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Kovacevic: A fine finish, but more needed

| Tuesday, April 22, 2014, 12:21 a.m.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — “That cannon … wow, that thing is loud,” Marc-Andre Fleury was musing as he sat back in his stall Monday night, his smile as bright as the white pads he still hadn't peeled off after the Penguins' 4-3 victory over Columbus in Game 3 of their Stanley Cup playoff series. “I mean, it's really loud on the ice. I wonder what it sounds like to those people who are sitting close to it.”

The cannon in question, of course, is a fixture at Nationwide Arena, and it's blown off every time the Blue Jackets score. Which happened twice in the first four minutes, inconveniently enough at Fleury's end.

“Oh, my God,” he said. “Boom! Boom!”

Yeah, loud enough to wake up the dead, apparently.

Because from that point forth, Pittsburgh's curiously dormant hockey franchise began … well, trying.

“Not everything went our way, especially early on,” Lee Stempniak was saying. “But I thought, overall, this game was our best of the series in terms of raw effort.”


“We pushed hard,” Sidney Crosby said. “I think we made a lot of things happen with our speed.”


“We knew they'd come out hard, and they did,” Brandon Sutter said. “But we stayed the course and matched what they were doing.”

Meaning, again, effort.

It's striking and sad, really, that effort ever came up in these playoffs. But it most assuredly did, with the Penguins' players publicly bemoaning their own “push” and “desperation” in the Game 2 loss, and this after not exactly overtaxing the sweat glands in Game 1.

Game 3 was shaping up as an ugly sequel. If it wasn't the defense caving in on Boone Jenner's opening goal, it was Beau Bennett pretty much wishing Jack Johnson well on his way to scoring the second goal just 3:18 after the opening draw. What's more, the Blue Jackets kept taking every 50/50 puck, kept finishing every check, kept looking like their lives depended on the outcome.

The Penguins?

They got going. Eventually. And they did, as Sutter stated, stay the course. Even after Cam Atkinson's apparent dagger of a goal early in the third brought a 3-1 lead, Sutter, Stempniak and Jussi Jokinen struck three times in a two-minute, 13-second torrent.

“We did the same thing in the third that they did to us in the first,” Sutter said.

What's more, they did it with grit, finally getting into Sergei Bobrovsky's face. They did it with Fleury continuing to be the Penguins' best player. And yeah, they did it with their two stars rising up at least a little, Evgeni Malkin assisting on Jokinen's winner and drawing a late penalty and Crosby earning a second assist on Stempniak's goal. It was nothing spectacular for either, but it's a start.

That's true, really, of the whole game.

Or the whole effort, I should say.

The physical disparity remains a concern, with Columbus again registering a 2-to-1 edge in hits. The Penguins won't match the Blue Jackets in that category. They're not built that way. Still, the margin needs to be slashed, if only to set the tone for a longer Cup run.

The other concern: The power play was 0 for 6 and is 3 for 17 in the series. Don't kid yourself that it's all about skill over even those mind-numbing lateral passes. This is about effort, too.

“We have a lot of talented guys on the power play,” Paul Martin said. “But if you're not working hard and doing the right things, it doesn't matter.”

Translation: Go to the net.

Don't mean to douse things here. The Penguins had a critical and, in some ways, a quality W. But there still has to be more of a fire with this group. A passion. It can't be spoken. It can't be manufactured. It has to be real. And for that matter, it's got to be 60 minutes, not just “past the 45- or 50-minute mark” that coach Dan Bylsma noted.

I began bringing up effort with Brooks Orpik, whose pivotal goal at the end of the second was a just reward for relentless work, and he laughed as he cut me off.

“You know,” he said, “it's a question that shouldn't have to be answered this time of year.”

He's right. But suffice it to say there's a reason he proceeded.

“Look at that team, at their desperation,” Orpik said of the Blue Jackets. “It doesn't matter how much talent you have, you've got to at least match that desperation. It's a mentality. It's an attitude.”

It's a welcome sight.

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