Kovacevic: One way Penguins could get legit scary in playoffs


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Phil Kessel celebrates his power-play goal Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

The Penguins will partake in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Also coming to Pittsburgh in 2019: Death and taxes, Downtown jaywalking, and a downpour on the opening day of the Three Rivers Arts festival.

As Kris Letang worded it with characteristic casualness after the 4-1 clincher over the Red Wings on this Thursday night inside PPG Paints Arena, "I don't expect less than that, you know? The roster we put together every year, with the quality of players like Sid, Geno, Phil and these guys ... I think we should be there."

Yep. Took a little longer than the norm. Didn't result in some top seed, either, as all that's left is dueling with the Islanders for second place in the Metro. But they got there for a 13th consecutive spring, the longest active streak in the NHL.

We done with that now?

Awesome. Because making the playoffs was always about avoiding disaster and never the destination. And to reach that destination for the third time in four years, it'll take more than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, more than the next tier of Phil Kessel and Letang, more than this wonderful version of Matt Murray we've witnessed for weeks now, more than anything related to the collective.

It'll take something special. Something ... scary, to borrow from the hockey vernacular when weighing an opponent in an awestruck tone.

And in case anyone forgot what facet of this operation frightens above all others, there were two pointed reminders in this game, sweetly summarized by the captain: "It was good to see the power play get a couple there."

That's the power play. Meaning the five guys -- Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Kessel, Patric Hornqvist -- who infuriate almost as often as they've invigorate, who rank fourth in the NHL at 25.0 percent even as they're worst in the league in giving up 14 shorties and, yeah, who somehow never stay separated for long.

Oh, Mike Sullivan will vow to break them up. He'll occasionally dare to try it. But he can't quit these guys. He just can't. And that's because he accurately grasps that he needs that scare factor they bring. He might not need it in November, but he knows he needs it when the games matter most. So, sure enough, even with Malkin and Letang freshly back from lengthy absences, even with Hornqvist having been recently replaced at times by Jake Guentzel, Sullivan went right back to his familiar five at the first chance.

No point asking why. He's answered the question a dozen times or more the same way: "Because I believe in those guys."

They rewarded that faith not only by going 2-for-4 but also by showing a fire unseen most of this season, by flying up the rink to gain the zone, by fighting for the puck when loose and by -- gasp -- shooting it! Nine whole times!

Let's roll back through the first power-play goal, late in the first period:

What's above is right off Crosby's winning draw. And the numbers denote each of the five times the Penguins presented at least a threat of shooting. They'd face Jimmy Howard, they'd cock the sticks, or they'd actually pull the trigger, but they'd do something to make it a plausible option. They'd do something to put the Red Wings on their heels.

The puck was cleared after Crosby's midair whack didn't work, but the tone was set.

Time for a reset:

Remember all the those roll-the-eyes failed bids to gain a blue line by Kessel?

Know what caused those?

It's that Kessel wasn't coming with anywhere near the speed he flashed up there. He took Crosby's lateral feed and flew into the Detroit zone, deep enough that he carved enough time for a setup.

And when the setup didn't work, the way things often won't ...

... Kessel fell on the puck in the right corner, maybe on purpose, then was joined by Hornqvist, then Malkin all the way from the left side, then Crosby as a remarkable fourth figure on the scene. Sullivan loves this. He'll count the sticks in a scene like this, and he's almost never got enough. But especially on a power play. Retrievals, as the coaches call them, are huge. And here, Hornqvist had enough support that he was the one who eventually rose up and pushed the puck back to Letang at the right point.

Which led to a setup and the goal:

The Red Wings blew it here, for full context. Joe Hicketts, a 22-year-old called up Tuesday from the AHL to help a defense devastated by injuries, had no business backing off Crosby as he did. His one-handed grip on the stick betrayed that he was worried about Hornqvist, who already was double-covered, and he gave an astonishing amount of time and space to the planet's best player.

Still, four more shot attempts followed until Kessel's finish. The approach didn't waver.

The same applied on the far simpler second power-play goal, by Crosby in the third period:

I asked Letang, in essence, why all these guys who never shoot suddenly were shooting as if it were a mandate, and he acknowledged the opponent had much to do with it:

Made sense. Everything about the Red Wings' style under Jeff Blashill has been to own the vertical middle of the rink. And on the penalty-kill, that's meant an emphasis on preventing those dissect-the-box, tic-tac-toe passes that gifted teams like the Penguins love.

So how does a coach feel when even that doesn't work?

I had to ask Blashill:

Sense the exasperation there?

That's how the Penguins will hope Barry Trotz looks in a week or so. Because there's no scheming against it when it's going like that, and that's one whale of a weapon in a best-of-seven.

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