It is the joy and the sorrow of the Pittsburgh Penguins that they cannot be discussed outside the context of Sidney Crosby. A joy, certainly, because they can all bathe in the sunny glow of his refracted glory. His sheer presence guarantees them an inevitable, inescapable level of attention from the wider hockey world, and favored-son status in the eyes of the League’s powers. No matter how poorly they do, they will never be ignored and seldom disparaged while The Venerable Sidney resides amongst them (until, that is, he starts getting older and less cute and Tavares starts tearing things up in Edmonton and everyone starts wondering if he has the ‘leadership’ to win). However, it’s also a sorrow, because the rest of the players- and the coaching staff, and the management- are permanent supporting cast as long as he’s around. No matter how good you are at whatever you do for the Penguins, you’re never going to look that great in proximate comparison to TVS’s supernaturally effective hockey abilities and unnaturally wholesome grin. And no matter how charitable and humble he tries to be, his formalistic modesty only reinforces the extent to which the team’s victories are really his victories, their story really his story.
Now, although he’s out with the first serious injury of his adult hockey career (I’m going to guess about 6-8 weeks, although the NHL is doubtless scouring the mad scientific community for indestructible bionic ankles as we speak), his absence dominates just as much as his presence did. It’s safe to say that I wasn’t the only one watching this game through a lens of extreme skepticism, doubtful of the Penguins’ capabilities without their shiniest of stars. Last week they were the Sidney Crosby Show. Now they’re the No Sidney Crosby Show. Turns out, though, the latter is almost as interesting as the former. I’d stay tuned, if I were you.
1. While I’m sure he was very sad to see his teammate get injured, if this game shows anything it’s that Malkin is fully cognizant of what this opportunity means for him. Like a long-time understudy on the night when the diva comes down with laryngitis, Malkin threw himself into the performance of ‘star’ with so much enthusiasm it was almost difficult to watch. But entertaining too, because although his goal was only a last-minute empty-netter, it was the capstone of a bravura evening of two-way play.
2. Laraque (he of that oh-so-poignant story about how he used to be the best player on all his teams as a child, and how much he treasures the opportunities he gets to score goals rather than just push people around) was also surprisingly effective in an ungoonish way. Granted, I never really got why the Pens thought they needed an ‘enforcer’, given that they’ve got a team loaded with brawl-enthusiasts who seem to be tactically interchangeable, but I guess that enthusiasm doesn’t always make for effectiveness in the fine art of facial-injury-infliction. (Yes, that was a partisan dig, not a reasoned analysis. I’m allowed.)
3. The No Crosby Penguins, however, are a lot more businesslike than the Crosby Penguins- usually their games here are a lot like the first period of this one, with a lot of chippiness and assorted extracurricular smacking and bickering. Tonight, however, they seemed to get that out of their system early and settled down to a lot of uncreative but nevertheless impenetrable defensive play. I’ve rarely seen a team protect a one-goal lead so well, making the Habs bite and claw for every inch of ice beyond their own blue line. And even if they made it into the Penguins’ zone, there was Sabourin, who may be only a back-up, but apparently has yet to give up a goal to
4. Therefore, if I don’t seem angry at the Canadiens for this loss, it’s because I’m not. They played well. They out-shot, out-hit, out-blocked, and very often outran their opponents, they made a terrific effort. Sometimes you make a terrific effort and you still lose. That’s hockey. That’s life. But they’ve got very little to be ashamed of coming out of this game.
5. A few shining spots: Komisarek, who for his birthday decided to give the crowd at the Bell Centre a present, in the form of one of his best games of the year. He made some of his trademark punishing and strategically glamorous hits, got into some miniature but enthusiastic confrontations with assorted Penguins, and even made some uncharacteristic, encouraging offensive efforts. Every day I love this guy a little more. Also, Huet deserves a gold star- he was quick, responsive, on top of everything, and gave the Habs as good a chance to win as anyone could have expected. And some days I wonder how we were ever a defensively competent team without Hamrlik. Then I remember that we actually weren’t. Finally, I am very entertained by Kostitsyn al-Asghar. Perhaps even more so than by his more-experienced and better-situated brother.
6. I have a theory: the problem with Higgins and Koivu right now, as a duo, is that they never get second chances. They set up potential-filled initial rushes on probably one-third to one-half of their shifts in a game, but when those don’t work (as most initial rushes by anybody don’t), they can never seem to recover the puck and try again- it always ends up with a mad dash back to the defensive zone. Not only can they not sustain pressure, they can’t even initiate it. Whether this is due to the nature of the opposition they get matched against, or unfavorable defensive support, or sheer bad mojo, I’m not sure, but I’m rapidly losing optimism. Probably I would have lost optimism already, but I missed about a month of games in there that I haven’t fully caught up with yet, so I’m a little slow on the uptake these days.
Now, of course, the Penguins will probably go on to get their asses whooped up and down the Conference, thereby suggesting that it was just our streaky offense that lost this game, rather than their competent defense that won it. But until then, I call this a good close game against an intrinsically worthy opponent, and honorably concede the rightful victory. This could be a very interesting postseason match-up.