UNIONDALE, N.Y. – Jarome Iginla spent parts of 17 seasons as the go-to guy for the Calgary Flames, on and off the ice.
A star player and overall leader on a club that was often outside the hockey spotlight, the fact he forged what will surely be a Hall of Fame career is a testament to his skills.
None of those seasons ended with a Stanley Cup championship, and the Flames haven’t even made the playoffs since 2009. But Iginla’s career has been reborn with a late-season trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have lots of talent and as good a chance as any to claim the title this year.
“I don’t think it’s been an adjustment at all,” said Iginla, acquired on March 28. “As far as doing interviews and stuff, probably a few less, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m just focused on trying to make sure I’m prepared and ready for the games and just keep trying to get better and add that to the group.”
That bunch includes stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Marc-Andre Fleury – so Iginla has no trouble keeping to himself. The main reason he attracted attention Monday after the Penguins held an optional practice before Tuesday’s Game 4 against the New York Islanders is the fact Crosby and Malkin took the opportunity to rest their legs and their voices.
The top-seeded Penguins lead the best-of-seven, first-round Eastern Conference series 2-1, and they have earned their two wins in different ways.
Pittsburgh jumped all over the Islanders at home in a 5-0 victory in Game 1, and then scratched and clawed all the way to escape with a 5-4 overtime win Sunday on the road in Game 3.
In between, the Islanders rallied for a win in Game 2. The Nassau Coliseum was rocking Sunday, but New York couldn’t ride the wave of emotion to a win, despite holding an early 2-0 lead.
“There were emotional rides in the game,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Monday. “They came out with a surge and we turned a turnover right into a goal.
“I can’t say we handled it well. We got off to two goals against and led them feed off some speed and energy. From the time we got here, the atmosphere in the building, our players were really excited about the atmosphere here. It was pretty crazy. They chanted from before warm-ups, during warm-ups, during the game. Our guys were really excited about playing in front of that type of atmosphere. That’s what it’s all about.”
Bylsma allowed himself to smile while recalling Sunday’s scene. It was easier because his team erased the early hole and led 3-2 before the first period was over. Even blowing a two-goal lead of their own in the third period didn’t seem so bad once Crosby set up Chris Kunitz for the Penguins’ third power-play goal of the game in overtime.
“It’s playoff hockey, and we haven’t been in this building for playoff games before,” Bylsma said. “It was an awesome crowd. They were great and were energized right from the start. (The Islanders) used it and they got on top and they came with a lot of speed. We need to do a better job.”
That was also the message on the Islanders’ side of the hallway. New York now faces the task of shaking off the deflating defeat in time for Game 4. A win in that one and the Islanders are back even. A loss, and suddenly summer vacation becomes a whole lot closer to reality.
“Our penalty kill has to be better. The best way to do that is to stay out of the box,” Islanders defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. “Those can end up killing us.”
With the Penguins’ power play operating at a supremely high level, connecting six times in 13 opportunities in the series, the Islanders must cut down on the penalties they are committing, and figure out a way to slow down Pittsburgh when there is an advantage to be killed.
“We’ve got to be more disciplined. No question,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. “The penalty kill is something we’ve got to clean up. But discipline with and without the puck is a big part of the game, and with their quickness we’ve got to make sure we defend a little bit harder and a little bit smarter.”
Iginla has smoothly fit in with the Penguins, who are seeking their second Cup title in five seasons. His experience, scoring touch, and toughness are all positives for Pittsburgh at this time of year.
“He’s brought a quiet confidence to our room right off the hop,” Bylsma said. “He hasn’t been a guy who stepped right in and started screaming and yelling and rah-rah. We had some injuries and we had some different lineups, and we went on the road and he really developed into a go-to guy on the power play that was a weapon. He has continued to be that for our team.
“It gives us a different dimension to our team that maybe we didn’t have before, with that type of shot. He’s got a fierce edge that he plays the game with. He has brought that to our team. When you are down there on the ice with him, you certainly know it and see it.”
The Penguins have six power-play goals and eight at even strength. While they are enjoying how well their special teams are performing, they are well aware that 5-on-5 play will likely be the deciding factor.
“We can’t just rely on power-play goals or fortunate bounces,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “We have to make sure that we’re taking the game to them and playing the way that we play to feel more confident in our game.”