"I think every game, from here on out, is going to be of that intensity. And you have to match it or exceed it."
This was Jack Johnson, snapping off his shin pads as we spoke late Saturday afternoon at PPG Paints Arena, after the Penguins neither matched nor exceeded the Blues' intensity in a 5-1 flop.
And no, this wasn't about daylight hockey. Spare me the meme. These guys were wide awake. The legs were there from the opening faceoff. As was the crisp tape-to-tape passing. Couple of quality chances. Big saves, too, by Matt Murray. So don't paint this as one of those patented matinee bombs because that wouldn't come close to being accurate.
All that happened was that the other guys were visibly that much more determined.
"Yeah, they came out hard," Marcus Pettersson was telling me. "They came out way harder than us."
Look, I'm not big on condensing team sports to simple intangibles -- it's generally a gross oversimplification -- but what I witnessed here, first and foremost, was an opponent that stormed the ice as if this were Game 7. The Blues weren't just physical. They were chopping like lumberjacks, from Robert Bortuzzo to that notorious enforcer Oskar Sundqvist. They didn't just skate the puck up ice. They soared in a five-man swarm. They didn't just go to the net. They crashed it from all points.
And it should have been expected: The St. Louis story has been one of the most uplifting in the NHL all winter, the rise from last overall to sudden Stanley Cup playoff contention. So, after a rare 0-2-1 bump, not least of which was a miserable 2-0 loss Thursday in Ottawa, they bounced back big.
To hear Mike Sullivan tell it, it was expected: "We didn't have the start we wanted to. And that was something we talked about before the game. We knew they were going to play with a certain level of desperation. They'd lost a couple in a row, they're fighting for the playoffs, and they're a good team. So we knew we were going to have to bring a certain level of urgency from the drop of the puck."
They had some, but it wasn't a match, which is how Sundqvist and Vince Dunn struck for the 2-0 lead before intermission:
Then for two more, by Pat Maroon and Jay Bouwmeester, in the opening 2:41 of the second period, chasing Murray:
There's effort from the Penguins in all of those. In some cases, notably those involving Sidney Crosby, it feels silly to question effort. But again, it wasn't a match.
I asked Craig Berube, St. Louis' coach who should be a Jack Adams Award finalist, about his team's desperation, that urgency.
"Yeah, it was definitely there for us right away," he replied. "I really liked our urgency."
Also asked Jordan Binnington, the spectacular rookie goaltender whose 40 saves included at least a half-dozen of the highlight-reel level:
I know, I know. No one cares about the other perspective. But, to reiterate Johnson's sentiment, this matters to the Penguins beyond this single outcome for this single reason: They'd better get used to it.
Sunday night, it's the Flyers right here. They at least think they're still alive.
Tuesday night in Raleigh, it's the Hurricanes, a direct combatant in the East.
Thursday night in Nashville, it's the Predators, one of the best in the West, and Wayne Simmonds' new employer.
Saturday night in Dallas, it's the Stars, now two points removed from these Blues in the same conference.
"If you don't match it or exceed it right away, you're going to get behind the 8-ball like we did here," Johnson continued. "Look at the standings right now. You've got teams fighting for playoff spots top to bottom. It's not just us. It feels like it's almost everyone. We've got to keep fighting. The whole way through."
It's crazy but, as I type this, the Penguins are four points out of first place in the Metro, six points ahead of the ninth-place Canadiens currently holding the top non-playoff spot in the East. And in case it skipped notice, that was little different following the three-game winning streak that preceded this loss.
Fact I: This team's likely to win the division if it plays to its peak.
Fact II: This team's one lousy week away from sitting out the playoffs altogether.
Fact III: Time's ticking. Ten games remain. Twenty points to be taken.
It's not more layered than that. Everything else is fine. And if Kris Letang and/or Bryan Rust can return against the Flyers, it'll be that much finer.
"I think our mentality has to be a playoff one," was how Crosby worded it. "Sometimes, it doesn't go your way, and you've got to forget about it. Fortunately, we play tomorrow. Our mindset's got to be on that and making sure we come away with two points."
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