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Kovacevic: Only Staal has been there all along

| Saturday, April 21, 2012
The Penguins' Jordan Staal celebrates his goal with Matt Cooke during the second period against the Flyers Friday April 20, 0212 at CONSOL Energy Center.
The Penguins' Jordan Staal celebrates his goal with Matt Cooke during the second period against the Flyers Friday April 20, 0212 at CONSOL Energy Center.

Brooks Orpik, always blunt as a butt-end, was the one who had best summed up the scope of the Penguins' challenge earlier this week in Philadelphia: He called their play through three losses "terrible." Even joked that "maybe we're idiots or something" for thinking they might survive this Stanley Cup playoff series.

He nailed both shots.

The Penguins were terrible.

And yeah, they probably were idiots for daring to expect they could match one of the rarest feats in the annals of professional sports.

But maybe they needed to be terrible first to grow stronger. And maybe they needed to be idiots to get past cold reality.

Because here they are.

They're two victories away from history after that 3-2 went-to-a-hockey-game-and-a-hockey-game-broke-out flushing of the Flyers in Game 5 Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center.

They're two victories away from matching the 1942 Maple Leafs, the 1975 Islanders, the 2004 Red Sox — the original Idiots — and the 2010 Flyers in transforming a 3-0 deficit into a truly special seven-game triumph.

Do you believe yet?

If you don't, the guy wearing No. 11 might want a word.

No one on the Penguins' roster, not even during the terrible/idiotic phase, has stood taller in these playoffs than Jordan Staal. Maybe no one around the NHL. His sweet goal in the second period not only brought a 2-2 tie but also was his sixth of the postseason, No. 1 in the league.

That's also what Staal was for his team, a No. 1 amid a sea of No. 1s.

It wasn't Crosby, who was banged around a bit and off his game.

It sure wasn't Evgeni Malkin, who hurt his team with stupid, selfish penalties.

Marc-Andre Fleury was magnificent in stepping up for the first time in this series and richly deserved his No. 1 star, but I'll still value Staal's contribution above all.

"He was amazing," Crosby said.

"It isn't just now. He's been great all year," linemate Tyler Kennedy said. "But he's really taken over."

Rewind to the takeover point early in the second period. The Flyers were up, 2-1, and Consol had gone silent for the only time all evening, as if everyone were cringing in anticipating the next penalty-killing collapse.

Who could blame them?

As Dan Bylsma painted it, "We're looking for something to pick us up."

With a north-north breakout that spanned 120 feet in about 1.2 seconds, Staal collected the puck at the Philadelphia blue line and was off on a two-on-one with Matt Cooke.

But make no mistake: This was Staal's play.

"I've talked to Jordan that he needs to take those big shots," Cooke said. "I was over there, but I wanted him to let it go."

Staal did, though Ilya Bryzgalov wouldn't be able to describe it, so quickly did it whiz by his glove at 6:15 of the second.

"I saw he slipped a little bit," Staal said of defenseman Pavel Kubina. "It's a two-on-one, and I just wanted to bear down and fire it."

It's what the great ones do.

And if you don't think Staal has climbed into that stratosphere, you haven't been watching. Show me another NHL center who works off a third line and sees sporadic power-play duty, but still has such an impact.

That's why the Penguins would love to — and I believe will — keep Staal in Pittsburgh with a long-term contract before he has a chance to leave in two summers. This is a team built up the middle, from Fleury to not one, not two, but three No. 1 centers.

Think about that: Three No. 1s.

"I'm sure Jordan doesn't see himself as a No. 3," Crosby said, smiling. "Actually, there's no way he does. Look what he's doing."

Go ahead and look. No need to turn away. You still have every reason to believe.

Without being an idiot.

Photo Galleries

Game 5 Penguins vs. Flyers 4/20/11

Game 5  Penguins vs. Flyers  4/20/11

The Penguins defeat the Flyers, 3-2, at CONSOL Energy Center.

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