By Joe Starkey, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Thursday, April 28, 2011
It's not often you see a player go from top power play to healthy scratch in the same game.
It happened to one Alexei Kovalev on Wednesday night in the biggest game of the season — Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning — and it has to leave you questioning coach Dan Bylsma in the wake of a bitter 1-0 loss.
Particularly galling was the sight of the Penguins flailing away with a 6-on-4 advantage in the final minute (goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had been pulled) as Kovalev watched from the bench.
Aren`t those precisely the kinds of situations he was brought here for?
"It`s pretty hard to say I wasn`t happy (about Kovalev`s absence)," said Tampa Bay goalie Dwayne Roloson, who made 36 saves. "He`s a world-class player, so skilled and so good."
Actually, Kovalev is a shell of his former self. He was terrible in this series. Not just a passenger but a disruptive one, harming his own team with careless plays. One easily could have made a case to scratch him for Game 7, in favor of Eric Tangradi, who could have stood in front of the net on the power play.
But if you`re going to play Kovalev, use him in a 6-on-4 with the season on the line, for goodness sake, especially on a night when he came out flying and was the Penguins` best player on an unusually effective power play in the first period.
Asked about Kovalev`s absence for the 6-on-4, Bylsma said he wanted "guys on the ice who were battling, giving us the best chance to cash in on an opportunity."
Best chance to cash in? Why, then, was Mark Letestu on the ice? How about James Neal, who finished his first Penguins go-round with two goals in 27 games — one on a deflection by the other team and one on a shot from the half boards that somehow eluded Roloson in Game 4?
It`s not Kovalev`s fault, by the way, that none of his teammates know what to do with his passes.
I can understand limiting Kovalev at even-strength in the third period (he played 2:11 in the frame). He was turning over pucks as if they were pancakes. He was credited with four giveaways overall. But let`s be serious: If the Penguins were afraid of Kovalev`s risky play, they shouldn`t have acquired him in the first place. His middle name is risk.
Kovalev, by the way, was unavailable for comment in what surely was his final game in a Penguins sweater.
Meanwhile, the real story of this game was a familiar one: The Penguins` failure to find the net.
The game also had New York Islanders` overtones, as seemingly every soul-crushing Penguins loss does. Roloson is a former Islander; and the lone goal-scorer last night, Sean Bergenheim, was an Islanders draftee.
This was the second time in franchise history the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead. The first was 1975, when they went to Game 7 against the Islanders — having been up three games to none — and did everything within their power to win. Except score, in a 1-0 loss.
I don`t have the numbers, but I`m guessing the ‘75 team couldn`t have been as bad as this year`s club on the power play. The Penguins were 1 for 35 with 42 shots in the series. Still, Bylsma made no changes to his first unit — sending out Kris Letang, Zbynek Michalek, Neal, Kovalev and Jordan Staal in the first period.
Kovalev had his best period of the series in the first and seemed to shoot more in a two-minute span than he had in the previous month. Roloson held strong on that power play, and the second one did not go so well, drawing boos from the sellout crowd.
It would have been interesting to see what the Penguins could have done with a five-minute man advantage — OK, probably nothing — which is precisely what they should have had after Tampa defenseman Mattias Ohlund smashed Talbot from behind, sending Talbot head-first into the boards. Talbot crumpled to the ice and did not rise for several seconds as play went on.
The no-call by either referee — Dan O`Halloran or Brad Watson, who was closer to the play — had to be particularly galling to the Penguins, as it was O`Halloran who called the dubious boarding penalty on Sidney Crosby 10 seconds into last year`s Game 7 against Montreal.
The Penguins were the only team in the NHL that failed to a win a game when trailing after two periods, a stat that surely would not have held if their two superstars, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, had not missed so many months. The final three games of the series marked the only time all season the Penguins lost three straight games in regulation.
There`s no telling if Kovalev would have made the difference on that final 6-on-4, but having him on the bench was inexcusable.