Kovacevic: All that’s awesome about hockey … in a single stickcheck


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Sidney Crosby celebrates his first goal Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

A three-goal surge in 108 seconds.

A throwdown of Tom Wilson.

A thousand points for Evgeni Malkin.

It was nothing less than a thrilling triumph, at least within a mid-March scope, the Penguins' 5-3 rally over the Capitals on this Tuesday night. It had all of the above, all played out before a throbbing-beyond-recognition capacity crowd at PPG Paints Arena.

As Erik Gudbranson, author of that throwdown, would tell me afterward:

Yeah, man, it was fun.

And to think, it all started with ... a stickcheck.

Jared McCann's meant so much to the Penguins since his arrival, not least of which are the nine goals he's put up in 20 games. But there surely hasn't been a more pivotal contribution to date than this one in the second period:

Now, give it up for Evgeny Kuznetsov, too. Because an embarrassing strip from behind inside the attacking blue line while holding a 2-0 lead ... that takes two, my friends, including whoever lazily bungles it that badly.

"A mistake by us" is what Todd Reirden, the Capitals' coach called it, and he was gentle.

What did Kuznetsov think?

Never showed up to answer questions.

Still, it's the protagonist who gets it done: McCann hustled at an almost irrational level on the backcheck -- trust me, the live view did it way more justice than the video above -- before violently swinging back with enough momentum to blow by Brooks Orpik for a semi-break, then backhanding with authority to Jake Guentzel for the finish.

"Just trying to backcheck," McCann would explain. "Had my head down, skating hard, had a couple strides on the guy, and I was able to pickpocket him. Jake made a great play to direct it in."

Right. And the ushers did well to direct fans to their seats, too.

“It was the turning point of the game, I think," Mike Sullivan fairly glowed. "Our bench got a foot taller after that.”

Funny, but the stickcheck's begun to fade from the NHL, in general. Referees now call slashing to the stick pretty much any time the aggrieved drops his stick, probably more than at any point in the sport's history, so players are more reluctant than ever to try it. But McCann's been proficient at it since his arrival, including two other rapid-fire strips on this sequence in the third:

Why, I had to ask McCann, is the stickcheck a vital component for him?

Whatever the motivation, the "foot taller" effect immediately took hold, with Sidney Crosby striking twice more in a 1:48 span to overturn the score to 3-2:

Man, Crosby's finishes on both were sublime, but Justin Schultz's Larry Murphy-esque flip and Phil Kessel's one-touch slip through John Carlson's wickets are two of the finest feeds he's had all winter.

But he, too, knew where it all started:

Remember all that moaning we all did for months about that missing spark?

This kid's it.

• That's two games in a row now for one of these plays, by the way. The notorious civic scapegoat, Dominik Simon, did the same thing to ignite Nick Bjugstad's goal a couple nights earlier against the Bruins.

• Before proceeding, it feels like this is being forgotten: Kris Letang was having a Norris Trophy-type season when he was hurt in Philadelphia. Since then, the Penguins are 6-1-1. And they've done this, in large part, due to an unprecedented commitment to collective goal prevention. It's the season's most unforeseen development to date, and it should be one hell of a point of pride for all involved.

• Yeah, Matt Murray, too. Maybe more than anyone. In this one, he let in two junky Jakub Vrana goals, but he also settled and prevailed. In his ninth consecutive start. Embrace what matters.

• Part of what's made McCann and Bjugstad terrific fits so far, as Sullivan's been stressing, is that they know and embrace their roles. Unlike, oh, say, Derick Brassard.

Well, put Gudbranson in that column, as well.

After two weeks of steady, sometimes dynamic defending, he still took the ice Tuesday with a glaringly clear understanding that everyone in the building -- more important, everyone on his bench -- expected him to counter the Capitals' resident idiot. And he did that with a big bulk-on-bulk check on their first common shift.


"It just happened to be him," Gudbranson responded. "If it had been anyone else, I'd have done the same thing"

More enjoyable because it's him?

"Maybe for you guys. For the people in Pittsburgh, I'm sure."

See what I mean?

Next came this in the second, when Wilson took a couple of jabs at his partner, Marcus Pettersson. While Pettersson was already down, of course:

Gudbranson tried hard to fight Wilson, but the linesmen, Ryan Gibbons and Ryan Daisy, leaped in so quickly that it couldn't come off.

"It's hard to start a fight after someone's on the ground," Gudbranson explained. "They won't let that happen very often."

The gesture was appreciated.

"He has a presence out there, and he can take care of himself, take care of us," Pettersson told me. "But I think it's important to say, he's also playing really well. He's a great skater. He's gotten some good looks lately, too. He's been so good for us in so many ways."

No doubt. He finished this game as the Penguins' leader in five-on-five Corsi For percentage at 51.22.

• Add to the local pounding the Panthers are taking for the McCann/Bjugstad trade with at least a jab at the Canucks: Tanner Pearson's played six games in Vancouver with a goal, no assists and five team losses to show for it.

• The Capitals' backpedaling and clotheslining in the neutral zone had caused the Penguins significant trouble in exiting their zone in the first period, but one smart adjustment solved that and even created a goal:

It wasn't just Schultz and Brian Dumoulin going aerial. Three other defensemen would do something similar to find an easy way over Washington's wall.

The best coaching invariably shows with in-game adjustments.

• Schultz had the primary assist on Crosby's breakaway goal, obviously, but Braden Holtby should have gotten the other for whatever he was attempting with that weird protecting-himself posture up there.

"At first, I didn't think it was going to be a breakaway," Holtby tried to explain. "So I was kind of playing it a little more as if it was going to be a battle or a quick shot. He got caught kind of flat-footed and, the way he was coming across, I didn't think he'd have any room to get his stick on it through the middle. I thought he'd have to go around. If I could get him off balance, I thought I could stop him from doing that, since he was flat-footed."

Say what?

He saw a player winging his way at warp speed, and he didn't want to get hurt.

• This is nuts, but the Penguins now have precisely the same separation -- four points -- between first place in the Metro and ninth in the East, where the persistent Canadiens keep hovering out of the playoff periphery. Knowing Sullivan, he'll probably mention this only a million or so times between now and Buffalo.

• A lot of these tribute videos for returning players can feel forced. Not the one for Carl Hagelin. And certainly not the rousing standing ovation that followed, one of the loudest for these scenes. Good for him. A champion in all ways.

• Speaking of ...

A hearty congratulations here to the 101st-greatest player in NHL history for already achieving 1,000 points at age 32, with many, many milestones still to come.

And many, many more smiles, too.

"It's 1,000 points, a crazy number, you know?" he'd beam before the cameras and microphones. "I played in a small city. I never believed I would play in NHL and score 1,000 points. It's an amazing night for me. One of the best nights of my life. It's a special day for my family, my friends. I played hockey all my life. It's amazing to be here and win against Washington. It's a special day."

Come on, you knew he'd work Washington in there somewhere.

• Crosby's best bud, Chris Kunitz, brought his 1,000th point by scoring. Malkin's best bud, Kessel, did likewise.

That's almost as cool as this:

• Stick-tap on the side to Sullivan for this about Malkin: "He doesn’t get the credit he deserves outside of Pittsburgh in the hockey world. He has been one of the elite players in this league for a decade-plus."

• What a night, indeed. Never take that other guy for granted, either.


[caption id="attachment_791404" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Penguins vs. Capitals, PPG Paints Arena, March 12, 2019 - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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