Five things we learned Wednesday

May, 13, 2010

1. What now for the Pittsburgh Penguins? Everyone take a deep breath. I wouldn't be doing too much to this roster if I were GM Ray Shero. I believe these Penguins were tired, whether they want to admit it or even know to admit it. It's no coincidence two great teams like Pittsburgh and Detroit went out in the second round, both looking like they had run out of gas after a ton of hockey over the past three seasons. These players aren't robots; the short summers are taxing on the body.

So everyone in Pittsburgh should relax. The team opens a new rink next season and the boys will be back fresh and ready to rock. The core of this team -- one other clubs would dream of -- is mostly locked up (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik and Marc-Andre Fleury).

The unrestricted free agents include Sergei Gonchar, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Mark Eaton, Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko, Jordan Leopold, Matt Cooke and Jay McKee. Gonchar is the headliner here. He proved once again in the playoffs that he's the man on defense for this team. Negotiations were shelved during the season and will pick up at some point over the next month. The problem, however, is still the same. Gonchar is 36 years old and the Pens would not want to give him more than two years out of fear of the 35-and-over rule (the contract counts against the cap regardless of how long he plays).

If the Pens can't bring back Gonchar, Shero needs to go fishing for another top-four defenseman, and those don't grow on trees. So, just like the Red Wings' offseason revolves around Nicklas Lidstrom, it's about Gonchar for the Penguins.

2. The Philadelphia Flyers have had little national coverage on either side of the border since the other three second-round series have overshadowed them. But now the hockey world has no other choice but to take notice as the Flyers are one win away from pulling off the first 3-0 series deficit comeback since the 1975 New York Islanders. Yes, if the Flyers can pull it off in Friday night's Game 7 in Boston, it would be an historical comeback by Chris Pronger, Danny Briere, Mike Richards and their never-say-die team.

I'm not saying I believe in this kind of stuff, but it's interesting to note Philly's comeback began last week, the same week HBO ran a terrific documentary entitled "Broad Street Bullies," which chronicled the Flyers' back-to-back Cup championships in 1974 and 1975. Maybe today's Flyers players were inspired by it?

3. How many media and fans owe Bob Gainey an apology? In the space of 24 hours between June 30 and July 1 this past summer, the veteran hockey man transformed the Habs in a stunning array of transactions. He added Scott Gomez, Tom Pyatt, Mike Cammalleri, Jaroslav Halak, Hal Gill and Brian Gionta and said goodbye to free agents Saku Koivu, Alexei Kovalev, Alex Tanguay, Francis Bouillon, Mathieu Schneider and Robert Lang, among others.

The reaction was mixed, but people generally wondered, "What the heck just happened and what was Gainey thinking?" Well, 10 months later, we bow to you, Mr. Gainey; it turns out you knew exactly what you were doing. He also added Travis Moen on July 10, no small addition when you consider the veteran winger's gutsy playoff performance.

Perhaps, however, Gainey's best non-move was to resist trading Halak when the Halak/Carey Price controversy picked up steam and teams started calling in November. Gainey stayed put. Nice call. Gainey is now a special consultant for the team after stepping aside as general manager and being replaced by assistant Pierre Gauthier in February. Still, is it too late for a recount on the GM Award balloting?

4. I have a sense Washington Capitals fans can sleep just a little better now that the underdog Habs have also toppled the rival Penguins. I doubt you'll catch any Caps player or front-office staffer saying that. In fact, we asked Caps coach Bruce Boudreau via text on Wednesday night if seeing Montreal also beat Pittsburgh made it hurt less for him, and his one-word answer was, "No."

Still, I wouldn't blame anyone on the Caps for feeling slightly less angry now. Quite frankly, it takes the embarrassment factor out of losing. The Caps should still be mighty upset they lost given their NHL-best regular season, but at least they don't have to feel like what happened was too shocking. The Cup champion Penguins also went down to the Habs, so it can't be that bad to lose to them, right? Of course, the difference is the Pens can soothe their pain by slipping on their 2009 Cup rings, not to mention the acknowledgement of their back-to-back Cup finals appearances. What still stings for the Caps is they've accomplished very little in the playoffs; they can look West to San Jose and see why patience is important.

5. Well, we're almost halfway through the NHL playoffs (c'mon Boston-Philly, end it already!), and it's a good time to take stock of the Conn Smythe Trophy race. At this point, it is no race. Anybody who doesn't think Halak and his ridiculous .933 save percentage (best in the playoffs) shouldn't be the slam-dunk choice at this point is drunk on poutine.

From this vantage point, we have playoff points leader Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks as our second-place man, followed by San Jose Sharks clutch center Joe Pavelski in third and Cammalleri and his NHL-leading 12 playoff goals in fourth. If the Flyers win Friday, I would slot Chris Pronger at No. 5; if it's Boston, Tuukka Rask. Hard to argue with any of these choices, don't you think?

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer




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