Commentary: Tough guys worth their weight

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If the Penguins go on to take out the New York Rangers in the spring hostilities that began last night at Mellon Arena, they'll long be talking about the Evgeni Malkin power-play goal that won Game 1 of the amped playoff series.

It wasn't all that spectacular, as many Malkin goals are. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time, parked in front of Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist when teammate Sidney Crosby fired a one-timer from the right point. The shot took a most fortuitous bounce, off Malkin's skate, behind Lundqvist and into the yawning Rangers' net with 1:41 left.

Lundqvist looked as if he didn't have a clue what hit him as he fished out the puck that gave the Penguins an unlikely 5-4 win.

Certainly, Petr Sykora's goal that brought the Penguins all the way back from a 3-0 deficit and gave them a brief 4-3 lead in the third period also deserves mention.

Now that was fabulous.

The bing-bang-boom passing play from Ryan Malone to Malkin to Sykora was the type of play that world-class players are born to make.

So, go ahead, give Malkin and Sykora all the credit in the world.

But, please, don't be blinded to the work of a couple of other Penguins, the real stars on this night.

How about a little love for Georges Laraque and Jarkko Ruutu?

I know, I really have to twist the arms of this crowd when it comes to those two.

The Penguins were in that 3-0 cavern early in the second period and were looking hard at an 0-1 hole in the series when Laraque took the ice with a purpose. He quickly found Rangers tough guy Colton Orr to deliver a message that I'm guessing went something like this:

"You know, Colton my friend, you might be up 3-0, but we aren't going anywhere. We're here for the long haul so you better not be thinking it's going to be this easy the whole series."

Or maybe not.

"I just told him I wanted to fight," Laraque said, shrugging. "I wanted to change the momentum."

Orr's response?

"He just said, 'C'mon, Georges, it's 3-0. I can't,' " Laraque said. "He was smart. He was doing what any coach would tell him to do. Why would you want to fight when your team is up 3-0?"

During the next shift, Ruutu -- Laraque's linemate -- made it a point to put his stick in the face of Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsival before a faceoff.

Surely, he was delivering that we're-here-for-the-duration message.

"He got his stick on me earlier so I was just saying, 'If you want to play this game, I can play it, too,' " Ruutu said. "I think maybe it took him off his game a little."

Penguins coach Michel Therrien was sure of it.

He was convinced both Laraque and Ruutu served a valuable purpose.

"They sent the message that we're not going to quit," Therrien said.

Darned if they didn't.

It was during that same shift that Ruutu made a far more tangible contribution to the Penguins' cause. He fired the puck toward the front of Lundqvist's net and ended up with a goal when it clanged off Rozsival's skate to cut the Rangers' lead to 3-1.

Talk about hurting Rozsival more than any high stick ever could.

Suddenly, the Penguins were on their way.

"That Jarkko, he's like Avery," Laraque said, making the comparison to the Rangers' noted disturber, Sean Avery.

"Both are agitators, but both can play and both can score. That was an unbelievably big goal for us. That got us started."

Enjoying all of it from the Penguins owners' box was another noted tough guy, Gary Roberts, who sat out the game with a bad groin. Nobody appreciates the physical game -- especially at playoff time -- more. Nobody has a better understanding of how it can win a tight game.

"Georges does his job as well as anyone in the league," Roberts said.

"He's so smart. He knows when it's time for him to change momentum.

"And Jarkko, what can you say about Jarkko? That shift changed the game.

"I was pumped for those guys."

That gave him something in common with the frenzied white-out crowd of 17,132.

It also gave him something in common with Therrien.

"Those guys," he said, smiling, "set the tone, no doubt."


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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