Kovacevic: This one's hard to digest

| Friday, May 3, 2013, 11:59 p.m.

Sidney Crosby can't eat salad.

Mourn all you want the Penguins' ugly, unsavory 4-3 loss to the Islanders in Game 2 Friday night at Consol Energy Center. There's certainly plenty there to want to toss back up, from lazy breakouts to loose defense to Marc-Andre Fleury's uh-oh-are-we-back-in-Philly flop on the winning goal.

Have at it. It's all fair game.

Whatever you say, it won't be worse than Kris Letang's richly representative assessment of the locker room sentiment: “We really did a bad job of managing the puck, and the way they came after us ... it was just bad.”

Sure was.

Me, I can't get over the salad thing.

See, it's like this: The captain of the franchise and the foundation upon which a fourth Stanley Cup will rest for years to come, he came back to participate in a playoff game about a month after having his mouth mangled, well beyond the four lost teeth and shattered jaw.

Crosby's oral surgeon cleared him to play Thursday, and he was out there Friday. Without benefit of a full-contact practice. With a funny-looking jaw shield that didn't look like much protection at all. And taking on an opponent that just had its star beaten to a pulp and would be licking their lips for a chance to return the favor.

That somehow failed to inspire this group on this night.

In the days after Crosby's injury, he had to eat through a straw. He hated it, as would anyone sucking down a steady stream of protein shakes and liquid veggies, but he did what was needed to maintain some semblance of his usual weight.

On April 10, he graduated to mashed potatoes. He called that meal “like, the best thing ever.”

Now, he's able to pick at some solids but still can't eat salad of all things because, per his description, it just takes too many bites. He also can't peck away at wings, carve up a steak, chomp into an apple. There's still too much swelling.

I can't tell you exactly how much weight Crosby's lost in the past month — that's info NHL teams guard like stolen gold this time of year — but I can tell you he looks thinner. And I can tell you from watching him huff through a couple recent skates and through the second and third periods Friday night, he isn't in his optimal shape.

Still, the Kid came out flying, scored twice in the opening eight minutes, set the building ablaze, even went diving headfirst for a 50/50 puck late.

Head. First.

Asked how he felt afterward, Crosby's response was telling: “Eh, all right. Definitely a lot of rust. But there isn't a lot of time, so I've got to find a way.”

That somehow failed to inspire this group on this night.

The Penguins moaned a lot afterward about “puck management,” including Dan Bylsma: “We turned the puck over a lot. When they get turnovers, they come back at you real quick.”

I'll spare you the euphemism: Poor “puck management” means your team lacks focus and discipline. It's not talent. It's not skill. It's flat-out not being ready.

How does that happen?

To this team?

After all that's gone wrong the past three springs, not least of which was losing their previous three Game 2s and lasering in on that very topic the past couple days?

“We know we didn't play the way we needed to,” Crosby tried to explain, still breathing hard minutes afterward. “Obviously, they got a few bounces, but they worked for them. And I … I don't think we feel like we did enough to deserve that one.”

Maybe the Penguins could start by learning from Crosby: Just because the great ones make performances like his comeback Friday look easy, that doesn't mean it is. So many of his most famous traits have come through simple sweat.

This team, special as it appears on paper — and as it did in Game 1 — is no different: The skill is there, and the work ethic's there to match.

But lapses of this level stem from leadership, and that makes a mess like this all the more maddening. Because that's there, too: In addition to Crosby and other longtime leaders, the roster has two recent NHL captains in Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow, similar to how the teams of the 2000s added Gary Roberts and Bill Guerin for that extra postseason push.

So let's hear it.

Better yet, let's see it.

There's no earthly reason why the Penguins shouldn't win this series. It says right here they will.

But only if Game 2 leaves them with a taste even worse than what Crosby's been taking down.

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

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