Fans' fierce loyalty to Penguins continues

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Following a spectacular Indian Summer afternoon that brought to mind postseason baseball, a cool October night -- football weather -- fell on Pittsburgh yesterday just in time for the opening of the 2008-09 home hockey season.

There is, of course, no postseason baseball in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers and Pitt were off. It was almost as though the NFL, in tribute to hockey-mad Pittsburgh, gave the Steelers an open date so all sets of sports eyes could be focused on the Penguins.

But it would have made no difference if the Steelers were playing this weekend or, for that matter, if they were playing last night at Heinz Field. Nothing would have detracted from this Mellon Arena gala. No ticket would have been unsold, no seat unfilled. That's the way it is with hockey in this town.

Baseball season openers cause some writers to rhapsodize about the event as though it were something more than it really is. In Pittsburgh, baseball openers are strictly a sign that another losing season is underway. Football openers, as something special, never really caught on in Pittsburgh. Games 1 through 16 aren't much different in the NFL.

But in Pittsburgh, at least, hockey openers are special. It's an opportunity for the town's most dedicated fans to renew what is nothing less than an ardent love affair with their hockey team. The Steelers Nation might be broader and deeper than the Penguins fan base, but no group is more passionate and more strongly behind its team and its players.

Which made the outcome last night against the New Jersey Devils all the more difficult to accept for these loyalists. The Penguins took a lead midway through the first period on a power-play goal by Miroslav Satan and maintained that lead until less than three minutes remained, when the Devils tied the score on a goal by Patrik Elias. With less than a minute remaining in overtime, Zach Parise scored for the Devils.

The defeat should not be taken as an indication of subpar play by Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. He was the best player on the ice. He faced 49 shots compared to 15 by Martin Brodeur.

Asked about the wide disparity in shots, coach Michel Therrien said, "We didn't work."

Sidney Crosby was in agreement.

"We didn't deserve to win the game," he said. "We didn't do what it takes to win. He [Fleury] was the reason we were in it.

"When you work hard, you get good bounces. They worked hard and they got a good bounce."

If the outcome wasn't typical Penguins, the surrounding events were.

Where else would the two grandmothers of one of the players be introduced to robust applause during the game? That's what there was for Crosby's grandmothers, who were watching him for the first time in Pittsburgh.

And where else, for that matter, would the Grammies get a lengthy television interview like they did between periods on FSN Pittsburgh?

Where else does the singer of "The Star-Spangled Banner" get an ovation equal to that of some of the players? That's what Jeff Jimerson received. Why? Because he's not just another singer, he's the guy who does the anthem at just about every home game, and the fans have embraced him as their own.

Just the other day, a discussion broke out on a national ESPN talk show as to which was the most popular Pittsburgh athlete -- Crosby or Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Both athletes were on the show. Crosby said Roethlisberger was the most popular. Roethlisberger said it was Crosby.

Roethlisberger probably would win a popularity contest. But he would finish a distant second to Crosby in these two votes: Who is Pittsburgh's most revered athlete? Which is the Pittsburgh athlete least likely to hear a discouraging word from the fans?

If Penguins fans have a fault, it's that they're not discerning enough. They love everything about their team. That pure love will be tested this season when, for the first time this century, there are high expectations for the team. If the Penguins falter in returning to the Stanley Cup final, will they hear about it? Maybe.

The team's 1-2 record might be the cause of some minor grumbling but should only serve to accentuate the level of anticipation for a matchup Tuesday at Mellon Arena against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The old building will be filled again for that game and for all those remaining.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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