|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2008||[Print without images]|
You know how it works. We present an NHL photo, and Bucci provides a caption. E-mail him your suggestions (include your name and town/state), and we will use the best ones and provide a new photo the next week.
Would you like to mow my lawn? Hmm? (Getty Images)Your captions:
"Alright then, it's a deal. If I bring home the Cup, I get my summer curfew bumped up to midnight."
-- Chiara Walters (Louisville)
THIS IS IT! Make no mistake where you are. THIS IS IT! Your back's to the corner. THIS IS IT! Don't be a fool anymore. THIS IS IT! The waiting is over. (Getty)
So, I got up at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, took a quick shower and headed to Bradley International Airport, a fine departure point just 17 minutes from my house; and it's not named after Bart, Brian, Lyle or Matt Bradley, the four Bradleys to play in the NHL. My flight left at 6:05 a.m. and, as on all my flights, I had R.E.M.'s "The Lifting" playing and a Starburst in my mouth at takeoff. During the flight, I continued to read the autobiography of CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz. The book continually told me how successful Nantz is and how many famous people he has met along the way. For example, his golf outings with George Bush No. 41, Bill Clinton and Tom Brady. Nantz was 26 when he was hired by CBS. When I was 26, I was making $17,000 a year at a place called Cape 11 News. I qualified for government assistance because I had two children and was below poverty levels in Massachusetts. But Nantz never received free cheese or ate pasta five nights a week; he never had a hole-in-one on a par 4; never golfed with Ray Bourque or Barry Melrose and never slept with an NHL player who painted himself red and blue in a one-week span. (Please check archives for a full explanation of that last "accomplishment.")
A little more than an hour later, with me feeling like a complete failure after reading about the wonderful life of Jim Nantz, we landed in Pittsburgh. I headed to my rental car. The air was cool, so cool I could see my breath. Hockey weather. Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals was on tap.
I had 13 hours until the opening faceoff, so I had plenty of time for two of my favorite things: golf and catching up with old friends. I headed to Steubenville, Ohio, to do both. Golf was first. I'm a sentimental fart, so if I have a chance to play a round of golf on the course that I basically learned the game on, I will do that. Plus, Mario did not invite me to Oakmont. I teed off at 9 a.m. and played 18 holes in two-and-a-half hours. I shot a Mikael Samuelsson-Jeff Taffe. I took a shower in the locker room and proceeded to bang my eyebrow on the shower head because I am 6-foot-4 and the shower head was 6-2. Obviously, it was installed in 1958, when people were shorter. My scar wasn't quite the caliber of Ryan Malone's, but it put me in even more of a hockey mood. If I gained 20 pounds of muscle and waxed my body, I would have felt like a fighting Persian led by a man with a Scottish accent. At this point, after making a quick stop at Tim Hortons (it's a hockey day, after all), my mind screamed, "Must eat meatball sandwich." So, I headed over to an old friend-since-sixth-grade's sandwich, sub and pizza carryout place called "Gina's," named in honor of Al's beautiful wife. My buddy severely outshot in the contest of love, if you know what I mean, but he still made enough kick saves to come out with the win, a marriage, two kids and one on the way. That's why Al is the king. Al also does the greatest impression of Myron Cope, the late Steelers announcer. So much so that Al's brother and friends persuaded Cope to come to Al's wedding reception and make a surprise visit as Al was reluctantly in the middle of a Cope impression on the microphone. Cope was the last one to leave. After eating the greatest meatball sandwich of my life (Al makes them like mom -- from scratch), another old friend arrived, Mike Florak. We all have a friend who does things better than any other friend we had, and Mike was that guy in high school. In high school, he played defensive end, shooting guard in basketball as pure as Chris Mullin, hit a baseball more than 400 feet, and was the MVP and scoring champion of our infamous street hockey league in the winter of 1982. At 31, Mike became the baseball coach at Youngstown State. He also had a horrific battle with Crohn's disease and, as a result, depression. If you or someone you know is battling Crohn's, Mike wrote an amazing book called "Healthier Than Normal." You should get it. He would sit next to me at the game that night. Mike followed me in his car for the 40-minute drive from Steubenville to downtown Pittsburgh, the trip culminating with that familiar visual once the automotive burrowing of Mount Washington is complete -- the Pittsburgh skyline that appears like a giant pop-up book.
|Bucci was one of the thousands that made their way into Mellon Arena (or as he likes to call it, the Civic Arena) on Wednesday night.|
The night was picture perfect. Sunny and in the high 60s. Even Steve Levy wasn't sweating. The vibe was guarded from the perspective of the Penguins faithful and ultraconfident from the few Red Wings jerseys snaking their way through the crowds. But, as the people made their way to the arena, the excitement slowly built.
Flashback One of the last times I was walking toward the arena was in high school. Me and two friends who shall remain nameless (Gibby and Steve D) carjacked the car of one of our parents, who were out of town. We drove to the game without a ticket, scalped one outside the arena, gave it to some shady-looking dude for free. That dude walked around the perimeter of the arena (we could see him through the glass) until he saw no one looking inside. He then opened an exit door, and the three of us snuck in. No wonder this team went bankrupt! Three geeks from Ohio were able to sneak into the arena with no problem! This was before Mario Lemieux arrived. The Penguins were playing the Minnesota North Stars, coached by Glen Sonmor. The Stars won the Norris Division that season, but lost in the first round of the playoffs. The free entrance in 1982 is why I had no problem paying for my ticket Wednesday. Call it even? On the way home from that excursion, we paid for gas by using rolls of pennies provided by Steve D. This was no Millionaire Boys Club. I have no idea how any of us survived in the 1980s with no airbags, no sense of proportion and no televised hockey when the NHL went to SportsChannel in 1988. Back to the future The world is very different now. The Penguins were irrelevant in my younger years, became relevant upon Lemieux's arrival, became irrelevant again and now are in position to enjoy their longest run of success in franchise history. During the Lemieux-as-a-player era, Pittsburgh won Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992 and played in four conference championships. Injuries and finances prevented more of each. The Penguins should at least match that over the next decade, and they have a new arena coming that I hope will be cozier than the behemoths that have been built recently.
I got into the arena, and Game 3 was about to begin. The fans were clearly nervous. I tried to settle them down by saying, "While I love all 30 teams equally, I think the Penguins will win this game." It is a Game 7 for them and it isn't for Detroit. I told them Sid will have a big night, the Penguins will get the first power-play chance and will win 3-1 or 4-2. (I sound like Nantz now. Sorry.) This seemed to make them feel better, but two straight shutouts has given these people the confidence of a 16-year-old boy entering a room full of Maxim models.
And the game began First period
|Sidney Crosby scored twice to help the Penguins beat the Red Wings 3-2 in Wednesday's Game 3.|
• Franzen is off the charts when you see him in person. The Wings have him for $1.15 million next season, and he will be a 29-year-old free agent next summer. I expect the Wings will try to extend him after July 1 with a four- to five-year extension at $4-5 million per year. He is a great skater with amazing hands and a big body (6-3, 220 pounds). He reminds me of Todd Bertuzzi in his prime, without the aloof attitude. Players such as Bertuzzi and Franzen, who will play a contact game, usually drop off after turning 30. That's why it probably behooves Franzen to take an extension now, especially considering his concussion issues. It's a tough call, more so for the Wings.I could see Franzen scoring 30-40 goals going into his unrestricted free agency next season. That would set him up for a $6 million a year payday. But what if he continues to battle injuries? He missed 13 games in 2006-07, 10 this season and some playoff games. You would think it would make sense for both sides to sign an extension this summer. The Wings could set up Franzen for life by getting him at under market value if he continues to perform the way he has the past three months. But they also assume a lot of risk if Franzen misses time. So, do you sign him now or wait to see how Franzen plays next season when it could cost you more? And, if you are Franzen, do you take the security now or gamble for a huge payday in 2009? Fascinating and important decisions in the salary-cap era. But back to the original premise -- Franzen is fun to watch and way more impressive in person. I saw him play last season against the Islanders, and I can't believe how much better he is. His confidence is exploding right now. Third period
• Detroit simply moves the puck up the ice at will. The Penguins send one forechecker in, and the rest of the Pittsburgh skaters passively sag back on their heels, which gives the Wings time and space. Detroit's passing is unbelievable to watch. Red Wings fans still have to like their chances if Detroit keeps playing like this. They are getting plenty of chances, and these chances eventually will go in. Fleury was very good, but he won't be able to stop all of them. The Penguins will have to keep improving and making adjustments to slow the Wings down and get back in this series. The Pens have to win Game 4.• Brooks Orpik made a lot of money with his sequence of hits in the third period that will be talked about in Pittsburgh for a very long time. It was the closest thing to Jack Lambert on skates at a Penguins game. Four hits in 15 seconds. Orpik will turn 28 in September with 297 games and a Cup finals appearance under his belt; some GM will overpay for him. Now, Orpik doesn't score at all -- he has six fewer NHL career goals than Barry Melrose -- but he is physical and dependable. He will get offered about $4 million a year on the open market. Another tough decision for Pittsburgh. Final: Penguins win 3-2.
|Once inside the Igloo, Bucci tried to calm fans' pregame nerves.|
Barry then arrived with his wife, Cindy, Mr. Levy and producer Tony Florkowski. It was like old times. Good food, good drinks and good friends. All in the glow of a Stanley Cup playoff game. I had been up for 21 straight hours and the day still felt young. Ten years ago, I started this NHL journey with Melrose and "NHL 2Night" that evolved into All-Star Games, Stanley Cup finals and this column. A lot has changed; a lot more will change in the future.
As with the Penguins, it was good to live for one more day. Mother of All Mailbags John, Way to use your "hockey sense" and make it to the game last night. You just knew it was going to be a classic, didn't you? If you make it to Saturday's game, let me know. We're going to have a killer tailgate and you're invited. Jim I'll be doing the 11 p.m. ET SportsCenter. Send me a case of Iron, 10 pounds of roast beef and a block of cheese the size of Jean-Sebastien Giguere's goalie pads so I feel like I'm there.
From Sportsmediawatch.blogspot.com: "The Penguins' victory (on Wednesday) over the Red Wings drew a 2.4 final national rating with 4.0 million viewers, up 118 percent and 144 percent, respectively, from a 1.1 with 1.7 million viewers last year. Keep in mind Game 3 last year aired on a Saturday night, the lowest rated night of the week. The 2.4 rating is the highest for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals since 2002, when Red Wings/Hurricanes Game 3 drew a 3.3 rating. The 2.4 is also higher than the rating for any game from the 2007 Stanley Cup finals.
Gerald W. AuldThis series will be Red Wings in 5, Penguins in 6 or Red Wings in 7.
John Buccigross is an anchorman for "SportsCenter" and ESPNEWS. For questions, comments or crosschecks, e-mail him at email@example.com. To check out his new book, "Jonesy: Put Your Head Down & Skate," click here.