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Jim O’Brien: Penguins Defenseless Against Flyers’ Attack

April 16, 2012

O’Brien: Penguins defenseless against Flyers’ attack

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

       Eddie Johnston had just watched the Pittsburgh Penguins get pummeled by 8-4 in the third game of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.   It was the Pens’ third consecutive loss to the Flyers in as many games.  The scores were 4-3 in overtime and 8-5 in the first and second games, respectively.

         The Flyers had outscored the Penguins by 20 to 12 in what often looked like a cross between deck hockey and Studio Wrestling.  The Penguins scored first in every game, leading by 3-0 at the end of the first period in the opening contest on home ice, and they surrendered those leads.

         “That shouldn’t happen, not in the playoffs,” Johnston said when I visited him at his home on Saturday afternoon.  I also spoke to him a few minutes after Sunday night’s setback.

         Johnston, who is 76, has served the Penguins as a general manager and coach, as a scout and consultant.  He officially retired three years ago, but he is still on the payroll and is still available to do whatever he can to contribute to the cause.  He’s been there, done that, and no one cares more about the Penguins than Eddie Johnston.  He is the Penguins’ answer to the Pirates’ Chuck Tanner. 

         Johnston and the late manager of the Pirates were the best company and loved to talk about the game.

         Eddie Johnston has got a good gig.  He’s a terrific golfer – he had a 73 when he was 73 at a country club in West Virginia – and he gets to play golf from time to time with his boss, Mario Lemieux and Pierre Larouche, another ambassador for the Penguins.  He’s a real trooper and he fills in where needed.  He looks after the team’s Fantasy Camp.

         Johnston was wide-eyed, like a deer caught in headlights after Sunday night’s game.  He looked like he had been playing goalie for the Penguins the past week.

         “You gotta win four!” he said, summoning the best of his fighter instincts that have served him so well most of his 76 years.

         “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

         By now, it may be over.  This was written before Wednesday night’s fourth game in Philadelphia.  Or the Penguins might be hanging onto hope to pull this series out of the deepest abyss with a very thin and straggly string.

         What’s happened to the Penguins?  How did this happen?

         Those were the thoughts expressed by the team’s most fervent fans in the aftermath of their favorite team getting overpowered in the playoffs.  A month ago, a week ago, there was talk of the Penguins overpowering the opposition with all hands on deck and delivering another Stanley Cup to our city.

         Eddie Johnston is one of my favorite hockey people.  He is a neighbor of mine in Upper St. Clair.  He has lived about two blocks from my home the past 30 some years.  It’s about a 150-yard walk from my house to his house.  When I take a walk through the neighborhood I often pass his contemporary two-story home.

         He and his wife Diane are down-to-earth individuals who will show up for a block party and have a good time and mix well with everyone.  They’ve known good times and bad times in the NHL and with the Penguins, in particular, but they stay the course.

         He played goalie in the big leagues for 18 seasons and was the last goalie to start every game in a season.  He played most of those seasons without wearing a protective mask.  “I was never too smart,” he says with a wink.

         He says he has 150 to 175 stitches somewhere in that face of his as reminders of those days.  You have to look close to see the scars.  He pointed to his left ear and said it had be stitched when a flying puck nearly took it off his skull.

         Johnston also was a boxer when he was a teenager, even going into prisons and fighting the inmates there for $5 or $10 an outing.  He played pro baseball for $125 a week and fast-pitch softball in Canada in his youth.

         Bobby Orr, maybe the best player in hockey history, was  his best man when he got married.  They were teammates on the Boston Bruins.  There’s a famous photo of Orr flying through the air after scoring a goal that is displayed in the Johnston’s game room.

         When I was covering an Islanders’ game back in the early ‘70s at Nassau Coliseum I was hit in the head by a flying puck as I was walking around the rink during the warm-up session.  At first, I thought I had been shot by a rifle or gun.  The puck struck me near my right temple.  I stumbled forward and grabbed hold of a colleague to keep from falling.  There was a blood stain in my hair near my temple.

         I was fortunate that the Jets’ team doctor, Dr. James Nicholas, was nearby and checked me over twice during the evening.  He was the same doctor who looked after Joe Namath.

         I was also in a press row behind one of the goals at Madison Square Garden when a puck came off the ice and ricocheted down my aisle like a heat-seeking missile and caught me in the ankle.  In short, it’s no fun to get hit with a flying puck.  Johnston smiled at my war stories.

Johnston is a much better interview than either Mario Lemieux or Sidney Crosby, and certainly Evgeni Malkin.

I think those TV interviews with players between periods and the radio sound bites are a waste of time.  Hockey players and coaches never say anything that’s the least bit insightful.  They all say the same thing.  Nothing.  That’s why Eddie Johnston is a Hall of Fame hockey guy in my book.

  He played several years in the minor leagues, including a stint in Johnstown.  He’s played in places Sidney Crosby couldn’t find on a map.  He played when you had to have a real job in the off-season just to pay the rent.

Johnston was one of the goalies when there were only six teams in the National Hockey League and each team had only one goalie.  “If you got cut they stitched you up right then and there,” he recalled.  “You didn’t want to not play because you were afraid of losing your job.”

Here’s the best part.  Each city of the Original Six had a backup goalie – one guy — available to either team.  Johnston remembers when a reserve goalie named Claude Pronovost, who played for the Montreal Canadiens junior team, came in and played goalie against the hometown Canadiens at the Montreal Forum and shut them out.  

Johnston said he didn’t make a total of $50,000 for his first five years playing goalie in the NHL.

I think the Penguins’ best players have failed to come up big in the playoffs, when it counts the most.  That includes Crosby, and Malkin, Fleury and Jordan Stahl.

         Malkin reminds me of my two granddaughters, who will be eight and four in May, the way he has been skating in the defensive end of the ice in these games.  It looks like it’s his first time on skates.  Where has he been?

         It also stung even more that Max Talbot and Jaromir Jagr, two former Penguins, have played such a strong role in the Flyers’ offense in this series.  It would have been nice to have them on our side, which could have happened.

         Johnston sits next to his old friend, Jack Riley, for games at the Consol Energy Center.  Riley was the original general manager of the Penguins, and still attends every home game.  Riley and Johnston compare notes on the game, and share some of their thoughts when asked by the brass.

         Johnston told me he remarked to Riley that the Penguins needed another goal fast at some point in the first two games even when the home team had the lead.  “After seeing as many games as we’ve seen through the years,” Johnston said, “you can sense a change in the momentum, a shift in the way things are going.

         “The Flyers have skated faster, hit more often, and just outworked us in every way.  They have killed us on special teams, scoring power play goals or short-handed goals.  That shouldn’t happen in the playoffs.”

         When people asked me what happened to the Penguins, after they lost the first two games at home after taking an early lead, I responded the way I do to most inquiries of that kind.

         I say that too many fans forget there is another team on the field, or on the ice in this case.

         The Flyers have fought back from adversity.  They have not given up.  Their youngest players are showing great resilience, great effort.  The Flyers wouldn’t accept defeat.  Their fans are more vocal and more hostile than our fans, but I can live with that, especially since I live in Pittsburgh.  Philly fans, in all sports, are over the top.  The TV announcers said the Flyers played smarter than the Penguins.

         “You have to give the Flyers credit,” said Johnston.  “They have never stopped forcing the action.  They keep coming.”

         Pierre McGuire, one of the TV analysts, described the activity in Game 3 as “the most barbaric” he’d seen in some time.

“This game is getting out of control.”

         When the cameras showed close-ups of the Penguins on the bench in the late going, McGuire observed, “That’s the thousand yard stare,” he said of the look in the eyes of the Penguins.  “It says the other guys have our number.”

         Personally, I think too many fans dismissed the fact that the Flyers had the Penguins’ number most of the season, and especially at the Consol Energy Center.  In truth, there was no home ice advantage, not against the Flyers.

         Poor Marc-Andre Fleury.  He hasn’t gotten much help from his defensemen, but he’s looked like a pee wee goalie in all of his outings so far.  He was left exposed too often and he failed to make the big stops that turn the tide.

         A neighbor and friend of mine, Ken Codeluppi, has season tickets behind one of the goal cages at Consol Energy Center.  I’ve never sat in a seat so close to a goalie.  It’s at the end that Fleury defends twice each home game.

         Pucks often strike the plexi-glass behind that cage and I found myself ducking a half dozen times, much to the amusement of those around me.  Hey, I see a puck heading toward my face, I am going to flinch and duck.  I can’t trust that plexi-glass.  I guess if you sit there all the time you know you’re safe.

         But you can also see from that vantage point what a difficult job it is to be a goal-keeper in the National Hockey League.

         There are many times when the goalie can’t see the puck because it’s blocked from his view by the skaters, his own teammates as often as the opposition.

         “I hated it when my guys went down to block a puck,” Johnston said.  “Then I didn’t know where it was, or it could ricochet off them and catch me in the mush.”

         You have to love a guy who talks that way.

         I would never allow my child to be a goalie, in hockey, soccer or lacrosse, maybe even water polo.

         I asked Johnston how he became a goalie.  “I played with all my big brothers when I was a kid in Montreal,” he said, “and they just put me in there.  Somebody had to mind the nets.  And I guess I wasn’t too smart.”


                 Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien has written a series of “Pittsburgh Proud” books.  His website is

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