Last year in the playoff series against the Bruins there were a couple of incidents involving captain Sidney Crosby that for many viewers were not known about until after the short series was over.
Both incidents I am speaking of involved Bruin captain Zdeno Chara and both times Chara essentially punched a recently (and probably not entirely) healed Crosby in what had been his broken and somewhat toothless jaw (mouth).
I believe it was the second such punch the prompted the end of period center ice discussion between Crosby and Rask...and then Crosby and Chara. You know the one where Pierre McGuire interjected his two cents about how Sid was losing his cool.
At the time of the live telecast, you really couldn't tell those two punches had happened earlier. In fact, it wasn't until after the series was over that I even saw the video of Chara punching Sid. (maybe some of you saw it sooner?)
Fast forward to earlier this season when Brooks Orpik makes a clean hit on Loui Eriksson. Eriksson, who had just recently returned from a concussion, was sent to the ice and looked shaken.
A few moments later...we all know what happened. Shawn Thornton hunted down Orpik and, after the whistle, tripped him and then sucker punched him twice while he was laying on the ice.
Thornton would go on later to say he felt badly about what happened...and I really think he did...but at no point during those comments or ones made later did he back away from the idea of sticking up for his teammate.
When the Thornton incident occurred, I remember thinking that part of the reason the Penguins lost to the Bruins last year was because they were bullied by them.
I know playoff hockey doesn't usually involve nearly as many fights as regular season games, but last year's series against the Bruins brought to light several weaknesses of the Penguins and one of those (that has not been discussed much but perhaps is being addressed in a quiet way this season) is the 'nasty' element to their game that was missing last year. In fact, it's probably been missing since before Matt Cooke was reformed.
You may or may not agree with that thought. If you don't, I offer you this:
What IF in last year's playoff, Shawn Thornton plays FOR the Penguins and Chara punches Crosby. Is there any scenario you can imagine where Thornton does not go after Chara? If so, what would it be?
It takes two main things for this type of reaction to occur: 1) you need a player in the line-up that is willing to fight, 2) you need a coach that's willing to allow his player to do so...or even asks him to in some cases.
MAYBE the Penguins have recognized this?
Earlier this year, I read some comments concerning Derrick Engelland's presence in the Penguins line-up and particularly, his shifts among the forward ranks. While Engelland might not be your prototypical power forward, his insertion into the line-up at forward seemed pretty clear to me...he's there in case he's needed. Not many games feature fights these days, but Engelland can fight and based on his history, he's pretty good at it. Don't think for minute that can't be helpful to a player like Crosby.
Earlier this year...and again just recently...Robert Bortuzzo was in the Penguin's lineup on defense. Bortuzzo is not going to be mistaken for Kris Letang any time soon, but what he does kind of resemble is a slightly smaller version of one Zdeno Chara.
Bortuzzo plays the body...has a bit of nasty side to him...and is not afraid to drop the gloves.
While there's no way to know for sure if Chara's antics played a part in Crosby going pointless in the four games of that Bruins series, it sure would be nice if the Penguins had a better way to deal with such a situation if it happens again this playoff season.
And...while a lot of talk about what the Penguins need for a strong cup run will center around scoring forwards and a replacement for the injured Pascal Dupuis, don't forget that in a series against a team like the Bruins, players like Bortuzzo and Engelland might be almost as valuable when it comes to defending, and making room for, the team's captain.