Penguins

Puck Talk with Popchock: It Just Takes One

James Neal

The Penguins celebrate James Neal’s double-overtime goal at St. Pete Times Forum in Game 4 Wednesday. (Photo credit: Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)

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By Matt Popchock

As the prophet Bob Errey so boldly declared a split second before James Neal fired a laser beam from the half-wall behind an unsuspecting Dwayne Rolosson for a belated Penguins victory in Game 4, it just takes one.

It just took one quick flick of the wrist and one well-placed puck from a guy who, for the better part of 34 games, couldn’t put one in sand if he fell off a camel, to give the Pens a commanding 3-1 series lead, which many thought improbable against a team with world-class–and healthy–talent on its top lines.

It just took one pickle-stab from the stick of Tyler Kennedy to push a loose puck past Dwayne Rolosson in Game 5 Saturday for the first goal of the game.  The Penguins never got that play, because, as Chris Kunitz later pointed out, the Pens just didn’t do a good enough job winning 50-50 pucks.

It just took one shot from vastly improved Kennedy to get their historically inadequate power play on the board for the first time in this series last Wednesday.  It just took one big posterior shielding Rolosson, that of Eric Tangradi, to ensure Kennedy’s shot snuck through.  It just took that one goal to silence the St. Pete Times Forum during Game 4 and make the home team appear equally subdued.  Hopefully, it’ll just take one more O-fer on the power play, which happened again Saturday, to give Dan Bylsma the good sense to dress “Big Dog” again for Game 6.

It just took one penalty kill at the outset of Game 4 for a PK unit that ranked tops in the league in the regular season for the first time in franchise history to get its groove back after once again making it seem they missed Matt Cooke’s leadership by example in that phase of the game.

It just took one penalty for the Lightning’s power play, which had been dormant in Game 4, to awaken.  Tampa Bay would eventually annihilate the Pens with four on seven tries.  By that same token, it took just one game for me to come around on how much the Penguins would indeed benefit from Cooke, love him or hate him, and his top-notch penalty killing right now.

It just took one clean but devastating hit by Brooks Orpik on Steve Stamkos in Game 1 to knock the young sniper into Jefferson County and off his game, or at least that’s what some fans would have you believe.  It just took one big, juicy rebound, not to mention poor back-checking, to give Stamkos and his team new life Saturday.  One of the Penguins needed to put him on his wallet a split second before it became 2-0 Bolts, and no one ever did.

It would have taken just one inch to the right for a slap shot by Orpik in the first period Saturday not to go careening off the goal post to Rolosson’s right, and instead find the twine for a possible game-changing strike from an unlikely source.  As it turns out, it only took one brief lapse in focus, something that has become all too common in games at CONSOL Energy Center, for the Lightning to effectively force Game 6 when Game 5 was far from over.

It just took one big save by Marc-Andre Fleury here and there in Games 1, 3, and 4 to give the Penguins an all-important edge between the pipes.  It just took one fraction of one playoff series to prove Fleury is a bona fide Hart Trophy candidate, and clearly is not the same goalie whose cage was rattled by the Montreal Canadiens last spring.  Unfortunately, it just took one (and a half) period to give Saturday’s record crowd Vietnam-esque flashbacks to Game 7 against the Habs.

It just took one system–Dan Bylsma’s system–and his players’ adherence to it to keep the Pens afloat without Sid and/or Geno.  In a series that has basically boiled down to a battle of superstars versus strategy, strategy has clearly prevailed three out of five times.  But it also just took one big game from those superstars to change the complexion of this series as it heads back to St. Pete Times Forum.

It just took one day last summer for Ray Shero to exponentially improve the Penguins’ defensive corps by awarding massive contracts to New Jersey staple Paul Martin and under-appreciated Phoenix blue-liner Zbynek Michalek.  Martin and Michalek have earned every penny in this series, helping limit Tampa Bay to four even-strength goals in Games 1 through 4, with only one coming from the tape of Martin St. Louis.  Despite all the directions this series could have taken and still can take, the Penguins deserve to be on the cusp of round two for that reason alone.

It also took just one colossal letdown by those blue-liners to let Game 5 spiral completely out of control when they had no reason not to know the Lightning would play their most desperate game yet.  Regardless of how this series turns out, Bylsma and this team have a lot of explaining to do when it comes to their inability to maintain that focus and execute in home games that carry significance.

Game 6 will likely come down to one big play.  Historically, it just takes one bad game for the Flower to bounce back, and it just takes one change of scenery for the Pens to clinch playoff series under Bylsma.  It might just take one goal–the first goal–to decide whether or not either of those things happen, if Games 1 through 5 are any indication.

That one play could be the difference between spending Wednesday night resting up for the Eastern Conference Semifinals or playing a Game 7 that I’m sure many of us, including the Pittsburgh Penguins, don’t want to play for a variety of reasons.

The best thing the Pens and their fans can do going into Monday’s game is put it behind them.  It doesn’t change the fact that the Penguins still have two more chances to eliminate Tampa Bay.

Hopefully, it’ll just take one.

(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)

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