by: Joe Starkey, freelance columnist TribLIVE Updated:
PITTSBURGH - What shaped up as the NHL's least-interesting first-round matchup has morphed into something wild, riveting and wholly unprecedented.
Elias Sports Bureau confirmed Thursday that never before has the winning team rallied from two or more goals behind four times in a series, let alone four in a row.
“It's unreal,” said the man from Elias.
So is this: The Columbus Blue Jackets are playing the 109-point Penguins to a standstill.
As such, the hockey world is sure to turn its eyes toward Game 5 on Saturday in Pittsburgh — home of a joyless hockey team and its joyless following.
Welcome, friends, to the No Consol-ation Energy Center, where the burden of great expectations has ruined the fun for everyone and where good seats still were available for Game 5 as of Thursday afternoon. They'll tell you the motto is “It's a Great Day for Hockey,” but that's a lie. It's more like, “Hurry up and win the Cup.”
This town has no time for a 2-2 series against an opponent rife with playoff neophytes.
This team, somewhere along the road years ago, stopped reveling in the ride.
Observing Sidney Crosby this season, you never would have known he was racing toward the Hart Trophy on a first-place club. It felt more like a five-month trip to the dentist. Evgeni Malkin isn't seen long enough at any one time to get a vibe for his mood, though you have to believe it wasn't good after he FAILED TO REGISTER A SHOT in Game 4. Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang have been beaten down beyond recognition.
I wonder what the late, great Bob Johnson — author of the “It's a Great Day for Hockey” quote — would say to these guys. Maybe he'd tell them to remember their childhoods, when they dreamed of situations like the one Game 5 will present.
Maybe it's time the Penguins and their fans took a lesson from Columbus, the way a bitter old man, ruminating on a park bench, might gain a spark of clarity in observing an exuberant child.
Did you see the headline in the Columbus Dispatch after the Blue Jackets blew a 3-1 lead and lost Game 3?
“Blue Jackets Having Too Much Fun to Dwell on Loss”
This is supposed to be fun.
Why isn't it fun anymore?
Why can't the roller-coaster ride of playoff hockey be even remotely enjoyed?
What happened to this team, to this town?
One reflects the other, you know, each defined by pronounced highs and lows with little in between. Everyone seemingly is so focused on the Cup that scant attention is paid to the process.
I tell you, the air of superiority combined with the suffocating pressure makes it stink like crazy inside and outside of that state-of-the-art, extra-comfy Penguins locker room.
Dan Bylsma actually said, in plain English on Thursday, that his team isn't trying hard enough.
Columbus, meanwhile, is just discovering hockey.
You saw that in the way its players poured off the bench like the 1980 Miracle on Ice team the other night. You heard it in the way its fans kept chanting “C-B-J” when the Blue Jackets fell behind 3-0 (in contrast to Penguins fans booing their team in Game 2 even though it was leading 3-2).
Of course, it would be unrealistic to totally adopt the Columbus mindset. The magical days of a franchise's rise never can be duplicated. The early-1970s Steelers, last year's Pirates, the Penguins of 2008 and '09, those times cannot be recaptured. Expectations naturally begin to impede on the innocent bliss.
But that doesn't mean it's time to get all old and cynical.
Fleury on Saturday could use the same chants he heard in a darkened Mellon Arena before Game 6 of the '09 Final. His teammates could create their own positive energy by realizing how fortunate they are to be here and by remembering the many examples of teams — including last year's Boston Bruins and some of their Penguins ancestors — who barely survived first-round upset bids and pulled themselves together.
If that doesn't happen, if the Penguins don't survive, we'll know it's time for change.
In the meantime, we've got a wild series on our hands. Saturday doesn't have to have the same vibe as last year's Game 5 against the New York Islanders, when all you could feel was impending doom until Tyler Kennedy scored.
No, Saturday should be fun.
It should be a great day for hockey.
(Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)