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Kovacevic: Penguins lugging 'heavy' load

| Thursday, March 27, 2014, 11:06 p.m.

All season, Dan Bylsma has been describing the cream of the NHL's Western Conference contenders as “heavy.” And it's a wonderful choice, really, especially if taken in the same hockey context as a “heavy” slap shot. Because it's not just that those teams actually do weigh a lot, but also that they come hard. They come with a purpose and, when executed just right, with a goal.

Think of it as a collective entity personified by a single Shea Weber slap shot to the top shelf.

Heavy, I know.

So, anyway …

Kings 3, Penguins 2.

That's where Consol Energy Center's scoreboard froze Thursday night as 18,650 filed out muttering about another flat start by the home team, a far worse officiating call that cost the home team Brandon Sutter's tying goal in the third period, and the worst imaginable karma when it comes to the health of the home team with Marcel Goc carried off on a wickedly twisted ankle.

Ugh all around.

But to me, the scene still begged one question above all: If Los Angeles' roster is, as Bylsma put it a few hours before faceoff, “a big team, a playoff-type team, a heavy team,” then what exactly are these Penguins right now, banged up and all?


Well, not exactly. Fact is, they conjured up considerably more gusto than that Tuesday night sleepover loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, though that's damning with faint praise. After falling behind by two, Chris Kunitz and Taylor Pyatt tied it in the second, and the Penguins started to look like … well, what the Penguins look like these days. You know, quick, skilled on a line and a half, a bit gritty.

And stop right there. Because that actually mattered.

I won't lie: I thought this one might go badly. Not just when it was 2-0, but much earlier in the morning when experiencing a locker room that was as tense and no-fun as any I'd seen with this team. The players were granted Wednesday off for what Bylsma called “needed rest” but might just as well have been a cooling-off period after a players-only meeting Tuesday night.

The scene was only exacerbated by Bylsma's morning press conference, where he looked and sounded nervous through all 13 minutes.

Asked if it's harder to bench a star like James Neal than Jussi Jokinen, who sat for seven minutes Tuesday after a dumb penalty, the coach hesitated and replied: “Is it harder? It's different. … It's different because Jussi's seven minutes might be three shifts for another guy or a period for another player.”

Maybe, but it's not different for Neal, being that they're on the same line.

Asked if he'd consider holding Sidney Crosby out of a game down the stretch to preserve him for playoffs, he replied: “I don't see him wanting to take one of those off.”

The coach who won't challenge his captain?

It was in that context that I wondered — again, being completely candid here — how the locker room would respond, if only for the coach. Because if this would be another Phoenix …

As it was, the Penguins did get going. A few minutes after Drew Doughty put the Kings back up 3-2 early in the third, Sutter battled to ram a puck past Jones. But even after the refs initially saw it exactly that way, they huddled and overturned the goal on the grounds that Sutter interfered with Jones. Which, of course, he did if you ignore that, one, Doughty lumberjacked him to the ice and, two, a shooter has every right to go at a loose puck even if his stick makes contact with the goaltender. It's called the act of shooting.

It was a badly butchered call, but it at least lit a fire. The Penguins suddenly began spraying the Los Angeles net. They even had a bodycheck — look it up yourself, thanks — when Deryk Engelland flattened Willie Mitchell.

Bylsma seemed to seize on that: “I loved the way we competed and pushed in this game. We didn't get the call and didn't capitalize on the other chances we had late, but I liked how we pushed.”

On any reaction to Phoenix: “There was certainly a response from our team.”

Well, there was a response.

But after two more stick penalties by fourth-liners Craig Adams and Tanner Glass, after the Kings scored all three goals by planting a body near the crease, after a flicker of a physical presence, after barely any emotion until halfway through, I'm not inclined to stand and applaud.

“We're in a rough patch,” Matt Niskanen, always candid, said afterward. “We're not playing our best. Having some of our key guys out doesn't help. Losing stinks. But we'll re-energize and go after it again.”

Sounds like a heavy load.

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

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