It's Ruslan Fedotenko Hockey


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RALEIGH, N.C. -- Five goals have been launched from the blade of Ruslan Fedotenko in this playoff spring, all important in their various ways, but the prettiest and deadliest were one and the same, a signature wrister from the 30-year-old Ukranian whose signature is all over the historical surge of the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins.

Following Evgeni Malkin into the high slot in a gathering 3-on-2 (never a bad idea), Fedotenko found a perfect drop pass floating his way from between Malkin's legs. No one had to call it an exquisite feed, but it was mouth-watering enough that it should have come with a linen napkin, extensive engraved flat wear, and a silver goblet or three. Fedotenko whipped it past besieged Carolina goaltender Cam Ward to give the Penguins a two-goal lead again in the third period of Game 3.

The air escaping the RBC Center was its own inverted Hurricane.

On a team of hockey stars such as Malkin and Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury, a team just one small victory from the Stanley Cup final, the Penguins don't call what they're doing Ruslan Fedotenko Hockey for nothing. Granted, it isn't the catchiest name to have established an identifiable sports method. Ruslan Fedotenko Hockey is not exactly Smashmouth Football. It isn't even, technically, Firewagon Hockey. And it has no parallel from basketball. It's not run and gun, and it's the very antithesis of the system pioneered by and perfected by so many editions of the Philadelphia 76ers: 48 Minutes Of Apparent Indifference.

"We call it Ruslan Fedotenko Hockey, and, when we say that, we know what that is," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said again leading up to Game 4 tonight.

"We know how we need to play, executing wise in the offensive zone, being on the attack. That's an exciting way to play hockey. Hockey is an aggressive game. It's a confrontational game. When you can take the play to the other team, that energizes your team, that's how we think we need to play. That's how we defend. We defend quickly and try to get the puck back as quickly as we can and get it back into the offensive zone.

"I don't think that's too hard to sell."

Still, it was a wary bunch o' Penguins Bylsma faced when he first walked into their room after the February firing of Michel Therrien, who, for all his distance and disdain, had taken them within two victories of the Stanley Cup last year. Early in Bylsma's first discussions with the first team he has coached in the NHL, his systemic philosophy resonated most clearly with Fedotenko, now with his fourth team but only five years removed from having hoisted the Cup himself when his two goals beat Calgary, 2-1, in the clincher for Tampa Bay.

"Tenk had some good things to say," defenseman Rob Scuderi remembered after practice yesterday. "What he said just sort of encompassed everything [Bylsma] wanted our team to be."

Ever since, Bylsma considers Fedotenko's remarks a critical early validation of the way he wanted to play, even if Fedotenko didn't necessarily intend them as such, much less expect to be branding the system with his name.

"I'm not sure exactly how that came about," Fedotenko said yesterday. "I've just always felt that hockey is a simple game, and there's a certain way it has to be played. It's a lot like the way I played it when we won the Cup [in 2004]. When [Bylsma] took over, it took a couple of games for us to adjust to it, but now we're doing it really well. You play in their zone, make them take long shifts, tire them out. We're not hesitating."

The transition was from Therrien's way, a neutral zone trap-inspired defensive approach in which "responsibility" was the primary value, to Bylsma's uptempo attacking philosophy built on the supposition that the best way to play defense is to play it as far from your own net as possible.

While you're at it, shoot the puck about 40 times every night.

The Penguins have outshot Carolina in the first three games of this series, 113-87. They have outshot opponents in 12 consecutive games and in 14 of their 16 playoff games. Since Bylsma arrived, the Penguins are 29-8-4.

So what happened to responsibility?

"Responsibility always comes down to the individual," said Scuderi. "You know where the dangerous places are out there. I always know if I'm the last man back."

So that part of it hasn't changed, except for the fact that the defensemen are on the other part of the pond a lot more, and what Bylsma's system has done, excuse me, what Ruslan Fedotenko Hockey has done, is create a definable flow to these Penguins that people are having a very hard time dealing with.

"Pittsburgh right now is a quick team, and that has to do with non-verbal communication," Carolina coach Paul Maurice was saying after the Hurricanes practiced yesterday. "Everybody knows where the puck is going. Don't misunderstand; they are fast. They have three or four guys who can just fly, but their strength right now is that they're just so quick. You can't turn the puck over in the neutral zone because you can't chase a team like that back into your zone. We're late on the backcheck. We're giving up way too much ice."

They give up any more tonight, and this series will be over.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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