PHILADELPHIA — At some stage of the Penguins’ game with their archrival here tonight, something is sure to go wrong for the home team. And when it does, you’d better believe the standard barrage of boos will cascade down from the seats.
It’s who they are.
It really isn’t who Pittsburgh is. Never has been.
And take it from someone who’s first-hand witnessed as many sporting events in our city as anyone in recent memory, it still isn’t.
Let’s clear some stuff up …
Sunday afternoon at PPG Paints Arena, as everyone knows by now, the crowd had a striking reaction to Matt Murray’s goaltending very early in what wound up a wonderful 4-3 win over the Bruins. Murray wasn’t booed, though many have mistakenly described it that way. He also wasn’t given a Bronx cheer, though that’s come up, too. Nor was he jeered, though I doubt many of us even know what that word means.
What occurred was this: The Bruins scored twice on their first three shots, both on big-time defensive breakdowns. And with the next puck that came Murray’s way, a slow slider anyone could’ve stopped, he sticked it to his left. At which point some in the crowd reacted with mocking applause.
It’s a technical distinction, I know, but one very much worth making. Because, as I wrote in the Grind after that game, I believed the reaction came from whatever unfortunate portion of the crowd showed up that day without a blessed clue about how defense or goaltending in hockey work.
As such, I didn’t see the reaction as boorish as much as it was born of hockey ignorance. Which is why, in that same column, I further wrote of the “few” who reacted that way, “Our city, for all its hockey history, still exhibits a lack of understanding defense, goaltending and how those two impact each other. It’s too common, and it’s too casually accepted. Maybe hearing about it from the iconic captain will begin to change that.”
Maybe it will.
Because this is one of those rare social discussions in modern society that wasn’t ignited by the media. It came directly from Sidney Crosby, and it came without provocation of any kind. Crosby was asked how he thought Murray did, nothing more, and he proceeded to remark about the crowd’s early treatment of Murray. The same soon came from other team leaders.
All anyone in this line of work does from there is report the story, analyze, opine, whatever. But the spark came from within. It’s the players who were peeved about this, including the player who counts the most — one who’s barely spoken a controversial syllable in his life, to boot.
Ask me, and that’s what has people chapped in the 48 hours that’ve followed. It’s one thing if a nobody like me pipes up on the subject. It’s another when a civic treasure does so, since that genuinely forces those people to reflect a little, maybe rethink the reaction a little.
My only hope in this scenario, as expressed originally, is that even more Pittsburghers venture to learn even more about this beautiful game. It’s almost never condensed to a single focus of blame or, for that matter, credit. It’s a total team effort, for better or worse. And goaltenders, contrary to a common misperception among newcomers to hockey, aren’t like baseball catchers where they’re expected to stop everything. (My dad used to think that, and it drove me nuts.) The stats show that they stop roughly 9 of 10. And when it comes to high-danger chances like those Boston had early, it’s a lot lower than that.
Our city’s never known more about hockey than it does now, and that’s awesome. We’ve never had more participation, more coaching, more people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, colors and ages loving it.
To me, that’s the only real lesson here: We’ve got more work to do.
• I’ll take educated booing any day of the week in any setting, even if it blasts a Pittsburgh team or Pittsburgh player. But damn, make it about something that’s real.
• Philly fans boo because they’re born angry. I’m convinced of it. It’s among the most bizarre sociological phenomenons in American history, and it’ll definitely be my college thesis in another life.
• To emphasize this for clarity: I wasn’t wild about Murray’s showing the first two periods, but that had nothing to do with those two goals and everything to do with some erratic movements on shots that went wide, which has always been a red flag with him. He seemed to find stability on that front in the third period and made some terrific saves.
• Oh, and this, too, then I’ll change the subject: I made such a big deal about this right after the game that it was the ninth bullet in a 10-bullet column. I clearly failed clickbait school.
• I’ve got other hockey thoughts, but I’m here to cover the Penguins’ last game for quite a while, so I’ll save those for tomorrow.
• If the NFL conducted a complete drafting of every player everywhere, including those currently in the league, Patrick Mahomes would go first overall.
• As such, it’s tempting to take the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, particularly when putting Mahomes against Jimmy Garoppolo. But there’s still the Andy Reid factor, which can’t go away until it’s gone away, and there’s the not-small-matter of Nick Bosa and that hellacious defensive front of the 49ers. If there’s any way to disrupt a mobile quarterback, as the Steelers ably showed this season, it’s to start fires in his kitchen.
• Mahomes being the league’s best player doesn’t mean he should be MVP. That was unquestionably Lamar Jackson. Different criteria. Mahomes missed too much time.
• The NFL’s championship weekend featured franchises based in Kansas City, Nashville in Green Bay, and I’m willing to bet not a solitary mention was made of market size. Not related to the teams’ success, nor to the epic national TV ratings that resulted.
Funny how that works in a fair system.
• Pardon the language below, but nothing’s been more uplifting out of this awful Astros scandal than seeing players from other teams speak up about it:
Shit makes sense now. I remember wondering how these guys were laying off some of my nasty pitches. Relaying all my signs in live speed to the batter. Ruining the integrity of the game. These dudes were all about the camera and social media. Now, they’re all quiet! Lol 😂 https://t.co/DuknUCQaRb
— Marcus Stroman (@STR0) January 20, 2020
This was even better, from CC Sabathia’s Instagram account:
When athletes cheat, they don’t just cheat the game and the fans. They cheat their competitors, their peers. And rest assured, if Major League Baseball doesn’t go after Houston’s hitters, name by name by name, those competitors, those peers will exact their own form of revenge.
• If Rob Manfred thinks this aspect of the scandal will simply fade away, he’s terribly miscalculated.
I mean, unless, of course, he expects anyone to not see right through Jose Altuve’s … uh, shirt:
You’ll be seeing this a lot.
Jose Altuve signaling to his teammates NOT to rip off his jersey in celebration because it would “allegedly” reveal a buzzer that would go off when triggered by someone on the Astros video team.
Next Level Cheating. pic.twitter.com/ApxOmAgdkz
— Marc Farzetta (@MarcFarzetta) January 16, 2020
• No one here booed Starling Marte after he was caught cheating. Not that I heard.
Not even sure why I just added that, but I did.
• Terrific talk with Ke’Bryan Hayes by Alex Stumpf atop the site this morning.
• Pitt’s 12-6 overall, 3-4 in ACC play after annihilating North Carolina over the weekend, and I’ll stand first in line to praise Jeff Capel for propping up the program as he has in such short order. I covered that game, and that’s as intensive, as passionate a collective performance as I’ve seen from the Panthers since the Jamie Dixon days. They were genuinely stung by the losses to Miami and Wake Forest, and they emerged with a purpose.
That said, again, they’re 3-4 in ACC play. And the dagger in there is that half of those losses did, in fact, come to Miami and Wake Forest, both 2-5, and those aren’t where the losses can be absorbed. Not if anyone’s seriously entertaining a return to NCAAs this March.
What’s more, there’s still much missing. I respect what Trey McGowens and Xavier Johnson have done to restore respectability, I love the way Justin Champagnie’s maturing, and I enjoy the hell out of Ryan Murphy on and off the court, but there’s nowhere to go without a true big man and a pure shooter. Think Aaron Gray and Ashton Gibbs. In that mold.
I can live without a point guard. I get what Capel’s doing with the penetration-kickout offense. But those two missing pieces need to be addressed.
• Murphy’s a madman with the work ethic. Nearly a half-hour after that game ended, he was walking out on the long-since-abandoned court reliving a sequence from what had just unfolded.
• Don’t like Capel yet? Or don’t know him?
Here’s two minutes that’ll change both:
Get a guy like that for football, and no one will ever mention an on-campus stadium again.
• Hockey. Back to hockey. Morning skates bright and early.