BOSTON — “What if Lidstrom scores?” asks Ray Shero, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, in a quiet moment last week. He remembers asking Billy Guerin that question, maybe a year ago or something — what if Lidstrom scored? What then? “He said, ‘Don’t tell me that. I don’t want to think about it,’” says Shero. “Who knows?”
Instead, the Penguins won a Stanley Cup. Sidney Crosby won a Stanley Cup. Evgeni Malkin won a Stanley Cup. Guys like those, generational guys, are supposed to fulfil that prophecy. And because Nicklas Lidstrom didn’t score in the final seconds of Game 7 in 2009, because Marc-Andre Fleury threw his body at the puck like he was shielding a President from an assassin, they did.
On Wednesday night, Ray Shero’s team was down 2-0 to the Boston Bruins, with a chance to swing the series one way or the other. A loss would mean a tiny chance to come back, another round of questions, a disaster on the doorstep. A win would mean a chance. The day after Game 2, that bafflingly awful 6-1 loss, Ray Shero was asked how he was doing. “Fantastic,” he said. He smiled. He’s used to pressure. Sometimes you just have to smile.
Shero knows what disaster looks like, and how easily it happens. He has been charged with the Penguins for seven years now, and they have reached two finals and won one Cup, and the pressure is there, every year. When you have a Crosby, much less a Crosby and a Malkin and a pile of other talent, the bar is the Cup. No lower. Every general manager operates under pressure and expectations; they’re just higher in Pittsburgh. Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr only won it twice, though. Things happen. It’s hard.
“We’ve been a good team now for six, seven years now it seems, but you go through it: ’06-07, we made the playoffs and played this Ottawa team that goes to the finals, we lost in five games, but we’re just happy that we (made the playoffs),” says Shero. “Then after that we go to the finals the next year, then after that we win the Cup. OK, that comes with a certain expectation, and yeah, there is a certain pressure.
“It’s nice to have young players and do this, but it’s about eventually winning, and this group did it in a relatively quick period, and people thought it might be easy.
“But it’s not. Whether it’s through injury or other teams’ goaltending or poor play on our own part, or … s— comes in. And with the salary cap, it’s pretty even. I don’t think you can take it for granted, and this is really hard. Which is good. This is a good position to be in, because you’ve got a chance. I mean, it’s not bad. You try to take advantage of it, but we’re respectful of the teams in the league. Like the Islanders — a lot of people said, ‘yeah, it’s the Islanders.’ There’s not a chance our team overlooked that team. They were going to beat someone in the first round or give someone what they gave us, for sure. And they proved that.
“They’re moving to the Barclay’s Center in a couple years, and I said Christ, maybe they should move to the Western Conference.”
There is always something. There is Crosby’s concussions, or Fleury’s sudden fragility, young wolves at the door, or just hockey, where a great player can’t control a game the way a LeBron James can in basketball. Goalies get hot, pucks tumble, you try to control it as best you can. Shero has a chance every year, and that’s where the expectations are heavy.
“It’s a deflection off a save, it’s a bounce,” he says. “We’ve experienced it in a positive way and a negative way, too. It changes quickly, you know? And everybody experiences it, and you go through it in every playoff series when you win, and you bring it back, and you say holy Christ, we moved on. And every team that wins a Cup is lucky. You’ve got to be good, and you’ve got to be lucky.
“The year we played Montreal in Game 7 the year after we won the Cup, and we were thinking we were going to win Game 7. And 30 seconds in they call Crosby for boarding, and 30 seconds after that there’s another penalty, and next thing you know there’s a 5-on-3 in the first minute of the game. And they scored one or two goals, and I’m like, what the f—? That isn’t part of the plan.”
Wednesday night, Pittsburgh had another shot at the plan coming together. Ray Shero, as much as anybody, was eager to find out how it went.
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