Last night was bad news for the Columbus Blue Jackets. They played a great first game on the road in Pittsburgh. They twice led, once by two goals. They outshot the Penguins. They kept the Pens big guns from doing much damage. And they still lost.
Game 1 came down to Sergei Bobrovsky: he didn’t make the stops he normally would, and it cost them what realistically could’ve been a win.
Pittsburgh managed a Houdini-like escape from the close contest with the “W,” but if they hope to improve in Game 2, which they most certainly do, they’re going to need a bit more from Sidney Crosby between the whistles, and a bit less after them.
The Penguins captain played fine in the first contest, picking up an assist in a game that saw him spend the lion’s share of the game in the o-zone. But watching him play, I couldn’t help but think that part of what makes him so great – his competitiveness – also hinders him occasionally. It most certainly allows opponents to (wrongly) feel on his level.
Over half of Crosby’s ice time in Game 1 was spent against Brandon Dubinsky, a player who takes great pride in antagonizing his opponents, particularly ‘ol number 87. And, while he periodically ignored Dubinsky early, Sid eventually found himself caught up in the personal battle, which is exactly what Columbus wants. He seems unable to let the hacks and whacks go and settle for dominating between the whistles – he engages. Remember the battle vs. Claude Giroux that got the best of him?
Crosby is one of the most efficient point-getters in playoff history – the guy knows what he’s doing – but I think the Penguins would benefit in this particular series from him dismissing the pests on Columbus like he’s covered in Deep Woods Off, rather than flailing wildly every time they buzz around his head.
I was introduced to one of my favorite (simple) concepts in hockey by a coach a little over a decade ago: never let ‘em see you sweat. That means no banging your stick on the boards after a missed attempt, no whining to the ref after bad calls, no responding to petty name-calling with retaliatory penalties and post-whistle face-washes. You are robots, and you will forever frustrate the hell out of your opponent because even after a loss, your team just keeps showing up, keeps working hard, and they can’t get to you. You’re unfazed, you’re relentless.
In a series like Pittsburgh/Columbus, the Penguins need to understand: the Blue Jackets don’t truly believe they’re on the Penguins level. They hope they are, and they probably aren’t far off in reality, but it’s like when Tiger Woods would get pushed to the brink by players like Bob May and Rocco Mediate – those lesser competitors, those peasants never truly believed they could hang with him, and because of that, they couldn’t. Intimidation and a lack of belief can sap a competitor’s will.
The hype that surrounds the Pittsburgh Penguins and their big guns puts them in a Woods-like position. If they were to keep ferociously going about their business while never acknowledging that the Blue Jackets are even worth bothering with, it would be real hard for Columbus to start to believe, to start to get their hopes up, to start to push.
When Crosby is getting chirped at by Brandon Dubinsky – a fine enough player, but still, Brandon Dubinsky – and he’s got a Cup in his back pocket, a couple gold medals, Hart Trophies, scoring titles and all the rest, he needs to mentally take a page from Tupac’s “Hit ‘em up”: I don’t even know why I’m in this game, ya’ll ain’t even on my level, I’m gonna let my little homies ride on you. He needs to act like he’s deaf, like he can’t feel pain, like he never sweats.
Acknowledging the Blue Jackets only gives them hope and feel engaged. If I’m Dan Bylsma, I’m telling our guys to stop jawing after the whistle, stop getting in the scrums, and to only go at our opponent between the whistles. Do so ferociously, but let’s dispatch our first opponents like pros.
Granted, it’s easier said than done.