Kovacevic: Iginla wings it in Penguins debut
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Welcome to Pittsburgh, Jarome.
Hey, crash course on how things are done around here: The face of the NHL loses a few teeth, and the league's reigning MVP takes the next shift. Top two defensemen are hurt, and the rest of the blue line stays suffocating. Starting goaltender is on the shelf, the backup gets the building rocking with chants in his honor.
Oh, and that team wins 15 in a row, achieves the first perfect month in NHL history of 10-plus games and stretches a franchise-record shutout streak.
On the day it adds a surefire Hall of Famer.
So, hello, Jarome Iginla!
Hope your stay here is a pleasant one.
"Honestly, the way this team competed out there, that made the biggest impression on me," Iginla was saying with that trademark smile after the Penguins systematically scratched off the Islanders, 2-0, Saturday. "It's awful to see Sid get hurt like that, but nothing changed. Our team just kept at it, kept competing and got the job done."
He playfully exhaled.
"Man, what a group!"
Yeah, tell us about it.
Now imagine once Sidney Crosby recovers from that excruciating-looking puck to the teeth, once Paul Martin returns from hand surgery he learned Saturday he'll need, once Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury are back ... and once Iginla has a chance to, you know, unpack.
Check that: He'd first need to locate his luggage.
"It's been a pretty crazy couple of days," Iginla said.
From an emotional farewell in Calgary to a missed connection in Chicago to a 12:30 a.m. arrival at Pittsburgh International to what he described as "maybe a couple" hours of sleep, he showed up at Consol Energy Center with one goal: Play.
He last played for the Flames on Monday, and in all that free time at O'Hare, he pitched Dan Bylsma via cell phone that he'd be better off to have action. It wasn't easy. Bylsma hoped to have him practice first, then debut Tuesday against the Sabres.
"More than anything," Iginla said, "I just wanted to get out there."
Reveals a lot already, huh?
No one would have complained had Iginla taken a day to meet and greet, maybe get in a couple of skates. He might even have made a more tangible first impression than the one Sunday in going scoreless with three shots, two hits and a plus-1. But me-first isn't how Iginla did it in Calgary.
He reported to the rink about 9 a.m., an hour earlier than most, tinkered with the equipment people to get his sticks and skates right, then bounced from office to office.
Once Iginla settled at his stall between Tanner Glass and James Neal, teammates would walk up to him to introduce themselves, some unabashedly fan-like.
"I'm sitting here looking across the room and thinking, ‘Man, that's Jarome Iginla!'" defenseman Matt Niskanen recalled.
Around noon, for the first time in his NHL career, Iginla donned something other than the flaming "C."
"The closest thing was my first game, when I was 18 and trying to stay calm," Iginla said of his Calgary debut Oct. 5, 1996.
"Then I tell myself, ‘Oh, I've played lots of games, just relax.' But pulling the jersey on for the first time and going out for warmups ... I was just trying to stay out of people's way."
He laughed at that, but it was at least partly true. Iginla started opposite his natural position on the left wing of Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, and it was clear from the outset his gravitational pull stayed right.
On one sequence, Neal could be seen giving on-ice instruction to a guy with 1,219 games on his resume.
"I think he was feeling bad for me," Iginla said with a laugh. "I was a little lost as far as left wing."
Late in the first period and on their own, the two switched sides. But Iginla, still taking it for the team, went back to the left for the second.
He fared OK, too. He would have had an assist in setting up Neal for a tap-in if not for the awful Consol ice.
"He was a force by the end," Bylsma said.
"He was physical and good down low with the puck," Neal said. "Nothing but good things to come."
Iginla professed no forward-looking thoughts about his pending free agency or anything beyond his plainly stated goal for coming.
"Every year that goes by, you want to win more and more and be a part of a Cup," he said. "Leaving Calgary, you want to really have a great crack to win. And I think they have that here."
Tell us about it.
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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