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Kovacevic: No other like Sutter in series

| Monday, April 28, 2014, 11:30 p.m.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — “Good.”

That was the totality of the assessment I could cull from Brandon Sutter about his injury status Monday night as he stepped gingerly through the locker room following the Penguins' hang-on-for-dear-life, hide-the-women-and-children, it-just-had-to-be-4-3 elimination of Columbus in Game 6 of their Stanley Cup playoff series.

It was just one word. Nothing else. No elaboration on how badly his ankle was hurt when he made that awkward turn with five minutes left in the second period. No prognosis for the next round.

But you know, that word probably meant about as much as anything anyone could say in this particular aftermath. Because if it wasn't painfully obvious that Sutter was his team's best player in this round while actually playing, it sure was painful to watch once he hobbled off.

“Yeah, sure, it would have been nice to have him out there in the third,” Marc-Andre Fleury was saying after surviving the Blue Jackets' three late goals that transformed the game's finish from annihilation to potential nightmare. “Our guys were doing their best, battling hard. But we all know how great Suttsy has been for us.”

Anyone care to debate that?

Hey, I'll credit Fleury for his riveting rebound from Game 4 and for making more than a few superlative saves in this one. Nods also should go to Jussi Jokinen for all his timely touches, to Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen for relentless offense from the blue line, and yeah, to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for breaking out when needed most, Crosby with superlative two-way work — including assuming most of Sutter's late duties — and Malkin for torching Sergei Bobrovsky three times. As Rob Scuderi put it better than anyone, “You're starting to see our identity come out.”

No question. But Sutter was the man. And he might well have represented the foundation of that identity.

Forget the three goals and two assists, the plus-6 rating that topped all forwards, the 50 percent ratio on faceoffs when Columbus was dominating others, the penalty killing, the even-strength checking.

Forget, even, that it was his presence, specifically his two-way versatility, that allowed Dan Bylsma to make the one move that altered the series in putting Crosby and Malkin together. “Having Brandon going the way he is, that opens up all kinds of options,” the coach said.

Set aside all that and isolate just on how Sutter has led the way by building on defense first.

“For me, my game starts with defense,” he was telling me in a lengthy chat after the morning skate. “I don't want to cheat out of the zone. I want to get all the pucks in deep. I want to make sure I'm doing the right things. And if the goals come, they come. That's a bonus.”

Talking about the individual is never easy for a Sutter. Western Canada's most celebrated hockey family has always been all about the collective, all about the W.

But who's to say there's a distinction here?

Who's to say Sutter wasn't fully focused on the team when, in the final second of the Blue Jackets' power play in the second, he lined up to block a James Wiesniewski shot?

And who's to say he wasn't fully focused on the team when he followed that ricochet for a clean breakaway?

And who's to say he wasn't fully focused on the scoreboard when he beat Bobrovsky with that top-shelf backhander?

Really, who's to say that everything in this game, this whole series, wasn't founded on the burgeoning presence of the guy wearing No. 16 on his sweater and his heart on his sleeve?

Listen to his teammates ...

Tanner Glass: “The guy's been huge. He goes out there now thinking he can be the guy who changes the game.”

Beau Bennett: “He's been dominant.”

James Neal: “He excels at both ends, and you saw it again tonight. He turns his defense to offense as well as anyone. He's underrated, I think, for what he does. Especially to do it this time of year.”

That last point's worth emphasizing mostly because it wasn't that way with Sutter last summer. He had a measly three points in 15 playoff games, his first in Pittsburgh, and … well, I'd have to get outright mean to describe how the other facets of his game went.

Suffice it to say, he realized it all. He talked with family and friends in the offseason, including dad, Brent Sutter, a veteran of just about everything hockey. He went on to a solid regular season despite centering a ridiculous 19 different wingers and various AHL farmhands. And once Ray Shero's bid to trade him to the Canucks for Ryan Kesler fell through at the deadline, he appeared to find yet another notch heading into this postseason.

“It's not easy the first time you do anything, and I didn't really get that playoff experience in Carolina,” Sutter said. “The people I talked to, especially my dad, just told me to be myself, to play my game. Don't try to do more. So when I got to playing well late in this season, that's what I wanted to have as my mindset. Just keep going.”

And so the Penguins are. In lockstep with him.

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