Penguins winger Georges Laraque, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the NHL, fairly sneered when he was asked yesterday about what pointers he gave teammate Tyler Kennedy after Kennedy's spirited fight with Philadelphia's Scottie Upshall Sunday night.
"I don't give pointers to bantamweight fighters," Laraque said, dismissively.
Hey, that's what you do when Big Georges makes a joke.
"I thought that fight was spectacular to see," Laraque said, smiling. "[Kennedy] wanted to fire up the crowd. He wanted to fire up our team. That's what he did."
There was no other reason for the fight three minutes-plus into Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final, according to Kennedy.
He and Upshall dropped their gloves and wailed away with absolutely no regard for their face or hands.
"Wow!" Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "There wasn't a lot of defense in that fight, was there? It almost was like it was personal the way they went at it."
The throbbing crowd at Mellon Arena loved it. Hockey nights in Pittsburgh just don't come any better than a big fight and a 4-2 playoff win against the hated Flyers.
The Penguins players also were thrilled. They don't expect a fight from Laraque in a tight playoff game with so much at stake, let alone one from Kennedy, a rookie and the smallest player on the team who is generously listed at 5 feet 11, 183 pounds. This was just his second NHL fight, though you wouldn't know it the way he held his own, doing a pretty fair Laraque imitation. The players mobbed him when he returned to the bench after his five-minute fighting major. Max Talbot didn't get a much better reception after he scored the winning goal in the third period.
"At times, a fight or a big hit can be just as big as a goal," said Jarkko Ruutu, Kennedy's linemate.
This was one of those times.
The Flyers, after losing Game 1, 4-2, Friday night, wanted to send the message they weren't going to go away quietly in the series.
"That kid set the tone physically for us," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said.
"A little bugger," Ruutu called him.
There was one more thing.
This fight was a little more premeditated than Kennedy let on.
It wasn't apparent to the big crowd, but Therrien and his players knew what was happening.
"Upshall cross-checked [Penguins defenseman Kris] Letang from behind in the last minute of the first game," Therrien said. "[Kennedy] was sticking up for his teammate. That's leadership for me. That's important to the players. There's no doubt you earn respect by sticking up for your teammates."
That's one reason Therrien has given the young Kennedy, 21, more than 10 minutes of ice time a game in these playoffs on the third line with left winger Ruutu and center Jordan Staal. But there are others.
"He brings energy," Therrien said. "He's a tough kid to play against. He forces mistakes with his speed."
Kennedy hasn't had the impact of Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby or Marian Hossa, but he has been noticeable for two reasons.
One, that great speed. "He's flying out there," Laraque said.
And two, the fact he hasn't made any of the glaring errors that you would expect from a rookie at his first Stanley Cup rodeo. The same thing can be said about Letang, 21.
"He's making all the right plays, which is huge for a young guy," Ruutu said of Kennedy. "I tell him, 'If you don't have a play, don't force it. Chip the puck up the boards. Keep it out of the middle.'
"His focus has been amazing."
Kennedy has done everything for the Penguins but score. He has put 24 shots on net in the playoffs but has no goals. That second stat chafes him to no end.
It's not as if Kennedy can't score; he had 10 goals in 55 games in the regular season. But these days, the opponent's net is looking tiny and its goaltender huge. That was true again Sunday night when Staal set him up in the slot with a fabulous pass in the second period only to have Flyers goalie Martin Biron stone him.
"It frustrating, but I've got to stay positive and keep working hard," Kennedy said.
Perhaps a little talk on the subject with one of his main mentors might be in order.
"I don't think he should be too worried about not scoring because he's playing great for us," Ruutu said.
The coach has noticed.
The other players have noticed.
You can put tough-guy Laraque at the top of that list. He sounded anything but dismissive of Kennedy's game when he said, "You can't tell that kid is a rookie."
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .