Patric Hornqvist #72 of the Pittsburgh Penguins handles the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game Two of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on April 14, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan flipped right wings Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary in the third period of Game 5 against Columbus. Sheary was relegated to Nick Bonino's line. Hornqvist joined Sidney Crosby's unit.
Crosby and Jake Guentzel had a productive series skating with Sheary. But Sheary struggled.
Sheary had just two assists, was minus-3 and developed a lack of confidence evidenced by frequent clumsiness with the puck and ill-advised decision-making at both blue lines.
Hornqvist did better: Two goals, one assist and a plus-2 mark.
But statistics aren't at the heart of this debate. Whoever skates with Crosby changes that line's fundamentals and execution.
Sheary makes that line three of a kind. Crosby, Guentzel and Sheary play in very similar fashion. They prefer to attack off the rush. Cross-rink feeds and passes high in the zone are often utilized in attempting to unlock the opposing defense. This doesn't exclude working the puck down low, but do they do it enough?
With Hornqvist, Crosby and Guentzel do.
Hornqvist brings a straight-ahead element to Crosby's line. More time is spent below the hash marks. Hornqvist's net-front presence and physicality opens up space for Crosby down low, allowing the Penguins' captain to better ply his reluctant tag as hockey's best grinder ever. The line's style organically simplifies.
There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong decision. Crosby's preferred complement is speed and nothing but, so he'd vote against Hornqvist (and has).
But if yesterday's practice is any indication, Hornqvist will open the Penguins' second-round series on Crosby's right wing. Sheary is an excellent talent in a bit of a bad patch. He just needs to regain some belief. Sheary will have to do so skating on Bonino's flank.
But bet on Sheary rejoining Crosby and Guentzel sooner, not later. Crosby has a need for speed.
There is no such debate with the Penguins' "other" top line.
Evgeni Malkin was electric in the first-round win over Columbus, racking up 11 points and generally overwhelming more shifts than not. The argument can be made that the current version of Malkin is the best ever, with all of his qualities in the right balance and execution, and with a high level of maturity providing the cherry on top.
Phil Kessel continues to amaze, excelling despite what appears to be lack of heightened intensity during hockey's most intense time. Kessel can march to the beat of any drummer he likes as long as he keeps averaging a point per game and a goal every other game in the playoffs.
Kessel doesn't lollygag, nor does he surge. He gives the same effort just about every shift. It works.
Bryan Rust is the wild card. His pedigree isn't overwhelming: Third-round pick in 2010. He's playing left wing, an unaccustomed position. He's mostly a ham-and-egger.
Except in the playoffs.
Rust has 10 goals in 28 postseason games over 2016 and 2017, including seven goals in nine elimination games. If you want a ticket home, get it from Rust.
If Carl Hagelin returns soon, Sullivan will have the option of reassembling the HBK line.
Now isn't the time, even though Sullivan prefers to spread Crosby, Kessel and Malkin (his primary offensive threats) over three lines. Malkin and Kessel are doing too well together. The playoffs are so often about hot hands.
Hagelin, Bonino and Sheary (or Hornqvist) would do just fine together. Although it limits T-shirt options. HBS? HBH?
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Ivan Nova delivers during the first inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees in Pittsburgh, Sunday, April 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
(THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
PITTSBURGH -- Ivan Nova spent more than six years with the New York Yankees, fluctuating between good and not-so good as they waited for him to develop consistency to go with his occasionally top-end-of-the-rotation stuff.
It never happened and the Yankees moved on last summer, sending Nova to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the trade deadline.
Nine months after leaving New York, Nova looks like the guy the Yankees wanted all along. Nova provided his old team with a close-up look at what it's missing on Sunday, pitching four-hit ball over seven innings as the Pirates held on for a 2-1 victory.
Nova (2-2) holds no ill will over his departure, saying simply "it's business." If anything, he's found a comfort zone with the Pirates that eluded him in New York. Nova improved to 7-4 with a 2.76 ERA since arriving in Pittsburgh.
"Those guys give me the confidence to go out there and perform," Nova said. "I'm just trying not to let them down, go out and pitch."
Nova struck out a season-high seven and walked just one. His lone mistake came on a solo home run by Jacoby Ellsbury in the seventh. He needed just 86 pitches to get 21 outs, symptomatic of the efficiency he's discovered in the National League.
New York manager Joe Girardi shook his head when asked if the Yankees had any seller's remorse over letting Nova go.
"He had some good years, he had some tough years, we had to make a decision," Girardi said. "Last year at that time we thought it was the right move to make and we made the move and we don't look back."
The Yankees nearly spoiled Nova's shot at redemption. They put the tying run at third in the eighth but Pittsburgh reliever Daniel Hudson struck out Starlin Castro in a nine-pitch at bat. New York loaded the bases with one out against Pirates closer Tony Watson in the ninth on a single, a walk and an error by Pittsburgh second baseman Josh Harrison. Watson struck out Aaron Hicks then forced Pete Kozma into a fielders' choice to collect his sixth save.
"That's what back-end relief pitching is all about, is keeping your focus," Watson said. "Not ideal, but in the end, it all worked."
Ellsbury's second home run of the season was New York's only extra-base hit. Montgomery struck out five and walked two in his fourth career start. The Yankees fell to 3-6 on the road this season.
Montgomery, who won his first game in the majors in his last start, gave up two runs in six innings. It didn't look like he'd make it that far early. Pittsburgh loaded the bases with no outs in the first but managed just one run on Freese's sacrifice fly to the warning track in center. Pittsburgh's only other run came in the third when McCutchen scored from first on Polanco's double to the right-field wall.
Considering the 24-year-old Montgomery never felt comfortable most of the afternoon, he'll take it.
"I mean, if you can go six innings, two runs with nothing, obviously I deserve to be here," Montgomery said.
LONG TIME COMING
Pittsburgh catcher Chris Stewart hit the first triple of his 11-year big league career when he chugged to third after hitting a fly to deep center field just out of the reach of Ellsbury. The triple came in Stewart's 1,182nd plate appearance.
"Very tiring," Stewart said. "I wish I could have pulled it a little more and trotted around the bases."
Yankees: Girardi reiterated SS Didi Gregorious will move back to his normal starting spot when he returns from a strained right shoulder despite solid play by replacement Ronald Torreyes, who is hitting .293 while filling in during Gregorious' absence.
Pirates: Manager Clint Hurdle said C Francisco Cervelli was removed from Saturday afternoon's loss in the ninth inning due to "game fatigue" and nothing more. Cervelli was given a previously scheduled day off. ... The team is concerned about reliever Antonio Bastardo's decrease in velocity but haven't discovered a physical issue at this point.
Yankees: Are off Monday and head to Boston to face the Red Sox for the first time in 2017 on Tuesday. Luis Severino (1-1, 4.05 ERA) will face Rick Porcello(1-2, 5.32) in the opener.
Pirates: Host the Chicago Cubs for a three-game series beginning Monday. Chad Kuhl (1-1, 2.60) starts for Pittsburgh. The Pirates swept three games in Chicago earlier this month.
Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins shakes hands with David Savard #58 of the Columbus Blue Jackets after a 5-2 win in Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on April 20, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Marc-Andre Fleury still gets goose bumps and feels butterflies when Penguins fans chant his name, and the goaltender gave them reason to roar.
Fleury stopped a postseason career-high 49 shots as the Penguins beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 5-2, in Game 5 on Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena to clinch their first-round series.
It was Fleury's 57th career postseason victory, passing Tom Barrasso for the franchise record.
“To be at home, in front of our fans and to be able to get that win with the support that they gave me throughout the season and all these years,” Fleury said, “I was happy I was able to contribute and get that win.”
It was a storybook series for Fleury, who lost his starting job to a concussion last spring and watched the majority of the Penguins' run to their fourth Stanley Cup championship from the bench.
A last-minute replacement for Matt Murray, injured in warm-ups before Game 1, Fleury proved to be the difference in outdueling Blue Jackets star Sergei Bobrovsky.
“We all as teammates felt bad to not see him in the net every night. The situation is what it is, and Flower's a No. 1 goalie in this league,” Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley said. “We're fortunate that we have two No. 1 goalies. It's paying off right now.”
Where Columbus coach John Tortorella called Bobrovsky the Blue Jackets' “backbone” and suggested they wouldn't “have a sniff” without him, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan credited Fleury for being “solid” and giving them a chance to win each and every game.
“And that's all you can ask of a goaltender,” Sullivan said.
The Penguins couldn't have asked for much more from Fleury in the first period. Columbus furiously attacked the net for the first five minutes, and Fleury stopped everything the Blue Jackets threw at him. When he couldn't, the Penguins' defense came to his rescue.
“They threw a lot of pucks at the net and always had somebody around trying to poke it, trying to get it in,” Fleury said. “I love the way our guys played in front of me, the way they helped me. They made some saves for me.”
It started with Columbus winger Josh Anderson's rebound floating behind Fleury before defenseman Olli Maatta knocked it out of mid-air. That was followed by Boone Jenner's point-blank shot from the slot off Fleury's shoulder, then glove saves on Matt Calvert's wrister and Alexander Wennberg's slap shot. Columbus had fired nine shots on goal by the time Penguins winger Phil Kessel scored.
Soon, the Penguins had a 3-0 lead. But the Blue Jackets continued their assault and cut it to 3-2 on goals by William Karlsson and Jenner in the second period. Fleury stopped 19 shots in the third.
“He was under pressure throughout the whole night,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “He had to make a ton of huge saves. They weren't necessarily routine, either. He was tested a lot. We don't like to have to make him work that hard, but he was our best player.”
Columbus was counting on Bobrovsky to be that. After all, he is the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy. Bobrovsky, however, allowed 21 goals in five games. Fleury, meantime, stopped 181 of 194 shots (a .933 save percentage).
“He played great for us all series,” Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said. “He's a world-class goaltender. Enough can't be said about what he does for us. He's loose back there, and he feels those momentum swings and comes up big when we need him.”
Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his first-period goal with teammates while playing the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on April 20, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — The Penguins knew closing out the Blue Jackets wouldn’t be easy. They knew they would scratch and claw and do anything in their power to extend the series to a sixth game.
And that’s exactly what Columbus did for a period of time. Pushed firmly against the wall after falling to a 3-0 deficit early in the second period, the Blue Jackets responded with a vengeance. They cut the lead to two, and then one. Several almost-goals nearly moved the game to a tie or in Columbus’s favor. But it wasn’t enough.
The Penguins held on through the Blue Jackets’ comeback attempt, and then had an offensive outburst, scoring two unanswered goals in the third to win 5-2, and beat the Blue Jackets in five games to move on to the Eastern Conference Semifinals to play Washington or Toronto.
“Most of the season other than a couple of games, we’ve had great third periods when we’ve had leads,” Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said. “We’ve done a great job of shutting teams down in the third and closing teams out.”
Going into the intermission after the second period, Columbus had all the momentum. Two Bryan Rust goals and a Phil Kessel goal before those pushed the Penguins ahead 3-0, but after that, Columbus was dominant in the second period. They controlled play, putting shot after shot on goal, with two of those shots getting past Marc-Andre Fleury.
But the Penguins responded, first with a Sidney Crosby goal on the power play, and then with a Scott Wilson backhand to effectively end the game. It was a much needed offensive outburst, and one that the Penguins confidently felt was coming. Among the defensemen, there’s a sense that if they do enough, and get past the flurries when they come, the offense will eventually pull through.
“We know that if we play solid defense and get pucks out quickly, we’ll have plenty of chances to score,” Cole said.
The confidence is certainly warranted. The Penguins were the top-scoring team in the league for a reason, and Crosby is one of the biggest reasons. Few, if any, in the league can match his talent, and that was on display on his power-play goal -- a one-timer rocket off of one knee -- the type of shot that not many players can make.
“You just look at Sid’s goal. He puts that in the perfect spot,” Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz said. “The talent we have in this room, they can put the puck in the back of the net.”
But beyond Crosby, it just so happens that the Penguins have numerous other players that can make shots like that. They have Evgeni Malkin, they have Kessel. Then there’s Rust, Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel. The list goes on and on.
“Those types of players, they have the ability to be difference-makers in one or two shifts. They could have a quiet game for two periods and have a couple of shifts in the third period and it changes the outcome of games,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said.
“I think that’s what elite players do. That’s what separates them from others. And we’ve got a number of them on our team. I think that’s one of the things that makes our team as competitive as it is, is these guys they get big goals at key times that change outcomes.”
That type of talent makes the Penguins a ticking time bomb of sorts, an offensive outburst waiting to happen. They might go quiet at times, and then the defense and goaltending has the keep the opponent at bay, like they had to do in the second period. But so far, that time bomb has almost always gone off.
“I always have in the back of mind that all it takes is one shift or two shifts that these guys ratchet it up a notch and they have the ability to do it, and we’ve seen it time and time again,” Sullivan said.
But beyond the Penguins’ offensive talent, it would be remiss not to mention Fleury’s efforts Thursday. Hit with 51 shots, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect Fleury to crumble at the pressure the Blue Jackets put on him. But Fleury stayed strong, holding off Columbus long enough before the Penguins’ offensive outburst.
“Flower played unbelievable again tonight,” Kessel said. “When you’ve got a goalie that stands on his head like that and makes a lot of saves, it makes it easy on you.”
But for all those saves that Fleury made, the defensemen certainly wish that he would’ve had to stop less. Fifty-one shots on goal is far from ideal, and moving into the second round, surrendering less shots will be a point of emphasis.
“Defense wins championships,” Schultz said. “You’ve got to be good defensively.”
For the Penguins, though, that cliche doesn’t hold true. Solid defense and goaltending makes it easier, but that’s just window dressing for what makes the Penguins click. It’s that offense, that talent-laden offense that makes the Penguins a threat to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. And it’s that offense that moved them into the second round.
Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Columbus Blue Jackets makes a save against Bryan Rust #17 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on April 20, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — Oh, Bob.
The Blue Jackets needed Sergei Bobrovsky at or near the top of his game to have a chance to beat the defending Stanley Cup champions. They needed Bobrovsky to be better than the Pittsburgh Penguins’ backup, Marc-Andre Fleury, who was rushed into service when Matt Murray reinjured his groin just before Game 1.
The Jackets needed Bobrovsky to steal a game against the vaunted Penguins. Maybe, they needed him to steal two. He did no burgling.
The Penguins beat the Jackets 5-2 on Thursday night before a crowd of 18,585 at PPG Paints Arena. With the victory, the Penguins eliminated the Jackets four games to one from the first round of the playoffs and slammed a lid on the best season in Jackets history.
The Jackets won 50 games and amassed 108 points during the regular season. Bobrovsky won 41 games and had a 2.06 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage during the regular season. In the playoffs, he was, statistically, among the league’s worst goaltenders: 1-4, 3.88, .882.
“They’re good players,” Bobrovsky said of the Penguins. “They won the series. They beat me.”
Bobrovsky did not lose the series. No, when a team wins but one game in a best-of-seven, the problems go deeper than the goalie. The Jackets’ biggest problem was the Penguins. Evgeni Malkin had 11 points in six games. Dang. Sidney Crosby and his left wing, Jake Guentzel, combined for 13 points. Phil Kessel had eight points. They put on a clinic in how to manage and win playoff games.
This thing was closer than the final tally. The Jackets nearly won Game 3 in overtime, when a shot at a gaping net somehow turned into a facemask save by Fleury. The Jackets won Game 4. It can be argued that, if not for Fleury’s mask, we’d have a Game 6 Sunday at Nationwide Arena. It can also be argued that, if not for Fleury’s 49 saves in Game 5, the Jackets have a chance to advance.
“We played our (glutei) off,” Jackets coach John Tortorella said. “That’s not a 4-1 series.”
Jackets fans will stew over the officiating, and their beefs will not be wholly without merit. The fateful call came early in the third period. A goal by Oliver Bjorkstrand — which would have tied the score at 3 — was wiped out on a goaltender’s interference penalty on Alexander Wennberg.
When the so-called foul occurred, Fleury was outside of his crease and Wennberg was being hooked, rather blatantly, by Scott Wilson. Fleury embellished the contact with a lovely back dive and the referees either missed or ignored the hook. The Penguins went on a power play and the rest is history.
Playoff officiating can be capricious. You want to avoid complaint? Winning helps.
The Jackets ran into just enough bad luck to stunt a series of fine efforts. They had no luck in Games 1 and 2 — seriously, none at all. They lost their star rookie defenseman, Zach Werenski, who took a puck in the face in Game 3. They lost their captain, Nick Foligno, to a lower-body injury in Game 5. There was a lot that was scrambled in front of Bobrovsky, who never got comfortable.
Here, the series in a nutshell:
Two elite shooters, Kessel and Crosby, scored power-play goals in Game 5. Are power-play goals Bob’s fault? Not really. Yet, at the same time, both goals were short-side jobs. The first one — which was the first goal of the game — Bobrovsky usually swallows, and he never saw it, and he wasn’t screened.
Meanwhile, Fleury beat the Jackets like a rented mule.
William Karlsson #25 of the Columbus Blue Jackets scores on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period in Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 18, 2017 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus defeated Pittsburgh 5-4. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
I suppose it wasn’t going to be that easy. After all, as the saying goes, the other guys are getting paid, too. To be fair, the Columbus Blue Jackets, Sergei Bobrovsky in particular, were practically stealing money given how they conducted themselves for the first three games of the series.
John Tortorella’s team couldn’t cash in its solid stretches of play with goals, and Bobrovsky, who will likely win the Vezina Trophy, turned back into the sieve he has always been in the postseason.
By contrast, the Penguins had all the answers. When they were being outplayed, Marc-Andre Fleury stood tall. Once they got their footing, they took it to Columbus with the kind of focus and offensive potency that the Blue Jackets simply don’t possess. The Penguins' attack was relentless, never more so than in Game 3, when they turned a 3-1 deficit after one period into a backbreaking 5-4 win.
The Blue Jackets finally flipped the script last night, grabbing a 3-0 lead and never relinquishing it despite a serious pushback from the Penguins. Tuesday's 5-4 loss was a missed opportunity for the Penguins to get a ton of rest time in advance of a second-round matchup with either Washington or Toronto.
Fear not, though. Nothing that happened in Game 4 suggests that the Jackets have what it takes to mount a historic comeback. For instance, even though they should have spent the third period trying to protect a two-goal lead, Columbus was more than happy to trade chances with Mike Sullivan’s squad. When that advantage was temporarily cut in half, they went to a more conservative and buttoned-down defensive posture, but the Penguins still brought plenty of stress to the equation.
Even a late power play for the Blue Jackets didn’t seal things, as Jake Guentzel again brought the Pens within one with under 30 seconds to play.
To summarize, the Blue Jackets jumped out to a 3-0 lead, Marc-Andre Fleury wasn’t sharp for the first time all series, the crowd was in a lather. ... Just about everything imaginable went wrong for the Penguins, and the outcome was still in doubt with 10 seconds to go.
That doesn’t seem like the recipe for the beginnings of a monumental comeback. It seems simply like a delaying of the inevitable.
For one, Columbus can’t trust Bobrovsky. He let in multiple soft goals again, something that has been a theme for him this series, as well as his entire playoff career. He made a great save late in the third period on Ron Hainsey, but that was one of his only noteworthy positive contributions all night. Normally, a team looking to win four straight will need its goalie to steal at least one of those games, and possibly two. Bobrovsky (27 of 31 on Tuesday) does not look at all like a man up to that task.
For two, it’s easy to visualize the Jackets reverting to more of their careless, undisciplined, hit-chasing ways now that they’ve tasted a little bit of success. Kyle Quincey took a stupid penalty up 3-0 and the Penguins’ subsequent power-play goal nearly turned the tide dramatically enough to actually shift the final outcome of the game. It just seems like, despite knowing better, Columbus can’t resist the urge to hulk up and play tough-guy hockey.
Finally, and probably most importantly, the Penguins are still the Penguins. Even though they got run under again early on, they showed that they can turn up the heat on Columbus and make things miserable for prolonged stretches of time. What’s more, their collective relentlessness has never gone away at any point in the series, no matter what the situation.
They still have the best players in the series. They still have two home games left, not that I think they’ll need them. They still have Fleury, who, despite having his weakest outing of the series last night, does not cut the profile of a man who will wilt after one bad game. Quite the contrary, actually. I’ve been one of Fleury’s biggest doubters, but I expect him to respond with a big Game 5 performance.
Yes, a sweep would have been very nice, but don’t sweat Columbus’ victory. The Blue Jackets, backs against the wall, in front of a rabid crowd, delivered their best effort of the series. It was barely enough.
Hopefully their fans enjoyed the victory, because the bet here is that it was the last meaningful hockey that building will see for several months.
Josh Anderson #34 of the Columbus Blue Jackets slides the puck through the five hole of Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins for a goal during the first period in Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 18, 2017 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
When there is talk of a team on the brink of elimination needing a sense of desperation, it's often about smell — as if there is an accompanying odor.
For John Tortorella, it's the sense of sound.
On the verge of being swept in this first-round series, the Columbus coach wanted his Blue Jackets to hear the “(expletive) radio” after Game 4 and jam in their dressing room at Nationwide Arena.
Torts got his wish when the Blue Jackets beat the Penguins, 5-4, Tuesday night.
As Columbus came off the ice, strength coach Kevin Collins had what Tortorella called the “crap” electronic dance music of Swedish DJ Avicii blaring on speakers.
“It's good to come in after a win,” said Columbus right wing Brandon Saad, a Pine-Richland graduate. “Everyone's cheering and high-fiving and then you've got the music going with our ‘win song.' ”
That win song — the title of which the Blue Jackets wouldn't reveal — was played for the first time in these Stanley Cup playoffs, following their first-ever postseason victory in regulation and only the second playoff victory in the history of this building.
The Blue Jackets know their celebration will be short-lived. Where the odds of winning Game 4 were almost a coin flip, their chances of claiming this series are akin to holding a winning Powerball ticket.
Columbus still trails this best-of-seven series 3-1 and plays the reigning Stanley Cup champions Thursday in Game 5 at PPG Paints Arena.
“I wasn't even thinking about the series,” Tortorella said. “I was thinking about the players that have put in a lot of time. They've gone through a transformation here to play as a team.
“To have gone through a regular season like they had and not get to enjoy what it is to win a playoff game ... I just wanted them to see what it's like to win a playoff game with this team together.”
Of course, Tortorella also didn't buy into a need for drastic changes to alter the course of the outcome.
Tortorella inserted defensemen Markus Nutivaara and Kyle Quincey — healthy scratches for the first three games — for the injured Zach Werenski and the ineffective Scott Harrington.
Left wing Matt Calvert also returned from a one-game suspension for his assault on Penguins right wing Tom Kuhnhackl in Game 2 and replaced Scott Hartnell, the one player with the experience of coming back from a 3-0 series deficit, with the 2010 Flyers.
“It was a bad feeling after Game 3, when we lost in overtime after I thought we should have won, but we're a resilient group,” winger Cam Atkinson said. “We showed it all year long. We found a way to play our game.”
The moves worked wonders. Quincey had a secondary assist on Josh Anderson's goal for a 2-0 lead in the first period, as well as four hits and four blocked shots, and made life miserable in small spaces for Evgeni Malkin and open-ice hits on Jake Guentzel.
Nutivaara scored at 4:48 of the second period for a 3-0 lead, and assisted on Boone Jenner's winner in the third.
“I thought they sparked us,” Tortorella said. “Two guys who haven't been playing quite a bit at all here of late stepped in and played well.”
The Penguins simply couldn't match that sense of desperation, even after 36-year-old defenseman Ron Hainsey scored his first career playoff goal to cut it to 3-2 in the second period.
“That's a good team,” Tortorella said. “They can sense the blood in the water, but we got through it.”
This was their kind of night, one that reeked of desperation but was all about the sound and the fury.
Buster OlneyESPN Senior Writerhttp://www.espn.com/mlb/April 18, 2017 Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Starling Marte hits an RBI-single off Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta during the third inning of a baseball game, Saturday, April 15, 2017, in Chicago. Adam Frazier scored on the play. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AP)
The Pittsburgh Pirates began scouting Starling Marte more than a decade ago, when he was a teenager growing up in the Dominican Republic. After careful consideration, they picked him, making his deal official on Jan. 4, 2007.
He played his first game in their summer league at 18 years old, starting his long climb to the big leagues, through the Gulf Coast and Sally League. He graduated from Class A Lynchburg, Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis, a five-year journey with the player, his coaches and his managers sharing the investment of time in his future. On July 26, 2012, just a couple of months before Marte’s 24th birthday, he made his debut in the big leagues, leading off, batting ahead of Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen.
Marte hit a homer in that first at-bat, and less than two years later, the Pirates bet $31 million on him -- in a deal structure that extends through 2021. But shortly after Pittsburgh’s loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday, his value to the organization was torpedoed, like a collapsed stock, when the team was informed that Marte was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for Nandrolone, a performance-enhancing drug.
For the Pirates, what has happened with Marte is not exactly like a house burning down without insurance, but it’s something akin to that. They cannot recoup what is now squandered with Marte, a situation in which they have no real control and no formal oversight. Major League Baseball and the players' association control the testing process and penalties; all teams can do is hope they don’t get the phone call the Pirates got Monday night.
As a small-market franchise, Pittsburgh has very little margin for error. The Pirates need to be effective in their choices, and they need to be lucky, especially now, as they prepare for the inevitable departure of McCutchen. They struggle to keep their best home-grown players, whose salaries eventually outgrow the Pirates’ payroll capabilities. And McCutchen’s potential value in the market may soon evolve beyond what Pittsburgh can comfortably pay to a star whose performance has reached a tipping point.
With that transition looming, with everyone aware that this could be McCutchen’s last summer in a Pirates uniform, this is an extraordinarily important year for the Pirates. The Chicago Cubs, a monster franchise with more talent, more money and the sport’s reigning champions inhabit their division, as do the Cardinals, a franchise that just about owns the Midwest. The Pirates had to have everything go right to keep up.
But Jung Ho Kang is stuck in South Korea, in visa purgatory after getting hit with another DUI. The Pirates may have to play this season without their best power hitter, which is why Marte -- developed and nurtured for a decade, and paid for -- is so incredibly important. The Pirates moved McCutchen from center to right field over the winter, an uncomfortable conversation for everyone. But Marte is supposed to be the team’s best defender, the best and most important offensive player, and, once McCutchen is gone, Marte was the leading candidate to be the face of the franchise.
Now Marte is gone, just like that, and it’s impossible for him to ever fulfill his end of the deal with the Pirates. Even if Pittsburgh is still in contention when he is reinstated, he will be ineligible for the 2017 postseason, and questions about his legitimacy will hover over him into the future. The Pirates have no way of knowing whether the guy who is supposed to be a cornerstone player has been a long-term user who somehow skated through the PED testing. They don’t know who he’ll be going forward, perhaps without benefit of PEDs, or how much they can count on him.
Those doubts about Marte will fester throughout the industry, so if the Pirates ever decide to trade Marte, they may struggle to get anything close to the return they might’ve gotten before news about Marte’s suspension broke.
A team that needs to be lucky has instead been luckless, in a crushing turn.