Gene Collier: Time for Penguins to play like ... uh ... Penguins



From equal parts cynicism and conditioning, a clear majority of the Penguins' fervent audience approaches these Stanley Cup playoffs with its own kind of fatalism, regardless of whether it likes to pretend otherwise.

And no, it's not complicated.

The Penguins of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury indeed delivered a Stanley Cup once upon a time, but have avoided the finals in four consecutive springs, multiple times at the indecorous request of inferior petitioners.

That fatalism is fine as far as it goes, or as long as it doesn't burrow into the collective mindset of the uniformed personnel, but that's hardly impossible.

Early this evening, for example, in Game 1 of the Eastern quarterfinals against the never-ever-inhabited-a-winning-playoff-locker-room Columbus Blue Jackets, Crosby could see a golden scoring opportunity gloved menacingly by the magnificent Sergei Andreyevich Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets' decorated goaltender.

And then one discouraging image might well beget the next, and before long ...

"You can feel the panic start to set in," said Penguins defenseman Rod Scuderi. "You can get blown out, 5-1, and it's like, 'Oh geez are we outclassed? What's going on if you're the favorite and you get beat? But it's worth one tally. You need four tallies to move on.

"Whether you lose, 2-1, in overtime or 5-1 in a blowout, it's just worth one tally, and you get to start over the next game."

The Penguins certainly have enough experience with standard postseason mood swings to thrive in the night-to-night, week-to-week mission in front them, but it's their often squishy mentality within any one game that's potentially problematic.

They can't have Malkin, who appeared swift and healthy in practice Tuesday, looking for some instant revenge the moment he feels a stick across the back of his legs. He should realize by now this isn't the Bolshoi. They can't have James Neal idling his marksmanship in the penalty box or chipping in with the occasional atrocity. They shouldn't have to watch Crosby in repeated post-whistle waltzes with officials for an explanation of common abuses.

What they need instead is an evident realization of their own merits. The Penguins love to state the need to "get to our game," but too often are distracted by nonsense. They should remember, for example, the lesson of last spring's third playoff game, a ridiculous Long Island episode that saw them give the puck away 19 times in frustration and still win in overtime, 5-4.

"That's the biggest thing in the playoffs," said playoff veteran Jussi Jokinen in the Penguins dressing room. "You're gonna have some big wins and some tough losses. When things are going well, you need to keep in mind it's only one game, and when things are going bad, you need to remember there's a next chance in a couple of days.

"If somebody's scuffling, you need to be there for him and let him know you have full confidence in him."

A year ago, the Penguins started the postseason as the prohibitive favorite to win it all, but went a desultory 8-7 and exited before the finals in some part because of a loss of confidence, if not in their abilities then in their mental toughness.

"I'd been in enough playoffs to know there are going to be ups and downs," Jokinen said, "but, no, I didn't see that."

OK, that's one of us.

This team, even with the departed Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, and Douglas Murray, got pushed to the brink of the brink by the Islanders, rebounded to take out Ottawa in five games, then were stoned by Boston and goaltender Tuukka Rask, who allowed two goals in four games. Total.

"Hopefully, it was something we learned from, a good lesson for us," Crosby said of that Bruins sweep in the Eastern Conference final. "When you get that close, you want to do well, but, at some point, you know, you need some bounces, too."

The home team will need a standard playoff share of luck against Columbus, which, unlike the Penguins, has been playing well of late, and, unlike the Penguins, will operate in zero pressure.

"When I think of the Blue Jackets I think of a total team," said Scuderi. "They play a total team concept top to bottom. They don't mess around. They get the puck deep. They forecheck. They're looking for a piece of your skin every time they come into the zone.

"It's a fair assessment [to say] they're like the Flyers."

It's not so much a problem if the Blue Jackets play Flyers hockey. The problem comes when the Penguins play Flyers hockey.

The Penguins, for a change this spring, should play like the Penguins. If they do that, I think they can avoid playing seven episodes between here and Central Ohio in the next two weeks.

If they don't, there's no real point in describing the consequences. You're familiar with them.


Correction appended: A previous version of this column stated Douglas Murray scored the winner in 2013's Game 3 against the New York Islanders. Chris Kunitz scored that goal.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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