Kolupanowich: Penguins losing their integrity

The Philadelphia Flyers have thrown Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins completely off their game. (SixFourG/Flickr)

By: Tim Kolupanowich, Executive Editor
@TimKolupan_

It would have been easy to predict one of the teams in the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series would resort to cheapshots and bad penalties while falling down three games to none. It would have taken a psychic to predict it would be the Penguins.

They blew 3-0 and 3-1 first period leads in Games 1 and 2 respectively, going on to lose 4-3 in overtime and then 8-4, but there was a total of just 12 minor penalties handed out in those two games. However, once the Pens went down 3-1 in the first period of Game 3, enough was apparently enough.

When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, they did so by keeping their composure through the tough times. Twice that year, in the Eastern Conference semi final and the Stanley Cup final, they dropped the first two games of the series before working their way back to win Game 7 on the road.

Pittsburgh won 18 of 23 headed into the playoffs and are facing a team they have dominated in recent years. From 2006-07 to ’09-10, the Penguins won the regular season series with a 20-8 record, outscoring the Flyers 110-86, and completely dominated to playoff series in their way to the Stanley Cup finals in ’08 and ’09 with an 8-3 record while outscoring Philadelphia 58-34.

But now the roles have been reversed and it is clearly getting to the Pens. In the past two seasons they are 4-7-1 against their cross-state rivals while getting outscored 38-35.

So maybe the Penguins aren’t that graceful, classy team we all thought they were after all. They’re led by an agitator; not a whiner, not a dirty player, but an agitator and that may be what irks so many people. Crosby’s a yapper, someone who’s not afraid to go into the dirty areas and muck it up when need be. But because of the points he is able to put up, some feel it’s wrong for him to play like that. But how many players in history have been lauded because of that style of play? Eddie Shack, Esa Tikkanen, Matthew Barnaby, and Ian laperriere were all loved wherever they played because of that very style. But Crosby is a breed all his own; he’s Kenny ‘The Rat’ Linseman only with a boatload more skill.

The Penguins’ emotions finally boiled over at 12:02 of the first period. What was originally just your average scrum behind the net ended up as a fight between the two most skilled players in the series, Crosby and Claude Giroux, and the two best defensemen, Kris Letang and Kimmo Timonen.

Crosby’s actions started it with a few whacks to Ilya Bryzgalov as he was covering the puck then flicking Jakub Voracek’s glove away as he bent to pick it up. He was remorseless of his play after the game. “His glove was near me and he went to pick it up, so I pushed it. I don’t like him, because I don’t like him. I don’t like any guy on their team.” Hatred is abundant in this series. Unapologetic, beautiful, raw hatred and Crosby is not afraid to admit that.

Hatred can be great; it’s the focal point of every heated rivalry in sports. But it goes too far when frustration gets in the way of common sense and one team deliberately tries to hurt the other.

No players this frustration more than Arron Asham and James Neal who each went out of their way to attack rookies Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, respectively. Asham is a grinding fourth liner who, while always playing tough, usually manages to stay within the rulebook and Neal is a highly skilled winger who reached the 40-goal plateau this season, so it’s not something you’d expect from them.

At 14:15 of the first period, Asham was given a match penalty for attempt to injure when he crosschecked Schenn in the face then punched him in the back of the head when he was already down.

Later in the third period, Neal put a late elbow up high on Couturier. A few seconds after Couturier dumped the puck into the zone, Neal came in, with no intent other than hitting the rookie, and threw a headshot after leaving his feet.

The latter hit, along with a lack of any penalty on the play, spawned another brawl at 15:18 of the third.

Coburn hit Evgeni Malkin after Neal threw another high hit, this time on Giroux, and then Malkin threw a shot at Talbot. There was nothing serious, just some pushing and shoving, but things started up on Neal’s way to the penalty box when he got into it with Simmonds and Crosby got into a pushing match with Hartnell. (It’s important to note that Neil will have two hearings with Brendan Shanahan because of the hits he threw Sunday afternoon.)

That’s when Craig Adams jumped in as the third man and landed four punches to the back of Hartnell’s head before finally allowing him to get squared up properly for a fight that ended with Adams pulling Hartnell’s hair. Crosby knew what he was doing, it certainly wasn’t like the incident in the Rangers-Senators game on Saturday when Matt Carkner mugged Brian Boyle and Brandon Dubinsky got a third man in penalty for trying to protect a fallen teammate. This was Adams seeing a fair skirmish and going in trying to take advantage. (Update: Adams is suspended for Game 4 for instigating a fight with less than five minutes remaining and coach Dan Bylsma was fined $10,000)

It’s sad to see, it really is. Pittsburgh Post-Gazatte columnist Ron Cook called the team “embarrassing” and a “disgrace.”

(Letang) gets thrown out. Then he does that ridiculous ‘shush’ the crowd like Talbot did a few years ago. I mean people were laughing at him. … Arron Ashamn deserves to be suspended for cross-checking Schenn in the face and punching him when he was down. You can argue that James Neal deserves a suspension for his two hits late in the game, cheap shots. Terrible.

A few years ago Pittsburgh looked like they were going to take the title of the model franchise. Now they are earning a reputation as sore losers and hypocrites.

The Penguins are owned by Mario Lemieux who had this to say last season after similar fight-filled affair against the Islanders in which the Penguins were the victims of several attacks on the ice.

It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that. The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed. We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players.  We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action. If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to re-think whether I want to be a part of it.

Well, the game on Sunday certainly falls into the category of sideshow as the Pens lost all their integrity at the Wells Fargo Center.

Crosby the agitator is now Crosby the agitated, sure-fire Hart Trophy winner Malkin has yet to show up with only four assists, three of which were secondary, and the entire team is unraveling, undisciplined and unfocused.

Get your act together Pittsburgh. Lose with dignity.

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