went to Primanti. Bros. for lunch. It's a sandwich shoppe that garnered some acclaim during this food porn revolution. It was on those shows that every restaurant worth eating at on trips is on.
They do make a killer sandwich though. Fries, cole slaw, cappicola, a fried egg between some cared for bread. Spot on and not expensive. So now I must say, If you're in Pittsburgh go to Primanti Bros.
I went to "South Side" for dinner that night. I was told by a Carnegie-Mellon Alum just to pop in for a bite there. He told me Pittsburgh's Pizza should be talked about more. He was right about that. I went to a bar called The Blind Pig and watched the Smurfs lose. It made the pizza taste that much better.Game 2
The next day I woke up and for some reason everything felt right. There was this weird feeling in my bones. The city was again laden in Penguin attire and I was wearing my Islander rebuttal.
I got some smirks and some "good luck tonight" quips, but most of all I was just ignored.
The arena also had a different sense to it.
Everyone was talking sweep.
"I am more worried about the Leafs/Bruins and Caps/Smurfs series right now," said a lot of people in one way or another.
They were still talking about taking care of business. Sid's back, we should see a crooked number. That was the theme of the night.
Goal. Goal. Party on.
I looked on Twitter. I saw the same tweets you did.
"Pens in three."
"Throw in the towel."
"Nobody can touch us," they thought. In fact, after the Isles PP goal the crowd's reaction was an "Awwwwwwwwwwww."
Sid scores again. He's back. I heard someone say, "Bring on the Blackhawks, nobody can beat us."
They all were not watching the same game I was seeing. The Isles were winning battles. They were making smart plays and they were getting the puck deep and keeping it there. They were throwing everything at the net. This was good.
Then the Okposo-Niskanen fight.
The first thing I thought was, "Kyle's been waiting for this moment." When I saw who he was fighting I laughed a bit. Niskanen's best known fight came against Sidney Crosby, and Crosby hung in there.
Okposo did better than that. He really gave it to Niskanen. The Pens fans cheered when their rearguard was able to mercifully end the fight on his own terms, but they knew that was not a good sign. The Isles were not here to watch, they were here to play.
McDonald. Martin. Oh my.
All of a sudden they were sitting. They stopped waving their towels and shouting hyperbole. They needed to wake up. Unfortunately, the Isles were already too much into a groove for the Pens' to Power Play them to death.
The Okposo goal was lucky, but don't try and tell me they didn't deserve it. I've seen that goal hundreds of time in my lifetime, it usually ends up behind my goalie.
All of a sudden the media went from burying and forgetting about the Islanders, to praising them. They are working hard, they said. They're right, but we're also a very talented team. Nobody wanted to admit it, but the Islanders have a boatload of skill.
I didn't go to a bar after the game. I went to my hotel. I smiled.
I woke up early on Saturday to drive home. Pittsburgh was good to me. The Islanders were too.Heading Home
The Isles are in this series. Despite the two losses to one win, this team is not going to lay down. I would even say losing Game 4 is not the end of the world. This team is not to be taken for granted. They are all out there because they have something to prove. Just like us.
The Islanders still have the deck stacked against them. Likely, the Penguins will find a way to dispatch them with a little push from the higher ups. We knew that was going to be the case coming into the series and its not an excuse to use. When you play Crosby and Co. you're not just playing the 20 talented men in the black and gold, you're playing against a lot more than that. Greater forces are at work here. We knew that coming in, we relish the fact that we don't get that special treatment and if we win, we're going to do it this the right way.
They aren't perfect and they know it. They don't pretend to be perfect, either. And despite their pretending, the Penguins are also not without flaw.
This team is fun. They are so exciting and they are committed to our cause. They may not win, but they are sure as hell worth seeing out to the end.
Let's Go Islanders.