Collier: Third, fourth line keeps Penguins' streak alive
Stars aren't out, but Penguins win again
Thursday, February 15, 2007
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Max Talbot streaked into the offensive zone, veering right, with Ryan Malone in the penalty box behind him and a puck, the very puck that had just got rung off the post next to Marc-Andre Fleury, dancing on his blade.
Though the third-line Penguins center was very much in control of this particular short-handed situation, the rate at which he flew around Chicago's Martin Havlat toward the goal mouth made it seem otherwise. It seemed too fast for conditions, with Talbot resembled a PAT bus ready to turn hard on Black(hawk) ice, but there went the 25T Uptown, roaring in on Chicago goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, beating him soundly to the far side.
That was the night's third essentially outsourced goal, the one that put the Penguins ahead, 2-1, little more than four minutes into the second period, the one that overturned an early Blackhawks lead courtesy of Craig McDonald, another third-line center, and matched by the Penguins' Ronald Petrovicky, the fourth-line right winger.
There was clearly a lesson in here somewhere.
The stars weren't out last night. At least not until very, very late.
They were in the penalty box, where Sidney Crosby and Malone did time, but they weren't on the score sheet until barely five minutes remained in a delicious little winter riot with a rare Western Conference opponent. Neither was the red-hot Jordan Staal terribly conspicuous, nor, for most of this episode, Evgeni Malkin. Even Fleury, the best player on the ice for large chunks of this stunning 12-0-2 march of the Penguins, recovered poorly on a rebound from the rear boards to account for that McDonald goal.
But serious contributions from the margins of this Penguins roster are part of the necessary calcification of a bona fide winner, an accepted wisdom rarely so evident as it was last night.
"A lot goes into winning these games," Talbot was explaining in a glowing Penguins locker room 15 minutes after Malkin's shootout goal iced another victory. "I think if you look at it, right from the time the winning streak started, that was when we started getting some offense from our third and fourth lines. It takes a little pressure of Sid and those guys."
Everyone in the old opera house knows how this team is supposed to win. Everyone in the National Hockey League and over most of hockey's continent knows what to expect from them. They expect the Penguins to generate so much heat from the brilliance and resultant opportunities created by Crosby to carry them well past the spring thaw, to rely for momentum on the near equally gifted young impulses of Malkin and Staal.
That's their story line, but the Penguins are not sticking to it. Not entirely. At least not for the moment.
While Crosby misfired through an eighth consecutive goal-less event, the longest of his two NHL seasons, the usually reliable Pittsburgh power play collapsed into a series of misadventures. On its first opportunity, a centering pass to Mark Recchi high in the slot slipped through the old guy's skates and floated clear across the blue line. Seconds later, Crosby positioned himself on the right dot for a dead-on wrister at Khabibulin, but fired it wide.
Maybe Sid should try shooting from his butt again. Or does that only work in NHL cities where ice does not occur naturally, like Phoenix? Lasse Kukkonen cleared Sid's misfire and, a second later, Radim Vrbata put it on McDonald's stick for a short-handed goal. Ten minutes later in that same first period, with the Blackhawks' Brent Seabrook off for hooking, Crosby won a face-off by raking the puck back toward his defenseman, but the biscuit snaked between Sergei Gonchar and Mark Eaton into the neutral zone.
So went the league's fourth-best power play.
"I didn't much like the special teams tonight," said coach Michel Therrien. "That will be addressed in the next few days. But I thought Talbot's line, and Dominic Moore's line, really brought a lot of momentum for us tonight. You need every line to contribute defensively, but when those third and fourth lines score, that brings a lot of momentum."
Malkin finally appeared from a cloud-covered constellation deep in the third period, taking a pass from Crosby, firing it on Khabibulin, then poking it past the Blackhawks' goalie when Khabibulin looked in the wrong direction for the rebound. Up 1-0 in the eventual shootout, Malkin slid a clinching backhander past Khabibulin. But the young Malkin knew as well as anyone the genesis of this latest Penguins success.
"Sometimes the top lines don't have the greatest nights," he said through his Russian interpreter. "Sometimes things don't go the way they should. When you get third- and fourth-line guys scoring, that's very important."
When you win when things don't go the way they should, you're becoming a very dangerous hockey club.