Friday, December 31, 2010

NHL Winter Classic puts hockey rivalry at center stage

Friday, December 31, 2010
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pam Panchak / Post-Gazette

Patti Koerbel from Gibsonia (with sign) and Dan Zadach from Jefferson Hills (full Pens garb) were among the fans who thronged Market Square for the Penguins rally Thursday ahead of the Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals on Saturday.

That first-round playoff meeting in 1992? The one in which the Penguins spotted Washington a 3-1 lead before running off three consecutive victories en route to their second Stanley Cup?

Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik doesn't know a thing about it.

Same with Round 1 in 1995, when the Penguins again rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to end the Capitals' season.

Likewise, the opening-round matchup in 1994, when Washington won its only playoff series against the Penguins in eight tries.

All are part of franchise history; all are news to Mr. Orpik.

"Besides the one I played in, I don't know any of the other ones, to be honest," he said.

Happily for him, that second-round series in 2009 -- when the Penguins lost Game 6 in overtime at home, then blew out Washington in Game 7 at the Verizon Center -- is one he isn't likely to forget anytime soon.

It took a rivalry that had existed, and been fairly heated, for years and elevated it into one of the most intense this side of cobra-mongoose.

And while neither team is a clear choice as the other's most despised rival, neither is far from it, either.

"They have to be right there, with Philadelphia," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. "If not right there, a really close second. Personally, I would put those two teams right together."

Alex Ovechkin, Mr. Crosby's counterpart as Washington's captain and franchise cornerstone, sees the Penguins pretty much the same way.

"They're top two, I think," he said. "Philly, New York [Rangers] and Pittsburgh are our [rivals], especially for the fans."

The Penguins-Capitals rivalry is, in some ways, almost a subplot to the Crosby-Ovechkin story line that dominates conversations anytime these clubs collide. Guys like Kris Letang and Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeni Malkin and Mike Green, are top-shelf talents, but the spotlight rarely drifts from Mr. Crosby and Mr. Ovechkin.

"Ovie and Sid really heat up the rivalry," Washington forward Jason Chimera said. "Anytime those two guys get together, it's a good event."

Although Mr. Crosby is widely regarded as the finest player in the world at the moment, it hasn't always been that way. In fact, Mr. Ovechkin has won two league MVP awards, Mr. Crosby just one.

"They have maybe either the first- or second-best player in the league, depending on who you ask," Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis said. "And that makes for a good rivalry."

While Mr. Crosby and Mr. Ovechkin recognize, and perhaps even appreciate, each other's skills and intangibles, their relationship is every bit as prickly as would be expected from two ultra-intense competitors. On those occasions when they've been obliged to pose together for a photo, the smiles couldn't have looked more forced.

Predictably, their individual battle has been a major element in the buildup to the Winter Classic game between the Penguins and Capitals, set for 1:08 p.m. Saturday at Heinz Field. This will be the first time the teams have met outdoors, but that's nothing more than a footnote.

Fact is, the setting couldn't be any less significant. Put these teams on a miniature golf course or behind debate podiums or on a tennis court, and the competition likely would be as ferocious as it is on the ice.

They are "fun games against them," Mr. Backstrom said. "A lot of emotion."

Ah, the sweetness of undiluted hatred.

Capitals winger Mike Knuble knows a bit about the passion certain opponents coax out of a team. After all, he broke into the NHL with Detroit when the Red Wings' blood feud with Colorado was at its most fierce.

He also played in Philadelphia before joining the Capitals, and volunteered that "Philly-Pittsburgh was a real good rivalry, too."

Of course, it stands to reason that those two clubs would despise each other. Both entered the league in the 1967 expansion. They share a state. And a division.

None of that is true of the Penguins and Capitals. Doesn't seem to matter.

"I think Philly will always be No. 1," Mr. Orpik said. "But just from the time I've been here, I would say probably Washington and Detroit [are next in line]."

The Penguins occupy a similar niche when the Capitals rate their rivals.

"They probably rank pretty high," Mr. Backstrom said. "Probably, the biggest."

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at Dave Molinari:

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SportsCentury: Roberto Clemente

Remembering Roberto

written by Dan1283, December 31, 2010 - 03:41 AM

To All,

This is a long post, but I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoy sharing it. Bob, I apologize about the length.

My grandfather had the privelege of being great friends with a man named Luke Quay, who was the former sports editor of the McKeesport Daily News. Mr. Quay often covered the Pirates during Clemente's playing years, and he was the one who (correctly) scored Clemente's original 3,000th hit an error, infuriating the man for a brief time. A few days later, he hit the double we now recognize as Roberto's true 3,000th hit, and after the game Clemente actually thankedQuay. Instead of a soft, questionable hit, Clemente and his fans could now remember Roberto's 3,000th as a no-doubt gap double. He personally gave a ball to Luke inscribed "It was a Hit. No, it was an error. No, it was superman Luke Quay. To my friend with best wishes - Roberto Clemente." It was just one of many rare keepsakes that Quay kept that were related somehow to Clemente.

Mr. Quay (and his press pass) was able to help my grandfather attend many games as his guest, among them being game 7 of the 1960 World Series, of which I have inherited the ticket stub. I never met Luke, but I have heard from my grandfather and also read in print that he was one of the few Pittsburgh writers who, (along with a few from the Courier), respectfully refused to quote him phonetically, which many racist writers did to to embarrass him in public, and would not call him "Bobby", which Roberto hated. He was a true friend of Clemente, and I'm sorry I never met either man.

A few years ago, when my grandfather gave me his game 7 ticket stub and program, he also gave me the original copy (cut out from the newspaper) of a first-person account written by Luke Quay that came amidst the confusion, chaos, and sadness that immediately followed the plane crash. The following is a word-for-word transcript of the article (no internet link exists), which is nothing special in particular to anyone but myself, but some of you may enjoy reading something that was printed very soon after the crash while all of the stories that we know so well were still being told for the first time. The date of the article is from the Daily News' evening edition of January 5, 1972, only a few days after the crash. Even though I was born long after his death, it is still difficult to get through it without getting emotional. For all I know, this is the only copy still in existence.

On this, the 38th anniversary of his death, I only wish that Roberto Clemente, the eternal saint of the Pittsburgh Pirates, may forever rest in peace, and that we Pirates fans that are sometimes divided in opinion yet always united in hope never forget his legacy.

"If You Are Supposed to Die, You Are Going to Die"

By Luke Quay
General Sports Editor
McKeesport Daily News
January 5, 1972

SAN JUAN, P.R. - There wasn't any celebrating the last time all the Pirates were on a charter plane together. But that trip home from Cincinnati in October was a happy occasion in comparison to yesterday's flight here to pay last respects to Roberto Clemente, who died on New Year's Eve during a mercy mission carrying relief supplies to the victims of the Nicaraguan earthquake.

After all, the Bucs only lost the National League playoffs in October, and you always can make amends for something like that. But the loss of Clemente puts baseball into its proper perspective as just a game. Somebody might come along and take his place as a player, but there is no way he can be replaced as a man.

The shock of Clemente's passing is worn off, but the sixty some members of the Pirate's traveling party were a subdued lot. The only players not making the four hour trip from Pittsburgh to San Juan were Bob Robertson, Dave Cash, Bob Miller, and Vic Davalillo who is playing winter ball in his native Venezuela.

"The Pirates have come here to show our love and respect for Roberto Clemente's family," Buc General Manager Joe Brown told the news media gathered for a brief press conference following the team's arrival. "The people here are all part of Roberto's family and I would appreciate it if you would treat them that way and help keep the services private and personal."

The 45 minute memorial service for Clemente was held in the San Fernando church of Caroline, a small chapel type place of worship with red domes and blue trim in a village of 10,000 about eight miles from the airport and three miles from Roberto's home and the program was highlighted but the following eulogy delivered by the Bucs' Steve Blass:

"We've been to the wars together,
We took our foes as they came
And always you were the leader,
And ever you played the game
Idol of cheering millions
Records are yours by sheaves
Iron of frame they hailed you,
Decked you with laurel leaves
But higher than that we hold you,
We who have known you the best
Knowing the way you came through
Every human test,
Let this be a silent token
Of lasting friendships glean
And all that we've left unspoken
Your friends on the Pirate team"

Then came a change in original plans, and the tough part of the trip, when it was learned that Roberto's wife, Vera, was waiting at home for the Pirate party. It was the first time since Clemente was lost that his widow didn't spend the entire day at the beach watching the futile rescue operations.

There were a lot of tears as Vera greeted old friends but she was remarkably composed under the circumstances.

"I have to be strong," Mrs. Clemente said. "Roberto didn't like me to cry."

Standing on the balcony of the Clemente home built on a hillside above the Atlantic Ocean, we could see the approximate spot the plane carrying Roberto and four others plunged into the sea. And for the first time we got a reliable account of the events leading up to the tragedy from ex-Pirate Jose Pagan, one of Roberto's closest friends.

"It was an old plane," he said about the ill-fated DC-7, which had overshot the runway only two weeks before and had to be pulled from the mud. "And it was loaded by inexpert people. They just kept putting down boxes wherever there was a place and didn't even try to balance the load. Everybody pleaded with Roberto not to make the trip. We said that he knew everything about baseball but nothing about airplanes. He insisted that the people in charge wouldn't let the plane take off if it couldn't make it to Nicaragua. And then he said that if you are supposed to die, you are going to die," Pagan concluded.

Pagan also revealed that Clemente's children had a premonition that their father was going to die. All three boys were staying with Roberto's mother-in-law on New Year's Eve while their mother took their father to the airport.

And Pagan reported that the grandmother told him the two oldest boys said their father was flying to Nicaragua but wasn't coming back because the plane was going to fall into the ocean.

Art Rooney and Ed Kiely of the Steelers, along with halfback Preston Pearson and tackle Joe Brown accompanied the Pirates on the overnight pilgrimage and went to the services in the San Fernando church. But both Mrs. Clemente and Buc catcher, Manny Sanguillen, who is playing winter ball here in Puerto Rico, refused to attend the memorial mass.

"Vera is like me, she won't believe that Roberto is dead until she sees his body," noted Phil Dorsey, the Clemente family's closest friend in Pittsburgh. "And while others are praying for his soul, Sangy spends all of his time out diving in the ocean trying to find his friend."

Hockey Has Deep Roots in Pittsburgh

The New York Times
December 30, 2010

The Schenley Park Casino was the site of Pittsburgh’s first organized hockey game in 1895 between students from a local college and Queens University.(PittsburghHockey.Net)

PITTSBURGH — If Minnesota is the State of Hockey, if Detroit is Hockeytown and if Buffalo is the City of Hockey, then surely this city at the confluence of three rivers is Hockeytahn, as they say here in their singular drawl.

And nothing distills the long, stop-and-start history of hockey in Pittsburgh like the Duquesne Gardens wall.

Pittsburgh will host the N.H.L. Winter Classic at Heinz Field on Saturday, if the weather cooperates. It will be the newest, shiniest stage for American hockey’s biggest annual one-day event, in a city whose Penguins draw higher television ratings, sell more merchandise and have more Web site traffic than any other N.H.L. team in the United States.

“Our fans are sophisticated enough to know how lucky we are to have seen Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and all the others here over the last three decades,” said David Morehouse, the president of the Penguins and a Pittsburgh native. “We’ve had 13 scoring champions in 21 years.”

Hockey runs deep in Pittsburgh. It is where the game was first played regularly indoors on artificial ice, at the luxurious Schenley Park Casino from 1895 until it burned down in late 1896.

It was home to the first professional hockey league anywhere in the world, the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League, which by 1902 was luring players from Canada, where professionalism was prohibited. The future Hall of Famers Riley Hern, Alf Smith, Bruce Stuart and Hod Stuart played for pay in Pittsburgh, eventually forcing the Canadian leagues to go pro in 1907 — a development that led directly to the formation of the N.H.L. in 1917.

And it is where the United States Olympic hockey team was born in 1920, when Roy Schooley, a Canadian who stayed in Pittsburgh, put together an 11-player squad that won silver at the Antwerp Games, in the sport’s Olympic debut.

The Western Pennsylvania league, the Olympic team and the Pittsburgh Pirates, a Roaring Twenties N.H.L. club briefly owned by the New York bootlegger Bill Dwyer, were housed at the Duquesne Gardens, a trolley car barn in the Oakland neighborhood that was converted to a civic auditorium and ice rink in 1899.

The Gardens lasted until 1956, when it was torn down to make way for an apartment building. But part of a wall was left standing, incorporated into a restaurant in the building.

That was the historic wall Jim Kubus rescued in 2008. “I found out the apartment building was being renovated, and I had 48 hours to do something before the wall would be destroyed,” said Kubus, the editor of, a local history site. He said he and his brother “went in and took the bricks.”

For safekeeping, Kubus moved the Duquesne Gardens bricks to a location they kept secret.

Mario Lemieux won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins, in 1991 and 1992. As they fell on hard times, he became their principal owner. (Reuters)

After the Gardens was torn down in 1956, Pittsburgh had to wait until 1961 for hockey to return with the opening of the Civic Arena, later the Mellon Arena. The N.H.L. returned to Pittsburgh in 1967 with the founding of the Penguins.

“We didn’t draw very well the first year,” said Jack Riley, 91, the Penguins’ first general manager. “I remember one crowd as small as 3,000 for a midweek game against the Oakland Seals.”

The Penguins tried anything to draw fans, including putting an actual penguin on the ice during intermissions. It died a month into that first season.

The Penguins were averaging fewer than 7,000 fans when Lemieux arrived in 1983. His magical career and two Stanley Cup titles sparked another Pittsburgh hockey revival. But in 1998 the Penguins declared bankruptcy, and Lemieux bought the team.

By the time he retired from playing for good in 2006, Pittsburgh was on the verge of losing hockey again. Lemieux was threatening to move the team to another city unless Mellon Arena was replaced.

It finally was this season by the Consol Energy Center. And in that new building, in a bar called the Captain Morgan Lounge, is that small section of wall from the Duquesne Gardens.

“I got in touch with the Penguins and told them I had the last part of the wall from the old Gardens,” Kubus said.

He gave a brick to Morehouse, and that sealed it — a piece of 19th-century hockey in Pittsburgh would live on in 21st-century Hockeytahn.

“We’re well aware of the long legacy of Pittsburgh hockey,” Morehouse said. “We’re cognizant that Pittsburgh has kind of transformed from a good hockey town that has had its ups and downs to a great hockey town.”

As evidence, Morehouse cites the growth of hockey after the arrival of Lemieux, when the number of area rinks ballooned to 33 from 6, resulting in the first handful of Pittsburgh natives playing in the N.H.L. And now, again, the explosive growth since the arrival of Crosby in 2005: according to Scarborough Research, the Penguins have doubled their fan base in that period to 1.2 million, half the regional population.

“We have an embarrassment of riches here,” Kubus said. That abundance will increase on Saturday, when Heinz Field joins the Schenley Park Casino, Mellon Arena, Consol Energy Center and that piece of wall from the Duquesne Gardens — all homes of hockey in Hockeytahn.

Polamalu reluctant MVP winner

Friday, December 31, 2010
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

Troy Polamalu accepts the Most Valuable Player award for the Steelers at a press conference on the South Side yesterday.

With all due respect to his fellow voters, Troy Polamalu wants nothing to do with the most valuable player award of the Steelers.

It's not that he does not appreciate the honor, bestowed by a vote of his teammates; he prefers there be no such thing as team MVP nor even the Steelers' Walter Payton Man of the Year award he also picked up Thursday.

"I would have to say that football is such a perfect team sport, and it's hard to make anybody -- especially our team and the way we play on defense -- a most valuable player," Polamalu said. "I've never been a fan of either award."

Polamalu, who was chosen for his sixth Pro Bowl in his eight seasons with the Steelers, became only the second safety chosen as Steelers MVP since the award began in 1969. The other safety to win it was Glen Edwards in '74.

Now all he wants to do is get back on the playing field. Coach Mike Tomlin said Polamalu, who missed the past two games with an Achilles tendon-related injury, will try to practice today.

"I am hoping to play this week, whatever is coach Tomlin's decision," Polamalu said.

His teammates would welcome the return as they play a vital game Sunday in Cleveland that will determine their playoff status. A victory will give them the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a bye in the first week of the playoffs with a home game in the second week. A loss combined with a Baltimore victory against Cincinnati, would drop the Steelers to the sixth seed as a wild-card team that would play all its games on the road, starting the following weekend.

"We need him," Hines Ward said. "You got plenty of time to rest. We win this game, you can rest all next week. He doesn't have to practice until the following Friday, for all we care.

"This is a big game and having him out there, I think he'll be rested up. We'll see. He's going to try to go, I think. Having him out there on the field makes our team, makes our defense better than what they are."

Polamalu is a big reason the Steelers are in position to win the AFC North Division and finish with a 12-4 record, which would match their record for the 2008 season, the previous time they won the Super Bowl. They held the No. 2 seed in the AFC that season as well.

"He's one of those players who is special, who makes the plays that no one else can make on the football field," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "We'll be happy to get him healthy and back out there with us."

PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 12: Troy Polamalu intercepts a pass from Carson Palmer of the Cincinnati Bengals during the game on December 12, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Polamalu delivered three game-turning plays this season on consecutive weeks. He intercepted a pass at the 2 late in the game that prevented Buffalo from winning Nov. 28. He caused a fumble when he sacked quarterback Joe Flacco in Baltimore Dec. 5 that set up the winning touchdown with 2:51 left. His interception for a touchdown in the second quarter Dec. 12 erased a 7-0 Cincinnati lead, and the Steelers went on to a 23-7 victory.

Typically, Polamalu downplayed his role in all of them.

"There are so many different parts that go into making plays. The Buffalo play was actually made by Willie Gay. He actually broke up the pass. The Baltimore play was a good call. Anybody could have made that play. Nobody tried to block me or anything like that. I am honestly not trying to be humble. This is just the truth. The Cincinnati play was made by [Bryant McFadden]."

His teammates and defensive coach weren't buying it.

"A lot of us in here think he should be the league defensive MVP," Keisel said. "It seems like when we need a big play or someone to step in and make something happen, Troy nine times out of 10 is that guy."

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said that in his eighth season Polamalu is playing better than ever.

"He's a very special player. He can play at all levels of the defense -- he can blitz, he can play linebacker depth and he's a heck of an interceptor. We're always a lot better when he's in the game."

Polamalu leads the Steelers with six interceptions, ranks sixth with 81 tackles, has a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. But statistics don't tell the whole story how Polamalu impacts a game, including how he bounces around before the snap of the ball to confuse the offense.

"He means so much to our team," Ward said. "He's just the X-factor, he really makes a difference. With him on the field playing, I know he gives us that opportunity, something's going to happen. When we need something the most, 99.9 percent of the time he's come up big.

"I think it's actually his first time winning it. You would think a guy of his magnitude would win it every year."

Harrison fine reduced

The NFL has reduced the biggest fine it levied on James Harrison this season by a third.

Harrison's fine was reduced from $75,000 to $50,000 for his hit Oct. 17 on Cleveland wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. Although Harrison lost his appeal, the NFL decided Thursday to reduce the fine by $25,000.

"We're very pleased with the reduction and it's good step in the right direction," said Harrison's agent, Bill Parise.

Harrison was fined four times this season for $125,000. Parise on Tuesday will appeal a $25,000 fine on Harrison for a hit Nov. 28 in Buffalo.

The league said in a statement that it reduced three fines after a review. The others were by Atlanta's Dunta Robinson, from $50,000 to $25,000, and one by New England's Brandon Meriwether from $50,000 to $40,000.

Appeals officer Ted Cottrell, according to the statement, "reduced the fines because the players said they understood the rules and have made efforts to adjust their techniques to play within the rules that protect player safety."

More for Pro Bowl?

The Steelers have only three players on the Pro Bowl roster but more could join them in the weeks ahead. A handful of Steelers were voted as alternates and the top one is defensive end Brett Keisel.

Keisel, a nine-year veteran who has never made a Pro Bowl, is a first alternate, which means if one of the three defensive ends cannot participate, he would be the next one up.

"I'm excited about it," Keisel said. "It's something you strive to be in this profession. It's tough to make it, especially when you play a 3-4 end in the scheme we play. It's an honor."

Other alternates, although none of them first alternates, include Mike Wallace, Casey Hampton, Ryan Clark, LaMarr Woodley, Heath Miller and Ben Roethlisberger.

Injury report

LaMarr Woodley (swollen knee) returned to a full practice and is ready to play Sunday in Cleveland. However, Mewelde Moore (sprained knee) missed another practice. If Moore cannot play, rookie Jonathan Dwyer could dress for his first game this season. James Harrison, ill on Wednesday, returned to practice.

For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at Ed Bouchette:

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24/7: Road To The NHL Winter Classic - Episode 3

Mike Tomlin, Coach of the Year

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mike Tomlin is on the sidelines during action against the Buffalo Bills in the first quarter of their NFL football game in Orchard Park, New York November 28, 2010.(Reuters)

"Keep Calm and Carry On," a book of quotes that landed under my Christmas tree, wasn't written for Mike Tomlin or the Steelers' 2010 season.

But it easily could have been.

Whether anyone wants to acknowledge it, Tomlin has turned in one of the finest regular-season coaching jobs in franchise history, one that should earn him the NFL's Coach of the Year award.

"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." — Niels Bohr

Be honest: Even if you picked the Steelers to win 10 or more games, you would have changed your mind — radically so — if you'd seen the trouble ahead.

You knew Santonio Holmes was gone, Ben Roethlisberger was out for a quarter of the season, Willie Colon was out for good and no high-impact players had arrived via trade or free agency. Flozell Adams was your new right tackle, Dennis Dixon was your new quarterback, and you somehow remained optimistic.

But what if somebody had told you that left defensive end Aaron Smith would miss the final 10 games, right defensive end Brett Keisel would miss five-plus, left tackle Max Starks would sustain a season-ending injury in Week 8, Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller would miss at least two games, punter Daniel Sepulveda would tear up his knee, kicker Jeff Reed would implode and the Baltimore Ravens would go 12-4?

No sane person would have predicted more than eight wins. The Steelers are 11-4 and poised to claim a No. 2 seed if they beat Cleveland on Sunday.

Do you think the coach has something to do with this?

It's incredible how many people would need to think before answering that question.

"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, it's just possible you haven't grasped the situation." — Jean Kerr

Luckily for Steelers fans, Tomlin failed to grasp his team's predicament. Refused is more like it. He never cloaked the adversity in the form of a premeditated excuse, to be applied to future losses.

In contrast to college counterpart Dave Wannstedt, Tomlin never made an issue of his team's inexperience at certain positions.

He just won.

Certainly, you could make a coach-of-the-year case for Bill Belichick or Todd Haley, though Belichick didn't lose Tom Brady for four games and Haley didn't beat a good team. A handful of others merit mention, but none has outdone Tomlin.

"Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which, in prosperous circumstances, would have lain dormant." — Horace

When Tomlin calls, players answer. Rookies Maurkice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Jason Worilds have been among the contributors, as have veterans Adams, Jonathan Scott, Charlie Batch and Nick Eason.

As running back Mewelde Moore put it, "Coach says we have starters and starters-in-waiting."

Consider some of Tomlin's tangible contributions:

• He fired special teams coach Bob Ligashesky after last season and found a highly qualified replacement in Al Everest.

• He was open-minded enough to alter the offensive-line plan, cutting Justin Hartwig and going with Pouncey at the mentally demanding center spot, instead of right guard.

• He promoted Sanders to third receiver, in place of Antwaan Randle El, and stuck with him through mistakes.

• He made three dramatic moves after the embarrassing loss to New England, firing Reed, inserting Ramon Foster for Trai Essex at right guard and ordering his team to work in pads on a Wednesday. The Steelers responded with a punishing 35-3 victory over the Raiders and are 4-0 after losses, outscoring opponents 117-37.

"I am an optimist. It doesn't seem too much use to be anything else." — Winston Churchill

The standard is the standard, Tomlin likes to say, and the Steelers' standard does not change: Anything less than a Super Bowl championship is deemed a failure.

Last year was a miserable failure, punctuated by Tomlin's false bravado. This year has been a stunning success, albeit with one big game and the defining postseason ahead.

Belichick's Patriots are a heavy favorite, but if we have been reminded of anything this season, it's that prediction is very difficult.

Especially about the future.

Big Ben honored for media cooperation

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ben Roethlisberger addresses reporters after winning the Steelers' "Chief Award" for cooperation with the media on Wednesday. (Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review)

Ben Roethlisberger is the first quarterback to win the Steelers award named after franchise founder Art Rooney.

He also is a most unlikely recipient of the award that recognizes a concept Roethlisberger admitted had been foreign to him prior to this season.

Roethlisberger was presented with The Chief Award on Wednesday for cooperation with the media, with whom he shared an uneasy if not prickly coexistence in years past.

He joined media-friendly players such as Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca and Hines Ward as winners of the award given annually since 1988.

The honor is voted on by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Pro Football Writers Association. The only player ineligible this year was James Farrior because he won it in 2009.

"I think this is an awesome award, and I appreciate it very much," Roethlisberger said. "Anything named after the Chief or the Rooney family is quite an honor."

Roethlisberger has proven to be more accessible to reporters this year and more approachable. Roethlisberger said his improved relationship with the media reflects the larger life changes he made after nearly sabotaging his career.

That happened in March when Roethlisberger was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student in a bar in Milledgeville, Ga. Roethlisberger was never charged, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended the two-time Super Bowl winner for the first six games of the 2010 season. It later was reduced to four games because of good behavior.

Roethlisberger kept a low profile after Goodell cleared him to return to offseason practices in June but talked with reporters on a daily basis after the Steelers convened for training camp in late July.

Since his suspension, Roethlisberger has addressed reporters on so-called off days — many established NFL quarterbacks only talk on Wednesday.

"Not every article or every story or news report is positive, so it's easy to get negative and get down on someone," Roethlisberger said. "We understand that (reporters) have a job, as we do."

Steelers president Art Rooney II said he is pleased with the changes Roethlisberger has made — and his commitment to rehabilitating his image.

"He's really done everything that was expected of him, and I think it shows the way he's handled himself with the media and the fans and his teammates," Rooney said. "I think the bottom line is he understands that it's a long process, and you earn respect. Some people it takes longer than others. But I think he feels good about where he is, and we certainly feel good about it."

Past Honorees

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and center Maurkice Pouncey won The Chief Award and the Joe Greene Award, respectively. The Joe Greene Award is given to the team's top rookie. Here are the players who won each award the past five years.

The Chief Award

2009: James Farrior, LB

2008: Ryan Clark, S

2007: Alan Faneca, G

2006: Brett Keisel, DE, and Deshea Townsend, CB

2005: Faneca

Joe Greene Award

2009: Mike Wallace, WR

2008: Patrick Bailey, LB

2007: Daniel Sepulveda, P

2006: Santonio Holmes, WR

2005: Heath Miller, TE

Source: Steelers

Crosby's shootout goal made for an instant Classic

Friday, December 31, 2010

ORCHARD PARK, NY - JANUARY 01: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins gets the puck past goaltender Ryan Miller #35 of the Buffalo Sabres to win the NHL Winter Classic 2-1 in a shoot out at the Ralph Wilson Stadium on January 1, 2008 in Orchard Park, New York. The Penguins won the game 2-1 in a shoot out. (Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

The inaugural Winter Classic was Sidney Crosby's unofficial introduction to American sports fans who largely ignore hockey but were captivated by the idea of an outdoor game.

With millions of Americans watching as snowflakes fell and the sky darkened around Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, Crosby scored one of his most famous goals and helped the Winter Classic become a blooming spectacle.

Crosby's flair for the dramatic had never been more evident.

"It was just so perfect," said Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek, who watched the game in Phoenix. "And when you saw it was him standing there with a chance to win the game, you just knew he would score. Of course he would score. It's Crosby."

The hype leading up to that Winter Classic trumpeted Crosby, then 20, as the game's best player.

Three years later, things haven't changed.

Crosby seems delighted to play in this year's Winter Classic and acknowledged that part of the charm in Buffalo revolved around its place as a singular event.

"I didn't expect it to be a yearly thing then," Crosby said. "It was definitely a special moment, especially considering the fact that we didn't know if there'd ever be another one."

The NHL would be crazy to stop showcasing the annual outdoor game. From Buffalo to Chicago to Boston, the game has grown in popularity each year. And yet, the signature moment in this short series remains Crosby staring down Miller that afternoon in Buffalo.

Crosby, doing his best Mario Lemieux impersonation, set up a goal only seconds into the contest. He also dazzled with his stickhandling, perhaps putting on a show more than usual knowing full well untapped fans were watching.

Always the humble superstar, Crosby doesn't remember it that way.

"I don't think of it like that," he said. "(But) I do think that game probably brought a lot of interest."

Although the game was an unprecedented success, there were issues that created problems. The steady snow forced numerous stoppages as crews frantically fixed the ice.

According to Michalek, the conditions only add to the Crosby legend.

"I remember it was snowing so much that people could barely see the puck and it was hard for anyone to score," he said. "Of course, he's the one who would come through in that situation and score the goal. It wasn't a surprise."

There are weather issues hovering over this season's game, but the NHL is hopeful that the contest will take place without any problems. After all, with Crosby playing and a huge number of North American sports fans expected to tune in, something special could happen.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman compares Crosby's goal in Buffalo to one of the great moments in Pittsburgh sports history.

"If you are a Penguins fan," Bettman said, "you probably remember Sid's goal the way you do the Immaculate Reception."

The NHL can only hope that Saturday at Heinz Field generates such a compelling memory. Regardless of what happens, the image of a joy-jumping Crosby that day in Buffalo will endure.

"It's a moment in time," Bettman said.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The '21 Days of Clemente' Is How One Pirate Great Is Remembered

By Cesar Diaz (Correspondent) on December 21, 2010

"Anytime you have an opportunity to make things better and you don't, then you are wasting your time on this Earth." - Roberto Clemente

Bronx, NY - While most of us baseball fans are finishing our Christmas Shopping and scheduling for Holiday Festivities which will run into the New Year, I wanted to take a moment to remind you about Pittsburgh Pirate Great, Roberto Clemente.

Recognized to many as the "The Great One", Roberto Clemente is also remembered for being a Humanitarian who died in a plane crash on December 31, 1972 while attempting to take relief supplies to the earthquake victims of Nicaragua.

In honoring Roberto Clemente's legacy, Latino Sports has hosted their Annual "21 Days of Clemente". It's been an annual event where where fans of Roberto Clemente have the opportunity to meet every Monday in the Bronx to share and listen to a guest speaker discuss the impact that Roberto Clemente has had in his/her life.

For the last 10 years Latino Sports coordinates one of the most worthwhile community events in our community geared towards students and adults. Bronx students from Kindergarten to senior year in High school are invited to submit any drawing, poem, composition, or any art piece no matter how simple on Clemente, or Retire 21. No piece is rejected and all are accepted.

Every student that submits a piece of art will receive a certificate of recognition from Bronx Borough President, Ruben Díaz Jr. Most of the pieces will be exhibited at Applebee’s restaurant located at the Gateway Mall along with many other Roberto Clemente collectibles from December 10 - 31, 2010.

"The "21 Days of Clemente" is much more than an event to honor Clemente, it is an event to remember those that gave so much and the way that we live our lives. The fact that Latino Sports does this event every year in the middle of the most busiest month, December and the holiday season is a testament in itself," said Julio Pabon, CEO of Latino Sports Ventures, Inc.

Now in it's Ten-Year Anniversary, this year's "21 Days of Clemente" has been filled with wonderful surprises from it's presenters and audience members. In the past, guest speakers have included former Mets GM, Omar Minaya and Roberto Clemente's son, Roberto Jr.

For the Tenth Anniversary of the "21 Days of Clemente," things kicked off in Spanish Harlem where many of it's residents attended in honor of their own Barrio Activist, Willie Soto. While many outside of El Barrio may not be familiar with Mr. Soto, he was the individual who fought for his neighbor's rights and originally created the petitions to have Roberto Clemente's number retired.

Following Willie Soto's tribute, the "21 Days of Clemente" returned to the Bronx last week where our guest speaker, Pulitzer Prize Winning Author, David Maraniss was our guest speaker. The author of “Clemente – The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero” gave a passionate presentation followed by a Q&A session.

Last night's guest speaker was Dr. Socorro Duprey. Her presentation was unique in the sense that she wasn't a baseball fan who followed the career of Roberto Clemente. Rather she was a college student who met Roberto Clemente when she was a college student in the University of Puerto Rico.

Now a Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Duprey stated she met Roberto Clemente when she was 15 years old when she first met Roberto Clemente on the University of Puerto Rico campus. "Roberto or Momen as well knew him would always visit his family once his baseball season was over," stated Dr. Duprey.

"In those days, Momen would come to our campus to hang out. He would always drive in his Cadillac and at some point of the day, he would give the other students a ride around campus. Having a strict grandmother, I never accepted a ride because I was terribly afraid of her," laughed Dr. Duprey.

One thing she wanted the audience to understand about Roberto Clemente was his nature. "Despite what the Media may have perceived of him, Momen was a humble but proud individual," expressed Dr. Duprey.

"You have to realize that at the time he played for the Pirates, he was wasn't considered a Puerto Rican. He was considered Black and the discrimination he endured was just as bad in those times," explained Dr. Duprey. "The thing with Momen is that when he took a stand, it wasn't because he wanted to show off. He simply wanted to be respected as one with dignity would."

In addition to her relationship with Roberto Clemente, Dr. Duprey educated us about the personal struggles she endured an educated Afro-Latina Puerto Rican living in the United States. She pointed out the similarities in the discrimination they both faced during the pre-Civil Rights Act times.

Following her presentation, audience members engaged in a discussion on how sports sometimes have a tendency to reflect the signs of that particular time in History. Next week, the "21 Days of Clemente" will conclude with Paul Kutch's presentation.

Mr. Kutch is regarded as one of the worlds largest Clemente collectors will speak on the value of collecting Clemente items and will have a display of many of his items.

Cesar Diaz covers Soccer for Latino Sports. You may follow him on Facebook and Twitter at @CoveringSoccer. For more sports news and Roberto Clemente, please follow Latino Sports at @LatinoSports143. Please feel free to email Cesar your questions and concerns at

Pouncey Claims Joe Greene Award as Steelers' Top Rookie

Pouncey emerges front and center

By: Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
Thursday December 30, 2010 12:11 AM

PITTSBURGH — On the day the Steelers drafted Maurkice Pouncey, there was no doubt they had secured their next star center. They just weren’t sure he’d be a star this fast.

But as the regular season winds to a close, Pouncey has proven beyond a doubt that he’ll continue a proud lineage that includes Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings.

Not only has Pouncey started every game this season, he’s playing so well that he’s the Steelers’ first rookie offensive lineman to earn Pro Bowl honors since [Frank Varrichione was selected in] 1955.

“No, I’m not surprised,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said of Pouncey’s Pro Bowl selection. “I’ve been telling you guys (in the media) all along he’s one of the best in the game. He’s going to be the best.”

Webster, who died in 2002, played center so well for the Steelers from 1974-1988 that he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.

Dawson, who played for the Steelers from 1988-2000, is Hall of Fame worthy and one of 25 semifinalists for induction in the Class of 2011.

Webster (nine) and Dawson (seven) combined for 16 Pro Bowl appearances. But neither of them made it to the NFL all-star game as a rookie.

“Those guys were great linemen,” said Pouncey, a former Florida star who was the 18th overall selection in this year’s NFL Draft. “I’m nowhere near where those guys are. I’m just trying to play up to their level.”

When training camp began on Aug. 1, no one knew exactly when Pouncey would move into the starting role at center. Certainly, the Steelers weren’t satisfied with incumbent Justin Hartwig. But they also weren’t happy with right guard Trai Essex, who was marginal at best last year.

So Pouncey started out in camp playing both positions.

The Steelers drafted center Maurkice Pouncey (53) 18th overall in the 2010 draft.
(George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

“I was ready to play wherever they wanted me to play,” said Pouncey, who turned pro after his junior season as a Gator when he won the Rimington Trophy given annually to the best center in college football.

But after just a few practices, coach Mike Tomlin and his offensive assistants realized that Pouncey could handle the duties at center. So why delay the inevitable?

By the third preseason game, Pouncey had supplanted Hartwig as the starter.

Ever since them, he’s gotten better.

“There are stages to it,” Roethlisberger said of Pouncey’s progression. “After Week 1, you can see he was doing it. It was like ‘Wow! This kid is going to be good. But who knows how long he can keep doing it?’

“Then halfway through the year, it was ‘Wow! He’s getting better. I know he can do this, but he’s going to hit the wall at some point.’

“Then in Week 15, it was ‘He hasn’t hit the wall yet. This is amazing. And he’s still getting better.’”

“He’s the real deal,” offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. “He’s that good.”

As far as that rookie “wall” that Roethlisberger referred to, Pouncey said it’s not hit him yet. Physically, he feels fine as he prepares for his 20th game of the season (four exhibitions included).

“It’s going great. I can’t complain,” said Pouncey, who’s still only 21 years old. “The hardest part was the mental part, just learning new things every week. The easiest part was the physical part. I thought it was going to be a lot harder physically, but it’s not.”

Pouncey, who’s never been to Hawaii before, is one of three Steelers chosen for the Pro Bowl that will be played Jan. 30 in Honolulu. Linebacker James Harrison and strong safety Troy Polamalu are the others.

But Pouncey, who was named Wednesday as the 2010 winner of the Joe Greene Great Performance Award given annually to the Steelers’ top rookie, will gladly give up an expense-paid trip to Hawaii for something better.

“I’ll give up any individual honors for the Super Bowl,” he said.

After all, there figures to be many more Pro Bowl appearances in the future for Pouncey, who’s already the Steelers’ next great center.

Turn your attention to Exhibit B

Thursday, December 30, 2010
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Browns kick returner Joshua Cribbs runs by Steelers cornerback William Gay during a 98-yard kickoff for a touchdown during last season's game in Pittsburgh. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)

Mike Tomlin might not have delivered enough forensic evidence this week to show the Cleveland Browns have the opportunity, the motive and the capability of defacing the Steelers' playoff credentials, but then, he didn't really have to.

Anyone with functional short-term memory knows, for example, that Browns quarterback Colt McCoy, despite having as much experience as an NFL quarterback as he has as a lion tamer, ripped the Steelers defense for 281 passing yards as recently as Oct. 17.

Anyone with functional long-term memory knows, for another, that even with Brady Quinn completing only 6 of 19 throws in the glacial cold of a black winter's night in Cleveland last Dec. 10, the Browns leveled what was essentially this same construct of Steelers as easily as you'd tip a snowman.

But it's not until you fully audit the stakes of this 116th Steelers-Browns argument, the one that kicks off at 1:02 p.m. Sunday adjacent to Lake Erie, that you understand the role of veteran leadership in outcomes. In his locker room, Tomlin certainly has enough competitive character to ensure victory when victory is expected.

At least that's the theory (see Dec. 10, 2009).

"I think it has more to do with how we play collectively, how we play as a group," said Hines Ward after grimacing at the whole leadership thing. "You watch that game in Philly and I don't think that has anything to do with leadership. I think it just means you can't give up two turnovers and a fumble for a touchdown against a team you're supposed to be beatin'."

The Eagles kicked away their chance at a No. 2 seed in the playoffs the other night by playing the frozen dope for the 6-9 Minnesota Vikings, which is more or less precisely what Ward's team is hoping to avoid this weekend.

"It's time for us to start playing good football," Ward said flatly. "Last game we didn't play well; we won, anyway, but that was because Carolina was a bad team. If we play that way this week, we won't be in the playoffs long.

"It's time to put a complete game together."

The complete Steelers experience won't come down on the Browns unless it includes Troy Polamalu, whose stubborn lower leg injury will get an official go-or-no Friday, but Tomlin should forget any temptation to keep a healthy Troy out of harm's way until the postseason.

The very nature of the postseason pivots totally on the outcome of Week 17, and it's people like Polamalu who will prevent the potentiality of that turning into a kind of short-lived fringe festival, people like James Farrior, like Ryan Clark, like Casey Hampton, Chris Kemoeatu, Nick Eason, James Harrison, Heath Miller and Chris Hoke.

"The oldest guys know how much better it is to have that bye week and have a home game," Hoke said, "and a lot of guys on this team have been in the playoffs as a No. 6 seed before, and as a No. 2, and they know it's a lot easier to win two games than three."

And that's where, it says here, leadership rules, regardless of its dogged position in the abstract. Often it's nothing more or less than awareness of the forces in play, in this case, the pure desperation that might well electrify a Browns team, beginning with these potentially last desperate hours in the Cleveland career of head coach Eric Mangini.

If Mangini wins Sunday, he can go to Browns bossman Mike Holmgren and remind him that this Cleveland team beat the defending Super Bowl champion Saints by two touchdowns, the presumed Super Bowl champs-in-waiting Patriots by three, and the all-time champ of Super Bowl champion Steelers right at their postseason doorstep. He can remind Holmgren that of the Browns' 10 losses, two were by two points, one by three, one by four, one in overtime by six and one by seven.

"A lot of those guys are getting evaluated to see who's coming back next year," Hoke said. "I remember here in 2003 when we went 6-10, coach Cowher telling us that he was evaluating our performance, evaluating our effort, and that if you were not playing hard, you were not going to be back."

The Browns, of course, are in this situation commonly, and frankly, they're pretty good at it. In their past eight season finales, they're 6-2. How sweet would it be within that culture for them to end the season by shoving the Steelers onto the postseason's thinnest ice?

Given all empirical evidence, that shouldn't happen.

Given these two words, it might: Joshua Cribbs.

No one has returned more kickoffs for touchdowns against the same team as has Cribbs. I don't have to tell you what team that is.

Gene Collier:

Read more:

Penguins' Crosby recalls first Winter Classic win

Thursday, December 30, 2010
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Snow falls on Sidney Crosby during the NHL Winter Classic against the Buffalo Sabres at the Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2008. (Photograph by Dave Sandford, Getty Images)

It was the ultimate freelance in an unorthodox setting.

Sidney Crosby approached the puck at center ice with the chance to lift the Penguins to a victory if he could convert his turn at a shootout.

"If you would have been in my mind, I'm telling you that all I was thinking about was trying to get a shot on net," he recalled recently.

That's right, the National Hockey League's premier and probably most detail-oriented player, the man who always formulates a plan, was flying by the seat of his icy hockey pants.

That's because this was no ordinary game, not one held in a generic arena. It was the 2008 Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.

Crosby whooshed his way down the slot that snowy late afternoon and slipped the puck under Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller -- a shot that not only secured a 2-1 New Year's Day victory but also painted a scene so Rockwellian that the NHL had no sensible choice but to make the game an annual event.

The Penguins make a return outdoor appearance for the 2011 Winter Classic. Saturday, it will be against rival Washington in Pittsburgh's most revered backyard -- the middle of Heinz Field.

Crosby had a lot to do with the NHL bringing what has grown into a signature event to town, but he wasn't thinking beyond the temporary boards and difficult ice conditions that day nearly three years ago.

It had started to snow on the teams and 71,217 fans during warmups, and the Zamboni had to make unusual mid-period sweeps to clear the accumulating snow.

"The ice was a little more fresh earlier in the game, so you didn't notice it as much," Crosby said. "But after the first [period], you could tell it was going to be tough to carry the puck a lot. You're pushing the puck and you're just trying to move it forward. You weren't even trying to stickhandle, chipping it in. It was pretty simple hockey. Even guys carrying it, it would just kind of pop up on them."

The Penguins debuted their baby blue jerseys that day. Crosby assisted on Colby Armstrong's goal in the first period, and Brian Campbell tied it for Buffalo in the second.

With a 1 p.m. start on one of the shortest days of the year, and with a game stretched longer than usual because of added ice cleanings, overtime and the shootout, the skies were darkening by the end of overtime, and the players were tiring.

"It was a tough game," Crosby said. "Guys were a little more tired than usual because you had to work harder to get around. It was hard-hitting. On top of that, with how cold it was, it kind of adds to you being tired."

A sellout crowd of 71,217 and a national TV audience saw the league's biggest star, Sidney Crosby, seize the spotlight with an assist and the shootout game-winner as the retro jersey-wearing Penguins downed the Sabres, 2-1.
(Photograph by David E. Klutho/SI)

In those days, Crosby was an offensive force but hadn't established himself as a strong shootout participant. He was 1 for 5 that season, 8 for 26 (30.8 percent) in his career going into the game.

The Penguins had two players who were budding shootout specialists, so he was in his customary spot at the time in the shootout order, third. He normally shoots second now.

Penguins goaltender Ty Conklin allowed Ales Kotalik's goal, then stymied Tim Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov.

The Penguins' Erik Christensen missed the net, but defenseman Kris Letang improved to 4 for 4 in shootout attempts that season with a lofted shot.

Crosby was up. The game was going to end or go into the sudden-death portion of the shootout.

He was in his third NHL season and had faced Miller several times. Of course, this was more than two years before he beat Miller in overtime at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics to give Canada the gold medal over the United States.

"Even if I did know him pretty well back then, I don't think in those conditions it mattered," Crosby said.

He watched the shooters before him. What stood out was the layer of snow on the ice and the difficulty it posed. So that became his focus when he gathered the puck and made several short stickhandle moves as he skated directly toward Miller, snow flying each time he nudged the puck.

"I just remember trying to hold onto the puck because I couldn't see it," he said. "I just wanted to get a shot away. Honestly, that's all I was worried about. You're dragging a lot of snow. You couldn't really go that fast because you didn't want to lose the puck. When you're carrying it, the snow was kind of going over your blade, so it was hiding the puck as you were pushing it. You just saw it in little spurts, and you felt it."

He got nearly on top of Miller, who opened himself up some when he attempted to poke-check the puck. That's when Crosby pushed the puck under the goalie's pads.

"I just tried to get a shot away," he said. "The last thing I wanted to do was lose the puck or miss the net or something. I just wanted to give it a chance to go in."

The puck might have been difficult to pick out that day, but Crosby saw it cross the goal line. He curled toward the right corner and headed up the ice. He whooped. He jumped up and down. He threw his arms in the air, needing someone to hug.

His teammates streamed off of the bench, met him at the blue line and obliged with a group celebration.

Beginning with that shot that beat Miller, Crosby is 14 of 25 (56 percent) in shootouts to raise his career success rate to 41.1 percent, but he said he doesn't consider that as any sort of turning point.

The game had been difficult, but exhilarating.

"I guarantee you not one guy complained about the ice," Crosby said. "I didn't hear one guy complain. We all knew it was awesome to be a part of it, and whether the ice was tough or the conditions were tough, it didn't matter. Guys were just happy to be a part of it."

The cold began to set in as he made his way to the locker room and started to take off his gear.

"I just wanted some warm clothes and hot chocolate," he said.

For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at Shelly Anderson: or 412-263-1721.

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Sidney Crosby's 25-game point streak ends thanks to DiPietro, Isles

By Greg Wyshynski
Wed Dec 29 10:11pm EST

UNIONDALE, NY - DECEMBER 29: Sidney Crosby has his 25 game point scoring streak stopped by Rick DiPietro of the New York Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum on December 29, 2010 in Uniondale, New York. The Islanders defeated the Penguins 2-1 in the shootout. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

On Wednesday morning, the NHL sent out a "By The Numbers" press release hyping the 2011 Winter Classic between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Among the entries:

"25 - Game scoring streak by Sidney Crosby. This is longest streak in the NHL since Quebec's Mats Sundin had a point in 30 straight games during the 1992-93 season."

It didn't mention that Crosby still had another game before the Classic against the New York Islanders tonight. This omission apparently angered the Hockey Gods.

Sidney Crosby's 25-game point streak came to an end when the Islanders took the Penguins into a shootout, where they defeated visiting Pittsburgh, 2-1. Crosby's streak tied him with Wayne Gretzky (1990-91), Bryan Trottier (1981-82), Brett Hull (1991-92) and Bernie Nicholls (1984-85) for the 11th-longest run in NHL history.

Crosby played 26:16 with 2 shots on goal and a minus-1. One shot arrived about 10 minutes into the game, a 39-foot snap shot DiPietro saved and covered; his second shot came with 2:39 remaining, a 37-foot snapper that DiPietro covered again.

There was some drama with 7:01 left in regulation when the Penguins were awarded a penalty shot after an Islanders defender covered the puck in the crease with his glove. Crosby appeared ready to take the shot; but NHL rules, which differ from international rules, dictate that the shot must be taken by a player on the ice at the time of the infraction. Crosby wasn't, Kris Letang was and his shot missed.

Crosby had a chance to extend the streak with 1:14 left in overtime as the Islanders took a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty, but the Penguins couldn't convert on the 4-on-3 power play.

Sid's stat line for the game:

Rick DiPietro made 37 saves for the Isles, playing aggressively as the Pens crashed his crease. Forwards Frans Nielsen and Josh Bailey were matched against Crosby's line for most of the night, as were defensemen Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic. It was the Islanders' first game since trading leading defenseman James Wisniewski to Montreal.

So Crosby's streak ends (and god willing, so does his facial hair until the playoffs). But tonight was a reminder why Sid the Kid is the biggest story in the NHL this season: What would have otherwise been a inconsequential tune-up with a conference also-ran before the Classic became an epic battle that had fans buzzing around the League.

Highlights: Islanders 2, Penguins 1 (SO)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Polamalu, Harrison and Pouncey voted to the Pro Bowl

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Maurkice Pouncey was voted to the Pro Bowl as a rookie and will back up starting center Nick Mangold. (Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review)

Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey hasn't just been one of the top rookies in the NFL this season. He has been one of the best players — period.

Pouncey was voted to the first of what could be many Pro Bowls for the 6-foot-4, 304-pounder, the league announced Tuesday. He is the Steelers' first rookie offensive lineman to earn the honor in more than 50 years.

Pouncey joined strong safety Troy Polamalu and outside linebacker James Harrison as the Steelers' representatives on the AFC all-star squad. The three were selected in a vote of fans, coaches and players.

Polamalu and Harrison each made the AFC team as starters; Pouncey is a backup to the New York Jets' Nick Mangold.

Polamalu, who is tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions, has been selected to six consecutive Pro Bowls. Harrison has made the Pro Bowl every season since becoming a starter for the Steelers in 2007. His 11 sacks lead the team and are tied for the eighth-most in the NFL. He also is tied for second in the NFL with six forced fumbles.

The Pro Bowl will be played Jan. 30 in Honolulu. The Steelers, of course, hope none of their players take part, since that would mean they are preparing for Super Bowl XLV.

Pouncey is the first Steelers rookie to make the Pro Bowl since linebacker Kendrell Bell in 2001. He is the first Steelers center to make the game since Jeff Hartings in 2005. And he is the first Steelers rookie offensive lineman to make it since tackle Frank Varrichione in 1955.

His selection was another leap in what has been a rapid ascent since the Steelers took Pouncey with the 18th pick of April's draft. The Steelers initially planned to play Pouncey at guard, but he performed so well at center during training camp that they released incumbent Justin Hartwig.

Pouncey has started every game and has drawn comparisons with former Steeler Dermontti Dawson because of his blend of strength and athleticism.

Sidney Crosby is the game’s best player

Ottawa— From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2010

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 28: Sidney Crosby had two goals and two assists in the Penguins 6-3 win over the Atlanta Thrashers at Consol Energy Center on December 28, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Crosby leads the NHL with 32 goals and 65 points and his current 25-game scoring streak is the 11th longest in league history.(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Who ever imagined that Mother Nature would turn into the Grinch?

And yet, as Christmas passes and the week slides toward Saturday’s Winter Classic, they are calling for 53F temperatures (the game is in Pittsburgh, remember) along with three hours of rain with a 20-per-cent possibility of thunderstorms.

They’d cancel a golf tournament under such circumstances. How could they then allow a hockey game to proceed, with players connected to the water by steel blades? If someone were to score, who would dare raise a composite stick to the skies?

Nature teaches us that things do not always go as planned, but weather has nothing to do with the cloud over what was intended to be the most compelling focus of the 2011 Winter Classic: a showdown between the world’s two best hockey players, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby and the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin.

It is hard to believe that less than a year ago, heading into the Olympics, there was passionate debate about who was the superior player, Sid the Kid or Ovie, with Ovechkin the runaway favourite of the young set who decide the gods of this winter game.

It seemed, then, a made-for-Hollywood plot: the fresh-faced, polite, small-town Canadian up against the rugged, Cro-Magnon-faced world-beater from Moscow. Ovechkin had the brass, the flash and the over-the-top personality; Crosby had the steady skills and the church demeanour so treasured by hockey fans who have worshipped at the altars of Beliveau, Orr, Gretzky.

They had their similarities – each with trophies for leading scorer, best player and, as of last spring, top goal scorer in the NHL. But they also had their differences. Ovechkin seems capable of growing a beard between periods; Crosby’s mustache is even the butt of his own jokes. And, of course, they conveniently dislike each other. Intensely.

But gradually, at first almost imperceptibly, a gap began to spread on the ice. Crosby kept improving as a player, diligently working on those facets of the game – defensive play, shooting, faceoffs – that he himself had determined needed improvement. Ovechkin stuck to his original game: the freelance attack, the passionate drive to the net, the phenomenal release, the take-no-prisoners hits. Ovechkin’s unpredictability became predictable. Crosby’s predictability – he would work relentlessly to improve – became unknowable until he showed it.

And though both became captains of their teams at young ages, the “C” on Crosby seemed to lift him – the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009 and are currently the best team in the league – while Ovechkin’s “C” has at times seemed to carry a weight unintended as he tries to play all six positions at once in the hopes of righting a good team that hasn’t been quite right for weeks.

While it seemed at one point not long ago that the two would do battle for scoring championships and MVP honours until Heinz Field froze over permanently, such is no longer the case. Crosby is running away with the scoring race as once Gretzky and Lemieux would.

On Sunday night in Ottawa, when the Senators downed the Penguins 3-1, Crosby scored late to extend his scoring streak to 24 games, the longest the NHL has seen in 20 years. It was his 30th goal of the year, more than any other player. That same night in Raleigh, Ovechkin also scored as Washington won 3-2 over the Carolina Hurricanes. It was his 13th goal of the season. That and an assist moved Ovechkin to a tie for sixth in the scoring race, 20 points back of Crosby.

This, sadly, no longer sounds like a once-in-a-generation rivalry to equal the Rocket and Gordie Howe, Gretzky and Lemieux.

Ovechkin remains a remarkably good hockey player, but he has lost – or perhaps just misplaced – the on-ice dominance that so quickly became his signature.

Theories abound on why this might be – the “C” has changed his game, he never recovered from Russia’s embarrassing showing at the Olympics, he has not been able to win the Stanley Cup – but none of them makes pure sense.

All that can be fairly noted is that while Crosby enjoys his Golden Year – the overtime goal that won the Olympics, the remarkable scoring streak – Ovechkin is dealing with his first off year.

Crosby says he’s keen to play this weekend even if it’s in the rain.

“I’m sure we’ve all done that some time in our lives anyway,” he says.

Ovechkin, it must be presumed, would play even through lightning – eager for the chance, with so many watching, to prove that “The Game’s Best Player” is still up for discussion.

Lemieux makes debut in Penguins' blue uniform

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II, left and Pittsburgh Penguins chairman Mario Lemieux sit next to each other during a promotional news conference on Tuesday, July 27, 2010, for the NHL's Winter Classic hockey game scheduled to be played outdoors here at Heinz Field, the home football field for the NFL's Steelers, in Pittsburgh on Jan. 1, 2011. The game will be between the Penguins and the Washington Capitals. (AP)

Mario Lemieux should look super in blue Friday morning.

He and other former Penguins players will wear the popular baby blue alternate uniforms in the Winter Classic alumni game against one-time Washington Capitals players at Heinz Field.

Lemieux will wear five jerseys, each with a captain's "C" on the left shoulder. The jerseys will be auctioned at a later date, with proceeds going to his charitable foundation.

Penguins equipment manager Dan Heinze has worked to get Lemieux ready for the most anticipated dress rehearsal in NHL history — 10,000 tickets were sold for the alumni game, which will be followed Saturday by the Winter Classic game that is expected to draw 70,000 fans.

"We had to get his equipment back up to speed because he hasn't played for a while," Heinze said. "As a kid growing up in Johnstown and a huge Penguins fans, just to be around him is pretty neat. To get him ready for this game is something that I never imagined and won't forget."

Lemieux, the Penguins' all-time leading scorer and a Hockey Hall of Famer, will wear double-X Reebok hockey shorts that Heinze customized by removing pads to eliminate excess weight.

Heinze found an out-of-make CCM helmet — the style Lemieux wore during the 2005-06 season, which was his last in the NHL.

"When people heard Mario was playing, all of the companies wanted to send stuff in," Heinze said, adding that equipment-maker Warrior designed custom gloves.

Added Lemieux: "Dana's always been great with me ... the stuff he's got for me is a little bit lighter, it's helping me skate a little better."

The shorts, helmet and gloves are all navy blue. Lemieux wore them Tuesday during an afternoon scrimmage that included alumni-game teammates, current Penguins coaches, members of the hockey operations staff — and several youth players, notably Austin Lemieux.

The scrimmage lasted about 90 minutes. Lemieux needed less than 30 to score a couple of goals. He flashed occasional bursts throughout, but mostly appeared to glide — "effortlessly," according to alumni teammate Bob Errey — while stick-handling around lunging opponents in the offensive zone.

"It's been great, a lot of fun," Lemieux said of the multiple practice sessions in preparation for the alumni game.

He will coach Austin's youth team Thursday in a game played on the second outdoor rink across from Heinz field. He will call it an early night, as was the case during his playing days.

The players on the team he owns plan to hit the sheets early Thursday night, too. The alumni game starts at 9:30 a.m., and it is shaping up as a can't-miss event.

"Are you kidding me?" Penguins forward Max Talbot said. "To see Mario play again — for sure we want to be there. I hear he looks awesome."

He'll look different, having never worn a Penguins uniform that wasn't Pittsburgh's black-and-gold color scheme. Still, the Lemieux in blue will skate with the same approach he did as a player — to score goals.

"There are no short shifts," he said, smiling.

Lemieux Q&A

Mario Lemieux broke a sweat Tuesday afternoon during an alumni game scrimmage at Consol Energy Center — though he hardly looked to be working hard while scoring twice and setting up a couple of goals.

"He was always that way," former Lemieux linemate-turned-Penguins broadcaster Bob Errey said. "He makes it look effortless."

Lemieux, 45, smiled constantly during the hour-long session. He also flashed that famous arm pump after scoring.

He was joined by former Stanley Cup-winning teammates such as Errey, Phil Bourque, Rick Tocchet, Troy Loney, Jay Caufield and Bryan Trottier. Playing on his "white squad" was son Austin, whose shifts were about a minute shorter than those of his father.

"There are no short shifts," a winking Mario Lemieux said before the scrimmage, which served as a conditioning session for the Penguins-Capitals Winter Classic alumni game on the outdoor rink at Heinz Field.

After the scrimmage, Lemieux spoke exclusively with the Tribune-Review.

When you see the Winter Classic logo that incorporates one of Pittsburgh's bridges, what goes through your mind as the event approaches?

Well, I think about how we've come a long way since the (2004-05) lockout, and really pre-lockout. We've been given a chance to build a great organization here in Pittsburgh, to compete at the NHL level. We've tried to build something special. Of course, all those (high) draft picks helped. Certainly, that lottery pick (Sidney Crosby) changed the outlook of our franchise.

It's been fun for me to be a part of this the last few years, and this weekend should be really fun.

Errey said you've looked "effortless" during the alumni scrimmages. Does it feel that way?

(Laughs) Well, it's been fun skating with the boys again.

Are you having more fun coaching Austin's "96" team, especially with a game scheduled for the secondary outdoor rink this week?

We actually skated there (Monday), and it was a great time. That made us realize we should do a lot more with outdoor hockey. Maybe next year we can build something again that will be up for a couple of months, and all the kids around here can enjoy it.


Highlights: Penguins 6, Thrashers 3

Monday, December 27, 2010

Puck Daddy chats with Penguins' Evgeni Malkin about Ovechkin hit, HBO '24/7', the Winter Classic and the holidays

By Dmitry Chesnokov
Fri Dec 24 12:02pm EST

Evgeni Malkin is playing his best hockey of the season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, with 10 points in his last five games. He had an assist and nearly scored on a penalty shot last night against the Washington Capitals.

That's on the ice. Off the ice, fans are seeing a different side of Geno via HBO's "24/7" series, including how his teammates interact with him (like Pascal Dupuis' profane greeting to him in the first episode).

I spoke with Geno Thursday night about the HBO series, the rivalry with the Capitals, his health, the Winter Classic, the holidays and Sidney Crosby's season.

Q. There is always a lot of hype surrounding games between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. But I can't remember one game between the teams that actually disappointed.

Yes, you're right. Our games are always interesting and this one wasn't an exception. I am sure fans loved this one. It was very intense. Although there were a lot of penalties; the Capitals had a couple of 5-on-3 chances, but we had a lot of opportunities at even strength. Both goaltenders played really well and didn't disappoint. The overtime, the shootout - fans must have loved this game!

In the very beginning of the game Alex Ovechkin put a hit on you. Just like good old times when you were feuding.

[Smiling] I was lucky that it was only my shoulder. I couldn't see Alex coming because I was battling against another player, trying to get away from him. I was just coming from around the net and Alex came down hard on me. Once again, lucky for me it was just my shoulder.

Did you feel it was just a game moment? A lot of people, I am sure, will start saying that there must be some bad blood between you two again.

Yes, I think so. I think Alex tried to fire up the crowd. And the crowd got really lively right away. Maybe they were a bit sleepy before the hit. I think I should have expected something like that. Maybe I just forgot the kind of a "machine" he is and that his hits are an every shift occurrence.

I think both teams realized after that that it was time to score some goals after that. We, the Penguins, came here to win. So it was a wake-up call for us too that it was time to go ahead. It's great that it happened in the beginning of the game. And it's great, I think, that we were able to score first.

How have you been feeling lately? Have you fully recovered from your injury? The last few games showed you're back to what you do best.

Of course I feel better. I also feel a lot more confident skating now that my knee hasn't let me down. That injury came at a bad time. But I had some days off, there will be a couple of days off now ahead of us, which is good for me. I can't say that I feel 100 percent healthy, but I am at about 90percent now, which makes me really happy. I am very happy about my game tonight: I felt a lot more confident playing around the boards, some close battles. Of course, there is always something to work on. But I am quite happy now.

There have been some experiments with you playing center, then on the wing. What position are you more comfortable in?

Of course I am more comfortable as a center. And tonight we were shorthanded a lot, which gave a lot of playing time at center. I don't kill penalties, I just sit on the bench. And then Sid, who also doesn't kill penalties, and I come out together because Dupuis, who plays on the wing with Sid, gets tired after playing shorthanded, and I play on the wing.

You always say that you love playing with Sid on the same line. How easy is it to play with him?

Of course it's easy. We understand each other like no other. He can keep the puck so well, we pass to each other knowing where we are. Tonight we spent a lot of time on the power play in the Capitals' zone, because we ‘feel' each other, we open up and know how to keep the puck in certain moments. Max Talbot and [Matt] Cooke try to play a little simpler, but Sid is a lot more confident as a player. He can always give a great pass. Of course it's so easy to play with him.

The most common criticism about your play at center is that you can be a liability on face-offs.

Of course I heard, it was the case. But I work a lot on my face offs at practice and now I win a lot of them. We played against Phoenix not long ago and we even scored off of a face off. I work on it a lot. I think my stats are now a lot better than what they were last year. Sometimes, when it doesn't come out right, I switch places with Talbot who takes face offs. Unfortunately, [faceoffs] don't always come out right.

Sid and I work together at practices, we all learn a lot from him. You look at the way he works on his weaknesses, and everyone tries just as hard to work on theirs. I wouldn't say that I got 50 percent better at it than before, but maybe 10 percent or so. I will just keep working, keep improving. Sid helps a lot by giving me advice. It's always good because look at how difficult it is to play against him."

With HBO now around there was a lot of attention to this game against the Capitals.

Yes, I don't even understand it. Because it's just another regular season game and there is so much hype surrounding it. But it was great at the same time with a sold out arena and a play-off-like atmosphere. Everyone was wearing their red jerseys here. People are now very serious about supporting the Capitals. And it's a great thing.

Did you watch the first two episodes of HBO's Road to the Winter Classic?

I watched the first one, but I didn't have time to watch the second episode.

Great. Now tell me about something everyone wants to know. What was that Dupuis' 'F--k you, Geno' all about when he said ‘Hi, guys' to everyone else?

[Laughing] I don't know. Maybe I looked at him the wrong way before. Maybe something happened earlier...

I think you were peacefully eating or something...

I think I was changing. Or maybe I was eating. I just don't know why he said it. Maybe he just acted for the cameras? [smiling] I don't know.

Why didn't you say anything in reply?

I did! But for some reason it wasn't shown. In English. Those kind of words can be said in English.

New Year's Day, the biggest holiday in Russia, is just around the corner and it's Christmas Day tomorrow. Do you have a holiday story you could share with our readers?

To be honest, I don't have any holiday stories. All my holiday stories are World Junior Championships and such. They always take place around this time of the year. I spent some of those years playing in tournaments in Canada, USA. Unfortunately, I don't have anything to share. I am really looking forward to this year, though. This is the first time in a few years that I will spend the holidays at home with my friends who will come over. We'll sit down together and celebrate.

Can't celebrate too hard though because you have a game on the 1st of January.

Yeah, but I also heard that there's rain in the forecast. And I heard that if there's rain the game will be postponed [smiling]. And if it does rain and the game will indeed be postponed, then there will be a chance to really celebrate [the New Year's].