Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Respect (or Lack of Respect) is a Two-way Street

As the Caps prepare to make a run at NHL history with the NHL Olympic break approaching, I wanted to take a look back at the NHL’s game of the year – Sunday’s improbable 5-4 nationally televised comeback victory against the hated Penguins.

The victory certainly brightened an otherwise dreary, snowy afternoon in D.C. while – for those who believe such things – presumably ruining Super Bowl Sunday (am I allowed to write Super Bowl without paying a licensing fee to the NFL?) for Commissioner Bettman and the NBC broadcast crew.

I try really hard to respect the Penguins and their captain, who clearly is one of the best players in the world. While I would never root for Pittsburgh, I’d really like for the Alex Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby rivalry to be the modern day equivalent of Magic-Bird. But the composition and character of Crosby’s team, his unwillingness to give any opposing player credit for even the slightest bit of success and the Pens’ overzealous and blinded fanbase make that impossible.

I’ve given Brooks Orpik’s post-game comments a few days to sink in an attempt to take the emotion of the moment out of the equation and see both sides more clearly. This is not the first time that “Hooks” has uttered something after a bitter loss that just makes you shake your head. To Orpik’s credit, he is a player with a limited skill set who plays a hard-nosed style and has figured out what it takes for him to survive – and even succeed – at the NHL level. Unfortunately, some of the tactics it takes for him to do that certainly stretch the limitations of the rules. He uses his stick like a hatchet in front of and behind the net, takes late runs at players in an attempt to get them off their game and draw retaliation penalties and has figured out how to clutch and grab discreetly to avoid a penalty and so that players with more ability cannot humiliate him.

Orpik also has mastered the mental side of the game – better known as gamesmanship – by frequently spouting absurdities intended to either turn the media and public’s attention away from his mistakes and shortcomings or to get inside the head of an opponent. He ran his mouth last year after Sergei Gonchar’s self-inflicted knee-on-knee collision with Ovechkin (yes, Gonchar was running from him like a cat being chased by a pit bull) in the playoffs, hoping to get Ovechkin off his game, and did the same Sunday after taking a clear and stupid penalty that cost his team the game in overtime.

Orpik is smart enough to know that most likely the road to the Stanley Cup runs through either Mellon Arena or Verizon Center this year and that these two teams may meet as many as nine more times before all is said and done. So anything that he says that gives him a mental edge over the more talented Capitals, specifically Alexander Semin, can prove to be a big advantage. He also understood that his penalty cost his team the game, so to uphold the Penguin tradition of diminishing another team’s effort, he had to deflect the attention given to his bad penalty and the Caps’ tremendous effort by basically calling Semin a faker, actor, embellisher – choose your description.

“He does it all the time,” Orpik said. “The kid’s a baby. He does it all game long. I’ve got zero respect for the kid.”

Okay Brooksie let’s see, what does the fact that Semin might embellish a penalty every now and then have to do with what happened in overtime? Semin carried the puck out of the corner and curled toward the high slot before feeding a pass across to a teammate. At that point, after the pass had already been received, you decided to take a late run at him and clearly hit him in the mouth with your stick. Not only did you take yourself out of position and hang your defensive partner out to dry in an effort to hit Semin late, but you further cost your team by failing to control your stick. Oh, right, I forgot, Semin’s the villain in this situation. Even though it wasn’t an outrageously violent high stick, the last time someone tried to brush my teeth with a Sherwood, I recall that it didn’t feel too good.

Maybe Orpik’s right. I mean if Crosby had taken a stick to the chops with the game on the line – yes, the same Crosby who carries on a running dialogue with both referees throughout every game – I’m sure he wouldn’t have flinched and would have toughed it out without trying to make sure he got the penalty call. By the way, the Penguins weren’t known to many as the “Pittsburgh Diving Team” throughout the years thanks to the fine acting of players such as Lemieux, Jagr, Kovalev and Straka.

The bottom line is that Orpik made a game-changing mistake, and as a professional should stand up and take accountability instead of discrediting his opponent or blaming the officials. That’s not his style, and it’s not the Penguins’ style, which starts to get at the heart of why the Pens are despised around the league.

The best part of this whole situation, and what completely destroys Orpik’s credibility, is the fact that the Penguins were handed a completely bogus penalty call in their favor with 4:08 left in regulation and couldn’t capitalize. Matt Cooke’s stick broke while making a pass in the offensive zone, and the referee stationed nearly 100 feet away beyond the blue line decided it had to be the result of a slash even though the official six feet away saw the play clearly and correctly and called nothing. The nearest Cap was Jeff Schultz, who picked up the penalty, and he was a good four feet behind Cooke. Schultz couldn’t have reached Cooke’s stick if he had tried.

Where Orpik miscalculated this time around was in thinking that Semin would even give two thoughts to his comments. After listening to Orpik’s tirade toward the officials, teammate Bill Guerin decided to give Semin an earful, too. Semin skated away with a blank look on his face as if to say, “What in the world is that guy talking about?” Call me crazy, but I’m guessing that Semin didn’t lose any sleep over the prospect of being left off Orpik’s Christmas card list next year.

Penguins’ supporters wonder why they and their team are hated throughout the league. The way this game ended is Exhibit A. Whether it’s Crosby running his mouth all game long and looking like he’s going to cry every time he gets hit or one of the players throwing a post-game tantrum to discredit an opposing team’s effort (recall Crosby whining about the hats being thrown on the ice for Ovechkin’s hat trick in the 2009 playoffs), there just isn’t much to like.

Pens’ bloggers and message-board lurkers have come out with their guns blazing this week, saying that they have no respect for the Caps’ organization from the top down, that Bruce Boudreau is a tool who makes preposterous post-game comments, that the NHL screwed the Penguins on the scheduling (what?; remember the Caps’ lost “home ice advantage” in a not-so-long-ago playoff scheduling snafu?) and that Ovechkin is surrounded by more talent than Crosby or else Sid would be blowing him away in the scoring race (keep in mind Ovechkin has played alongside the likes of Jeff Halpern, Dainus Zubrus, Chris Clark and Victor Kozlov, among others, over the years).

I guess all of this gum smacking is just part of the culture in Pittsburgh. Early in Sunday’s game the Pens’ fans in attendance were running their mouths saying that Crosby is better than Ovechkin, that “this game is fun” and that the Caps were simply being outclassed. One savvy fan noted that Ovechkin was intimidated by the Pens and was avoiding hits, later to add, “Oh yeah, he’s a great player all right. Since he can’t beat us on the scoreboard, he’s just going to beat us up.” Hmmm…I guess he beat them up and outscored them, exactly why he’s the best in the world.

As the score inched closer, the trash talking switched to Stanley Cups won, history and so on. Then, at the end, there was silence. The most beautiful sound of all. Silence that has been followed by three days of trying to make a case about how the Caps are whiners, the game was given to them, the schedule was unfair, Ovechkin is overrated, yadda, yadda.

Seems like a lot of energy to waste on a team that you don’t respect and can’t challenge yours. It’s almost obsessive, don’t you think?

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