PITTSBURGH — Trying to make Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena seem just a little more hospitable, the Pittsburgh Penguins decorated the walls of their small, gray locker room with dozens of motivational posters.
Scotch-taped over every inch of available wall space above lockers, on the bathroom walls and even in the hallway leading to the ice, was a greatest-hits collection of every sports motivational platitude known to man. What must have seemed like a terrific idea at the time unfortunately ended up transforming the dressing room of the once-fierce defending Stanley Cup champions into something resembling a junior high camp counselor’s office.
The temporary display included such hits as: Attention to Detail. Just Play. Hunt. Own it! And even the all-time work retreat classic — TEAM: Together. Everyone. Achieves. More.
The decorations were an odd and seemingly desperate gesture for a team trying to get its collective mind right before the series slipped away. Yet, as far as I could tell, the only cliché the Penguins didn’t have on display was the one message superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin needed most.
Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.
Four games into this Stanley Cup Final, that’s one message that has not gotten through in Pittsburgh’s dressing room. Trailing the Preds 3-1 near the end of Game 4 on Monday night in Nashville, the Penguins pulled their goalie, allowing for Crosby and Malkin to skate together. The result was something less than magical and pretty much exactly what you’d expect in a series in which Crosby and Malkin have seemed to inexplicably shrink from the pressure and vanish for long stretches at a time.
Just like in Game 1, when the Pens’ offense went 37 minutes without a shot on net. Or Game 3, when neither Crosby nor Malkin could place a single puck on net for an entire playoff game for the first time since, well, ever. Or Game 4, when the Pens’ power play fell to an abysmal 1-for-17 in the series.
Afterward, the first thing Pens coach Mike Sullivan spit into the mic at his news conference was, “Well, obviously it’s hard to win when you score one goal.”
Someone needs to put that on a Pens poster.
Or this: Most of the time in this series the Penguins offense has resembled a typical Nashville bar fight between portly patrons: slow, sad and completely lacking any punch whatsoever.
Given one more chance to redeem themselves with a late-game advantage, Crosby was nevertheless unable to secure the faceoff, allowing the Preds to move the puck around the boards, where Filip Forsberg launched it past a half-hearted stab by Malkin, down the ice and into the Pens’ empty net.
The goal tied the series at two games apiece and clarified things in Sid’s mind, at least. “It’s simple,” said Crosby, who, come to think of it, usually talks in poster-speak as well. “Go home and win a game.”
Ah, but this time I’m afraid the Pens’ situation can’t be reduced to a single simple sentiment. It’s much more complicated than that.
Game 5 victors in these situations go on to win the Cup 71 percent of the time, which means despite all of their past successes (even Wayne Gretzky said the pair has “cracked the upper echelon”), Thursday night in Pittsburgh is still shaping up to be a legacy-defining game for the struggling duo of Crosby and Malkin.
I watched, on that final play, as Malkin — who is averaging one shot per game in this series — barely bothered to raise his stick to defend Pittsburgh’s open net and I thought: Well, we know he can brandish his stick when he wants to. After all, Malkin certainly wielded it without too much trouble at some Predators fans when they “attacked” him with a shower of fluffy soft cotton rally towels as the Pens exited the ice following Game 3.
(Here’s a fun exercise: Let’s all try to imagine how the sports world would react if LeBron James was held without a shot in an NBA Finals game and then gestured afterward, even jokingly, like he was going to hit some Golden State fans. Trust me, there would be fines, suspensions, possible banishment and a series of town hall meetings on the need for safe spaces in sports arenas.)
Malkin may have gotten a pass for his actions and his uninspired play, but it’s pretty evident the frustration level is bubbling over in Pittsburgh, especially with Crosby, who has inexplicably let P.K. Subban get under his gums. Early in Game 4, after the Predators’ relentless, disruptive and suffocating defense forced the Penguins to reset their rush three times on a single shift, Crosby, perhaps dizzy from all that circling, attacked Subban after the whistle, unprovoked. Clearly, Sid has grown tired of being posterized by the Nashville defense and constantly trolled by Subban, who showed up to the game carrying mouthwash after claiming that Crosby had chirped at him for having skunk breath — even though the real stench is coming from the Pens’ bench.
A few days earlier, Malkin had perfectly summed up what it feels like to face the Predators’ relentless and irritating defense when he said: “I have puck like one second, they jump to me.”
Yes, they jump to him and, as a result, we may never hear from Malkin again. After he went totally MIA in Game 3, give Crosby credit for rebounding in spectacular fashion Monday night with four shots on net, some remarkable playmaking and a gorgeous breakaway goal that he buried thanks to a fortuitous bounce off the post.
Just as Nashville coach Peter Laviolette pointed out before the game, even when he’s not scoring, Crosby is usually creating opportunities and dictating play. There’s no question that injuries and back-to-back trips to the finals have taken their toll on the Pens.
But the crazy stat that circulated after the Pens’ lone goal supports the notion that Crosby still has some considerable work to do in Game 5, and his legacy (at least when it comes to the Final) is not yet completely secure. Despite being the face of the sport for the past dozen years, Crosby’s goal Monday night was just his second in his last 20 Stanley Cup Final games and his first in his last 13, dating back to Game 5 of the 2009 Final against Detroit.
For reference, Gretzky’s 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers team was recently voted the greatest team in NHL history as part of the league’s centennial celebration. Crosby has one goal in his past 13 Stanley Cup Final games. In the 1985 Final alone, Gretzky had seven goals in five games.
“We’re playing OK,” said Penguins goalie Matt Murray late Monday night. “But playing OK isn’t good enough in the Stanley Cup Final.”
As Murray spoke in a near whisper inside the Pens’ heavy room, I spun around and scanned the walls to see if he might have actually been reading his response off one of the Pens’ cheesy motivational posters. (He wasn’t.) But on a wall near Crosby’s locker stall I did see the message: The Journey Begins Here.
Indeed, with the quest for the Cup now boiled down to a three-game sprint, the “journey” actually begins with a legacy-defining Game 5 on Thursday night in Pittsburgh. And for Crosby and Malkin, it will either end with another Cup — or just more questions.