At last, adversity arrives at Penguins' door
New York Rangers' Paul Mara, left, is held back by linesman Jean Morin during a scuffle with the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin after Rangers' Jaromir Jagr scored with 14 seconds left in the third period during Game 4 of an NHL Eastern Conference semifinal hockey playoff series Thursday, in New York. The Rangers won 3-0.
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Gary Roberts knows a bit about this playoff stuff.
After all, Roberts has competed in 122 playoff games at this level and began chasing Stanley Cups in the spring of 1987, when his pro career was in its embryonic stages.
Which is the same stage of life some of his current teammates were in at the time.
So, it was worth noting when, after the Penguins' game-day skate Thursday at Madison Square Garden, Roberts pointed out it's not standard procedure for teams to open the postseason with seven victories in a row or to get through the first three weeks of the postseason with no injuries requiring treatment more sophisticated than the application of an ice bag.
Even as some of the Penguins' more exuberant followers were contemplating the likelihood not only of them going 16-0 this spring, but also of earning a Nobel Prize and possibly a Grammy in the process, Roberts offered a few unpleasant truths.
Stick around the playoffs long enough, and games will be lost. Guys will be hurt. Challenges will arise.
"We'll have to face some adversity," he said. "We've been very fortunate to be 7-0. This isn't going to be as smooth to the end as it has been. We're going to have some bumps in the road."
The Penguins hit their biggest one of these playoffs a few hours later in the form of a 3-0 loss to the Rangers.
That ended the Penguins' winning streak and assured Game 5 at 2:08 p.m. tomorrow at Mellon Arena would be necessary.
The corporate accountants no doubt appreciate the extra revenue from Game 5, but it's safe to assume everyone else in the organization would have preferred to end the series in four.
Nonetheless, coach Michel Therrien said yesterday that he is pretty satisfied with where the Penguins stand.
"We've played two at home, two on the road and we have the lead, 3-1," he said. "So we have to feel pretty good about ourselves."
The Penguins need one victory to advance to the Eastern Conference final. New York must become just the third team in NHL history to overcome a 3-0 deficit to get there.
For all of the Rangers' tenacity and talent -- and make no mistake, Jaromir Jagr and Henrik Lundqvist reaffirmed their places among the game's elite performers with their work in Game 4 -- it's difficult to imagine a way New York can win the series.
Unless, of course, the Penguins find a way to lose it.
That almost certainly would require a widespread mental meltdown, and despite the relative youth of the Penguins' core players, they have played with remarkable poise during the first three-plus weeks of the playoffs.
"[The young players] have been resilient," Roberts said.
There have been a few situations in which they could have unraveled, like when Ottawa scored three unanswered goals to tie Game 2 in the opening round or when New York turned a 3-1 deficit into a 3-3 tie in a 64-second span in Game 3.
"There definitely have been opportunities," defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
The Penguins invariably pulled themselves together, which is why they were able to win their first seven games.
Individuals have been guilty of losing their composure at times, with the most recent example coming when Evgeni Malkin kicked the skates out from under New York defenseman Paul Mara late in Game 4.
Therrien attributed Malkin's action to frustration and tried to downplay it -- "Maybe it would have been a two-minute penalty, but it's not a major thing," he said -- but that's not how the Penguins reacted when defenseman Mark Eaton had to have his knee surgically rebuilt after Boston's Marco Sturm did something similar to him in December.
Despite the occasional individual lapse, however, the Penguins have avoided teamwide implosions, perhaps because they learned to deal with severe adversity during the regular season, when they lost Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury and Roberts for extended periods.
They not only survived, but thrived. And developed an unshakable faith in themselves and their teammates.
"All year, there's been a quiet confidence among everyone," Orpik said.
"It definitely not a cockiness or arrogance, just a confidence."
And it's carried them to within a victory of the conference final.
First Published May 3, 2008 12:00 am