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Kovacevic: Penguins rediscover real health

| Saturday, April 26, 2014, 11:04 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky makes a save on the Penguins' Sidney Crosby during the first period in Game 5 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series Saturday, April 26, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

Sidney Crosby laughed out loud.

“I'm healthy,” he was telling me, peeling off the pads late Saturday night after the Penguins' 3-1 throttling of Columbus in Game 5 of their Stanley Cup playoff series at Consol Energy Center.

But what about that missing first step?

“I'm healthy.”

The one-handed touches?

The soft shots?

Missing that yawning net, for crying out loud?

“I'm healthy. I'm healthy. I'm healthy.”

He smiled broadly through all of those, and it was a smile that, to be honest, I couldn't read in the slightest.

All right, then. Fine. Maybe Crosby is healthy. He certainly can say it and have it count the most. But it's also worth remembering that “healthy” for an NHL player in the postseason can mean nothing more than “I've still got all my limbs, don't I?”

These guys are tough. And they don't come much tougher than this captain.

So in that spirit — in the spirit of the night, really — I'll respectfully defer to Crosby's own diagnosis, no matter how much more uncomfortable he looked in this game than he had all series, no matter how the seismic impact it could have on the Penguins going forward.

And you know what?

It just might be that nothing could better signify this team's health than that same smile.

Make no mistake: The Penguins have a 3-2 series lead, but it's hardly over. The Blue Jackets will be back at a bursting-at-the-beams Nationwide Arena for Game 6 on Monday, and all “compete level” will need to be rekindled.

But make no mistake about this, either: Those were the wholly legit 51-win, 109-point Penguins who finally came to play in this one.

“We competed hard,” Crosby said. “We played desperate. We played really aggressive. We were on our toes, forced turnovers, created a lot of havoc, generated a lot of chances.”

Right. All 51 shots' worth.

“That's the way we have to play,” he continued. “That's more our style.”

More like it in a lot of ways.

The goaltender … well, more on him in a bit.

The defensemen moved the puck quickly and systematically, finally avoiding that endless string of collisions Columbus had been delivering.

The forwards discovered the front of the net and went with a purpose. Todd Richards, the Blue Jackets' coach, was asked if the shot total might have been deceiving and didn't hesitate: “No, it felt like 51 shots. They came at us.”

Individually, Brandon Sutter kept up his two-way excellence. Chris Kunitz planted himself in front of Sergei Bobrovsky all night. Lee Stempniak did the heavy lifting on Jussi Jokinen's winner. Robert Bortuzzo was “fantastic,” in the words of Rob Scuderi, as a fill-in for Brooks Orpik. And nobody on the home side stepped up his performance quite like beleaguered Kris Letang. That was close to the Letang who took over the Ottawa series last summer.

Equally beleaguered Dan Bylsma contributed a bold, playoff-type move — no misprint — by uniting Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They weren't dominant, and they still didn't score, but it seemed to confound Columbus.

Maybe that's the real health Crosby was describing. Maybe that's at least the beginning of the burden being lifted from the Penguins and, yeah, their leader. Maybe now these guys might actually have a little fun. Whoop it up. Joke around. Feel good about themselves. You know, the way Columbus' players had been behaving right up until the Penguins slammed them with this reality check through the boards.

Maybe it's OK to laugh stuff off when it doesn't go well rather than envisioning the end of civilization.

Marc-Andre Fleury was fine after the Game 4 debacle. I believed it then, certainly believe it now. He stopped 23-of-24 shots, was faultless on the one he conceded and, most important, never showed a solitary sign of weakness. Don't underestimate how much that meant to the Penguins or even to a crowd that could have turned on all concerned if he'd looked shaky but, instead, was gleefully chanting his name throughout.

Be very sure Fleury is healthy, in every way.

When I teased him that he bounced back well from the other night, a performance that some hysterics painted as a career-wrecker, I knew the response I'd get would be unprintable. It sure was.

The part I can share: “There was nothing to take from that game. Put it behind you, and move on.”

When I then teased that his heels never left the crease in the third period of this game, he again went unprintable before adding, “I told myself, ‘I'm staying right here.' ”

He fairly erupted in laughter.

What a sight that was after that somber Game 4. After all of these playoffs, too, and even most of the regular season that felt like such a downer. The Penguins, the team that can never do anything right that isn't hoisting a Cup, were enjoying the moment.

Health really can be a state of mind.

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