Share This Page

Kovacevic: Healthy Pens unrivaled in class

| Friday, May 31, 2013, 11:10 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma speaks to the team during practice on May 31, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

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.

Right, Crankshaft?

“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.”

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

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.