Kovacevic: Healthy Pens unrivaled in class
Each morning, the common NHL foot soldier plants both feet inside vise-tight black boots, shielded only by socks that go soggy after the first few skating strides. Those feet will take the brunt of the twists and turns. They'll block 100 mph shots. They'll get hacked. And by evening's end, they'll be bruised and maybe even a bit bent out of shape.
The next day, rinse the socks and repeat.
And that doesn't bother these guys.
“The feet?” Matt Niskanen was saying, gazing down in that direction at his stall after the Penguins' practice Friday. “No, I can't say my feet get tired.”
Yeah, this just in: Hockey players are tough.
Which is why all these guys want is to leap over the boards for Saturday's Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final against the Bruins. And that's “final” as in “finally,” thanks to the NHL's comical eight-day gap between this event and the Penguins and Senators shaking hands.
“Let's go already,” Niskanen said in that tone you use when idling atop Green Tree hill.
“I'm so sick of practice,” Douglas Murray said in that tone you use when, um, getting out of Douglas Murray's way.
Everyone's ready, of course.
And it might just be that the Penguins are more ready than they've been in a long time, considering their talent, their depth, their growing chemistry and — let's never overlook this with this star-crossed franchise — their health.
It's hardly a clean bill, but …
“I'd say the break probably helped a lot of guys,” said Jussi Jokinen, who probably is one of those guys. “There's always going to be things this time of year, but I'd say, yes, some guys got a chance to recover a little.”
There's a better chance of John Tortorella hosting a media luncheon than of extracting injury information during the playoffs, but here are two critical — and known — injury issues pertaining to the Penguins:
1. Evgeni Malkin referred Friday after practice to “a small injury,” this a couple weeks after disclosing that a bum shoulder has hurt his shot.
And yet, No. 71 appeared to be in his best spirits in a while, saying, “Every game I feel so much better and have so much confidence. I'm excited to play tomorrow. I feel awesome.”
He feels awesome.
Think that extra week didn't bring about some healing?
2. Sidney Crosby still has several teeth mangled. Still struggles to speak clearly, too. Small wonder: When that puck did its damage, two teeth were shoved back so hard they cut the inside of his mouth near the tongue, and the jaw had to be reinforced with titanium.
We can only guess at the captain's discomfort because he repeatedly shrugs it off.
But sure, he's better, too, for this break. He ditched that jaw protector early in the week, and, as Ray Shero described it Friday, “I'm noticing already how much better he's seeing the puck in his feet.”
“It took me a few days of practice to get the courage to go to the front of the net, get into some battles, things like that,” Crosby conceded. “Now I don't even notice it. Feels like it always has. I definitely feel much better.”
He feels much better.
And if those two mending hasn't been enough of a payoff for the Penguins, add Jokinen, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and who knows who else buying time for various issues, and you've got a complete group that's … well, is everyone still afraid to say it?
OK, I'll do it, then: These Penguins, with all hands on deck, are the class of the remaining four teams.
Doesn't mean it can't change.
Doesn't mean it won't.
And it definitely doesn't mean anyone should look ahead to the Kings or Blackhawks. These are the past four Stanley Cup champs and legitimately the four best teams in the league. It'll be a great race.
But it does mean the Penguins own the prime pole position.
“You know, I'm tired of studying and analyzing and everything else,” Murray kept right on going as he unlaced his skates to let those size 14s breathe a bit. “To me, there's only so much you can prepare. You have to get out there and play. I want to play.”