Kovacevic: Yes, Duper really is that super

| Sunday, May 26, 2013, 9:52 p.m.

One wrong turn, and he'd be out.

No matter how well he'd have performed to that point, you just knew that, at the very first trace of a slump, he'd be demoted from starring role to supporting cast. Because he wasn't supposed to be there. Because that's how it goes in pro sports: The one who isn't supposed to make it always has to show that little extra.

Tomas Vokoun?

Well, yeah, that pretty much paints his status with the Penguins all through these Stanley Cup playoffs, even now that he's backed them to the Eastern Conference final.

But think bigger picture.

Think about the guy who's tied for the NHL lead in goals this postseason at seven — with Sidney Crosby, no less — but who doesn't earn a fraction of the fanfare.

Think about the guy who broke through for 25 goals two seasons ago, then 20 in this past lockout-shortened season – outscoring Minnesota's $98 million man Zach Parise, among others — but who still, incredibly, isn't universally taken seriously as a first-line winger.

Think about the guy who's as vocal, as demonstrative, as inspirational as anyone to his teammates – including Crosby and anyone with a letter on the sweater ­— but hardly ever is cited when discussing the team's leadership.

Think of Engine No. 9.

And please, please get beyond any thinking that Pascal Dupuis is anything less than exactly what you've been watching for a while now.

He really is that good.

“You know what? I don't worry about that,” Dupuis was saying with a soft smile during a lengthy chat we had following practice Sunday morning at Consol Energy Center. “I look around and see all kinds of pressure for different players, maybe because of money or other factors. I don't feel like there's any more scrutiny on me than anyone else on this team.”


How, then, to explain that dominant two-goal display March 28 against the Jets, on the very day of the Jarome Iginla trade that represented a direct threat to bump Dupuis from the top line?

Here's how: He made a statement. He, was the first-line winger around here, not any outside acquisition, not even a future Hall of Famer.

That determination, that drive you see from shift to shift, comes honestly.

Born in Laval, the quaint Montreal suburb where Mario Lemieux played his junior hockey, Dupuis' inspiration was his father, Claude, a workmanlike two-way winger in the 1970s for Maine of the old North American Hockey League. Claude never reached the NHL, but it wasn't for lack of effort.

“Everything comes from my dad, from watching him work,” Dupuis said. “I was 10 years old, and I was already squatting and running with sand bags on my back, just to be like my dad. He wasn't playing much anymore, so he showed me how, put me through it.”

Ultimately, though, he added, “It has to come from within. I've always believed that. My training, I don't do it for anybody else. I do it for my wife and kids. If the guy next to me doesn't do it, if he doesn't want to run back and forth from the training facility, if he doesn't want that extra half-hour on the bike, who cares? My father saw that I wanted to do it.”

The other trait shared by father and son?

“With the skill level I had, I knew I had to work.”

If petit Pascal didn't grasp it then, he sure did when he went undrafted in 2000 even after scoring 50 goals in 61 games for Shawinigan of the Quebec junior league.

He kept going. The Wild signed him as a free agent and, after a year in the minors, he was in the NHL to stay. And after the 2008 Marian Hossa trade — yep, it's still called the Hossa trade by most ­­— Dupuis arrived from Atlanta as a near-afterthought and became a champion.

He kept going. He could have made a fine living as a solid third-liner, and on that alone he'd have exceeded expectations. But he elevated his way up to a line with Crosby, he benefited from clicking with the captain's unrivaled speed/skill combo and, in easily the most impressive achievement of his career, legitimately fit right in.

Still, he kept going. Last summer, he endured the most grueling workouts of his career in Quebec alongside defenseman Simon Despres — “Nobody does it like that man,” Despres will attest — then passed up money to play in Europe in favor of skating day after day with Crosby at Southpointe. The two were out there nearly every morning, often with no one else, carving up the ice.

Which isn't to suggest Dupuis has needed Crosby for everything, contrary to popular misconception.

Did you know that, since the 2011 Winter Classic in which Crosby was concussed, he's scored 32 goals without Crosby or Evgeni Malkin on the ice?

Did you know all but two of his goals the past two years came at even-strength or short-handed since he's rarely on the power play?

Did you know he just led the league with a plus-31 rating?

Did you see that laser over the shoulder of the Senators' Craig Anderson in Game 1 of the last round?

Neither did Anderson.

Dupuis is 34 now, he's been here six seasons, and he might not be around a whole lot longer with unrestricted free agency looming this summer and several other Penguins due to have their hands out. You should know that he wants to stay – “Winning is very important to me, and this team is like family,” he said. “Business will take care of itself” – but you also should realize he's undoubtedly the NHL's most underpaid player at $1.4 million, and that is certain to change.

It's about time to fully appreciate what he's brought, before it's too late.

“He's just become a great all-around player,” Crosby said. “The thing about Duper is that he gets better all the time because he works at it and because he learns. He never stops pushing.”

Maybe because he can't.

I pressed Dupuis a bit on the sense that someone's always been over his shoulder.

“You know,” he finally conceded. “I guess I don't really want to find out.”

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