PITTSBURGH -- Just before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shuffled out onto the ice waving a Pittsburgh Penguins version of the Terrible Towel. I'd categorize the reception Roethlisberger received somewhere just shy of robust. Blitzburgh, I guess, is the wrong blue-collar city for a QB to feign retirement.
Or perhaps the beer-chugging, bare-chested, catfish-loving Tennessee Titans offensive linemen have just set the bar too high for cameos by NFL Cup cameos this season.
Either way, a few minutes after Big Ben's appearance on the ice, the Penguins were awarded a 5-on-3 power play against the Nashville Predators, and the smart, engaged and wild crowd inside PPG Paints Arena erupted with a roar so deafening it had me thinking blasphemous thoughts.
Mainly: Has Pittsburgh somehow transformed from a football town into a hockey town?
Look, don't start with me, I was eating homemade chicken casserole in Alabama with Kevin Greene before you waved your first Terrible Towel. I'm only asking. The raw numbers are shocking: If the Pens close out the Preds, since 1991 they would have five Stanley Cups to the Steelers' two Lombardi Trophies.
To be honest, I don't think the Sid versus Ben debate is even close. Not when you consider Sidney Crosby's Olympic gold medals and Roethlisberger's off-the-field troubles, no matter how long ago they occurred. Attendance is pretty much a wash, although the crowd watching the game outside the arena on Wednesday was so big they had to shut down the street to make room -- never seen that happen at a Steelers game. (The crowd inside was also insanely loud, or maybe that was the horn going off so often from all those goals. Not sure.) And here's the kicker, especially for the proud sports fans in Pittsburgh: While the Pens own the Washington Capitals, their East Coast rivals, in January the Steelers were once again bullied and bounced from the playoffs by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
Face it, Blitzburgh is now Iceburgh.
It makes you think, that's all I'm saying.
Other stuff that was on my mind and in my notebook after a week in Pittsburgh:
After coach Mike Sullivan's team won Game 1 by scoring five goals on only 12 shots, he was asked if the Penguins were on a Blues Brothers-esque mission from God. Maybe. One of the features I love about PPG Paints Arena is that the building shares its entire northeast property line with the quaint, redbrick 115-year-old Epiphany Church. The steeple looms over the glass lobby of the arena, and it's close enough that Crosby could probably hit it with a 3-iron from the ice. Church historians say heavyweight Billy Conn once trained on the property before fighting Joe Louis. And, yes, parishioners at Epiphany do occasionally pray for their next-door neighbors.
— David Fleming (@FlemESPN) May 31, 2017
I did one loop around the ice level of PPG Paints Arena before the game, and here's everything I saw in the pregame carnival: The Vault, where the team stores all its equipment (it looks like something from a museum with floor-to-ceiling rolling cabinets); one of the captains from "Deadliest Catch" (the NHL needs to up its celeb game, yikes); all the spare skate blades the Penguins use, stored in a felt pouch, like steak knives, next to the team bench; Predators center Colin Wilson reading a paperback book 20 minutes before the puck dropped; linesman Shane Heyer jogging in circles to warm up while having to hear "keep it fair tonight" three times in one loop; and a light switch covered by a tiny action shot of Crosby because -- wait for it -- of course he's the one who lights all the lamps.
I'm happy to report that Penguins center Evgeni Malkin has somehow survived his "fight" against Predators defenseman P.K. Subban. It's pretty remarkable to see two stars fighting, let alone in the Stanley Cup Final. Although, truth be told, it looked as if Malkin and Subban were trying out for "Dancing with the Stars."
How in the world do relief pitchers in baseball get, like, a half-hour to warm up, and then replacement goaltender Juuse Saros gets like 30 seconds?
I saw no fewer than 11 homemade versions of the Stanley Cup this week outside the arena. My favorite was the kid from Pitt who ran out of materials and made the bowl out of his mom's colander.
During his Tuesday presser, Predators coach Peter Laviolette mentioned that hockey at this level is a game of inches. If you saw the Penguins' first goal Wednesday pass through a tiny, imperceptible sliver under Pekka Rinne's elbow -- "It just somehow squeaked through," said Penguins new kid Jake Guentzel -- or how that slap shot managed to find the one spec of unprotected space on Nick Bonino's body, well, you know the game of inches thing isn't a cliché in hockey, it's an understatement.
Speaking of Rinne, he was unstoppable against the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 1, but the last two rounds his goals-against average has gone from 1.37 to 2.48 since the conference finals. (And that was before Wednesday night's floodgates.) Goaltending is the most physically and mentally challenging position in sports. There isn't even a close second, and I wonder sometimes if guys just, ya know, lose it. Without a star center or Rinne at the top of his game, the Predators are catfish out of water.
Game 2 was as vicious and violent a game as I've seen in a while. I guess Laviolette read my column on killing Crosby with kindness. The press box here is literally in the rafters, but you could still hear the crackling of sticks hitting bone, and bodies colliding at top speed all the way up here. And it was glorious.
Is it me or is the lob pass everyone's new favorite thing in the NHL?
Tuesday's Preds news conference was a remarkable example of the NHL's global reach. There were questions in three languages -- four if you count Yinzer. There were also multiple references to the Preds' "Milwaukee flavor." I joked on Twitter that I thought that meant Pabst Blue Ribbon. But it's based on the 18 players from the AHL Milwaukee Admirals who have contributed to the team's run this season, including Freddie Gaudreau, who scored Nashville's third goal in Game 1. Translation: The Preds are going to be good for a long time.
— David Fleming (@FlemESPN) May 31, 2017
Six favorite signs in Pittsburgh: Slap Me Silly, Sid; Not Gonna Lie, I Just Want to Buy Beer; Flood Like a Champion Today (inside the arena's Zamboni garage); Free Catfish Guy; an old black-and-white photo of the 1933 Rangers getting the Cup when the league was so young the trophy didn't even have its wide-bottom base yet; Whole Fresh Catfish $3.98/pound -- "If you're a Nashville Fan Don't Ask, Must Show Id" (displayed at a local seafood market).
And finally, as raucous as it was inside PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday night, the Penguins are already bracing themselves for their trip to Nashville. "This start is huge for us," Guentzel said. "We know that building is going to be rocking." Now, that's saying something coming from a guy who, like I said, plays in a hockey town like Iceburgh.