Penguins biggest challenge might be controlling things they can control

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A change in the ambient percussion always precedes the start of Penguins practice at the Consol Energy Center; the soft clatter of pucks and sticks invading the ice surface suddenly drowns out the distant whine of vacuums attending to suite level.

At the start of the last full practice before Flyermageddon, with Mario Lemieux settling into an aisle seat 10 rows from the ice, one of those 50 or so pucks began rolling on its edge toward center ice, steered itself this way then that, and still had enough gas to negotiate a full u-turn.

Picking the winner of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal that begins tonight is roughly the equivalent of saying which of its flat surfaces will be face up when that rolling puck toppled.

The Penguins as fully constituted are marginally superior to the Flyers -- better at the top of a gifted roster, deeper at the bottom, supported by a foundational goaltender with the uniquely resilient temperament of a decorated playoff knight.

But there is so much more to the potentially decisive politics of this series than those kinds of tangible measurements.

Where is the empirical evidence, for example, that the Penguins can beat Philadelphia in this building in a game of any significance? Why do the current atmospherics suggest the Flyers, the best road team in the NHL this season, will head home Friday night with at least a split?

What's more, isn't it highly significant, as this postseason begins, that the Penguins have succeeded in making so many people angry in so many muscular Eastern Conference strongholds over the past week and a half?

"I know there are people who have talked about our top players in the paper, trying to get them off their game," Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek was saying Tuesday. "We can only worry about what goes on on the ice. We have good players in this room. Good people. People who care about each other.

"If we concentrate on what we can control, we'll be fine."

In the opposite dressing room, the Flyers would say much the same thing, that their interest in the Penguins is limited strictly to the challenges of any on-ice impediment, but their head coach was just fined $10,000 for scaling the dasher boards in a Flying rage. The coach of the New York Rangers got hit for $20,000 for a subsequent Penguins seethe, and notorious hockey squawker Mike Milbury issued a presumably coerced apology to Penguins CEO David Morehouse for comments unbecoming to Lemieux's team.

Layer that with tangible Penguins-inflicted damage to Philadelphia's Danny Briere, Boston's Johnny Boychuk and New York's Derek Stepan, add a little (Don) Cherry on top, and you've got a hot little mountain of resentment at work as the playoffs start.

You might think that Morehouse, called 'House in his youth, had played just enough of that elbows-out no-autopsy-no-foul Beechview playground basketball to comment on the competitive nature of wading into rage, to gauge what to expect over the next week or two.

He surely did. And he surely won't. Not sitting a few rows behind Le Magnifique yesterday. Not today. Not tomorrow.

The Penguins officially like to stay above this stuff as an organ-I-zation, but a lot of people have noticed that when someone in the league criticizes Pittsburgh, the price is high, but that when Lemieux tore into the league after the Penguins-Islanders fiasco last year, there was no blowback.

"The funny thing about the playoffs," coach Dan Bylsma was saying on a separate topic, "is that the stories are written after the result."

Bylsma was talking about the nature of history, and its maddening proclivity to be written by winners. It was in answer to a question about then-Penguin Max Talbot's playoff fight in Philadelphia three years ago. Even as he watched it, Bylsma said, he didn't know the significance of it. Didn't know it would turn around a game and a series and the course of franchise history.

"There are moments like that in every series," Bylsma said, "and again this time they'll be written by the team that gets to four wins first."

Only when it's over will we understand the ramifications of everything that hangs over this series today. It could turn on something so uncomplicated as Jaromir Jagr's visceral competitive reaction to getting booed every time he touches the puck here. It could turn on something so elemental as the Penguins' need for improved play in front of their own net.

"That will be huge," said Michalek. "We've played against each other a lot, so we know they're a good offensive team, but they go to the net hard, really crash the net.

"We've got to clear rebounds, come out high when we need to, that whole thing is going to be huge."

You couldn't ask for a more compelling, more emotional, more multi-layered matchup to begin this or any postseason. It should be the best series Pittsburgh sees all spring, and you know what is plainly implicit in that: It might be the only one.


Gene Collier: First Published April 11, 2012 3:30 PM


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