Roberts tortures Senators again

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Everybody in the old building knew what was up, from Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux in the owners' box to Michel Therrien behind the bench to Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury on the ice. It was absolutely critical that the Penguins start fast last night against the Ottawa Senators in Game 1 of their playoff series at Mellon Arena. The Senators are a reeling hockey club, desperately trying to find their way without top injured players Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher. If only they could take the Penguins' best shot early, if only they could find a way to steal the first game, if only they could find a reason to believe they have a chance against a much better, much deeper team in a series that has sweep written all over it ...

The Penguins didn't let it happen.

The game started exactly according to plan.

Well, almost.

It's safe to say few in the Penguins' dressing room predicted Gary Roberts would score the first goal just 68 seconds in to show the way to a 4-0 win. Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, maybe. Marian Hossa or Petr Sykora, who did get the killer second goal at 12:28 of the first period. But Roberts? Only Brooks Orpik seemed like a longer shot.

But there Roberts was, playing just his second game since Dec. 29 after missing 43 because of a broken left leg and bad high ankle sprain, injuries that -- let's be serious -- should have been too much for an old man to overcome. He looked as if he had Crosby's energy when he did a little man-to-man combat with Ottawa defenseman Wade Redden behind the Senators' net, nudging the puck to linemate Georges Laraque, who threw it toward the front of the net. He looked every bit as young as Malkin when he hurried to jump on that loose puck and flip a backhander past goaltender Martin Gerber.

"He didn't look like a man 41, that's for sure," Therrien would say afterward.

At that moment, as Gerber was fishing the puck out of his net, there probably were happier people in America than Roberts, but, please, don't ask me to name one.

"It sure is fun to contribute again," Roberts said.

The man had to have doubts that he would play last night let alone have such an impact, getting not just the first goal but also the fourth on the power play in the final two minutes. "Sure, I had doubts," he said. In late-February, not long after he skated to test his ankle and crumpled to the ice, he spoke openly of facing a tough battle to make it back. Crosby, not even half his age, came back from his high ankle sprain and had a setback. The same thing happened to Max Talbot.

How was an elderly gent supposed to do it? Even one who works out as maniacally as Roberts?

"He works so hard that you hope good things happen to him," Therrien said. "All of us are very, very happy for him."

Happy?

How about delirious at the thought of the damage Roberts might do once he gets his legs under him?

"He's got that thing in his eyes," Talbot said. "I don't know what it is, but it's pretty scary."

Roberts had hoped to play in the final five regular-season games but made it back for just the final one against the Philadelphia Flyers Sunday. Although his ankle held up after 12 minutes, 31 seconds of ice time, there was no guarantee that Therrien would use him in the playoffs.

Not that it was a tough decision to scratch young Jeff Taffe instead.

"It wasn't tough at all," Therrien said, "because Gary Roberts knows the importance of the playoffs."

In no particular order, Therrien loves the toughness that Roberts brings to the Penguins, his playoff experience -- this was his 120th postseason match -- and the fact he tortures the Senators.

Earlier in the decade, Roberts played with the Toronto Maple Leafs and was huge in eliminating the Senators in three different series with 10 goals and seven assists in 17 games. A year ago, when the Senators took the Penguins out of the playoffs in five games, Roberts was the prime reason the Penguins won Game 2 with a goal and an assist.

Now, Roberts has the Senators running scared again.

"It's still going to be a process for me. It's not going to happen overnight," Roberts said.

"I need to get my conditioning to the point where I can contribute on a consistent basis. I didn't have a lot of jump in my legs tonight. I was just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.

"I'm just hoping I feel as good tomorrow as I do right now."

The Senators are hoping otherwise.

They paid Roberts the ultimate hockey compliment by trying to beat the heck out of him in the final few seconds.

You know, sending a message to Roberts before Game 2 tomorrow night.

"I was at the bottom of the pile, so I don't know who was punching me," he said. "I just knew I was getting hit a lot."

Roberts' puffy right eyelid showed it.

It looked as if it were about to explode.

Roberts clearly loved it.

How good it must have felt to have battle scars again.


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


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