Kovacevic: Greatness steals center stage
BOSTON — The greatest players get it done.
For all the blood and guts, the broken sticks and gored psyches, the every solitary sinew strained to exhaustion between the Penguins and Bruins in this classic Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final, this one somehow carried a feel throughout that it would end not with grit but with greatness.
And it did.
Just not on the side that's supposed to be loaded with such stuff.
You know what I'm going to say here, right?
Don't look away.
Don't look away any more than you did for all four hours, three minutes of Boston's 2-1 double-overtime triumph that brought the Bruins a throttling 3-0 series lead.
Don't look away because it's the question now staring your franchise dead in the face.
The great player wasn't Sidney Crosby.
He continued to look lost most of the night, making poor decisions and poorer giveaways and still failing to produce a solitary point. Sure, it was there for him in double-overtime, his helmet flung off, hair flying everywhere, puck on his stick in the slot … the moment right there … and it was blocked by the defense.
A block that ensured that the next truly defining Stanley Cup playoff moment of his career, that one critical, unforgettable goal, will be the first.
It wasn't Evgeni Malkin, either.
His evening was marked by dazzle and dinged posts, making him look like — by far — the likeliest player to end it all. In the first OT, he delivered the dekes of a lifetime on one rush … his own moment right there … thwarted by the toe of Tuukka Rask.
It never came.
At least not until the one player on the Boston side who can lay legitimate claim to greatness did what he's done his entire brilliant career.
Jaromir Jagr got it done.
Even at age 41, even after being banged off his skates several times, even after looking so terribly tired much of the series, he somehow burst onto the ice for double-overtime with the freshest-looking legs of anyone. He looked more dangerous than anyone.
That's a testament to his outrageous conditioning regimen, but those who watched him for a decade in Pittsburgh — not this generation that knows him only for choosing the hated Flyers, but the one that loved the second-greatest player in franchise history — they had to know there was more to it.
This was Jagr's time. The big time.
This was always when he's gotten it done, owner of 78 career playoff goals, including an incredible five in overtime, something Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier — bona fide postseason legends both — never achieved once. He's also got 17 regular-season OT goals, the NHL standard-bearer there.
“He's a great player, and you never can forget that,” Patrice Bergeron said minutes after his goal ended it all at 12:13 a.m. “He knows how and when to step up.”
Here's how he did … Malkin took his first stride toward the Boston zone along the right boards near center red, and Jagr came hard from behind. (All the backchecking Jagr did all night was something no Pittsburgh fan would recall, of course, but times change.) Jagr used his stick to give Malkin a tug and regained the puck, whirling to turn play the other way.
Was it a hook?
Would any referee at any level of hockey have called it in double-overtime, when it only resulted in a change of possession in the neutral zone?
Not a chance.
Neither Malkin nor Jagr spoke with the media afterward, so we can only guess at how they saw it.
Anyway, Jagr pushed the puck up to a racing Brad Marchand for a two-on-two, and a great player had started a great play. Marchand couldn't quite get around a smartly backpedaling Deryk Engelland (who wouldn't win a footrace with Boston's fastest skater), but he passed laterally to Bergeron (who was covered equally tightly by a visibly wounded Brooks Orpik), and Bergeron deftly redirected it just inside the far post behind Tomas Vokoun (the best player on either team).
It came wholly without fault, a great play to finish a great game.
And it wasn't either of the Penguins' great players who got it done.
Sorry, so be it.
This wasn't about one night, you know. This wasn't even about this series, in which Crosby and Malkin continue to have zero — as in zero! — points, or the power play they anchor that's produced zero — as in zero! — goals in a dozen opportunities.
No, this was about these two being the twin-pronged foundation of a team that now has won one Cup in the seven years of the so-called Crosby/Malkin era. Not only is that not good enough for the players almost universally recognized as the best in the world, but it's also starting to get dark outside as far as that era is concerned. Crosby is 25, Malkin 26. They aren't kids anymore.
And who knows if they'll ever be champions again?
Crosby was asked what's wrong with the Penguins' power play, and he replied, “Goaltending, really. I think we're getting some good chances. We hit a couple posts.”
Sorry, but no goaltending should be stopping the people on this power play. Or five-on-five. Or against any system or strategy.
They just didn't get it done.
They didn't do what they're supposed to do, what they do all season long year after year, and we had to watch yet again as checkers like Craig Adams, Brenden Morrow and Matt Cooke outshone most everyone.
You know, it's forever seemed unthinkable that the Penguins would ever part with one or the other of Crosby or Malkin. Still does, really, and I'm not sure how I feel about it at the moment.
But assuming the Bruins take care of business, all kinds of unthinkable is about to be posed.