Kovacevic: It starts with a faceoff ... and faith
Shared an elevator the other night at Consol with Eddie Johnston, patriarch of the Penguins, and tossed out that I was considering a column breaking down all the team's weaknesses.
Those old keeper reflexes sharp as ever at age 77, E.J. snapped back: “What'll that take you, two lines? One?”
All right, fair enough.
“Heck, maybe they'll just give you the day off.”
OK, OK … I get it.
That's where we are right now around here.
There is no darkness, only the dawn of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the American city that's embraced this magnificent sport like nowhere else. And the local franchise heads into Game 1 on Wednesday night against the Islanders with expectations like no other since … what … 1993?
But who wants to go there, right?
James Neal, freshly back from a concussion, skated into a corner Monday at Southpointe, and Kris Letang followed up.
Neal was bowled over but then bounced right back up, laughed and stuck with the drill.
“You won't see any difference in how we are off the ice right now. Business as usual,” defenseman Matt Niskanen explained. “But on the ice, everything's ramped up. Energy level's up. Way up.”
That's where their minds are.
A searing sun glistened off the rear ends of two Islanders outside Consol — the unfortunate homage paid to Rich Pilon and Jeff Norton for having been tormented on one especially Magnifique rush — but the scene otherwise was unsullied: “Because it's the Cup” banners streamed from the Centre Avenue street lights, the merchandise shop was humming with all updated goods (Tanner Glass wears No. 15 now, kids), and a new larger area for the outdoor game screening was being set up right on the old Civic Arena grounds.
That's where we once gathered and soon will again.
One fun topic ringing the locker room this week was how Crankshaft — which is far too excellent of a nickname for Douglas Murray to ever waste — once fought the Islanders' Eric Boulton.
With his face.
This was 2011, both were with different teams and, as Crankshaft retells it, “He got one punch in pretty good.”
Did he ever. Boulton landed a haymaker on Crankshaft's left cheek that blasted him backward to the ice.
And then …
“I guess I hurt his hand.”
Right. Crankshaft sprang back up off the ice, shook his face the way Wile E. Coyote would after being flattened by an anvil, shoved that spaghetti hair away from his eyes and skated coolly to the box.
Boulton wasn't so lucky. Two broken bones in the right hand.
“Guy's a monster,” Sidney Crosby observed of his new mate. “Glad he's on our side.”
That's where you'd want him to be.
The Pirates were in St. Louis at sunset Saturday, it was the eighth inning, they had a three-run lead, and closer Jason Grilli was warming up. First place looming. Dugouts on edge.
Root Sports flipped to Pittsburgh for the faceoff of Penguins-Hurricanes, a hollow regular-season finale for both.
What in the name of Heidi were they thinking?
Well, late Tuesday brought the sledgehammer answer: Root announced that the Penguins' average rating of 12.66 for the regular season was higher than that of any U.S.-based NHL team, any NBA team and, in a first, any Major League Baseball team.
That's where our sporting sentiment is. And might be for a long time.
Heard on Tuesday from U.S. Army 1st Lt. Megan Conroy, an Export native serving in Afghanistan. She snapped a pic of herself during a police training mission, decked out in full uniform with full weaponry ... and one seriously silly Penguins tossle cap.
“Showing my Afghan counterparts my favorite hockey team,” Megan wrote.
That's where they are. Never forget that.
Jarome Iginla's mom, Susan Schuchard, flew into town a couple days ago. She joined Jarome's family — wife Kara and three young kids — who came a week ago.
Prod all you want for any lingering sorrow over leaving Calgary, but the guy's happy all the time and, if possible, happier now than ever.
“Just feels like home,” Iginla said. “And my family's all behind this. My wife, she's excited about the change and the chance to compete for the Stanley Cup, and my girl and two boys ... they don't know too much about the past, but they've played enough video games to know the Penguins are good. They just like seeing us win.”
It's been 15 years and zero championships for Iginla. The man wants to get going, to get after his Cup.
And so here we are.