Kovacevic: Penguins should thank Islanders |

Kovacevic: Penguins should thank Islanders

Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik (44) is embraced by teammates Evgeni Malkin (left) Tyler Kennedy (center) and Chris Kunitz (14) after his overtime goal against the Islanders Saturday, May 11, 2013, at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y.

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Somehow, some way, it had been three years and 17 days since Pittsburgh’s allegedly annual contender of a hockey club had been on the happy end of a handshake line.

So accept this one and enjoy it for all it’s worth.

Go ahead, it won’t bite.

If it hasn’t become painfully clear in recent years and, yeah, in these harried recent days and the better part of your nailbiting Saturday evening, this sort of thing shouldn’t be taken for granted.

I mean, come on, Penguins 4, Islanders 3 in OT!

Brooks Orpik, of all people, with a laser beam from the point that pinged the pipe and lit the lamp!

Series winner!


Just not feeling it, huh?

Understandable, I guess.

After all, Dan Bylsma had stressed in the hours leading to faceoff that he wanted all his athletes to treat this like a Game 7 – “We’re not looking at this like we’ve got six periods,” the coach declared. “We’ve got only three” – and they followed up by treating the opening two periods like a morning skate.

An optional morning skate.

With a handful of participants.

All doing defense-free shootout drills.

There’s no sugarcoating it: It was a sickening display that made you wonder what, if anything, these guys were thinking. Or if they even cared all that much.

But they did care. They did win. They did make it through.

And they did, for what it’s worth, seem wholly delighted by that.

“The whole team showed a lot of character,” Orpik was saying afterward. “There was no panic on the bench at any points. We were saying all the right things. … And no shot’s a bad shot in overtime.”

No one could argue that latter point, of course, especially when shooting on a perpetually shaky Evgeni Nabokov.

I’ll guess, though, that this still has you sighing more than celebrating. So let me try this another way that puts those awful two periods — and all the other awful periods in this mostly awful series for the victors — in a potentially constructive perspective:

Thank you, Islanders.

That’s not from me, but it very much should be the sentiment from the Penguins.

If these past few days wind up parlaying into something far bigger, if this team finds a path for chemistry and consistency in the second round or beyond, they ought to be grateful that these skilled, speedy and sandpaper-tough Islanders sling-shotted them along.

Make no mistake: For all the angst that gripped your city for much of this series, this was no ordinary No. 8 seed. John Tavares and company had gone 11-2-4 to close the regular season, desperately needing every point to qualify. As the defending champion Kings will attest, those tend to be dangerous opponents.

Add to that the familiarity of a divisional rival, speed on the wings that no Eastern Conference team can match and a mobile defense that utterly nullified the Penguins’ chip-and-chase forecheck, and you’ve got the makings of exactly what unfolded.

Or unraveled, I should say.

Orpik offered a typically blunt perspective: “I know the media and a lot of fans thought this would be a really easy series, but they battled us really hard. It’s a team that matches up well against us. They have a lot of speed up front.”

Yes, they do. There’s a reason that, no more than seconds after Orpik’s goal, the capacity crowd at Nassau Coliseum stood and roared approval for their team, prompting the players to take a lap with sticks raised.

It’s not something you see often from the losing side, but it was well deserved.

Sidney Crosby called the Islanders “a really good team,” and it’s a point their coach, Jack Capuano, wouldn’t argue.

“We took huge strides as an organization,” he said. “We put it on the line every game we played”

Now, imagine the opposite. Imagine if this had been a breeze, if the Penguins had strolled into the second round without changing goaltenders from Marc-Andre Fleury to Tomas Vokoun, without altering the top two lines to far more logical trios, without other vital strategic and personnel moves.

That took some serious humbling, don’t kid yourself, and this isn’t a front office or coaching staff easily humbled.

And boy, did the Penguins need it. They’ve got issues, potentially grave issues when it comes to – repeat after me – managing the puck. But now at least they’ll have video to review, a chance to discuss and debate and ultimately – if they do it smartly – improve.

Can they solve it all against a superior opponent in the Senators with an infinitely superior goaltender in Craig Anderson?

We’ll find out.

For now, all that’s known is that they shook hands and moved on.

And this, too, again from Orpik: “I think we learned that stuff doesn’t always go your way. You’ve just got to stick with it.”

No crime in that, right?

Come on, breathe already.

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