Ron Cook: Youthful Penguins look up to Roberts

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Penguins center Erik Christensen called new teammate Gary Roberts a "maniac" and a "beast" after Roberts had a King Kong-sized role in the team's 4-3 shootout win Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Lovingly, of course.

It was fairly predictable coming from a young guy, seemingly in awe of Roberts. Though 40 and with boxer shorts older than Christensen and the even younger, teen-age Penguins, Roberts was spry enough to throw his body at everything in a Flyers' uniform, score the goal that awoke the Penguins from their ill-timed, late-winter afternoon nap and set up the other two goals by Christensen, all while fighting off a bad case of nerves as he tried to make a good first impression on the throbbing Penguins Nation. It's safe to say everyone in the team's dressing room was in awe.

But you're never going to guess what coach Michel Therrien called Roberts.

Would you believe Reggie Jackson?

"Mr. October," Therrien said, grinning.

It sounded so cool in his thick French accent.

It also was cool because Roberts is one of the few players on the Penguins old enough to know who Reggie Jackson is.

"Some guys have the capability of upgrading their game when it's crunch time," Therrien said. "Gary Roberts is that player. He plays for real. He doesn't play for fun. He plays for real."


I mean, Reggie Jackson?

Roberts is flattered, but, really, he, Therrien and everyone else in the Penguins' organization will be thrilled if he's just Gary Roberts in the days ahead.

"You just want to fit in and not disrupt a good thing," Roberts said of his approach to joining the Penguins last week in a trade for defenseman Noah Welch.

It's never easy, not even for a guy who has been through it before, three times actually. Roberts conceded to "fighting the puck" in his first two games with the Penguins and had the stats to prove it: No points in a road win against the New York Rangers, none in a loss at Carolina and a combined minus-3. The game Sunday was his first with the team at Mellon Arena, which elevated the pressure. Yes, the sellout crowd -- the 14th in the past 16 home games -- came mostly to see the Penguins put another licking on the hated Flyers. But the masses also came to see what the old guy could do.

Plenty, as it turned out.

"You talk about leadership, that was leadership," Therrien said. "He's the one who led that team to victory. There's no doubt in my mind."

It wasn't just Roberts' goal, which started the Penguins on their climb out of a 2-0 second-period hole, and his two assists, which helped make for a terrific first impression on the home fans. It was his team-high four hits. They didn't just jar the Flyers. They shook the Penguins out of their "nightmare" -- Therrien's word -- of a first period.

Christensen, for one, couldn't believe a middle-aged man could be so physical, especially one who overcame serious neck problems earlier in his career.

"His muscles have muscles," Christensen gushed.

Added Sidney Crosby, the real Reggie Jackson of these Penguins, certainly the straw that stirs the drink: "He battles every shift. This time of year, you need guys like that."

This Penguins' team, especially.

Much of its passionate fan base seems to be taking a playoff spot for granted, probably because of the team's phenomenal 14-0-2 run in January and February. Here's a clue for you: It's anything but guaranteed. Look at the standings.

Roberts figures to keep delivering that message in the Penguins' room. He can't guarantee three points every game -- "Let's not get carried away," he said with a big smile -- but he can promise the same intensity he brought to the ice Sunday. That is easy for him because he knows how precious points are in March. "I look at the standing every day. ... You can't afford to lose a game because someone is going to be crawling up your backside." The man knows a little something about winning. He played for the Stanley Cup champions in Calgary a lifetime ago in 1989. His 114 career playoff games are 114 more than 14 of the 20 Penguins players who dressed against the Flyers, including the team's biggest stars: Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury.

It's no wonder Christensen said, "We all look to him" -- not to mention playoff veterans Mark Recchi (135 games) and Sergei Gonchar (58) -- "for leadership."

"You pick your spots. You talk too much, and people stop listening," Roberts said.

"We're going to need everybody pulling the rope in the same direction. This is a group of guys that will do that. They're young, but they're mature. I saw that right away."

Roberts laughed.

"We can say they're young, but maybe that's a good thing. They might be so green that they don't feel [the pressure]. You go through it and lose a few times, that's when you feel it."

Spoken like an old pro.

A very old pro.


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