Key acquisitions have Penguins primed for run to Stanley Cup
Sidney Crosby knows.
Those deep postseason runs by his Penguins five and four years ago shared something that this group can expect to experience in the Eastern Conference final.
“That type of hockey, that physical grind, is going to continue,” Crosby said Friday night within an hour of his Penguins' 6-2 slamming of the Ottawa Senators to wrap a second-round series. “The teams that get to this point are playing good hockey — tight checking, not allowing many goals, there's desperation, and that just increases with each series.”
The Boston Bruins, fresh off their own five-game series win over the New York Rangers, are all that stand between the Penguins and a return to the Cup Final.
Like the Bruins (2011), the Penguins (2009) are a recent Cup champion.
Like the Bruins (Tuukka Rask), the Penguins (Tomas Vokoun) have a different goalie leading this playoff march.
Like the Bruins, the Penguins are big and bad.
That is no accident.
Those marvelous moves by Penguins general manager Ray Shero from late-March to early-April — trades for wingers Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla, defenseman Douglas Murray and forward Jussi Jokinen — were made with an eye toward a best-of-seven showdown with an opponent of shared playoff attributes and acumen.
An opponent like the Bruins, whose reputation as bruising bullies cloaks their collective skill, just as the Penguins' collection of shining scorers shadows their team toughness.
“The toughness they bring to our group is not fighting,” Shero said. “It's taking a punch, sacrificing to get to the net, getting running over without retaliating. That veteran experience kind of toughness is what you need, and all those guys have brought that.”
The first big acquisition by Shero was “not very popular (publicly),” he said.
“We traded a young defenseman, a former first-round pick,” Shero said of Joe Morrow, whom the Penguins had selected at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and had considered essentially an untouchable asset.
Morrow, though, was what Shero craved for a squad whose best forwards — Crosby and fellow center Evgeni Malkin — had appeared agitated by opponents' mind games in early exits from the 2010 and '12 postseasons.
Morrow was the equivalent of Gary Roberts in 2007: a blend of off-ice professionalism and on-ice steely resolve, a veteran willing to play a lesser role for a chance to chase the Cup.
Upon Morrow's arrival, his former Dallas teammate James Neal predicted teammates immediately would notice his impact.
“He's a warrior,” Neal said at the time. “Wait until you see what he's willing to do to help us win.”
Before a morning practice in Ottawa on Wednesday, Morrow pinned his left arm to his side. His hand worked well enough, but the rest of the extremity clearly was in discomfort.
He wanted to play that night in a pivotal Game 4 but realized a healthier player, rookie Beau Bennett, could contribute more. So Morrow stepped aside. The cause was bigger than him.
The Penguins won that Game 4 in convincing fashion, 7-3.
After his club's loss, Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson essentially conceded the series, and defenseman Marc Methot referred to the Penguins as “a monster.”
Center Jason Spezza, who had returned from back surgery to play in Game 3, an Ottawa victory in double overtime, was less conversational.
He had a different perspective of what made the Penguins' monstrous.
Late in the second period of Game 4, with the Senators down a goal, Spezza cut through the slot, to the right of Vokoun. Upon finding an opening near the goal line, Spezza spied a loose puck bouncing near the front of Vokoun's crease.
Instinct kicked in, and Spezza went after the puck.
Somehow, he missed Murray, a hulking presence at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds.
A half-second later, Spezza had been spun around, then down onto the ice. He looked up to find Murray had never moved.
This scene provided stark contrast to the Penguins' Round 1 in 2012, when Flyers forwards seemingly skated freely into prime scoring real estate.
“What he brings in terms of physicality and adds to our back end was very important for us,” Shero said.
Somebody sure is scoring for a guy who might not be fitting in. Iginla began Saturday fifth in the NHL with 12 playoff points.
Where he has not played — the right wing on Crosby's line, the first power-play unit — has generated more outside discussion than how Iginla is playing.
Still, how is he playing?
“He's putting pucks in,” Neal said, referring to Iginla's zone-entry chips near the boards. “And he's got that great shot.”
He does, but Iginla is only fifth among Penguins with 29 shots.
One of their co-leaders in that category, Malkin with 46, has made a request of his new left winger.
“Shoot, Iggy!” Malkin said.
Iginla, the highest-profile trade acquisition by Shero since Marian Hossa in 2008, is a lot like Hossa in temperament. Both spoke glowingly of Crosby and Malkin and publicly marveled at the close-knit dynamic inside the dressing room. Both appeared weary of upsetting a potential championship balance.
Bill Guerin took a different approach upon arriving in a trade in 2009. Before his first game, Guerin half jokingly told Crosby to smile, have some fun.
Iginla, constantly smiling, is clearly having fun not being the go-to-guy, as he was in Calgary. He also is growing more comfortable asserting his presence in the room.
The Penguins won Game 2, 4-3, but a two-goal lead felt tenuous at the second intermission. Often in a situation like that, several players will speak, offering reminders of what needs to be done over the final 20 minutes.
Iginla carried the conversation that night, right winger Tyler Kennedy said.
“Other guys talked, too,” Kennedy said. “But for sure, when ‘Iggy' went, everybody was paying attention. He just said that we needed to play smart, needed to keep making plays. It wasn't much, but it was big for us to hear that from him.”
Shero's last trade before the deadline came about because of Crosby's broken jaw. Had Crosby been healthy, the Penguins may have targeted a more traditional checking forward with faceoff proficiency.
Unsure, though hopeful, of Crosby's return, Shero sought a forward with versatility — and in Jokinen he found a blend of skill and savvy, not to mention a proven playoff producer.
An injury stemming from a hit in Game 1 of the first round caused Jokinen to miss five consecutive games. That was a blow to the Penguins, who lost the faceoff battle in four of those five contests.
Jokinen went 16 for 25 (64 percent) on draws in Games 4 and 5, both wins, against the Senators.
When not in the circle, he played mostly left wing on a fourth line but also was used on the third line, at least twice as the center.
“He's just a veteran, proven playoff guy,” Shero said, referring to Jokinen's nine goals and 18 points in 33 postseason contests. “And a very good player who's played in a variety of roles.”
The Penguins remain a car driven by Crosby, Malkin and defenseman Brooks Orpik. They have never lacked luxury items, such as Neal, an elite goal scorer, and Kris Letang, arguably the NHL's best defenseman.
They have been the shiniest sports car on the lot since riding off with the Cup in 2009.
They still glisten, but the difference so far in these playoffs is that Shero's overhaul has them built better for the rough and choppy road race for the Cup.
“I don't think it's going to change what we do, but they've helped us a lot as we've gone along,” Crosby said. “But they don't need to change anything now because they've been doing great.”