Guerin and Kunitz bring Penguins some much-needed grit for playoffs
Back in his playing days, Rick Tocchet was a 6-foot, 214-pound package of ill humor and bad intent.
A guy who developed into a pretty fair hockey player -- it takes more than a couple of lucky bounces to score 440 goals in the NHL -- but whose career story is best told by counting the scars on his face and the bends in his nose, not his offensive statistics.
And while Tocchet appreciates finesse, as would anyone who had Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky for teammates, he understands better than most that hockey games, especially at this time of year, generally are won in places where only those with low levels of fear and high thresholds of pain spend much time.
The operative term is "grit." And that's something Tocchet, now coaching in Tampa, noticed was in relatively short supply for the Penguins earlier this season.
"Especially on the wings, I didn't see the stuff you see along the [boards], chipping it out, guys going to the net hard," he said. "It was more like they were looking for the tic-tac-toe stuff, the fancy stuff."
Mind you, Penguins general manager Ray Shero had recognized the problem long before Tocchet did. Realized it even as it was happening last summer.
He just couldn't do anything about it. Not without sabotaging the Penguins' carefully constructed salary structure, anyway.
And so, just weeks after the Penguins competed for a Stanley Cup, Shero traded away the rights to Ryan Malone because he couldn't justify paying Malone what he could get on the open market. He let Jarkko Ruutu and Adam Hall leave because he didn't want to make more than a two-year commitment to players who fill their roles.
He allowed Gary Roberts to move on, too, and decided he could find an enforcer for less than Georges Laraque would get as a free agent. Every one of those moves made fiscal sense. And every one stripped away some of the grit that had helped to carry the Penguins to within two victories of a championship.
Even after Shero applied a few personnel tourniquets by signing Matt Cooke and Eric Godard, the Penguins entered the 2008-09 season down a few quarts of grit. Eventually, it showed in their record.
"When we weren't winning games, I don't think we made it tough enough for teams to play against us," center Sidney Crosby said. "Whether we gave them too much time and space or whatever the case was."
The confluence of three events -- the return of defenseman Sergei Gonchar from shoulder surgery, the hiring of Dan Bylsma to replace Michel Therrien as coach and the acquisitions of Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin -- spurred the Penguins' stretch-drive turnaround that led to Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against Philadelphia at 7:08 tonight at Mellon Arena, and it's impossible to gauge the exact impact of any of them.
But adding Kunitz and Guerin, both of whom quickly settled in on Crosby's wings, clearly had the desired effect.
"Both of those guys have a physical, gritty element to their game," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "It's something we were lacking a little. I don't think it's surprising the turnaround started with them.
"You're not going to go very far if you're not taking it to the other team a little bit. I think everyone started to play more physical, especially once we got those guys."
That should come in handy in this series because players who come up through the Flyers' system seem to have toughness encoded in their DNA.
Lose enough individual battles to them, and it's a pretty good bet you'll lose the series, too.
Detroit, which defeated the Penguins in the Cup final, doesn't have Philadelphia's reputation for rugged play -- try telling that to someone who has been laid out by Niklas Kronwall -- but competes for every square centimeter of ice. The Red Wings don't fight much, but they battle constantly.
"Detroit always has [Kirk] Maltby and [Kris] Draper," Guerin said.
"Even their better players -- [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Pavel]Datsyuk and [Johan] Franzen and [Tomas] Holmstrom -- play with a level of grit. Their best players might be their toughest players."
Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins play with an edge, too, as does much of their supporting cast. It's just that until Kunitz and Guerin came along, the Penguins might not have had quite enough guys who did to qualify for the postseason, let alone have an impact in it.
"If there's ever a time you need grit," Crosby said, "it's the playoffs."
First Published April 15, 2009 12:00 am