“As much as you want to hit them, I don’t think … well, obviously it’s not working. Basically, all it does is tire you out.”
Scott Hartnell is 35. He can barely skate anymore. He can’t really play much, either. And heaven knows he’s never been accused of burning excess brain cells, certainly not once he steps inside Pittsburgh city limits. He once bit Kris Letang’s finger here. Just a month ago, he invested each shift in flagrantly charging random opponents, running up nine hits and probably a pint of blood.
And yet, it was this born-to-be-a-Flyer boor who somehow, with that quote up at the top there, most sweetly summarized this first-round Stanley Cup playoff series that finished Thursday night with the Penguins burying the Blue Jackets, 5-2, in Game 5 at PPG Paints Arena.
Seriously, no one said it better. Not before the series, not after, and definitely not during, including when Hartnell spoke those two truths a couple days ago in Columbus.
He figured it out way before his head coach did. Way before the front office that misguidedly picked up his six-year, $28.5 million contract in 2014 primarily so he could poke and prod at the Penguins, the Blue Jackets’ fantasy rival.
Way before it all came to pass, all through this series.
Let’s state this plainly, once and for all: These Penguins aren’t those Penguins.
“You want to hit me? Fine, come and hit me,” Ian Cole was telling me after this one was done. “But you’ve got to understand, I don’t care. Hit me all you want. I’ll take it. But I’m going to get the puck past you, and we’re going to do something with it.”
I hate diving. And no, I’m not picking on Nick Foligno yet again, if only because he was hurt and unable to play Game 5. I hate embellishment in hockey and any other sport, regardless of who does it.
So I wasn’t particularly wild about Evgeni Malkin dropping after this legitimately nasty cross-check to the arm in the second period moments after Bryan Rust banged home a rebound for a 3-0 lead:
The perpetrator there is fourth-line forward Josh Anderson. But he’s also the unwitting victim. Because what actually occurs is that Malkin, after having something hurt him so badly right before Rust’s goal that he bypassed the same rebound, flat-out goads Anderson into the penalty.
Malkin declined to do media interviews afterward, but the broader change to his game, even from earlier this past regular season, couldn’t be clearer.
Old Geno: Rip someone’s head off. Anyone’s.
This Geno: Turn ever-so-slightly to the right before the stick blow, then drop so that even an NHL referee can notice.
Old playoff Geno: Frustrated constantly by any and all shadowing nobodies like Sean Couturier.
This playoff Geno: Leading scorer in the NHL with 11 points, matched by zero penalty minutes.
The atmosphere at PPG for Games 1 and 2 was blown away by what was witnessed and heard in Columbus for Games 3 and 4.
Not so for Game 5, which opened thusly:
When the Blue Jackets clawed back within 3-2, though, more than a few throats in that crowd clenched. And when they appeared to tie early in the third period, it fell silent. Like, creepy silent. Like, pick-any-Game-7-from-the-past-decade silent.
But the goal was waved off for Alexander Wennberg’s blatant interference on Marc-Andre Fleury and, what’s more, Wennberg was sent to the box, the latter no longer being a requirement with that role. John Tortorella didn’t like it and, predictably, stomped and cussed like a traumatized two-year-old, even though there was no case: Sure, Scott Wilson had a stick on Wennberg, but Wennberg never altered the path of his blades, never made an attempt to avoid the goaltender.
And after the puck was fished out and Fleury took a casual chug from his water bottle, a crazy thing happened: The fans started chanting ‘Fleu-ry! Fleu-ry! Fleu-ry!’ in a clear attempt to … well, to clear his mind.
Old home crowd: Shrivel up at the tiniest trace of something awry.
New home crowd:
Don’t think for a second it doesn’t matter. There’s a really good reason this team, and in particular this player, are so much steadier in Pittsburgh.
As newcomer Ron Hainsey would put it, “These fans were unbelievable. We fed off them all night.”
The score was still a precarious 3-2, but the crowd carried on into the power play that followed.
Right until this:
That’s the face of Patric Hornqvist’s being crosschecked by David Savard into the pipe of the Columbus net. Those pipes consist of a 2 3/8-inches steel tube that’s probably as unforgiving as it sounds. To be sure, not many human jaws are capable of budging it.
To be equally sure, neither referee’s arm was raised.
But the temperature in the building, man, that hit the roof. Beginning with Hornqvist:
The door slam was only the start. He barked, slammed his right hand on the bench, stabbed his stick into the floor … and the crowd’s crescendo only built.
And here, my friends, is where the game turned.
Start with this: No one went after Savard. Because there’s nothing to be gained. He’s irrelevant in every way, and so is any direct retaliation against him.
“Why bother?” as one veteran put it. “What’ll that do?”
What followed was a strange, striking sight: The Penguins, individually about the ice and on the bench, looked worked up. They were wired. They wanted revenge in the worst way … but also in the best way.
“Oh, we wanted to score so bad there,” Justin Schultz would tell me. “All of us felt it out there. We felt like we could answer right there.”
Did they ever.
The first attempt came from Malkin at the right point, a bad-mood wide slap shot that was almost funny because of the force with which it boomed off the back boards and caromed around. He wasn’t just trying to score. He was trying to penetrate bodies and twine:
“Geno’s shot there … wow,” Crosby would observe.
The captain would out-wow that moments later, this on a tidy, controlled feed from Malkin and the most precise top-shelf, peanut-butter beauty of a one-timer one could ever hope to witness:
The place positively erupted with emotion, mostly anger, which often is the most potent of emotions.
Crosby himself stopped at the side of the net, faced the crowd, raised both arms and screamed at a decibel that might have rivaled all that was coming back his way.
“Great feeling,” he’d tell me. “For all of us.”
Old playoff Penguins: Don’t get pushed around, boys! Fill the box, same as the other guys!
New playoff Penguins: Stroll off with the series in five, go barbecue for the weekend.
Old playoff Penguins: Tuukka Rask is so awesome that we’ll pass around the perimeter and wait for the perfect shot until the Bruins sweep all four games.
New playoff Penguins: Of the three Vezina Trophy goaltenders we’ve beaten in the past five playoff rounds, Sergei Bobrovsky is by far the biggest fraud.
I asked Fleury, after 49 saves and an overall series showing so dominant that just about everyone with the Blue Jackets except for Tortorella pointed to him as the pivotal factor — “We just couldn’t beat him, no matter what we did,” Jack Johnson would say — if he felt like he were reclaiming his job.
“I want to feel like that every time I’m out there,” came the quick reply, accompanied by a telling nod. “All I can do is my best.”
His best on this night came against Johnson on a Columbus four-on-four:
Old playoff Fleury: Repeatedly slamming his forehead into a cement wall on Long Island, having lost his starting spot to Tomas Vokoun. Saw it myself. Won’t ever forget it.
New playoff Fleury: You’d better believe it’s his job. It might be his team right now. Touch him now, and you’ll get burned.
The de-emotionalizing of these Penguins began in earnest on the NHL Draft floor in 2014, when Jim Rutherford acquired from Nashville the “warrior” Hornqvist, as Crosby likes to call him, for the gifted but volatile James Neal. Hornqvist has all of the fire, maybe more, but he long ago harnessed it for hockey purposes.
I wrote it that very day, and I’ll repeat now: Hornqvist is everything the Penguins need to be. And now, it’s everything they’ve become, thanks further to Mike Sullivan’s just-play preachings, further yet to having raised the Stanley Cup last summer.
To be their best selves, they need to shrug off the kind of garbage the Blue Jackets pulled, particularly early in the series until Hartnell’s realization hit everyone else on that side. By the time Tortorella put Brandon Dubinsky back on a leash, the NHL suspended Matt Calvert and Hartnell was relegated to a healthy scratch, it was way too late for Columbus and its head-stuck-in-the-sand head coach.
Old Torts: Same as the new Torts, classless as ever in fleeing the ice to avoid the ceremonial handshake, one of hockey’s longest-standing and proudest traditions:
New Torts: Hey, the man can show himself out of the playoffs. He knows the route well.
This will happen to the next opponent that tries it, too.
Reciting anew the teachings of that noted Columbus philosopher, “well, obviously it’s not working.”
Don’t get me wrong. Someone might beat the Penguins in these playoffs, especially if the defense — meaning Sullivan’s desired five-man, all-in defense — doesn’t reset for the second round. But it’s going to take an opponent with similar skill, speed and class, and that small field just dwindled by one Thursday with the Blackhawks’ breathtaking sweep by the Predators.
What’s almost certain at this stage, and maybe never more than after this round, is that the Penguins are well beyond undoing themselves.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY