Penguins

Puck Talk with Popchock: Johnson A Timeless ‘Hit’ in Pittsburgh

Brent Johnson vs. Rick DiPietro

Brent Johnson KO’d the Islanders’ Rick DiPietro in the first goalie fight involving a Penguin since the turn of the century. (Courtesy of Justin K. Aller, Getty Images)

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By Matt Popchock

Can anyone tell me which Giant Eagle has the new “Brent Johnson Crunch” cereal?

Whoa, whoa…okay, totally kidding there.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility, though, right?

(Doggone it, now where did I put the number for that guy from PLB Sports?)

There will be plenty of time to talk about the future of the injury-riddled Pens; in fact, I’ll devote my next column to the subject.  For now, though, let’s focus on one of the men who will likely be leaned upon to help nurse his teammates through these difficult times, because, judging by his reaction, even he doesn’t realize what he accomplished last week.

With one left-handed jab, Brent Johnson became the latest folk hero in Pittsburgh sports, and as Reggie Dunlop famously said, most folk heroes start out as criminals.  Johnson was no criminal, but he was perhaps the next closest thing: a vigilante.  A vigilante in the only professional sports league that effectively encourages vigilante justice.

I couldn’t tell you the name of the referee who tried to wave off the Penguins’ backup netminder as he approached his star-crossed counterpart, Rick DiPietro, and it’s immaterial, because Johnny nonchalantly skated around him like Dick Van Dyke sidestepping the ottoman.  In defense of defenseless teammate Matt Cooke, who had just been knocked down by the frustrated Islander goalie, Johnny needed just one punch to bring to mind another classic movie line:

“I’ve always been sort of a pacifist.  My father always taught me never to hit another man in anger unless you’re absolutely sure you can get away with it.” -PFC Russell Ziskey, United States Army

Get away with it he did, selflessly conceding his shutout, but in the process, achieving something much more significant.  Thanks to his split-second KO, Penguin fans will have their No. 2 goaltender’s back for a very long time.

Rather than celebrate Johnson’s brilliance between the pipes and Penguins grinding out another important win minus their superstars, naturally the new headline was Johnson’s unconventional heroics.  To me, of greater significance was the stupidity of DiPietro.

Imagine…you’re the franchise goaltender for the rest of the decade–literally–on a team desperate for leadership by example, and in addition, possibly the most injury-prone player at your position in the entire league, and you’re going to risk further ailment and embarrassment by engaging a fellow goaltender in a fight in the meaningless closing seconds of a game already lost…and you’re grinning, per the slow-motion replay, as you hit the ice.

Grinning?!

Of course, that’s not the way Penguin fans saw it.  All they were grinning at was the fact that Johnson, whether he knew it or not, recognized what it takes to permanently capture their hearts.

Pittsburghers, many of them knowledgeable when it comes to hockey, know what a team-oriented game it truly is, and just how meaningless individual stats can be under certain circumstances.  They fully appreciate when one of their own puts what’s on the front of his jersey ahead of what’s on the back.

Ulf Samuelsson, aside from being credited with one of the biggest goals in Penguin history, gave Tom Barrasso invaluable and steadfast support on the back end by doing stuff to opposing forwards that no player in the post-lockout NHL could without serving a boatload of penalty minutes or losing a few teeth.

Rick Tocchet will always be remembered as one of the most prolific wingers the team ever had, but he’ll also be remembered for playing through a broken jaw to help his team win in Chicago…a harbinger of things to come.

You won’t see Jarkko Ruutu anywhere on the “Ring of Honor” or the video mural that greets fans in the CONSOL Energy Center lobby, but you’ll never forget his willingness to push back when he or his black-and-gold brethren were pushed, while occasionally putting someone into the third row–or his own bench–and scoring a big goal here or there.

Georges Laraque never did anything that jumped off the stat sheet, other than sit in the box more than his peers, but he did put Donald Brashear, regarded as one of the toughest men in the league at the time, in his place.

And shame on you for six weeks if you overlook Gary Roberts, who was here about ten minutes but needed just a couple skirmishes with a couple hapless Ottawa Senators to make himself western Pennsylvania’s own Chuck Norris.

Johnny, you’ve put yourself in highly-regarded company, believe me, because you proved that nobody, not even an Olympian, messes with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

And that’s exactly what the Pittsburgh Penguins and their fans want to think.

Sure, it was just one punch, just one play, just one game…but it underscored what a perfect teammate he’s been since arriving in the Steel City a year and a half ago.  He knows what his job is and has handled it respectably without showing any trepidations about riding the coattails of a younger goalie.  When none of the Penguins’ five skaters tried to send their own personalized message to DiPietro for taking an unprovoked run at one of them, Johnson was willing to eschew statistical glory.  It was a blue-collar maneuver in a town forever characterized as blue-collar.

His importance will remain great as the Pens try to muddle through an indefinite period of time without two of the best players on the planet.  Johnson will be needed to spell Marc-Andre Fleury effectively, as hockey aficionados know all too well what happens to overplayed goalies in the Stanley Cup Playoffs…Evgeni Nabokov and Roberto Luongo can attest to that.

Hopefully the next blows Johnson strikes will be for the Penguins in the Atlantic Division standings.

For more of the latest news and views on the Penguins, be sure to tune into “The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm,” Saturday mornings on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan, and check out the “Puck Talk with Popchock” video blog on 937thefan.com!

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