The handshake line was wrapping up on the PPG Paints Arena ice Thursday night while Penguins team officials raced toward the locker room.
Bill Guerin, who has witnessed it as a teammate and an executive, could only shake his head.
“Our big guys,” he said, “are always there when you need them.”
Those big guys might be able to carry the Penguins a long way this spring. Perhaps all the way. All played substantial roles in the Penguins’ 5-2 win against the Blue Jackets, eliminating Columbus in five. They had some company, too.
“The talent we have in this room is just a little bit different than other teams,” Justin Schultz said. “I mean, look around.”
Sergei Bobrovsky, the likely Vezina Trophy winner, will be looking around for pucks well into the summer. Bob looked like a second-rate goaltender against hockey’s best offensive team. He never came close to solving the Penguins and was seemingly rattled by the Penguins throughout.
“Not bad,” Marc-Andre Fleury said of his team’s offense, with a grin, while sitting at his locker following the game. “Not bad at all.”
The Penguins are attempting to make history in Gary Bettman’s NHL. It’s a history their team owner knows well.
Mario Lemieux emerged from the locker room with a smile on his face about 30 minutes after watching his team bury the Blue Jackets, presumably because his team won the series and because it did so in classic Pittsburgh fashion. The Penguins simply out-scored the Blue Jackets. Make no mistake: Lemieux puts winning first and always has, but he strongly believes the Penguins should play the game the right way, the beautiful way, the entertaining way.
But get this: The last NHL team to lead the league in goals and to win the Stanley Cup was the 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins. That’s right. In the past 25 years, the team that has led the NHL in scoring has been eliminated from the postseason at some point, the NHL clearly rewarding teams that play defense more than teams that score goals.
It’s happened four times to the Penguins during that stretch, in 1993, 1996, 2012 and 2013. Can this team be different?
Ian Cole described the philosophy of the defensemen:
“Well, we try to play hard,” Cole said. “And we try to play tight defensively and then get the puck to our forwards. We know how talented they are and how they can score. If we keep doing that, I think we’ll be in a good spot.”
It’s hard to disagree with those sentiments.
The Penguins’ forwards, after all, are so talented and so deep, it seems they’ll give the defending champs a chance in any series.
First, let’s consider the star power.
• Evgeni Malkin leads the playoffs in scoring with 11 points in five games. This marks the most points Malkin has scored in a playoff series. And ask yourselves this: Was Malkin even at his best in this series? He hadn’t played in almost four weeks entering the playoffs and never looked to completely regain his legs. Wait until the next round.
• Phil Kessel is second in the postseason with nine points. His slump was a big story entering the playoffs, and understandably so. When the playoffs arrive, so does Kessel’s passion. He worked hard during this series, won some puck battles, was responsible defensively and launched two outrageous shots past Bobrovsky. Big Game Phil is something else. This was the game’s first goal:
• Sidney Crosby (you’ll notice a theme here) is third in the postseason with seven points in five games. And really, Crosby didn’t have a great series. He was good but not necessarily dominant. There’s another gear for him. He had one great game (in Game 2, when he was sensational and produced three points), one great moment (his overtime feed in Game 3 was the stuff of legend) and one great shot, giving the Penguins’ a 4-2 advantage in the third period:
That’s the scary thing about the Penguins’ stars. They can seemingly be a little off, like on this night, and then fire a shot like that.
“Look at Sid’s goal,” Schultz said, laughing and shaking his head simultaneously. “Puts it in a perfect spot. The talent that we have in this room … we know how to put the puck in the net.”
• Let’s not leave Jake Guentzel out of this equation because he’s playing like a star right now. He scored five goals in this series and became the first player since Maurice “Rocket” Richard — you know, the guy they name the goal-scoring trophy after — to produce five goals in his first four playoff games. He’s fourth in the NHL in postseason scoring with six points, by the way.
Great offensive teams don’t receive offense from only stars, of course. Role players must thrive this time of season.
Very clearly, this is Bryan Rust’s time of year. He burned the Blue Jackets two more times, giving him four goals for the series. He score six goals last postseason. Of Rust’s 10 playoff goals, six of them came on nights when the Penguins eliminated an opponent:
Why is Rust so effective in the biggest of games? Aside from the six goals in series clinchers last spring, he scored the goal that put away the Lightning with the Penguins on the ropes in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final and scored the opening goal of the Stanley Cup Final.
“I don’t even know what’s going on,” Rust said. “I’m trying to have fun with it.”
If these Penguins are anything, they’re fun.
Even Scott Wilson is doing things like this:
Scoring goals can be a contagious thing. To get where the Penguins want to go, they’ll probably have to score more goals, even more than last season.
Without Kris Letang, they don’t control games five on five with quite the same efficiency. They don’t break out of their zone with the same zip. Their defensemen are solid, to a man, but the star power isn’t there without him.
The forwards need to keep this up, at least to some extent.
“We found a way to get this done,” Matt Cullen said. “By no means did we have our best game. It just tells you what we’re capable of.”
The Penguins are capable of scoring a lot of goals. This usually isn’t the foundation of championship teams, but then, these Penguins like to do things their own way. So far, so good.
“Every team is unique,” Cullen said with a grin.
JOSH’S FIVE THOUGHTS
• The Penguins probably need to score a similar amount of goals to beat the Capitals. Sure, Washington possesses some major flaws, many of which have been evident against the Maple Leafs. Do not underestimate the Capitals, however. That’s a great team that figures to give the Penguins’ blue line fits, especially with Letang out of the lineup. Sure, the Penguins can beat the Capitals. They absolutely can beat the Capitals. But I suspect they’ll need to score a ton of goals to do so. And, well, it’s not like they aren’t capable.
• Timing can be everything in life, and the timing of this series win couldn’t have been better for the Penguins. I’m estimating they’ll get around one week off to prepare for the second round. I’d be surprised if they get less than a week off, in fact, because of the reality that the Capitals and Leafs will play until at least Sunday. This is just right. The Penguins could use a big rest, and they’ll get one. However, had they eliminated the Blue Jackets on Tuesday, the rest may actually have been too long. They’d have been looking at 10 days off. That would have potentially been a problem.
• Bobrovsky is an utter fraud. Quite frankly, this series wasn’t so one-sided at all. The Penguins dominated for stretches and have more high-end skill, but the Blue Jackets dominated territorially for far longer stretches of time. This shouldn’t have been a five-game series, frankly. But Bobrovsky made it a five-game series. No one is disputing the Penguins’ offensive genius. It’s a real thing. But come on. When you’re about to claim your second career Vezina Trophy, you shouldn’t be allowing four goals per game against any team in a playoff series. Sorry. That’s not good enough. Not by a long shot.
• The Penguins’ goaltending situation remains something of a mystery. I don’t believe Sullivan will remove Fleury at this point. He’s on a roll, Matt Murray is still walking with a pronounced limp and there is a sense that Fleury has earned a chance to carry the Penguins to the promised land. But it’s difficult to overlook that Fleury did allow nine goals in two road games in this series and he’s sporting a very unimpressive .887 save percentage on the road this season. This is a troubling number. And yet, he’s been brilliant at home all season and was, in general, fabulous in this series. My guess is that Fleury will start the second round but, when he stumbles, and when Murray gets healthy, a change is quite possible. That said, Murray is still walking with a limp and hasn’t skated in more than a week.
• I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Sullivan has really turned the Penguins into the Penguins again. When you think of the Penguins, you think of talent, goals, entertaining hockey and more goals. It’s always been the franchise’s way. And it is their way again. Are the Penguins good enough defensively, without Letang, to win the Stanley Cup? I think that’s a very fair question, one I don’t have the answer to. This is, however, a very special offense, one that’s able to flourish because the head coach is smart enough to get out of the way when great players want to accomplish great things. The Penguins need to tighten their game up again, and Stanley Cups aren’t easily, no matter your talent level. If the Penguins play the Capitals, make no mistake, they could lose that series. But they sure are the Penguins again. The staleness of the Dan Bylsma era and the bizarro world of the Mike Johnston are over. The Penguins feel very fresh once again.
• Chris Kunitz and Chad Ruhwedel skated on Thursday morning. It’s unknown when they’ll be able to return.
• Malkin was banged up during Rust’s second goal but stayed in the game.
• Kessel was nursing some kind of injury — likely of the clavicle or shoulder variety — entering Game 5 but quite clearly was operating with reasonably good health.
• Hornqvist survived having his face crosschecked off the crossbar.
• Carl Hagelin? More on him later.
THREE NUMBERS OF NOTE
3 — Number of Blue Jackets’ playoff wins in 15 playoff appearances. What is it about Pittsburgh teams owning teams from the state of Ohio?
5 — Number of giveaways the Penguins were charged with in Game 5. Not a perfect number, but not awful. A cleaner brand of hockey will be needed, one would think, moving forward.
0 — Number of Stanley Cup titles John Tortorella has won since abandoning the self-proclaimed “safe is death” philosophy that won the Lightning their only championship 13 years ago. Blocking shots and racking up body checks seems to be death for Torts’ teams.
THE NEXT GAME
The Penguins will be watching TV a good bit during the next few days. They’ll play the winner of the Capitals-Maple Leafs series. Were I to guess when the series will start, well, I’d guess next Thursday. But that’s merely a guess and much could change between now and then. The Penguins will have ample time for rest at least. They’ll get a day off tomorrow and will surely resume practicing this weekend, either on Saturday or Sunday.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY