Kovacevic: A little 'D' never hurt anyone

| Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 11:06 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA -- The time-honored tradition of hockey's three stars is a bit hokey, really. It carries no meaning, most of the crowd's gone by the time it's announced, and almost never does any losing or visiting player bother to return to the rink for the old raised-stick twirl.

Come on, admit it: When was the last time you stuck around for one?

Who cares, right?

Well, this one time, James Neal cared.

In this place, and with this patently team-oriented way the Penguins put down the reviled Flyers, 3-1, for one seriously satisfying 45th season opener Saturday, you'd better believe the big man cared enough to seek out a proper punctuation.

And so, when the Wells Fargo Center's PA announcer boomed out to pretty much no one that Marc-Andre Fleury was No. 3 star, the Penguins' goaltender came back out.

Stick up, twirl and all.

Oh, for real.

After the Flyers' Claude Giroux was named No. 2 star - and didn't return - Neal's name was called for No. 1, and he came back out for his own sweetly sinister twirl.

All Neal's idea, mind you.

"Hey, it's Philly," he acknowledged with a slight smile after I prodded a bit. "Felt right."

Apparently felt that way for Fleury, too, even though he purported to be solely a supporting actor.

"I saw Nealer stop and, you know, I wasn't going to leave him hanging," the Flower said through an even more devilish grin. "Just a little bit of fun, you know?"

Yeah, some fun.

Been awhile, huh?

How about the Penguins shaking off nine months of lockout inactivity and uncertainty with a richly deserved laugh at the expense of their archrival?

How about saving a least a little face after the first-round playoff pounding here last spring?

And hey, how about delivering a defensive gem that had zero in common with that series' 30-goals-in-six-games debacle?

Where did that come from, anyway?

"It's something we talked about from the very first day of camp," Neal said, "We wanted to become a lot better in our own end, take care of our responsibilities. We want to be a championship team, and those teams get it done defensively."

No doubt the Penguins got this one done, from the crease out.

Fleury made 26 saves and looked as composed as anyone on the ice, the farthest of far cries from how he crumpled last April. The penalty-killing, still peeling off its own scars, snuffed out all five Philadelphia power plays. Brandon Sutter and Matt Cooke were exceptional on those. Evgeni Malkin was a takeaway terror much of the day.

Even Paul Martin, of all people, was the active anchor of a solid defense, skating with authority all over the ice almost in the mold of ... nah, I was about to say Kris Letang.

"That's kind of what I thought," Fleury said. "He was so sound, so smart."

No joke: Was that Martin's best game in a Pittsburgh sweater?

He talked afterward of his new mindset of "making sure I'm aggressive," and that looked even better than it sounded. For reasons only he can know, he's rarely taken full advantage of his greatest asset, the natural glide to his skating.

Imagine this team with a good Paul Martin all season.

There was more to like in the tangible sense, but I'm convinced that this began, as Neal cited, with intangibles. Not much is more embarrassing in any sport than sloppy defense. It reflects a lack of discipline, of composure, of variables that should be within the control of the coaching staff and the athletes themselves.

Make no mistake: The Penguins were more moved by how they lost last spring than when.

"You've got to have that pride in taking care of your zone, and that's our focus" winger Pascal Dupuis said.

Leadership starts at the top, of course, with something this broad. It's one thing for Dupuis, Cooke and Craig Adams to buy in. It's quite another to see Sidney Crosby killing penalties and doing, well, "OK, I guess." Or to see Crosby and Malkin out for the final minute, skating backward through the neutral zone, full-on trap mode. Or to see that formation lead to Chris Kunitz's empty-netter after a bold pickoff at the blue line by Martin.

It's potentially a valuable lesson, if nothing else.

No one wants to see that defense-first sort of hockey all the time, obviously. It would stifle the team's stars, and that makes no sense.

But as the Penguins have learned here now at both extremes, they simply must be able to do it when it's needed most.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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