Last spring, the Pittsburgh Penguins unveiled a big statue outside the Consol Energy Center to honor team owner/legend/savior/superstar hostel operator Mario Lemieux. The finished product, called Le Magnifique, wasn’t your typical bronzed tribute to an athlete. Rather than a cast version of a solo Mario skating or gearing up into the slap shot position or raising the Stanley Cup — all ideas that were considered — it was, at first glance, a confusing three-leaf clover of asses.
“It is one of the few statues we’ve seen that includes figures other than the person being honored,” Penguins CEO David Morehouse explained. “We thought it was very appropriate to have action in the image — to include the defensemen who were trying to stop him.”
Ah, that made more sense. As it turned out, the statue was a representation of a streaking Lemieux goal from December 1988,1 and two of those butts belonged to the New York Islanders defensemen that he famously smoked that night.
It’s a safe bet that following Thursday night’s game — another Penguins-Islanders matchup, this time in Game 5 of the playoffs — there were more fans than usual who wanted to document themselves posing with Le Magnifique. That’s because the third Penguins goal in a decisive 4-0 win over New York was uncannily similar to the one that inspired the statue.
Just as Bob Errey had done a good 25 years before, Jarome Iginla saw that the team’s best player was breaking toward the blue line with deceptive speed. He hit him in stride. Sidney Crosby blew past two defensemen, kept control, and then scored for the third time this postseason. (He would later put a perfect saucer pass on Kris Letang’s stick to set up Pittsburgh’s final goal — meaning that in four playoff games since his return from a shattered jaw, Crosby has amassed eight points.)
After the game, Crosby was asked if this was his “Mario statue” goal. He laughed. “Not one bit,” he said. “Not one bit. His was much nicer than mine. He went through guys and stick handled through them and stick handled around the goalie, too. I had a few less moves and a pretty basic shot, but I’ll take the goal anytime it goes in.”
Based on that description, though, I think Crosby had the wrong Lemieux goal in mind; his recollection sounds a great deal more like another split-the-D Mario breakaway: the coast-to-coast beauty he scored in Game 2 of the 1991 Stanley Cup finals against the Minnesota North Stars. (“One against the world, and he dekes the whole world,” Harry Neale narrated.)
It’s a far more famous goal than the one the statue is based on — it was the one chosen for one of those amazing backward NHL commercials they did a few years ago, and it’s downright chilling in reverse — and if that’s what Crosby had in mind, he’s correct that his own moves didn’t quite measure up. But they also didn’t need to. A far more relevant comparison would be to the breakaway John Tavares had just a minute and a half earlier in the second period.
It was a gorgeous attempt, but Tavares just couldn’t quite bury it. And while it’s cherry-picking to try to compare the two plays in any meaningful fashion, it’s a good reminder of just how difficult these sorts of breakaways are even for the elite players who can normally make them seem so easy, and how hard it is to put things away.
While the regular season can be about many things — positioning, conditioning, improving — the playoffs are about only one: producing. It’s not enough to hold on during a tight game and hope for overtime. Do that and you’ll find yourselves in the position of the Vancouver Canucks, who were up 2-1 in Game 2 until Patrick Marleau tied things with less than a minute to play, or the Montreal Canadiens, who were up 2-1 in Game 4 until Cory Conacher scored with 23 ticks left on the clock. (Both the Canucks and the Canadiens went on to lose in overtime, and their seasons are now over.)
The same goes for closing out series. A humorous subplot last season was people getting on the case of the L.A. Kings for not being able to “close out” their competition, but I can understand the instinct to feel that way. Being up 3-1 in a series is comfortable. Lose that game, though, and suddenly all the pressure’s on you. There’s the trope that “the fourth win is the hardest to get,” but I wonder if the ol’ “a two-goal lead is the worst lead in sports” cliché also applies to entire series.
So far, teams have mostly gotten the job done. The Sharks swept Vancouver. On Thursday night, both the Ottawa Senators and the Chicago Blackhawks very handily closed out their first-round series in five games over the Montreal Canadiens and Minnesota Wild, respectively. And the Penguins, who were undoubtedly rattled by dropping a pair of games to New York, served up a 4-0 win over the Islanders to put them a game away from the second round. It won’t be easy to return to Nassau Coliseum on a Saturday night for Game 6, but the good news is that whether the Pens come back to Consol for a huge Game 7 or return as first-round winners, Le Magnifique will be ready.
“[The sculptor] was relieved when we picked the three-player design because this structure is sturdier,” Penguins COO Travis Williams told the Tribune-Review’s Rob Rossi last year. “One of the things we were worried about is if there is a Stanley Cup celebration — which we expect there to be more of those — if people start celebrating on it, we want the statue to stay up.”
Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes
In 79 games during last year’s regular season, David Krejci earned a career-high 23 goals. In 63 career playoff games with the Boston Bruins? Twenty-five times. (When you do that, you become the subject of pieces with headlines like “Is David Krejci’s playoff ‘beast mode’ perception or reality?”)
Three of those playoff goals came en masse Wednesday night, as Krejci put up a hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs that culminated in an overtime winner.
“He might be underrated to you guys,” Milan Lucic told Joe Haggerty of CSNNE, “but he’s not underrated to people in this dressing room.”
The Bruins will be back in Boston tonight trying to close out the Leafs in Game 5.
Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers
It’s that time of year when the combination of elimination games and heightened expectations turns every player, team, and organization into a simple string of binary code. You’re off or you’re on. You’re nothing or you’re everything. If you’re not a one, you’re a zero.
So with three teams knocked out of the playoffs and a few others facing what could be their final games, there’s plenty of finger-pointing and/or lamenting to be done. “It was four games of not executing,” Kevin Bieksa said of his Vancouver Canucks after they were swept by the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night. “It’s two years in a row that we lost in the first round. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. It fucking sucks — I don’t know if I can say that, but that’s what it feels like right now.” Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild, a team handily dispatched in five games by the Blackhawks, said that missed opportunities were “going to haunt you the whole summer.” Max Pacioretty, who was injured in Game 1 of the Canadiens-Senators series and then had to watch his team lose in five games to Ottawa, said: “It sucks. It’s not a good feeling.”
Even for the teams that remain, scapegoat narratives are being identified and pursued. Tomas Vokoun finally had to replace Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who allowed 14 goals in three games. (It’s curious that it took the Penguins until Game 5 to make the change.) Toronto Maple Leafs fans generally prefer to distribute blame to a rotating cast of characters, but Ryan O’Byrne has really done his best to seek that attention since being traded to the Leafs near the deadline. But none of these guys has provided comedic fodder in quite the same way as our old pal Alex Ovechkin against the New York Rangers in Wednesday night’s Game 4.
Replays of the Rangers’ fourth goal, a passing play to a wide-open Derek Stepan that gave them a 4-2 lead and ultimately would prove to be the game winner, included a damning glimpse at Ovechkin coasting in from the blue line. (The stick that enters the lower right part of the frame around the six-second mark belongs to Ovechkin.) It was a little bit like the hockey version of Daria playing volleyball — or, as one amazing GIF floating around the Internet makes clear, like some crippling video game controller power snafu.
Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League
• I hope you didn’t do anything silly like make plans for Friday night, because there’s a full slate of important games — most of which could result in a team’s elimination. The Toronto Maple Leafs are down 3-1 in their series against the Boston Bruins and heading to what is sure to be a rabid TD Garden. (I actually feel like the Leafs will send the series back to Toronto; this matchup hasn’t yet gotten wild enough.) The Western Conference features a pair of Game 6′s: one in L.A., where the Kings will try to close out the Blues after taking a 3-2 series edge with an overtime win Wednesday night, and the other at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, where the Red Wings will try to escape a first-round knockout at the hands of Anaheim. Should the Ducks advance, they’ll face the winner of L.A.–St. Louis in the next round, with San Jose playing Chicago. If the Red Wings come back to win the series in seven, though, they’ll get the Blackhawks and the Kings-Blues winner will line up against San Jose.
• If you pay attention to only one thing about the Elisha Cuthbert–April Reimer Bitch Face Exchange (and I know, with a title like that it makes it real hard to want to limit yourself to one thing), it needs to be this Zapruder-style breakdown of the video. “As a recently engaged man, let me say — if you can’t speak Angry Woman Face, you’re going to have problems.” Truth. The analysis concludes that the target of their scorn is the dude sitting next to Cuthbert in the Hollister tee. (It’s always the guy in the Hollister tee.) Now you know.
• This article about the weekly Punjabi broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada is a few weeks old, but if you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend that you do. A sampling: “[Marc] Crawford said he was frequently approached by women in colorful saris who would praise him and then deliver their opinions on line changes and trades.”
• Trailing Krejci for the playoff scoring lead is Evgeni Malkin, who has two goals and nine points. San Jose’s Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture and Pittsburgh’s Crosby and Iginla are all tied with eight points. Chicago’s Patrick Sharp is tied with Krejci for the most goals in the playoffs, with five.
• A few other players who have stood out this postseason: The Islanders’ Kyle Okposo has scored three goals in the Pittsburgh series, including last Friday’s game winner … L.A.’s Justin Williams also recorded the game winner on Monday against the St. Louis Blues, and has another goal and an assist on Slava Voynov’s overtime game winner to his name … pretty much all of the star players on the San Jose Sharks rose to the occasion against Vancouver, from Couture to Marleau to Joe Thornton to Joe Pavelski … Marian Hossa has earned points in the last three games, including two goals and an assist as Chicago advanced in Game 5 … and Ryan Getzlaf scored an incredible goal to tie Game 5. It practically looked like slow motion.
• On the day of the USHL’s entry draft, Jack Jablonski — a 17-year-old Minnesota high school player who was paralyzed in a 2011 game — tweeted: “Dear USHL teams, Just thought I’d let u know I am eligible for tomorrow’s draft. Sincerely Jack Jablonski.” Later that day, the Chicago Steel announced that with their final pick they had selected the young forward. “Best night ever. #steel,” he tweeted. It’s getting pretty dusty in here.
• While it’s still not 100 percent signed-sealed-delivered, comments made by NHL executive Bill Daly this morning made it sound like the 2014 Sochi Olympics are pretty much a done deal. You know what this means, hockey fans: Start freaking out about who will be Team Canada’s goalie!
• Ilya Bryzgalov recently gave a Russian-language interview in which he chastised the local media. “A ‘broken telephone’ exists everywhere,” he said, later explaining that if he were in charge: “First of all, [write] only truth. Publish only verified information.” Can Ilya Bryzgalov become an ombudsman in his next act? I would read every word.
• NHL awards finalists have been trickling out over the last few days. A full accounting is here, but a few items of note: (1) The biggest snub so far seems to have been for Minnesota Wild rookie Jonas Brodin, who failed to make the three-candidate list for the Calder despite an outstanding freshman season. (2) The second-biggest? Jonathan Toews, who did not finish in the top three in Hart Trophy voting. (3) Dave Lozo wrote some great stuff on the flaws in the voting system and his recommendation for a solution.
And a Beauty! The Week’s Nicest in Net
Both of the goalies whose teams advanced to the second round Thursday night, Ottawa’s Craig Anderson and Chicago’s Corey Crawford, are guys who for the most part have flown under the radar. They’re also both currently sporting .950 save percentages through the first round of the playoffs.
In Anderson’s case, the lack of recognition was due in large part to an injury in February that interrupted what had been up to that point a Vezina-worthy season. He finished the season with a .941 save percentage that was best in the league, but it comprised just 24 games. In the playoffs, though, he’s somehow only gotten better: In Game 1, he helped the Senators get off to a 4-2 win despite being outshot 31-50.
“A lot of times I talk with my coaching staff and also my boys around the cottage,” said Senators coach Paul MacLean, “and I say, ‘We should change the game (name) of hockey to goalie.’ Because that makes the difference. And I think for our team, Craig Anderson was the MVP of this playoff series.”
It’s easy to look at the 6-1 score in the Senators’ series win over Montreal in Game 5 and think that Anderson had an easy night, but again Ottawa was outshot, 17-10, in the first period and only had a 2-1 lead until midway through the second. Likewise, the Blackhawks dispatched the Wild 5-1 on Thursday but needed Crawford in net early on to do things like bat away pucks …
… and make big stops on Minnesota threats like Mikko Koivu:
Even during this record-setting season for Chicago, Crawford was far from a highly publicized standout, splitting time in the Blackhawks’ net. (He played 30 games, and Ray Emery, who is injured, suited up for 21.) Many fans have memories of last season, in which Crawford allowed a few goals he’d probably like to have back as the Phoenix Coyotes beat Chicago in the first round. But they also recall that the 2010 Blackhawks won the Cup without needing former netminder Antti Niemi to do anything heroic.
“[Crawford]‘s answered a lot of questions about his play,” said Patrick Sharp. “I feel like he’s been strong ever since he joined the team. There are no question marks from our players looking back at our goaltending.”
For his efforts, Crawford earned a personal chant at the sold-out United Center on Thursday. Asked if he heard the support, he deadpanned: “Twenty two thousand people chanting that? Maybe caught a couple seconds of it.”
Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off
The New York Rangers’ Marc Staal returned to the team for Game 3 after being sidelined since early March when he took a puck to the eye, but he was not on the ice for Game 4. After the game, fellow blue liner Ryan McDonagh suggested that Staal had benched himself out of concerns that he wasn’t performing at his peak. “I think it’s an honest and humble decision by him knowing he didn’t want to put the team in any jeopardy,” McDonagh said. “It takes a lot of guts to do that.”
A thoughtful quote from a supportive teammate about a tricky postseason situation, right? Not in the eyes of John Tortorella. “Mac should shut up,” the coach said when asked about McDonagh’s remarks during a Thursday press conference. “It’s none of his business.” Well, now I’m intrigued.
Also, let’s just take a moment to pour one out for the Canadiens-Senators series, which packed enough rancor into the span of just a few games to populate this section for weeks. I’m genuinely upset that it didn’t go seven games, though maybe it’s for the best: When you’ve called the opposing coach a “bug-eyed fat walrus” and you haven’t even played Game 2 yet, there’s no telling what seven games might have wrought.
How would I react
If I were Johnny Boychuk?
This article has been updated to correct the number of years it has been since Bob Errey assisted Mario Lemieux in the Penguins’ December 20, 1988, game against the Islanders, and to reflect that Harry Neale was the announcer of Game 2 of the 1991 Stanley Cup finals.