COLUMBUS, Ohio - The real number to watch in the Penguins' next round of Stanley Cup playoffs won't be 87, 71 or even 29. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury eventually acquitted themselves well in burying the Blue Jackets, but they won't be the key.
Nor will anyone on the opposition, at least not if the real number to watch does his thing.
Meet F3, the closest this roster comes to a Conn Smythe candidate at this early stage.
“It all starts with F3, no question,” James Neal was telling me, smirk-free, Monday night at Nationwide Arena. “If you see how we go, it's founded off that.”
The F3 designation in the Penguins' system is simple: He's the third forward on the forecheck — hence, F3 — and the best positioned, then, to hurry back with the defensemen. The new hockey vernacular is “tracking back,” but it's basically the same old backcheck of Gordie Howe, Toe Blake, Eddie Shore. Just hustle and help out.
Dan Bylsma and staff prefer their F3 to be the left winger. That's because the Penguins set up in a 1-3-1 formation in the neutral zone once the opponent has clear possession. The initial 1 is the lone forechecker. The next 3 are a lateral linkage of the left winger, center and right defenseman. The last 1 is the lonely left defenseman.
More on him later.
There aren't many chances to go to a pure 1-3-1, especially not for a team like the Penguins that makes a ton of east-west passes and has plenty of those picked off. The play flips too quickly. So it's up to F3 to react and help nullify odd-man breaks.
Here's the rub: The Penguins' forwards aren't always overflowing with enthusiasm in that regard.
“It's hard work,” Jussi Jokinen said. “You can't just skate back there. You've got to establish position, really take the man, do the job to help your D.”
When they don't, it's a mess. That's because, in all candor, the Penguins' forwards are generally lousy in their own end. They get outhit, they lose 50/50 puck battles, they lose positioning, you name it. Worse, the defensemen then scramble to make up for it.
Here's what Rob Scuderi, one of those defensemen, said the other day about this team's ideal identity: “We're a team that, if we move the puck north and keep the puck in the offensive zone, good things seem to happen for us.”
Get that, boys?
DON'T PLAY HERE. PLAY OVER THERE.
I'm told that Jacques Martin, an NHL head coach for four franchises, was brought to Bylsma's staff for this season primarily to get the forwards to buy into all this. I was further told over the weekend that, undoubtedly not by coincidence, Martin became more involved in the daily instruction of players during the Columbus series.
Read into that what you will, but also undoubtedly not by coincidence, Martin's extra involvement coincided with dominant territorial efforts in the concluding Games 5 and 6. The Blue Jackets couldn't whip up any kind of forecheck until the frantic waning minutes of Game 6 when the Penguins had lost checking centers Brandon Sutter and Joe Vitale.
F3 isn't Martin's baby, and neither is the 1-3-1. Both were Bylsma's. But it sure sounds like Martin brought F3 back to life.
This is where Neal comes in.
He was born for F3 — great wheels, big body, aggressive stick, ability to swing the play 180 degrees with a touch — and every once in a while, he plays like it. He did so in both Games 5 and 6, easily his best of the series. He was engaged. He went back to retrieve the puck rather than wait for it.
“I think it's always been a good thing for me, being that guy who tracks back,” Neal said. “You get the puck, you get control, and you get to your game.”
That's north, as Scuderi reminds. And he'll remind for a reason: That aforementioned last, lonely defenseman in the 1-3-1 is usually Scuderi, Olli Maatta or Brooks Orpik.
Remember down the stretch when all three of them, even Maatta, were getting torched one-on-one with regularity?
Well, not now. And again, that's no accident. On one play in Game 6, Columbus hit one of its fastest forwards, Cam Atkinson, with a stretch pass to the Penguins' blue line. Pinpoint accurate, too. Didn't matter. The F3, Craig Adams, had taken away the middle, forcing Atkinson to try to beat Maatta one-on-one to the right edge of the rink.
Maatta devoured him whole.
I don't mean to oversimplify here. If anything, Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and all the rest will have to be that much better in the second round. But the very best hockey I've seen from these Penguins has come with an energetic, effective F3 as the engine, and the Blue Jackets just might have done them quite the favor in re-sparking that.