Laraque's role in Cup run not to be underestimated


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There has been neither time for nor much purpose in inspecting the trip log of the Stanley Cup Express for evidence of weakness or design flaws, for spots where it might have jumped the track, spots where only by the fortuitous bounce of a rubber disc or a subtle play by a skater generally unscrutinized actually kept the Penguins' appointment with hockey destiny.

When you show up to skate for Lord Stanley's 35-pound fruit bowl after scorching through 14 60-minute episodes of barely interrupted excellence, maybe some of the most critical moments aren't supposed to have been authored by a guy who might get six minutes of ice time per night.

But before this Penguins season steps into the blinding hyperbole of the championship round, somebody ought to remember what has been happening around here since April 9 whenever the puck finds the stick of Georges Laraque.

"He never really makes any mistakes," Mad Max Talbot was saying of his enormous linemate after practice yesterday. "Strong on his skates, solid with and without the puck, and he makes things happen."

Problem is, few remember those things.

Not when you have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa and Jordan Staal and Ryan Malone and Marc-Andre Fleury filling the highlight segments night after night. But Laraque, counted upon ostensibly to discourage the taking of liberties (he has four penalty minutes in the playoffs; Crosby has eight), has made skilled and defiant plays in the offensive end in this postseason that deserve to stick in the memory.

"Obviously, your big name guys, they're going to make the big plays for you," Laraque said, "but, for me, recognition is not important, and, really, it's not that important to anyone in this room. No one in here cares who scores. I know what happens in these games. My teammates know."

I know that with the score tied, 2-2, against Philadelphia on Mother's Day, with the Flyers looking fully capable of gaining an ominous split of the first two games in Pittsburgh, that there was more to the decisive third Penguins goal than Steve Downie's inexcusable turnover in his own end. When that puck leaked free, it was Laraque who swooped to control it in the high slot, where he was promptly assaulted.

Sami Kapanen slapped at his stick, Jaroslav Modry tried to bump him off the puck, James Dowd poked at it and nearly cleared it out of the zone. But Laraque would have none of it, finally freeing it toward Gary Roberts behind the net, and Roberts quickly backhanded it to Talbot in front. Talbot got the winner and sent the Penguins to Philadelphia up two games to none.

There have been plenty of moments in the past six weeks to prove that you can take a lamb chop off a junkyard dog easier than get the puck off big Georges Laraque.

I know that in Game 3 against the Rangers in Madison Square Garden, New York had appeared to turn the momentum its way when Martin Straka tied the score at 1-1 and the crowd appeared fully capable of rocking the Rangers right back into contention, and I know that the tie didn't last even 100 seconds because Laraque took a centering pass from Petr Sykora and beat Henrik Lundqvist to give the Penguins back their footing.

I know that when the Flyers arrived in Pittsburgh for Game 5 Sunday, thinking they'd planted the much-wished-for "seed of doubt" in the Penguins after beating 'em, 4-2, in Game 4, the offensive avalanche that followed got set off when Laraque slid an exquisite pass to Adam Hall in front of Martin Biron. Hall couldn't convert, but in the little Flyers panic that ensued, Mike Knuble hooked Talbot and went to the penalty box. Twelve seconds later, it was 1-0, soon enough to be 6-0.

But in the crush of media attention the Penguins and Red Wings will withstand the next couple of weeks, not much commotion will be caused by the clamor for The Georges Laraque Story, much less the part of it that could win him to King Clancy Memorial Trophy, awarded annually by the NHL to the player "who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a contribution to his community."

In Laraque's case, that description is probably inadequate. Laraque's devotion to charitable events, particularly his interest in the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania, has been called unprecedented.

"At the end of the day, what really defines you?" he said. "Is it how much money you make? How many Cups you've won? No, what matters is your community. There are people out there without parents. People who can't afford to go to a hockey game. People who can't afford cable to even watch a hockey game.

"I wasn't always fortunate when I was a kid. But, with the image we have as hockey players, it's amazing the impact we can have. How fortunate am I to play in the NHL? What percentage of people get to do that? I just want to show that I appreciate it. That stuff is important, more important than hockey."

It's not going to seem like that for a while around here, but, even if Laraque's role in the looming chaos is nothing more than marginal, his impact is highly sustainable far beyond any little dust-up between the Penguins and Red Wings.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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