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Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com

Ships Passing In the Night

May 9, 2001

There is, perhaps, one anecdote which illustrates the idea of contrary motion better than any other.

On April 14, 1912, twenty minutes before midnight, the R.M.S. Titanic first spotted the iceberg which would ultimately rip the vessel's hull and stuff the pockets of director James Cameron beyond recognition. Yet for all the stories about the ship and its inanimate nemesis, it wasn't the iceberg that sealed Titanic's fate that infamous night, it was the tactical decision on how to handle the situation.

In an attempt to avoid the collision, the ship was immediately thrown into reverse and turned hard to port. The goal was to slow the craft down and turn it at the same time. Yet, as anyone who's ever driven a car in the snow could have told Captain E. J. Smith (that is, had they been on hand 89 years ago), slowing down was the worst thing he could do.

At the time, Titanic was the biggest ocean liner ever built. It wasn't designed for the grand slalom, it was designed to go straight ahead, fast and in style. Aside from that, with two days at sea behind her, momentum was doing as much work as the ship itself by that point in the journey. Thus the irony of the strategy was that the ship took the exact tack which was sure to cut its voyage short by hundreds of miles and send it to the bottom of the ocean somewhere near Newfoundland. Had her crew turned the ship while maintaining her speed, the berth would have been wider and at least increased the chance that the all the 2228 passengers on board would have reached New York as opposed to the 705 people who eventually did.

While it may be an extreme example, it does demonstrate how doing too much is many times counterproductive; one action being countered by another and thereby negating the intent of any action whatsoever. It also makes a statement that, sometimes, slowing down is a bad thing.

For much of their series against the Buffalo Sabres, the Pittsburgh Penguins have seemingly made an attempt to be all things to all people, trying their hand at stifling defense and free-wheeling offense not consecutively, but concurrently. Unfortunately, the result of this dedication to synchronous offense and defense has mostly been a simultaneous nullification of both, and an abettor to neither. The Sabres deserve a good deal of credit for this, they've turned the last few tilts into the paceless kind of game they patented, somehow convincing even Mario Lemieux that winning a low-scoring, one goal affair, is the way to the Conference Finals. Yet, plodding along wasn't what won Game 6.

Near the end of the contest, most of the Penguins (yes, the very same Penguins who had previously spent the better part of three straight games looking like they were petulantly waiting for someone to bring them their golf spikes and a better tee time) finally appeared to realize that their season—along with perhaps their tenure in Pittsburgh—was on the line. Almost immediately, opportunity literally fell from the sky.

It is no coincidence that the Penguins' first third period goal in four games came when effort superceded strategy, or that a fortuitous bounce and the game-tying goal were the product of somebody throwing the puck on net. What will also come as no surprise is if the Penguins fail to take the hint.

Perhaps because they so successfully beat the Capitals at their own game in round one, the Penguins have tried to play Buffalo's game for over a week now. Their record in doing so is 1-3, which may be an adequate success rate at a singles bar, but it's hardly something a team should stake their fate on going into the seventh game of a playoff series.

This Penguin team has now won a one-goal Game 6 in the second round for the first time since 1996, but superior strategy and brilliant coaching did not put this team within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals. Effort did.

From the mid-point of the third period through the end of overtime the effort of players like Marty Straka, Rene Corbet, Aleksey Morozov, and Milan Kraft carried the play. Watching them work, it was hardly news that the Penguins won the game, but rather that the team hadn't played this way more often.

The Penguins have earned one chance to finish off the Sabres and advance to the third round and it didn't happen because the ghost of 'Badger' Bob Johnson dropped it from the rafters. It happened because Robert Lang fished a puck off the wall and Marty Straka put it in the back of the net.

The Penguins have taken the momentum in this series, and they waited as long as humanly possible to do it. What now remains to be seen is whether they will put foot to throttle and use the force they've generated to propel them further into this post-season or whether they will try, again, to slow this ship down and turn it at the same time.

The smart money says they'll attempt to do it the hard way, but it is safe to say that there is a growing contingent who wishes they would take a chance. This team has been through more than its fair share this year. If it has to end now, it would be far easier to swallow if they were to go down doing what they do best as opposed to slowly drifting toward a watery end while the ship's chief officer hands out life jackets while saying something about "women and Jaromir Jagr first."

Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com and thinks that 'Titanic' needed a lot more forechecking and shots on goal to be considered a truly great film. He also likes the Pens' chances if they open it up in Game 7.

Back to Karsh's Column List


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