Ruutu is Penguins' new cult hero
It turns out that coaching a Stanley Cup contender involves more than just picking the right goaltender, matching lines and sending out an All-World power play. In Michel Therrien's case, there was a brief man-to-man in his office with Penguins cult hero Jarkko Ruutu before the first-round playoff series against Ottawa.
"I told him I thought he was taking too many penalties," Therrien recalled yesterday.
There had been a bunch, at least four minutes of penalties in five of the final nine regular-season games.
"How can I send you out there in a tight game in the playoffs?" Therrien said he asked Ruutu. "How can I trust you when I don't know when you're going to take a penalty?"
Ruutu's response is what makes coaching so rewarding at times.
It also went a long way toward helping the Penguins to sweep the Senators into the offseason.
"He showed unbelievable discipline the whole series," Therrien said. "He didn't take one penalty."
Therrien didn't feel the need during their chat to tell Ruutu to play responsible defense. That's pretty much a given these days, the prime reason Ruutu had more than 12 minutes of ice time a game against the Senators. Certainly, Therrien never thought to tell Ruutu to score the series-clinching goal, a goal so pretty you had to look twice to make sure it wasn't Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin who scored it.
I couldn't help but ask Ruutu yesterday if he had heard from Wayne Gretzky after that spectacular goal.
"I think he lost my number," Ruutu said, grinning.
"But I've had a lot of other messages. Nobody expects me to be the one who scores the winning goal. Everybody has been asking, 'Where did that come from?' "
Ruutu's goal, which gave the Penguins a 2-1 lead late in the second period of Game 4, merely added to his legend. Is it just me, or have Pittsburgh hockey fans started to take to him the way they did to Ulf Samuelsson a lifetime ago?
Like Ulf, Ruutu has an unusual, yet pleasing name. Ruutu has a way of rolling off the tongue, especially when a standing-room-only crowd of 17,132 is chanting it in unison at Mellon Arena.
Like Samuelsson, Ruutu has an edge to his game. He doesn't mind that he was voted the third-dirtiest player in a recent Sports Illustrated poll of NHL players. That sort of thing never bothered Samuelsson, either.
Then, there are the wicked facial scars that Ruutu wears proudly, the same ones that endear him to the home fan base. He made it through the Ottawa series unscathed, but still has nasty zipper work on both cheeks, above both eyes and along both sides of his nose. His upper lip also looks twice the size of normal thanks to a high stick and 15 stitches earlier this season.
"I don't look in the mirror much," Ruutu said.
Would you, if you were him?
"It's all about inner beauty, right?" Ruutu said, fairly giggling now.
"I don't know, the scars probably make me look better. I don't mind them. They remind you that you're playing hard and leaving everything on the ice."
Isn't that really why the fans like Ruutu so much?
"He plays a really physical game, an in-your-face type of hockey game," Therrien said. "It's an old-time hockey game. Players don't like to play against him."
Just like Ulf, right?
Guys loved him when he was on their team, hated him when he wasn't.
It's the same with the fans.
"They've been amazing with me," Ruutu said. "[The Ruutu chants] started my first game here. I never expected that. It really feels good."
That Ruutu calls Pittsburgh "probably the best hockey city in the United States" might lead to him staying after the season when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
"I just want to win," Ruutu said. "I think we have a good chance here this year and down the road. In the end, that's why we all play. It's so hard to win that, if you can do it, it brings a group of guys together forever. To get your name on the Cup and get that ring, they can't ever take those things away from you."
Ruutu knows there is plenty of work to do before these Penguins reach that ultimate goal.
Plenty of in-your-face hockey.
Plenty of scars.
And maybe, just maybe, the odd terrific goal.
After that clinching one in Ottawa last week, Ruutu might not have gotten a call from Gretzky, but he did get a big smile and hearty handshake in the Penguins' dressing room from Mario Lemieux.
Which brings to mind a question they've been asking around here for years:
Who needs Gretzky when you've got Lemieux?
First Published April 22, 2008 12:00 am