March of the Pens.

The sport of hockey received good news this week – Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, heralded by some as the greatest player in the world, will return to the ice Thursday (3/15) against the New York Rangers. While the Rangers probably aren’t too happy (currently sitting in first in the Eastern Conference with 95 points), the Kid is the NHL’s golden boy – a hard worker, a Stanley Cup winner, a gold medal winner – and an overall good guy.

Crosby was cleared for contact last week after missing the last 40 games due to a soft-tissue neck injury (that was misdiagnosed as a concussion) at the beginning of December 2011. He had made his first “return” to the ice on November 21, 2011 (following a real concussion suffered in January 2011 that kept him off the ice for 61 straight games) with a four point performance against the visiting New York Islanders. But his return was short-lived – after only eight games, Crosby sustained the neck injury (in a Dec. 5 game against the Boston Bruins) that has kept him benched until now.

Despite not having Crosby in the line-up, the Pens have been streaking after the Rangers, having won nine straight coming into Thursday’s game at MSG (totaling 89 points, with a game in hand). In Crosby’s absence, Evgeni Malkin, who can be considered a phenom in his own right, has stepped up big time (now tied for league-leading points with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos at 84). If you need more proof, look at this end-to-end Malkin score from game two of the current streak:

The Penguins’ top line is enjoying undeniable chemistry (most notably between Malkin, Chris Kunitz and James Neal, who is currently 14th in points with 65), and so is the power play unit (ranked 7th in the NHL at 19.7 percent). With Crosby’s return, the goal is to bolster the squad, avoid “fixing what isn’t broken,” and let Crosby ease back into things (coach Dan Bylsma said Crosby will likely play around 15 minutes against the Rangers). Crosby practiced and will likely play on a line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, and he will work as the point on the power play unit. Malkin has been playing (and scoring at will) from Crosby’s old spot on the PP unit, and that isn’t going to be tampered with.

“My job is to distribute the puck amongst everyone. When [Malkin’s] shooting the puck like that, just give it to him in that area,” said Crosby.

Without a doubt, the clash of two of the Eastern Conference’s best teams – along with Crosby’s return – will create a certain electricity at the Garden tomorrow night. Oh, and I’ll be there to see how it goes.

Lucky Number.

As I wrote in my review of Moneyball, I have been a longtime lover of baseball. What I may have not made clear was that I happen to root for the Pittsburgh Pirates. I spend a lot of time in pain.

Last year was exciting in that the Pirates were in first place in the NL Central for a legitimate chunk of time. Young talent was meshing (and hitting), the pitching rotation was coming together.. it was EXCITING. The season fizzled into nothingness (read: finishing 18 games under .500), which is nothing new for the Buccos, but it stung a little more after hope snuck its way in.

Welcome, sir.

With reservation, I have begun to pay attention to Pirates news again, most notably of late being that former Yankees P A.J. Burnett was traded to the Pirates. In New York, my Yankees-fan friends and colleagues are split on whether this is a “good riddance” or “good for the Pirates” situation. I saw Burnett pitch a few times this past season in pinstripes; sometimes he was wild, sometimes he locked games down. I had no idea what kind of guy he was outside of that (other than hearing he listens to wildass rock music). But today, I think I know him a little better.

Pirates P Daniel McCutchen (also a once-upon-a-time Yankee), is currently rostered as #34, which is Burnett’s number. It is tradition for veterans to purchase a gift for a player who is willing to give up his number (which McCutchen was). These gifts are usually nice, but I’ve never heard of this before – Burnett, instead of getting McCutchen a nice watch, is going to start a college fund for McCutchen’s (currently in-utero) daughter, who is due in May 2012.

Well I’ll be damned.

Made of Steel.

On Sunday night, I watched the Pittsburgh Steelers capture their eighth AFC Championship. I was at a pub with about ten other Black&Gold supporters, squashed between two gaggles of Jets fans. The bar itself had several inflated Jets players outside, and a Jets flag swayed in the frosty wind from an upstairs window. We were the minority, but we were more than okay with it.

Black and yellow.

Our server, another Pittsburgh native and high school friend of a few of us in the group, stole one of the several Terrible Towels we had displayed and at the ready on the table in order to go swing it around the kitchen where the cooks grumbled. We were nervous for the state of our food but chuckled in support.

To quote something I read this morning, “Pittsburgh has won more Super Bowl titles (six), more AFC Championship Games (eight) and played in (fifteen) and hosted more (eleven) conference championship games than any other AFC or NFC team.”

Damn.

I want to state plainly that those who say the New England Patriots are the dynasty of this era (the 1970s Steelers being the dynasty of old) might be mistaken. Yes, the Patriots won their three Super Bowls in a span of four years (the second team to do so, the other being Dallas), two of those Lombardy trophies coming in back to back (wins in 2001, 2003 and 2004), but they capped a perfect regular season in 2007 with a loss in the game that mattered (falling to the New York Giants 17-14). In both 2009 and 2010, New England was the #1 seed in the AFC and yet they lost in early playoff rounds (falling in the Wild Card to Baltimore in ’09 and losing to the Jets in Divisional Playoffs this year). Dynasty? More like Dynasty of Almost.

Please don’t be confused – I am not arguing that the present-day Steelers are worthy of the title of dynasty. They still have a lot to prove. The Steelers failed to even make the playoffs in 2006 and 2009, the seasons following their two most recent Super Bowl wins. Dynasty just isn’t a word to throw around lightly.

But should Pittsburgh win its seventh Super Bowl on February 6, 2011, it would be unprecedented in the sport of football. That doesn’t make them the “new” dynasty, but it does set the franchise apart.

Hines Ward following AFC Championship win over the Jets.

As any yinzer (read: Pittsburgher) would say, Go Stillers.

HBO, I always like what you’re doing.

Sick.

Last night, HBO Sports’ 24/7 Penguins Capitals premiered, providing an unbridled look at two teams headed for a Winter Classic battle at Heinz Field on January 1, 2011. The ingredients : HBO, hockey, specifically Pittsburgh hockey (oh and the Washington Capitals), a heated rivalry – I feel like I don’t need any other lead-in info aside from that. This is a dream come true for me, not just because this show puts my favorite professional sports team in the spotlight, but because HBO brings everything they do to a different level. The cinematography is gorgeous – the city scenes from Pittsburgh were breathtaking, and the ones highlighting our nation’s capital weren’t too shabby either.
Money.

Hockey is a unique beast. It is a sport that requires its participants to go to battle several times a week at the same intensity the National Football League reserves for just one game every seven days. Hockey players are rarely divas – just watch a few in-game interviews. They speak in technical terms, they care about the game above all, and they care about winning – as a team. The NHL as a league gets only a fraction of the media attention its professional sport counterparts in the NFL, NBA, and MLB receive. And that’s why I think this series is a perfect opportunity for viewers to get a peek at the inner workings of this mystical sport. Who better to serve up the story than the premium cable powerhouses at HBO?

HBO, I always like what you’re doing.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

Old School flavor.

There are several Steelers bars in NYC, but sometimes Black&Gold pride pops up in places unaccounted for on the internet. I was walking along 2nd Ave. in the Upper East Side about a month ago when I caught the above blow-up football player.

I truly, deeply enjoy running into Yinzers or finding Pittsburgh anything around New York City. Sometimes, I can’t help but shout ‘GO STILLERS’ when I see a jersey or prominently-displayed logo. Though it’s not unbelievable that there is Pittsburgh pride living and breathing (and drinking beer) in NYC, I think I might need to start taking more (stalker-like) photos of these displaced Pittsburgh fans and amassing my collection here for you all to enjoy.

NYC Pens Fans Meet-Up group at Foley's.

Oddly enough, I’m thinking about watching the movie ‘Mysteries of Pittsburgh’ tonight, which I’ve heard has little or nothing to do with Pittsburgh. The mysteries continue.