Colin Dunlap: Sometimes It Isn’t The Stars
Man, was I wrong.
On Wednesday evening, with puck drop of Game 1 of the first round series between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins about an hour away, my voice (which can take paint off walls) firmly made a pronouncement on 93.7 The Fan.
Paraphrasing here, but I said something to the deduction of, “The Penguins must get great play from the superstars; it ain’t about third and fourth line guys and supplemental players come playoff time.”
Yikes, was I wrong — at least on this night.
As the Penguins were in the midst of fighting back from a 3-1 deficit early in the second period for what would become a 4-3 win and 1-0 series lead, it was the undeniable play of some of those lesser-knowns for the Penguins that served as the difference.
The diminutive Brian Gibbons (listed at a charitable 5-foot-8) was positively stellar. For a time, he bumped up to that first line when Beau Bennett scuffled as he played alongside Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby. Gibbons, who some felt going in could have been enveloped by the scope of an NHL playoff situation, didn’t log a point but registered a couple shots and was momentous on the penalty kill. He ended up playing a shade under 12 minutes in the victory, but it might have been the most important dozen or so minutes of his career. He was, certainly, at his finest.
What did it do?
It proved that Penguins coach Dan Bylsma (and maybe more important Crosby and Kunitz) can trust him in a big-time situation as the postseason advances.
Then there was Sutter.
It has become fashionable in this town to not talk enough about what Sutter has done, but, instead, list all the things he isn’t when compared to Jordan Staal, for whom he was part of a trade in June of 2012.
On Wednesday night in Game 1 against the Blue Jackets, Sutter was solid as he anchored that third line, picking up the game-winner with about 8 minutes gone in the third period on a well-ordered wrist shot past Sergei Bobrovsky.
It was a play in which Sutter showed uncanny patience and the touch of a goal scorer, stepping away from his normal role of driving through the center and muscling one through but, instead, picking out a spot with a neat shot and hitting it.
When General Manager Ray Shero traded for Sutter, it was probably one of things he had in mind.
The Penguins are now 13-0-1 this season when Sutter scores a goal. Maybe that’s just coincidence or happenstance or, just maybe, when the Penguins get that supplemental scoring from a guy who isn’t on one of their top two lines, they really are a better team.
No matter what it is, the numbers don’t lie — when Sutter scores, the Penguins have been ultrasuccessful this season.
It happened again on Wednesday in Game 1.
It that same game, Sidney Crosby wasn’t at his best, Kris Letang might have been at his worst, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury played reasonable and Kunitz and James Neal never seemed to find a stride.
Such a recipe generally doesn’t add up to the Penguins having a great chance of winning.
However, who would have thought this club would get the production it did from Gibbons and Sutter? It really was exceptional stuff from some largely innocuous players.
Can the Penguins keep winning games in this series — and possibly beyond — when they are paced by the play of guys like Sutter and Gibbons? Who knows. The smart money says no. The superstars will, at some point, need to step up.
But on this night, in Game 1, those ancillary pieces just so happened to be the most important pieces.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his bio here.