Kovacevic: Bring on the adversity … please
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If the Penguins are fortunate, meaning they'll still take care of the New York Rangers in this Stanley Cup playoff series despite squandering that opportunity Friday night, they'll find themselves facing the big, bad Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference final all over again.
Not the lower-seeded, undersized Canadiens.
Because if there's one unmistakable trait Dan Bylsma's team has displayed all season, through 51 wins and 109 points, through a see-saw elimination of the Columbus Blue Jackets and now here with this 5-1 flatliner of a loss to New York in Game 5 at Consol Energy Center, it's this: They're better with their backs against the wall rather than those of their opponent.
They play with urgency.
They coach with urgency.
They actually, you know, do a whole lot of things that 99 percent of the roster — all but Evgeni Malkin — didn't do on this night.
“In addition to them playing their hardest, their best, we had some unforced errors that handed them their goals,” Bylsma was saying afterward in as close as he'll ever come to actual criticism. “Now we're forced to go back there for Game 6 and … we've got to play with the same desperation.”
By that, he meant at the same level as the remarkably resurrected Rangers.
Alain Vigneault, their coach, spoke in impassioned tones about “how emotional” this game was for his team, given the passing of Marty St. Louis' mother Thursday and St. Louis' decision — in consultation with family — to fly from Quebec to Pittsburgh and participate. Vigneault went so far as to point out that Game 6 will fall “on Mother's Day, so it'll mean even more.”
As Henrik Lundqvist, again the Rangers' most inspirational figure on the ice, put it, “Today, we played for Marty and his family.”
That's real emotion. It's powerful. It's bigger than hockey. And it's to the Rangers' credit, even beyond St. Louis, that they went from looking like the worst team in creation to this in the span of a couple days.
But none of it offers an escape hatch for the Penguins.
“We weren't sharp,” Sidney Crosby said. “We didn't execute well.”
“We didn't deserve to win,” Rob Scuderi said. “They came out like a team whose season was on the brink. We came out like we had an automatic bid to the next round.”
There was a lot more of that, as you might expect, but honestly nothing new and nothing terribly meaningful.
Not after this group had spoken all the right words three nights ago upon grabbing a 3-1 series lead at the Garden. They flushed it away Friday with a first period in which they allowed the Rangers 17 shots, two more than New York managed in all of Game 4.
Not after Malkin looked like he might perform some Mario-esque magic and carry the team on his back only to be abandoned. Crosby reverted to early-Columbus form, and the rest of the forwards barely registered a blip.
Not after the defense … ugh. I get that Scuderi's a vocal leader and was again after this game, but who among the coaches can truly believe he should be logging a regular shift?
And no, not after Marc-Andre Fleury showed his first real kinks of the series. Too many big rebounds and far too much air under the Ryan McDonagh floater for the fourth New York goal.
Know what will matter?
Because now it gets real. The Garden crowd that had turned on Rick Nash and the Rangers will be back on their side in a boisterous (bordering on obnoxious) New York way. The Rangers will feel momentum for the first time. The Rangers will know that the Penguins, to paraphrase an old Tom Barrasso line, will be playing a game they didn't really want to play.
Awesome, I say.
Even in the regular season when the Penguins would sleepwalk through losses to cellar-dwellers, they'd rise up and beat the elite likes of the Blackhawks, Kings, Sharks, Ducks and yeah, those Bruins. That's why I say bring on Boston and Tuukka Rask and Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron, and I'm not even sure if I'm kidding.
Things have been way too cozy for the Penguins this postseason, what with the Blue Jackets being all banged up and the Rangers being roiled early this round by the NHL's silly scheduling.
Well, all that's out the window, including the fatigue factor.
Here comes adversity.
I asked Crosby if it might not be a blessing: “You know, we've shown that when we're more desperate, we're better. But that doesn't mean it's acceptable to play the way we did tonight. There's no excuse for it.”
Nope. And maybe in Game 6, someone other than Malkin will get that memo.
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