Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
- “Invictus”, William Ernest Henley
A lot of time and energy are spent dissecting that intangible, but very real thing that happens during playoff hockey. The elusive element that is wholly invisible, but, at times, can be the most powerful force in hockey: Momentum.
The first three games of this series were so unpredictable, so bizarre, so beyond anything that anyone expected to happen, that it left the Penguins and their fans reeling, trying to figure out how it could have possibly gone so wrong, so fast. In the locker room after the first three games, the mood was one of complete shock. Players were having a hard time wrapping their brains around how far they’d sunk, not just in their game, but in how they conducted themselves on the ice. It wasn’t playoff hockey. It wasn’t Penguins hockey, and they knew it.
But, at some point, between Game 3 and Game 4, that changed. The Penguins remembered that they, and only they, were the masters of their fate. They, and only they, were the captains of their souls, and in control of their emotions and play on the ice. They remembered that when they are playing their hockey, Penguin hockey, there is not another more skilled and dangerous team in the league.
At some point, they started to believe. Not the lip-service they’d been paying the media after the first three losses, the hollow platitudes that their mouths delivered while their eyes were still shellshocked, but true belief, the kind that goes deep down, that unwavering, constant belief that is an unshakable light in the dark. The shock started to clear up, only to be replaced with deep embarrassment, maybe the first time this young but experienced nucleus of players has felt it. And once the embarrassment and shame went away, then came the anger.
After a week of nonstop criticism of their team, an endless barrage of negativity from the media attacking their captain, their goalie, their stars, their role players, their coach, their city, their team, their fans, the Penguins did what they’ve always done when facing adversity: They circled the wagons, buckled it the fuck down, and took that adversity and shaped it into white-hot daggers of fury. Fury at themselves, at their opponent, at how they’d played, at the world in general, probably even at your Grandma Rose. The vibe in the locker room changed. Gone were the slumped shoulders, the downcast eyes. They were replaced with a growing sense of quiet confidence in themselves and what they could do. A lot has been made of only three teams in NHL history coming back and winning a series after being down three games to none, and, as defenseman Brooks Orpik said, “maybe [they] were idiots” for believing it could be done. But still…they believed. The swagger was back, and so were the Pens. Not all the way. But it was a start.
After winning Game 4 in Philly in a 10-3 blowout, Game 5 was still do-or-die time for the Penguins, and do they did. It was the first game of the series to actually resemble a playoff game. Still, the Penguins had to play with desperation – they were and are, after all, still one loss away from going home.
The Penguins came out red in tooth and claw, and it showed. After a few selfish penalties and some sloppy play that saw them end the first period down 2-1, the Penguins came out locked and loaded to start the second. And so did the crowd at Consol Energy Center. They were the 7th man on the ice for the Pens last night, and fairly willed goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to regain his footing. Fleury has always had brilliance in him, particularly in the past few years as his game has matured and evolved, but he feeds off the energy of the crowd, and when it turns against him, it can be disastrous. Conversely, when the crowd is behind him and showing him love, he can take a bad effort and turn it into a great one, and his great becomes superhuman. And last night, in between the raucous chants of “FLEUR-EEEEEEE FLEUR-EEEEEEE FLEUR-EEEEEEEE” from the crowd, so completely behind its beloved, happy-go-lucky goaltender, Fleury became possessed. Pucks that would have flown past him a game, or possibly even a period, earlier were repelled. Every potential rebound, generally stuffed into the back of his net in the first four games, started to get swallowed up in his pads. The bewildered, floundering impostor Marc-Andre Fleury faded into the background as the real Fleury came to the forefront to play goalie like he was born to do.
There was a stretch of time, during a penalty kill in the third period, where Fleury stopped every single shot that faced him, many of which he had no business stopping. And right then, you saw it – you saw the Flyers’ momentum start to seriously swing in favor of the Penguins, you started to see the momentum of the series start to shift in a huge way. Because Fleury was locked in and he simply was. not. letting. anything. past. him. He became Neo at the moment when he realizes he can now see The Matrix. In short, he started to BELIEVE.
By the end of the game, the Penguins had cut the Flyers’ series lead to three games to two, and suddenly, the Flyers looked vulnerable. They looked angry. They looked as if seeds of doubt had possibly been planted.
The Flyers are not going to give up and implode. They’re too good for that, too well-coached for that, and too tight-knit for that. The Penguins have to win the game tomorrow, another must-win situation. The Flyers still have three wins, and all it takes is four to win a series. The Penguins hopefully won’t get too caught up in the momentum swing to remember that.
Still…all it takes is one more win to draw even in the series. And then one more win after that to move on to the next round. I believe they can do it. Their fans believe they can do it. The Baby believes they can do it. Every man in the dressing room believes they can do it.
-Credit for the picture goes to @ericp55 on Twitter, from whom I got the pic