Kovacevic: Penguins revisit their foundation
Watch Tyler Kennedy bury a breakaway after a brilliant rink-length spring from Kris Letang, and it's easy to see these Penguins as some relentlessly go-go group.
Watch Sidney Crosby dance through the Islanders' defense, with a dazzling rush reminiscent of one commemorated in bronze outside Consol Energy Center, and it's easy to see how they could tantalize their way through these Stanley Cup playoffs.
And they won't.
If there's a single lesson to be learned from this 4-0 throttling of the Islanders in Game 5, one that put the home side a win away from advancing, it's that this franchise's foundation is now far more rooted in what they managed in the scoreless, largely lifeless first period than anything that followed.
No, for real.
No matter what the players themselves thought about how they started out.
Tomas Vokoun: “I thought we were a little tentative.”
Crosby: “I don't want to say we sat back, but … we weren't very aggressive, either.”
Letang: “We didn't play our best in the first period, but the thing was, we were still playing better hockey than we had been.”
Well, yeah, exactly!
It wasn't pretty, but neither was it ugly. And look how it set up all that came after it. That's entirely the point.
Vokoun had to make 14 of his eventual 31 saves in that period, bringing the first semblance of calm — on or off the ice — this team has known in a week.
“That felt great, of course, just to be out there,” Vokoun said.
Felt normal, too. Everyone could breathe, at least a little.
Kennedy and Joe Vitale, skating as if shot out of cannons after being scratched for the first four games, further set the tone with ferocious forechecking.
“All the guys new into the lineup, they gave us a boost,” Chris Kunitz said. “TK's goal, Vouky making some great saves, and Joey V was part of us playing great team defense.”
You don't ever want Kennedy and Vitale to be your best forwards, but they were. And it was important because they achieved that not only by adhering religiously to Dan Bylsma's north-south, get-to-our-game system that's being curiously vilified in these parts, but also by, um, trapping?
Honest to Jacques Lemaire, rewind the tape, and you'll see the Penguins' third and fourth lines intermittently skating backward through the neutral zone, with a special aim at the Islanders' very special talent, John Tavares.
It didn't work all that well, but it was different. It was an adjustment. And that concept, too, must be part of the' playoff foundation moving forward. Bylsma's base system is sound, but other buttons need to be pressed at times. It's no time to be stubborn.
And so the stage was set for the second period, which obviously would have been more to everyone's liking: Kennedy ignited an arena that had felt like it would collapse on itself at the first sign of anything amiss. Douglas Murray scored on a floater off Evgeni Nabokov's shoulder that should have earned assists to the hockey gods after all the Islanders' similar goals in Games 3 and 4. And Crosby produced one of the most sensational goals of his career — never a small feat — by humiliating Lubomir Visnovsky and Thomas Hickey, then Nabokov.
It was terrific to watch, entertaining as anything the playoffs have offered. But I'll submit again that the Penguins' second-period outburst wouldn't have happened without the first, and I've got some sage backing.
“It looked like our guys came out of the first intermission after everything settled down and said, ‘OK, now we can play,'” old GM Eddie Johnston observed from up in the press box. “That's what you get from that stability. You've got to have it.”
Right, and that isn't just a new goaltender, a few fresh legs and some switched-up strategy.
It's about chemistry.
Anyone realize that this was only the second game since the Brenden Morrow/Jarome Iginla trades that this entire roster was healthy enough for everyone to be available?
Think all these guys might not benefit from actually skating a few shifts together?
To that end, it was heartening to see Bylsma overcome the very bad idea that a future Hall of Famer should move to an unnatural position, as he flipped Iginla from left wing back to the right. And to boot, placed him alongside Crosby.
It might not have taken them one time over the boards to click.
“I thought things went pretty well with Jarome,” Crosby said.
All because it went well on the back end.
Think back to that 15-game winning streak, and you'll remember that the Penguins are a team that must get it done defensively to succeed. All of them. No exceptions. The blueline corps itself isn't exactly overflowing with Larry Robinson/Rod Langway/Rob Blake types. Everyone has to pitch in.
Things could change as soon as faceoff of Game 6 Saturday, but ask me, and I'll bet that this team that's been searching for a road map finally has one, thanks to a couple tweaks and 20 otherwise uneventful minutes.