Depleted Penguins could go down fighting
NEW YORK — The team of elite-skill superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is also the team of multiple blindside hit offender Matt Cooke and bench-leaving enforcer Eric Godard.
These are the Penguins. And, by general manager Ray Shero's design, they represent both what's beautiful and beastly about the NHL.
That unique dichotomy got them jumped Friday night at Nassau Coliseum by a New York Islanders squad bent on gaining a measure of revenge and making a statement.
That game, not that anybody with the Penguins would label it as such, featured 346 penalty minutes — the third-most in the NHL since 1990 — and 15 fighting majors. In the final two periods alone, three of the least respectable incidents from any recent NHL season transpired:
• Islanders wing Matt Martin sucker-punched Penguins forward Max Talbot.
• Islanders forward Micheal Haley, a known AHL enforcer, pummeled Talbot at one end of the ice, then went down the other end to fight Penguins goalie Brent Johnson, prompting Godard to leave the bench to take on Haley.
• Islanders wing Trevor Gillies delivered an elbow to the head of the Penguins' Eric Tangradi, who while laid out face-first on the ice was mocked by Gillies from the runway to the locker room.
Nobody with the Penguins anticipated such a violent end to a 9-3 loss that the Islanders commanded from the start. Nobody is expecting future opponents — say, the New York Rangers today at Madison Square Garden — to follow the Islanders' lead.
"That was isolated with them," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I don't think other teams would stoop to that level."
Coach Dan Bylsma denied he was concerned that the Islanders found the blueprint to beat his club, which will play with five AHL regulars today and potentially the next few weeks.
Maybe Bylsma is right, but this would appear to be the rest of the NHL's chance to knock the Penguins, perceived as perennial Stanley Cup favorites and a model franchise, down a few pegs — if not a few flights of stairs.
They have never appeared more vulnerable during the past four seasons, with Crosby and Malkin topping a list of injured regulars who have contributed half of the offense. As an organization, the Penguins also appear to be skating along a thin line.
There is reason to believe team CEO/president David Morehouse, a hockey dad with growing influence among NHL officials, will push this offseason for firmly worded rules aimed at removing hits to the head and from behind.
That only makes sense. Crosby, the franchise's most important asset, may not play again this season because of a concussion that many hockey people believe stemmed from a couple of blindside hits last month, including one to his head.
So, how does Morehouse make that push without being questioned about his club's employment of perceived cheap-shot artist Cooke, not to mention that oft-repeated "tough to play against" theme from management?
It's a delicate balancing act — never easy on ice.
The Penguins lead the NHL with 1,101 penalty minutes — 94 more than the Islanders. The Penguins' eight game misconduct penalties are second-most; they are one of four clubs with a match penalty; and they entered Saturday with 47 more penalties — and seven more majors — than any other team.
These statistics don't bother the Penguins, and maybe they shouldn't, given their top-four standing in team defense and penalty killing this season. Defense and penalty killing have fueled many deep playoff runs.
"We're not changing the way we play," Talbot said. "We take pride in being a hard team to play against."
More pressing is how the Penguins maintain playoff positioning with third-line wing Tyler Kennedy as the leading healthy goal scorer. He has 11 goals, and the Penguins have scored six times in their past four games.
The players left standing on hockey's toughest team possess many championship traits — tenacity, hockey IQ, leadership and grit. Most don't possess a natural scoring touch.
That makes these Penguins less tough to play against than they'd like to admit.Additional Information:
By the numbers
A tale-of-the-tape from Friday night:
Penalties: Penguins 31, Islanders 34
Shots: Penguins 36, Islanders 38
Hits: Penguins 18, Islanders 22
3rd period PIMs: Penguins 105, Islanders 108
Team PP time: Penguins 17:12, Islanders 7:19
Fighting majors: Penguins 7, Islanders 8
Game misconducts: Penguins 6, Islanders 5
10-minute misconducts: Penguins 4, Islanders 6
Roughing minors: Penguins 8, Islanders 6
Instigator minors: Penguins 0, Islanders 2
Cross check/charging/slashing minors: Penguins 4, Islanders 3
Players with 15-plus PIMs: Penguins 5, Islanders 6
Player with most PIMs: Penguins ?Eric Godard (31), Islanders • Micheal Haley (39)
Players with 3-plus penalties: Penguins 3, Islanders 5
Players with 25 or more minutes played: Penguins 3, Islanders 0
Players with six or fewer minutes played: Penguins 3, Islanders 3
Player with fewest minutes: Penguins • Godard (3:57), Islanders • Trevor Gillies (1:40)Additional Information:
Long Island iced packs
NHL games with the most penalty minutes since 1990 (with home teams in CAPS):
March 5, 2004: FLYERS 5, Senators 3 ? 419 total PIMs (Senators 206, Flyers 213)
March 31, 1992: STARS 5, Sabres 3 • 360 total PIMs (Sabres 188, Stars 172)
Friday: ISLANDERS 9, Penguins 3 • 346 total PIMs (Penguins 163, Islanders 183)
April 12, 1992: SABRES 3, Canadiens 1 • 321 total PIMs (Canadiens 176, Sabres 145)
Dec. 8, 2001: Mighty Ducks 4, FLAMES 0 ? 309 total PIMs (107 Mighty Ducks, 202 Flames)
Source: Elias Sports BureauAdditional Information:
'Everybody thinks about (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin, but to me, teams that play us know they're going to be in for a hockey game. We're going to be a physical, hard team to play against. We come at you, and it doesn't matter who's going to be in the lineup.'
• Penguins general manager Ray Shero on Tuesday