With a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers Thursday, the Penguins clinched second place in the Atlantic Division, fourth place in the Eastern Conference and home ice in their opening-round playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers. They also continued the attention to detail and solid special-teams play that earned them a 5-3 win in Boston, after coming off an inconsistent week-plus that saw them go 2-4.
“That was our [focus] for the final three games,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “Our defensive zone coverage [against the Rangers was] maybe our best game in recent times. We were good in some of those areas in Boston as well.”
Earning home ice and a second consecutive win against a tough Eastern Conference opponent would be newsworthy enough on most nights, but the talk after the game centered on a play with 4:39 remaining, when Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik injured 21-year-old Rangers forward Derek Stepan with a knee-on-knee hit. Orpik received five minutes and a game misconduct but was not contacted by the NHL regarding any supplemental discipline – a fact that’s not likely to sit well with Rangers coach John Tortorella, who was fined $20,000 for his postgame remarks.
“It’s a cheap, dirty hit,” Tortorella said. “I wonder what would happen if we did it to their two whining stars over there. So I’m anxious to see what happens with the league with this. Just no respect among players, none. It’s sickening.”
Tortorella then broadened his criticisms, once again singling out Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and implying favoritism toward the Pittsburgh organization.
“It’s one of the most arrogant organizations in the league,” he said. “They whine about this stuff all the time and look what happens. It’s ridiculous, but they’ll whine about something else over there, won’t they? Starting with their two [expletive] stars.”
Even goaltender Marty Biron, not known for the outspokenness and emotion of his coach, spoke up on Orpik’s hit. “I saw it the whole way and it crossed my mind to go all the way down [the ice to start a fight],” he said. “It was gutless, dirty. That guy is known for sticking his leg out … it’s very dangerous.”
Orpik declined comment, both following the game and after Friday morning’s practice. Bylsma and Crosby were willing to address the issues, however – which marked the third time this week that a high-profile hockey personality disparaged the Penguins organization and its star players, starting with Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette last Sunday, then continuing with NBC analyst Mike Milbury and Tortorella.
“In [Tortorella’s] postgame comments for a lot of games this year, we’ve heard different things from hits to starting lineups to how referees have ended games,” Bylsma said. “It’s part of his coaching manual to go off there.
“I’ve seen that in the last week all over … [they’re] trying to talk at and through different mediums to the team and referees and I don’t know who might be listening to some of the talk. That’s just what it is, it’s gamesmanship, and they’re trying to have an effect where I’m not sure they can have an effect. They’re trying to have someone hear them.”
While Bylsma was diplomatic, the Penguins’ captain was uncharacteristically blunt in his assessment.
“I don’t know what [Tortorella’s] talking about,” Crosby said regarding the implication that he and Malkin whine to officials. “If you want, you can put a camera on us the whole game, put a camera on [Rangers captain Ryan] Callahan the whole game, and you’ll see who’s over there more. He should worry about his own players.”
Crosby also characterized the talk as gamesmanship, but had a few other words for his thoughts on it.
“I don’t know when this all started, if this is part of the new tactics heading into the playoffs, but it’s garbage,” he said. “The game’s played on the ice and you’ve got all this stuff going on.
“If anything, they’re trying to persuade officials from not making calls or second-guessing things, but I really hope they’re not listening to that crap because it’s nonsense. They’re trying every which way to gain an advantage, so be it. Try it. We’re not paying a lot of attention to it, but it’s getting old.”
The Penguins will close out the regular season Saturday, when they face their first-round opponent in a rematch of the Flyers’ 6-4 win last Sunday that has the potential for plenty of emotion. Four players nursing minor injuries – forwards James Neal, Steve Sullivan and Arron Asham and defenseman Matt Niskanen – are not expected to play, though all are expected to be ready for the start of the playoffs next week. Other regulars may sit, too, to rest and avoid the potential for injury in a game that’s meaningless in the standings but could help set a tone for the opening round.
Pittsburgh took a bold step toward setting that tone Friday, when the team summoned enforcer Steve MacIntyre from the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. MacIntyre’s presence will counter that of Flyers tough guy Jody Shelley, if he dresses, and both could help keep the opposition honest so the clubs can focus on the hockey game – and, more importantly, the playoff series – at hand.
“This series coming up, one team’s going to win four games, they’re going to have a handshake, one side’s going to wish the other side luck in the next round, and the other side’s going to go on. We’re going to have a whale of a series. We know who we’re playing; we respect the opponent. We’ve got a great adversary.
“There’s certainly a storyline going on, and it’s going to play out on the ice.”