Zak of All Trades: Cheering for the Pens, but praying for Boston

It is an exciting time to be a sports fan.

In fact, I would argue that every single day is an exciting time to be a sports fan — except for that one day in the middle of the summer right around the Major League Baseball All-Star Game where there are no games scheduled. That day stinks.

But still, at least 364 days out of the year, it's exciting to be a sports fan.

Today, though, I might argue, is perhaps one of the most exciting days of the year to be a sports fan, at least this year.

As a NASCAR fan, today is not an exciting day for me, because my favorite driver was just issued a 50-point penalty coming off the most exciting weekend of the year, where he looked totally dominant.

Talk about a bummer.

But in the other sports realms — baseball, football and hockey — it's an exciting time to be a sports fan, at least if you're a fan of the home teams here in Pittsburgh.

For the Pirates, though the season is young, it's good to see that they've bounced back from a very scary beginning to the season, where the players' bats looked like Swiss cheese — filled with holes.

The beloved Buccos have bounced back, though, and are one of the hottest hitting teams in baseball right now.

Again, it's early, but it's a beautiful thing to see the Pirates' win total higher than their loss total.

After more years of losing than I'd like to admit, making us the "saddest franchise in history" to many, I still cling to my Pirates fandom and keep on holding out hope that "this is the year."

It's sad that our defined dream, though, isn't that the Pirates win the World Series. Our dream is that this is the year the Pirates
break .500!

Here's to hopin'.

And although the Steelers have been a much-greater source of joy for those of us who are Pittsburgh proud over the past 20-some years, we have to be brutally honest and admit that we all are hoping for a new beginning coming off of a very disappointing season — and I mean very disappointing.

The Steelers' win total is supposed to consist of two digits. Last year, it was dangerously close to being a "losing season."

With the Steelers finishing 8-8 — a .500 mark that would make us proud to be Pirates fans — came the disappointment of an early end to the season.

But that's why this weekend is an exciting one for the Steelers.

We made a lot of changes over the offseason.

We let go of some players who have long been a part of Steeler Nation — most due to salary cap restrictions and one to the behated division rival Cincinnatti Bengals.

But Thursday, we drafted a new outside linebacker. My most-trusted Pittsburgh sports columnist, Dejan Kovacevic, endorses this pick, and so I'm excited about it.

For Jarvis Jones and 200-plus other players who are drafted this year, it's an exciting time — a new beginning. Maybe, just maybe, for once there will be a different feel to this year's Steelers season.

Most years, it's the dedicated veteran leaders who bring the most to the table, but this could just be the year that the energy of the new guys revives the older vets and gives them the drive they need to make a playoff push.

But finally, we get to the most important new beginning that I can think of.

Growing up, I played hockey, and so one of the times I look forward to most is rapidly approaching — beard season.

The tradition of growing a playoff beard is my favorite new beginning that sports brings us, because it unites hockey fans in all cities and encourages them to grow together while their teams clash on the ice.

From the baby-faced Crosby beard to the grizzly beards of the veteran players, it's good to see the tradition and the unity continue.

But the new beginning of the Stanley Cup playoffs is the scariest of them all.

This new beginning doesn't give a lot of time for starting over. Playoff upsets are more a factor in hockey than in any other sport.

A seven-game series is short if you run into a hot goalie. The playoffs are go or go home, and that's a scary kind of beginning.

That's exactly why every hockey fan is on the edge of his or her seat with every single second of playoff hockey. You just never know what's going to happen.

At the end of every series, another team's fans will be left staring blankly at their television screens wondering, "How could this have happened?"

The season ends today, except for one game — one game that was delayed by a tragic event last week that left an entire nation staring at the television, collectively wondering, "How could this have happened?"

Sports can be a beautiful, unifying thing, and last week, all sports fans became Boston fans for more than a day.

Everyone was pulling for Boston, even rivaled New York — which became even more powerful with this week's revelation that the terrorists who tried to bring down Boston's big day planned on heading to New York City as well.

This year's new beginning is a much-needed one, not only for Boston but for the entire country.

As the Penguins proved at the Bruins' home game shortly after the bombings had the entire city locked down, teams still play to win.

We'll all still be pulling for our teams in the playoffs, whether they're facing Boston or they aren't.

But it's kind of like having a kid on two different Little League teams that are playing each other in the playoffs. You can be happy that one team won and still heartbroken that another lost.

I may have never said it three weeks ago, but it's going to break my heart if/when the Bruins get knocked out of the playoffs, because the city of Boston deserves to hoist that trophy more than any other does right now.

And as fans, we respect that while still pulling for our teams, because as cliche as it sounds, we really are all part of the same big team.

We all need a new beginning, and we're getting it this weekend.

If you're not a hockey fan, tune in and check it out.

I honestly feel that there is no more exciting time than the NHL playoffs.

And if, by chance, you're not already a Penguins fan, I won't even hold it against you if you cheer for Boston this year.

Go Pens, and God bless Boston.

Zak Lantz is the editor of The Spirit and a die-hard Pittsburgh fan who is #stillprayingforBoston.