Across 20 National Hockey League winters, Martin Brodeur has come to anticipate just about anything whenever there's an inch-thick disc of vulcanized rubber somewhere on the ice in front of him.
Just about anything, that is, except perhaps for a 55-footer from Robert Bortuzzo whizzing from an unseen launch point and skittering into the net behind him, which happened to be the last detail of a 5-1 Penguins victory Saturday, their first in three tries on home ice in a matinee that featured an entire series of significant firsts.
It was Bortuzzo's first goal as a Penguin, his first of the season, his first in the NHL, and it accompanied Brandon Sutter's first as a Penguin, his first goal of the season, as well as Kris Letang's first goal of the season that went past an actual goalie (he'd flicked one into an empty net in Manhattan two weeks ago).
Bortuzzo, a 2007 Penguins draft pick who made the opening-day roster for the first time only last month, described that goal as though in some semi-dream state, yet at the same time as a goal he'd remember for a very long time.
"I remember going in on a good forecheck and I saw Sidney [Crosby] behind the net, so I just kind of slid over to the middle of the ice," said the 6-foot-4 defenseman. "The puck almost went off a defender's stick. I was able to get it [his shot] off pretty quick; it hit a stick and went through the five hole, and then there were five pretty big smiles on the ice."
None, of course, bigger than Bortuzzo's, who laughed at the suggestion that he'd just blown Brodeur away.
"Yeah, that's my story, and I'm stickin' to it. I'll have it for years to come now."
More tangibly, as the Penguins headed for Washington and a nationally televised meeting today with the Capitals, Dan Bylsma's team finally has the kind of performance on its dossier that resembles its core principles, a dominant escapade at both ends of the ice, perfectly emblematic of a brand of hockey that can sell out 257 home dates in succession.
"We needed to do that," said Crosby of the Penguins' devastating forecheck. "Part of that is getting speed into the zone."
The Penguins, though they still haven't been out-shot after eight games of this lockout-shortened season, hadn't generated great chances consistently. They had scored more than three goals only once, and Crosby hadn't gotten a goal in more than a week when he flew in on the left wing early in the third period and scalded Brodeur with a top-shelf missile that made it 4-1.
In 20 career home games against the Devils, Crosby has registered 30 points, thus what Brodeur must expect in Pittsburgh are demanding shots off the stick of the captain and Evgeni Malkin, who with two assists Saturday, has 21 points in 16 home games against New Jersey.
But it wasn't so much that kind of day for Brodeur as the kind where his defensemen might as well just turn around and stab him, or isn't that what Anton Volchenkov was doing when he tried a cross-ice pass to defense mate Bryce Salvador in the second period, only to set it up perfectly for Chris Kunitz not 25 feet up the slot.
Kunitz slapped it into Jersey's net for what stood as the winning goal, and it came just seven minutes after Sutter opened the scoring when he and Crosby almost simultaneously poked the biscuit over a sprawling Brodeur.
"I wasn't too sure what happened," said Sutter, who'd been filling the Jordan Staal slot on this offense pretty well except for the whole goal-scoring thing. "We both went for the rebound."
The goal was initially credited to Crosby, but the significance of Sutter's first wasn't lost on coach Dan Bylsma.
"To this point, Brandon's probably been more focused on playing defense," Bylsma said. "He's been on the defensive side of the puck an awful lot and he's been a responsible player, but he's also got speed and a shot, and those things just hadn't necessarily materialized yet. Today, there was a change that we were in, and he got out there with 87 and 71 and showed his speed up the ice. He made a play toward the net, and I think it was his third effort that got him the goal. I think that's befitting his first goal to not necessarily be a clean one, but a second and third effort."
Coincidentally, second and third efforts were something the Penguins had lacked on home ice to this point, along with, you know, first effort.
If the skunking of Brodeur and the Devils Saturday is what puts that clumsy initial phase at an end, Bortuzzo won't be the only person with a hard time forgetting this particular Groundhog Day.
First Published February 3, 2013 5:00 AM