Thursday, April 30, 2009

Crosby-Ovechkin showdown

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) brings the puck up ice as Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin (left) trails the play. (AP)

Thirty years ago, college basketball pitted Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson against one another in the 1979 NCAA men's college basketball championship game -- a transcendent individual sports rivalry that carried over into the NBA and sparked a surge in league's popularity.

Now, it's hockey's turn, or so the NHL hopes.

The league and its national television broadcasters are giddy over a second-round Stanley Cup playoff series involving the league's crossover stars - Sidney Crosby of the Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, who will meet in the postseason for the first time.

"It's one of those special moments," NBC coordinating producer Sam Flood said of this Round 2 Superstar Summit, which begins Saturday at Washington's Verizon Center.

"These are iconic players with global popularity, people are aware of their names; they transcend their markets and the average fan," NHL vice president of marketing retail, licensing and marketing Brian Jennings said. "It's a great opportunity for our sport."

Also, it is fairly historic for the modern era.

Since 1979, when ESPN launched as the first sports-only network, only three NHL playoff series have involved competing league MVPs. The last was a 1997 first-round pairing of the Penguins (Mario Lemieux, 1996) and Philadelphia Flyers (Eric Lindros, 1995).

Crosby won his MVP in 2007. Ovechkin claimed the honor last season and is a finalist again. They've been talked about as the NHL's future since each debuted in 2005.

"We base buzz on viewer feedback, and Crosby and Ovechkin are the players that come up when we talk to people about the NHL," ESPN studio producer Mark Gross said. "Off the top of my head, I don't remember any hockey players that resonate as well as these two guys."

Not even Lemieux and all-time NHL scoring leader Wayne Gretzky - "probably the two greatest players in our game's history, but who never met in the playoffs," Jennings said.

The Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry shares a few similarities with Lemieux-Gretzky: begrudging respect but no love lost, and identifiable impact beyond man-made ice surfaces in Pittsburgh and Washington.

Capitals media relations employees said they "were still sifting through" credential requests for Games 1 and 2 last night, describing the number as "lots and lots" more than a usual second-round series.

Jennings said Crosby and Ovechkin finished among the top five for individual jersey sales for a third straight year. The Penguins, once again, ranked in the top three in overall merchandise, and the Capitals cracked the top 10 this season.

National television audiences have flocked to Crosby for awhile. Ratings for Penguins games on cable network VERSUS are "routinely near our best," according to executive vice president of programming Marc Fein.

"That's measurable, and the Capitals' popularity is now measurable in comparison," Fein said. "But there is something immeasurable about these two teams and those two players.

"Like Tiger Woods with golf, people want to see Sidney and Alex. They know them, and even the casual sports fan knows that these are two different people, two completely different personalities - and the feedback we get on both players is that people like that."

VERSUS will air at least Games 2 and 3 of the series, and Fein promised a heavy focus dosage on Crosby and Ovechkin, specifically their trademark personality traits - Ovechkin's over-the-top enthusiasm, Crosby's mild-mannered intensity.

NBC's Flood said his network's Game 1 coverage will devote an isolation camera and microphone to both players, and in-game statistical updates to track their performance beyond goals and points.

"What you don't want to do is get in the way of the story; you want to take the story to a whole new place," Flood said.

"At the same time, these two players are the biggest stars in their sport by a big margin, and they have a history. Plus, there is a lot of debate among fans as to not only which one is the better player but also which one will carry this sport for the next decade.

"This is going to be an intense series, and it could have far-reaching impact."

Veteran Bill Guerin rejuvenated playing with young Penguins

Thursday, April 30, 2009
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Bill Guerin: The right piece at the right time in Penguins' late-season resurgence.

There are whispers of gray in his playoff whiskers. That can happen when you are with your eighth NHL team and can match ages with the head coach.

Bill Guerin, 38, wears the old-age jokes and references well. That's likely because his energetic children keep him spry, and the youthful Penguins, who acquired the veteran at the March trade deadline, have restored vitality to his game after it grew a little stale with the last-place New York Islanders.

Asked if he sees much change in Guerin compared to when they played together in Boston early this decade, Penguins defenseman Hal Gill thought for a second.

"Yeah, he's getting old," cracked Gill, five years Guerin's junior.

"No, he hasn't changed much. He's still the same good old boy."

One who gets a little wiser with each stop -- and there were four between his days with the Bruins ended after the 2001-02 season and his arrival here -- so that when he got to the Penguins he was able to provide leadership quickly as well as something they had sought all season.

That would be a right winger for star center Sidney Crosby.

Guerin and Chris Kunitz, acquired a few days before Guerin, have regularly flanked Crosby during the Penguins' strong stretch run and first-round playoff win against Philadelphia.

In 17 regular-season games, Guerin had five goals and seven assists. Against the Flyers, he had two goals, including the overtime winner in Game 2, and an assist in six games. That is just the latest, tiny wedge of a career that spans 1,185 regular-season games (408 goals, 403 assists) and 111 postseason contests (30 goals, 23 assists) going into the Penguins' second-round series against Washington, which opens Saturday.

Crosby didn't have to spend a lot of time discussing strategy with Guerin -- "He's up and down the wing and he's in the slot, and I pretty much know that, so we try to keep it simple," Crosby said -- but he did have a question for the veteran.

Was he with New Jersey when the Devils played a neutral-site game in Halifax, Nova Scotia, against the New York Rangers in October 1993?

He was. That means Guerin played in the first live NHL game seen by Crosby, who was 6. In 1989, Crosby was weeks shy of his second birthday when New Jersey drafted Guerin fifth overall.

Guerin was 24 when he won the Stanley Cup with the Devils in 1995. He has been chasing a repeat and stiff-arming time since.

"You just figure you're going to win every year," he said. "Fourteen years later ??? That's why it's such a special thing and, when you have an opportunity, you have to grab it. The paybacks are endless for winning it."

The pursuit has taken him from New Jersey to Edmonton, Boston, Dallas, St. Louis, San Jose, the New York Islanders and now here.

One constant is his family. He and wife Kara have four children, daughters Kayla, 11, Grace, 10, and Lexi, 6, and son Liam, 7. Only in situations such as this, so close to the end of the school year, do they stay behind. Usually, the family moves as one.

Still, they have spent as much time together in Pittsburgh as possible.

"We've been to a Pirates game," Guerin said. "My wife took them to the zoo. We've been to the science center. We've been everywhere."

Liam likes to skate in a Guerin jersey before the team. Then, he makes the rounds in the locker room, quietly absorbing, maybe offering to wipe down players' skates.

"Having kids around the room lightens the mood," Guerin said. "It brings everybody back down to earth a little bit. It's fun to have kids here. When he comes here, I barely see him. He's hanging out with all the other guys.

"It was important to my wife and I to give them this experience, something that, hopefully, they'll remember, being in a building like this with fans like this."

During the Penguins' most recent home game, the Guerin brood was shown on the Mellon Arena scoreboard screen, jumping and screaming and holding signs proclaiming that their dad rocks.

"His kids are great," Gill said. "I think he enjoys being around them, enjoys feeling young. He's the kind of guy that I'm not sure who the parent is when he's around his son. The same thing with his girls."

It's up for debate how much of that fun Guerin extends to the team.

"I think that his experience of walking into different rooms, he understands personalities quickly and he knows what makes guys click," said winger Matt Cooke. "He's come in and been involved in some of the sarcasm and pranks."

Guerin shook his head.

"Any joke that's played around here, I get accused of it. Right away," he said. "And I don't play many practical jokes, or any. But they always assume it's me."

Pranks or not, the Penguins' players would welcome Guerin, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency July 1 but declined to speculate on his future beyond wanting to continue his career, and his leadership back. In fact, they began thinking about what a great addition he would be before the trade for a conditional draft pick.

"We hadn't been playing well and, when there was talk of who they may bring in and knowing that he was available, guys said, 'Great guy in the room, great team player, huge for team morale,' " Cooke said. "That was something we wanted even more than getting him to come here and score goals down the stretch. We needed him to come in and have a presence in the [locker] room, and he's done that."

With the Islanders, Guerin was team captain, but his ice time was slipping, and there was talk of tension in the locker room and with coach Scott Gordon.

"They were great to me, but it's hard losing every night. It's hard rebuilding," Guerin said. "For me, a guy that doesn't have that many years left, it's frustrating.

"I came here and I felt rejuvenated. I'm back in a responsible role. My role [with the Islanders] was diminishing. Now it's picked back up here. It feels really good. Rejuvenated? Yeah, of course. Anybody would be.

"You don't have to be old to get rejuvenated."

Shelly Anderson can be reached at or 412-263-1721.
First published on April 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

Speedy return on investment could come from cornerback Burnett

Steelers draft profile / Joe Burnett

Thursday, April 30, 2009
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Joe Burnett, fifth-round pick from UCF

Joe Burnett is a different type of cornerback from the one the Steelers drafted two rounds before him. He is smaller, less physical and, for at least the time being, not a player who is going to linein press coverage and bump some NFL receivers at the line of scrimmage.

The Steelers already had drafted that type of cornerback when they took Oregon State's Keenan Lewis, 6 feet 1, 208 pounds, in the third round. They wanted a different type of cornerback when they selected Burnett, 5-9, 192 pounds, in the fifth round.

And they got him.

"He has a chance to do something when he gets the ball in his hands," said George O'Leary, Burnett's head coach at the University of Central Florida. "He makes plays."

Burnett is a defensive playmaker, an athletic cornerback who intercepted 16 passes and also returned five kicks -- three punts, two kickoffs --for touchdowns in four seasons at Central Florida.

He was so quick as a basketball guard at Eustis (Fla.) High School that he was nominated for the McDonald's All-America game. And he was so athletic as a cornerback in college that Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton referred to him as a defensive version of Antwaan Randle El.

"Hopefully, on the defensive side, that is what he can be -- a guy who can do a multitude of things for us," Horton said. "When you look at him statistically, he is very productive. He is a guy who was a playmaker for them, and we expect him to be a playmaker for us in a multitude of ways."

The Steelers can only hope Burnett will be the same type of playmaker as Randle El, especially as a returner. That was one of the reasons they drafted him with the 168th overall pick: To improve their kick- and punt-return units that ranked 29th and 31st, respectively, in the NFL in 2008.

Burnett returned 26 punts for 378 yards (14.5 avg.) and 26 kickoffs for 745 yards (28.7 avg.) with two touchdowns last season at Central Florida. He was named first-team All-Conference USA as a cornerback, punt-returner and kick-returner.

"He was a good athlete to begin with, and you saw steady improvement each year," O'Leary said yesterday from his office in Orlando, Fla. "He got better with some of his coverage skills. He's not afraid to be on an island out there. He's like all those kids with a lot of confidence -- he welcomes that. And he does all the things that kids who make it [to the NFL] do. He always wanted to know what he could do to get better."

The Steelers envision Burnett as a nickel back who will use his athletic skills to react to the ball and make interceptions. Several scouting reports said he plays well in zone defense where he is adept at passing receivers off in coverage and instinctively breaking on the ball.

In that sense, he is a different type of player than Lewis, who has the physical skills to play on the edge and help in run support.

"Keenan Lewis is a player who can do some things that you like to do in the NFL, especially with the type of receivers that are in the league right now," Horton said. "Joe is the type of player who isn't as big as Keenan, but he is a guy who is a little more elusive and a better athlete at the ball with his return abilities. It is a good mix having a big, strong corner and having a smaller, athletic corner. It's a good balance to have on your team."

And Burnett, a four-year starter at Central Florida, doesn't mind the competition for the fourth cornerback spot with Lewis. It all starts tomorrow when the three-day minicamp for rookies begins at the Steelers' South Side facility.

"Now that the draft is over, from the first slots to the seventh round, every guy has to come in and compete and work for a position," Burnett said. "Now, we're at the moment where we have to go in and work for a job. It doesn't end right here. That's how I feel about it.

"I went in the fifth round, but I feel like I'm in the same boat as the third-round pick at cornerback. He and I are competing now for the job. And I want the job."

O'Leary, who was defensive coordinator for two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, beginning in 2002, said he thought Burnett would be a good fit for the Steelers, even before they drafted him. He said he saw Burnett as "an athletic nickel back" who would work well in their defensive schemes.

It didn't hurt, either, that Burnett is the type of high-character player the Steelers seem to embrace.

"You wish you had more of those kinds of kids," O'Leary said. "It wasn't just how he performed on the field, but off the field, too. He's a class kid. He was never in my office with any kind of problem."

First published on April 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The hiring of the Penguins' 19th coach

When he removed the interim tag from Dan Bylsma's title, Penguins GM Ray Shero put a target on the coach's back because in the NHL a hiring is just a firing away

Wednesday, April 29, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Baseball managers are hired to be fired, maybe you've heard a couple (billion) times, but that's not the case with hockey coaches; hockey coaches are hired to be tortured, humiliated, backstabbed and scapegoated,then fired.

So you may receive with varying levels of bemusement the news that the Penguins yesterday "removed the interim tag" or "lifted the interim tag" from coach Dan Bylsma.

Sorry, that's not a tag, interim coach.

That's a tattoo.

And sure, Bylsma wears it awfully well, being that he's 18-3-4 since succeeding Michel Therrien Feb. 15, 22-5-4 if you count the six-game dismissal of the Philadelphia Flyers completed over the weekend, 30-5-4 if you count the eight-game winning streak he was on directing the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton baby birds when Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero rang him up one cold winter night and asked how he'd like to take over a capsized vessel.

Now, with a new multiyear contract that Shero joked was likely longer than any Bylsma signed as a hard-working, marginally talented NHL checker and penalty-killer, with a locker room of talented, admiring players at his disposal, with an extended expedition into these Stanley Cup playoffs the urgent business at hand, the newest coach is perfectly set up.

To be fired next spring.

"He got guys excited about playing hockey again," winger Pascal Dupuis was saying yesterday.
"He's one of those guys that really reads the game well. His door is always open."

In no coincidental way, this brings us to the heart of it, doesn't it?

Bylsma's figurative door is always open, while Therrien's had a locked screen, a hand-lettered KEEP OUT sign, and a rusty pen of howling pit bulls pulling at their chains. Funny, last spring at this time, with the Penguins having wasted the Ottawa Senators and about to blow through the New York Rangers and Flyers on their way to the Stanley Cup final, complaints seemed few.
When Detroit ended that run, Shero signed Therrien to a two-year extension, but he didn't remove the tattoo. No one ever does.

Bill Guerin, acquired by Shero to be Sidney Crosby's linemate less than three weeks after he fired Therrien, is with his eighth organization and has played for, by my unofficial count, 17 coaches. He joined a franchise that has changed coaches nine times since last winning the Cup in 1992. He knows better than probably anyone in the room that any team's relationship with its coach has all the emotional stability of a junior high romance.

"I was talking to Mike Keenan about it," Guerin told me yesterday. "I consider Mike Keenan [who coached him in Boston] a friend, and we really talked about this at length. He admitted to me that players are changing, that players don't respond to that bully approach anymore. For him to go from the way he was to how he is now, I think proves it."

Keenan, who did not earn the "Iron Mike" label for his open-door policy, who won more than 1,400 games and a Stanley Cup in this league without being able to hold a job (he's with his eighth club, Calgary), can blame few for that beyond the guy in the mirror. But while even a tinder box like Keenan twice was able to last four years in one locker room, none of the Penguins' previous 18 coaches has. Not one of 'em.

This time, things might be different, you'd hope, because Bylsma seems like the right coach for the time and the right coach for these Penguins.

"Players always complain if a coach says, 'Hi,' to them one day and the next, he'll walk right past them in the hallway without saying a word," Guerin said. "Nowadays, you just kind of don't respect that. If there's a problem, as a player, you just want to hear about it. Players don't want to be ignored, don't want to be embarrassed in front of their teammates, and, when you treat them like that, you're gonna get more out of your players.

"I've found it really enjoyable playing for [Bylsma]. He was always described as a good teammate and he knows what guys respond to. He's not out to embarrass anybody, but he can be hard on guys. He knows what he's doing."

There's little evidence to suggest otherwise, just as there is little evidence that Shero has pushed a wrong button since arriving in Pittsburgh three years ago next month. He acquired Marian Hossa in a swashbuckling deadline trade a year ago and nearly won the Cup. He snatched Guerin, Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams at the deadline last month, three weeks after turning the room over to someone who never had been a head coach in the NHL.

"I've been exposed to a lot of great coaches through my father [Cup-winning coach and general manager Fred Shero] and through the years in the NHL," Ray Shero said yesterday. "I think at this point in the history of the league experience is overrated. It's more important to be someone who can communicate with players and who can earn their trust. "In Dan's situation, you walk into a room and you see 25 skeptical hockey players. But it didn't take long for them to start believing in what they saw.

"It just became more and more evident that Dan was the guy I wanted moving forward, so I just thought, 'Why wait?' "

Inexperienced as he is, even Bylsma knows that hockey GMs generally ask the same question when they're about to "go in another direction."

I hope he coaches the Penguins in their new building. His chances? About 50-50.

Gene Collier can be reached at or 412-263-1283. More articles by this author
First published on April 29, 2009 at 12:00 am

Profile of Steelers' fifth round draft pick: Frank "The Tank" Summers

The 5-foot-9, 242-pound RB brings power to short-yardage and goal-line situations and the will to excel on special teams to mix

Wednesday, April 29, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

UNLV photo

Frank Summers: At 5 feet 9 and 242 pounds, could he be an option around the goal line?

At one point in his junior season at UNLV, Frank "The Tank" Summers suddenly saw himself as Frank the frog.

The Rebels had the ball near the opponent's goal line, the perfect spot to call on their 5-foot-9, 242-pound Tank. He took the ball, headed toward the end zone -- and leaped as high as he could. The defense stopped him in midflight before he could score.

"He tried to get too fancy," UNLV coach Mike Sanford said yesterday. "I told him he needs to know who he is and how he's built; he needs to run them over."

Summers heeded his coach's advice.

"He told me to use my speed and power, that there's no reason to be in the air when you can run over everybody," Summers said yesterday. "You always see it on TV -- the all-star running back doing it; you figure the end zone is just right there, if I can just jump over. In that case, it wasn't the best idea.

"I believe that's the last time I jumped."

The Steelers drafted Summers in the fifth round Sunday specifically because he is The Tank, someone with the power and know-how to get into the end zone. Everyone knows the frustration coach Mike Tomlin had with his offense's spotty record of scoring touchdowns inside the 5 last season.

"No," Tomlin said sarcastically Sunday, "I enjoyed it!"

It nearly hurt the Steelers' chances to win their sixth Super Bowl. They had a first down at Arizona's 1 near the end of their first drive, gave the ball to Gary Russell and he was spilled for a4-yard loss. They wound up with a field goal.

Summers watched that series, thinking he would love to be in that position. Now he is, or at least has a good chance to be.

The Steelers have not had a true goal-line back since Jerome Bettis retired after the 2005 season. They've tried Russell, Willie Parker, Mewelde Moore, Najeh Davenport and Carey Davis. Now comes The Tank, who believes he can be that plow horse for them.

"I know I can be," Summers said. "I love scoring touchdowns and, when it's crunch time in a game and they're looking at a short-yardage situation, that's what I pride myself on. That's the best feeling in the world.

"I don't think I could fit any better than on any other team in the league. With Pittsburgh's physical play and my physical style, we go hand in hand."

Summers runs low to the ground -- think a bigger Barry Foster -- and that's an asset for backs looking for the tough yardage. With Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Moore, the Steelers weren't looking for another breakaway threat. They need the exclamation point.

"Very rarely does he get dropped in the backfield," Tomlin said. "Short-yardage, goal-line situations have been an asset of his game."

There's another love of The Tank's life besides scoring.

"I love special teams. It's a time for me to really hit somebody without carrying the ball, just to run 60 or 50 yards downfield like a crazy man. I love to play the sport of football. Special teams is my favorite part of the game; anytime people were punting or kicking off, that was my favorite part."

He'll get his chance there, too.

"He will make a contribution on special teams," UNLV's Sanford promised. "He's a very determined, very physical player, a tough guy; very, very good in short-yardage, goal-line situations.

"I'm very excited for him because he's very deserving of this opportunity and I think the Steelers' organization will love him."

NOTES -- The Steelers signed five more undrafted rookie free agents, bringing the total to 13. In the latest batch are wide receiver Steven Black of Memphis, defensive tackle Jeff Bradley of Western Carolina, wide receiver Cedrick Goodman of Georgia, defensive tackle Steve McLendon of Troy and running back Isaac Redman of Boise State. ... The time of the Steelers' Sept. 27 game at Cincinnati has been changed to 4:15 p.m. from 1 p.m.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at
First published on April 29, 2009 at 12:00 am

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

For Orpik, a shot at Cup trumps big money

Tuesday, April 28, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Ron Cortes/Philadelphia Inquirer

Brooks Orpik, Sidney Crosby and Sergei Gonchar celebrate Gonchar's series-clinching goal against the Flyers Saturday in Philadelphia.

If things had worked out a little differently last summer, Brooks Orpik could be playing his hockey at the Staples Center in Los Angeles instead of Mellon Arena. Well, actually, he wouldn't be playing now because the Kings had a lousy season and didn't make the Stanley Cup playoffs. But he could be cashing a bigger check and enjoying that wonderful California weather and kick-back lifestyle.

No thanks, Orpik said yesterday.

Give him Pittsburgh any day.

"A guy like [former Penguins teammate] Ryan Malone, if he had to do it all over again, he'd take a lot less to stay here," Orpik said. "I know at the trade deadline, he was begging to come back here.

"A lot of the guys who have left feel that way. The older guys -- Gary Roberts, Darryl Sydor, Mark Recchi -- used to tell me we have something special here. I think the commitment level -- the camaraderie level -- that this group of guys has is unique in sports."

Orpik grinned, his electric blue eyes dancing even more than usual.

"As stupid and cheesy as that sounds, I really believe it's one of the reasons we are where we are right now."

Where the Penguins are is getting ready for the second round of the playoffs later this week, a year after they made it all the way to the final. The chance to get back and maybe even win the Cup is worth a lot more to Orpik than a few extra dollars in his pay and all of that California cool.

That isn't to say Orpik isn't fabulously compensated with the Penguins. Don't get the wrong idea about that. The six-year deal he signed as a free-agent defenseman after last season pays him $3.75 million per year.

The point is Orpik could have grabbed for more, if not from the Kings, than from the New York Rangers, the other team that intrigued him when he was going through the free-agent process.
Human nature is to go for as much as you can get. That Orpik didn't doesn't make him any kind of a hero. It just makes him unusual in an era where athletes use their paychecks to keep score among themselves.

"As much as you hate to say it, there are guys who only play for the checks," Orpik said. "If they have to be at practice at 9:15, they show up at 9:15. Then, as soon as practice is over, they're gone.

"That's what I mean when I say it's different here. Guys want to come early and they stay late. The trainers get mad because we stay so long. They have to kick us out so they can go home."

The winning is a big part of it. Sure, it is. Orpik is prominent in that. Going into the games last night, he led all NHL players with 31 hits in the playoffs even if the stats crew in Philadelphia didn't bother crediting him with a single one in Game 3 of the series against the Flyers. He said the number isn't important. What matters is that he feels he's doing something to wear down the opponent over a long series.

"I don't think anyone likes to get hit," Orpik said. "But there are some guys, you can get them off their game. Maybe they don't come through the neutral zone with the same speed. Or maybe they take their eye off the puck and turn it over looking for you instead of worrying about making a play."

Orpik tormented a number of Flyers, especially getting Joffrey Lupul's and Claude Giroux's attention with brutal hits. Those hits didn't get the same airtime on SportsCenter that his four hits during an amazing 15-second sequence against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 3 of the Cup final last season did, but they and his 29 others were a factor in the Penguins surviving and advancing in six games. They outhit the notoriously physical Philadelphia bunch, 143-142.

"The stats don't matter to me. What matters to me is what the guys on the other team are thinking," Orpik said.

"You want to go ask them, 'Was that guy fun to play against?' Obviously, you want that answer to be 'no.' "

Flyers center Daniel Briere certainly would say "no" about Orpik. It's fair to think he's one of the guys Orpik took off his game. He got so frustrated with him late in Game 3 that he took a double-minor penalty for high-sticking him, breaking his nose and leaving it gushing blood all over the Wachovia Center ice.

Orpik figured it was a small price to pay for Briere's dismay.

"He apologized to me in the handshake line," Orpik said, all but giggling. "If I had more time right then, I would have told him that I expected that from him a lot earlier in the series, as much as I've ran him over the years."

Orpik will renew a lot of acquaintances and maybe even make new friends in the next series.
That much is certain.

So is this:

They won't be having nearly as much fun in L.A.

Brooks Orpik

Ron Cook can be reached at More articles by this author
First published on April 28, 2009 at 12:00 am

Foote says decision to leave Steelers is his

Tuesday, April 28, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Larry Foote played a lot of football as a starting inside linebacker for the Steelers the past five seasons, and in a strange twist, his search for more playing time will cause them to release him.

Foote said he wants to continue his career as a starting linebacker where he can play more often and asked the Steelers to accommodate him. After finding no offers in a trade over the weekend of the draft, sources on the club say they plan to release him sometime after this weekend's minicamp, which Foote will not attend.

They were going to release him this morning, then decided to wait as they pursue last-ditch efforts to trade him.

"It was my doing," Foote told the Post-Gazette. "I wanted to go. They were trying to trade me.''

Foote has one year left on his contract that was scheduled to pay him a salary of $2,885,000 in 2009. There was much speculation leading up to the Super Bowl that the Steelers might release him or ask him to take a reduction in pay because of that salary and because 2007 first-round draft choice Lawrence Timmons is behind him. Foote indicated during Super Bowl week that he would not take a pay cut.

He thought last year Timmons might take his job. Today, he sounded as if he were sure of that.

"It's nothing personal," said Foote, who turns 29 on June 12.

"James Farrior never slows down, and Timmons came in and I can't grow here any more. They turned me into a two-down linebacker last year. I was stuck in a role.

"I love the team, I love winning, but you can't keep being unhappy. It got to the point where they were not giving me a chance.''

Foote did not attend the team's first two voluntary workouts last week. His agent, Ken Kremer, said last week that Foote was working out in Detroit and planned to attend this weekend's minicamp. Kremer also said there had been no contract discussions between him and the Steelers.

Foote said his agent was calling teams to try to place the linebacker elsewhere. There were reports during the week preceding the Super Bowl that Foote wanted to play for his hometown Detroit Lions if he were released and he told both Detroit newspapers as much today.

Coach Mike Tomlin said shortly after the season that he wanted to keep Foote around and had no plans to release him, but it would be hard for Tomlin not to start his first-round pick of 2007, especially given how well Timmons played last season.

Foote's release or trade also would create the salary cap room of his $2,885,000 less the amount paid to his replacement.

Foote, a fourth-round draft pick from Michigan in 2002, has been a starter at inside linebacker since 2004 and has not missed a start during those five seasons.

During the final days of the Steelers spring workouts in June 2008, Foote wondered how long he would remain a starter after Timmons was placed behind him on the depth chart.

"I don't think it's competition," Foote said nearly a year ago. "I really think it's just a matter of time until they throw him in there, just because of the politics of the game -- and it looks like he can play."

Yet Foote did hold off Timmons all last season. Foote started all 16 regular-season games and three in the post-season. Timmons replaced him in their nickel defense on passing downs.

Foote finished fifth on the team with 86 tackles, his fewest since he became a starter. He led the team in tackles in 2005 with 123 and followed with 118 in 2006. Timmons, although not starting a game in his second season, had 71 tackles in 2008. His five sacks ranked fourth and he also intercepted a pass and returned it 89 yards against New England.

"My time might be winding down at that position,'' Foote said last June. "It's just a matter of when the coaches throw [Timmons] in there.''

Apparently, Foote felt that time was now.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at
First published on April 28, 2009 at 2:03 pm

Monday, April 27, 2009

Those Russians cheering No. 71 are mom, dad

Monday, April 27, 2009
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Matt Freed/ Post-Gazette

Vladimir and Natalia Malkin support their son, Evgeni, at Mellon Arena during game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs Thursday.

Imagine a man who provides for his wife and family by working in a gritty, sprawling steel and iron works along a river. He passes along his love of sports to a son who embraces working-class values and excels to the point that he plays professionally for the Steelers and one day captures the fancy of Pittsburgh.

This tale is not set in a mill town of Southwestern Pennsylvania but in the Ural Mountains of the Chelyabinsk Oblast region of Russia. It's not a work of fiction by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, but it's the real story of hockey prodigy Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins.

Fans appreciate Evgeni Malkin for winning the National Hockey League scoring title this year and earning consideration as the league's most valuable player, plus for being the leading scorer in the Stanley Cup playoffs as the Penguins eliminated the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday and moved on to round two.

But to have legions of the citizenry, including a healthy portion of the female population, walking around with the Malkin name and/or number on their jerseys -- plus on their banners and posters -- takes some getting used to for a couple visiting the city to cheer on their son.

"I never in my life thought that so many people would be wearing No. 71 or getting their faces painted. I never thought I would see that," Natalia Malkin said before a recent playoff game at Mellon Arena.

Natalia and Vladimir Malkin have been swept along in their son's stardom. When they come to towns for games, the cameras find them and flash their pictures on the arena scoreboard. Fans migrate to their section and take their snapshots.

"Everybody must like us. We have our pictures taken so much," Mrs. Malkin said, laughing.

If sports has a way of making the world a smaller place, consider the story of a hockey player who could be called The Iron City Kid in two cities. One place is on the far side of what used to be the Iron Curtain, and people in his adopted hometown, while no longer a steel center, drink a local beer called Iron City.

The Malkins hail from Magnitogorsk, which roughly means Iron City. It's named for Magnitnaya Mountain, which was almost pure iron ore until it was mined out to feed steelmaking. The city is the home of the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works, which came into existence along with the city in 1929 under a five-year plan of Josef Stalin.

During World War II, the steel for half of the T-34 battle tanks that turned back the German army was made in Magnitogorsk. At the same time, Pittsburgh became known as the Arsenal of Democracy for churning out the armor and shells that defeated the Germans on the Western Front.

Just about everybody in Magnitogorsk, which has a population of about 420,000, either works in steel production or an industry that supports it. That includes Vladimir Malkin, a machine inspector at the factory.

The Malkins don't speak English and most Pittsburghers don't speak Russian, which sets up something of a Berlitz Wall. But George Birman, an employee of the Penguins, translated during a recent interview.

Driven by a love of sport, the elder Mr. Malkin skated as a defenseman for the city's hockey team before he served a mandatory stint in the Red Army. Over time, he passed along the fundamentals of skating and hockey to his son.

"I put Evgeni on skates when he was 3 years old," he recalled. "Those skates are completely different from what kids wear today. The blades were much longer, and the boot was rougher in workmanship."

Mr. Malkin sees a connection between the lessons learned on those rudimentary skates and how graceful and forceful his son is in professional hockey.

"I think he's such a good skater because of that," his father said. "If I knew he would one day play in the National Hockey League and do what he's doing, I definitely would have saved them."

Those who evaluate hockey talent in Russia -- and later scouts from all over the world -- saw greatness in the angular teen. In addition to representing his country on the international stage, Evgeni -- known by his Pittsburgh-given nickname of Geno -- was a mainstay on his hometown's professional hockey team. He played for the Magnitogorsk Metallurg, which translates into Steelers.

After being drafted by the Penguins, and after clearing up a tangle by jumping from his home team to come to the United States three seasons ago, Geno has become one of the world's elite players.

He beat out countryman Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals to win the NHL scoring title this season. And he combines with Sidney Crosby, himself a scoring champion and MVP, to give the Penguins two of the best players in the world.

It is no coincidence that the Penguins had never defeated the Flyers in a playoff series until last year. But led by a core of young talent, the Penguins accepted handshakes from the Flyers on home ice last season and were on the receiving end of congratulations on Saturday on Philadelphia ice, which is one of the most hostile environments for a visiting team.

The Malkins, however, don't get swept away by all the adulation. In fact, it makes them a bit uncomfortable when so much attention is directed at their son.

"I raised my son not as a star but as a regular person. For me, he's the same as everybody else," Vladimir Malkin said. "People come up to us and tell us how great he is. I don't like to hear all of that. I want him to be himself."

The Malkins are elated that their son, who recently bought a home in this area, landed in Pittsburgh.

"It's one of the great cities we've been to," Mrs. Malkin said. "It's so pretty, and everybody is friendly and helpful. The fans are amazing. I've never seen anything like this in my life."

Magnitogorsk is 10 time zones ahead of Pittsburgh, so a game that would start at 7 p.m. at Mellon Arena would begin at 5 a.m. there.

"When we watched from home, we'd get up at 4 in the morning to make sure we saw the games when they were on TV," Vladimir Malkin said. "Now that the Penguins are in the playoffs, they are watching as much as they can back home. The entire city is behind him."

The Magnitogorsk Metallurg played some big games in the Continental Hockey League, and the Russian national teams are fierce competitors on the international stage.

But there is something special about the NHL playoffs.

"We have been to games in the regular season, but it's a completely different time right now. Nothing compares to what's going on right now," Vladimir Malkin said. "Of course, we are very excited and very happy for Evgeni. Hopefully, he can continue doing the same things deeper into the playoffs."

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at
First published on April 27, 2009 at 12:00 am

Pirates' Diaz, Bixler and yes, even Adam LaRoche, powering lineup

Monday, April 27, 2009
By Chuck Finder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

Adam LaRoche (25) is greeted by Nyjer Morgan and Ramon Vazquez after his three-run homer in the fifth inning against the Padres yesterday in San Diego. LaRoche also homered in the ninth inning.

SAN DIEGO -- The heck with the hurt Pirates. Ryan Doumit? Nate McLouth? Jack Wilson? Who needs them?

Throw Freddy Sanchez and his first off day of 2009 into the brew, and still a Pirates lineup at the bargain-baseball-basement price of $12.8 million was potent enough yesterday to slug down the Padres and former Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy, 8-3, at Petco Park

Robinzon Diaz hit a critical two-out, two-run single to tie it in the fourth inning ... in his 12th major league at-bat.

Brian Bixler hit a cinching double that scored as many runs as he produced in 50 games last year ... two.

Adam LaRoche ended an 0-for-8 run, not counting five walks, with a two-homer performance ... a career first for April.

And Ross Ohlendorf (2-2) outdueled a two-time All-Star who won the 2007 Cy Young in a rare unanimous vote.

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

Starter Ross Ohlendorf improved to 2-2 after allowing three runs on five hits through seven innings against the Padres yesterday in San Diego.

Those, ladies and gentlemen, were your patchwork Pirates yesterday. And for the next few days and weeks, what with center fielder McLouth's strained oblique muscle requiring a few more days of rest, with catcher Doumit's surgically repaired wrist removing him from action for another four weeks minimum, with shortstop Wilson out two more weeks due to a sprained middle finger on his left, catching hand.

"It has been a difficult week, man," began LaRoche, a notorious slow starter who clubbed his fourth and career-high fifth home runs of April, a month in which he owned just 11 total in his previous five seasons -- including but one a year ago. "It stinks not having Nate around, Doumit right there. ... As good as they are, we don't lose a whole lot [without them]. I tell you where we really could have gotten exposed is if we don't have guys to back them up. We don't have to hide guys out there. That's the difference we have this year that we haven't had since I've been here."

There are a bunch of differences. Though, to be fair, it's still excruciatingly early. After all, this 11-7 start marks the first time they've been four games over .500 since 2002, when that team opened 12-5, slipped to 14-10 by April 30 and finished a woebegone 72-89. This marks their first winning April since that same 2002. And the victory yesterday was their fifth in six games, their seventh in nine and gave them a third consecutive series triumph. Next, they head for three games in Milwaukee where they've lost 15 in a bloody row.

Still, in a game when Diaz -- with that single to follow Peavy strikeouts of Eric Hinske and Andy LaRoche -- and Bixler combined to produce as many runs as the suddenly torrid bat of Adam LaRoche (with four), in a game when they beat a $11 million man in Peavy and a $27 million lineup in the Padres (losers of five of six), it was something to make them feel good.

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

Brian Bixler watches his two-run double in the eighth inning yesterday in San Diego.

"We're playing pretty good baseball right now," said John Grabow, whose two final innings finished off an Ohlendorf five-hitter that included just four balls hit beyond the infield. Grabow spoke of the backups, the organizational depth: "We got some horses down in the stable, ready to show what they can do."

"I think it has been great," Pirates manager John Russell said of the team's response to playing sans Doumit, McLouth and Wilson. "The guys realize where we're at. They're picking each other up."

"Especially to do that well against Peavy, it really shows a lot about our team," Ohlendorf said.

Ohlendorf gave the Pirates a majors-leading 12th quality start in 18 games, speeding up his rhythm after Adrian Gonzalez's park-record, 458-foot, two-run homer in the first. "The less I think between pitches, the better I do," said this Princeton graduate with a degree in operations research and financial engineering.

Added the elder LaRoche, after complimenting the bench and backups in yet another feel-good victory, "But it all starts with pitching. Those guys are setting the standard."

And winning, no matter who is playing behind them.

Chuck Finder can be reached at
First published on April 27, 2009 at 12:00 am

Day 2: Steelers Draft Picks

A closer look at the players the Steelers selected on the second day of the 2009 NFL draft in New York:

Monday, April 27, 2009
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ROUND 3 (79 overall) -- G Kraig Urbik, G, 6-5 1/2, 330, Wisconsin -- Versatile lineman, the Steelers will even try to see if he can play center. ... He started 50 games in college, 34 at guard and 16 at tackle. He will get a chance to compete at right guard with Darnell Stapleton. ... All-Big Ten Conference first team. ... Missed two mid-season games with sprained left MCL in his knee vs. Penn State, but finished by playing in final five games. ... Wisconsin coaches say he was the toughest player on their team.

ROUND 3 (84) -- Mike Wallace, WR/KR, 6-0, 195, Mississippi -- Has 4.3 speed and averaged over 20 yards a catch last season. He'll get a chance to compete with Limas Sweed for playing time and also becomes their top threat as a kick returner, something they've long needed. ... Needs to refine his route running but he can help immediately by going deep. ... Originally signed with Oregon State with high school teammate Keenan Lewis, then decided not to go and sat out the 2004 season. ... Three-year starter at Mississippi.

ROUND 3 (96) -- Keenan Lewis, CB, 6-1, 205, Oregon State -- High school teammate in New Orleans and best friends with Wallace, their previous pick in the third round. ... Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton compared him to Ike Taylor in style and physique -- and also in not coming down with interceptions. ... Lewis gives them the kind of size they love at the position, so he can help on the run and also hold receivers up at the line. ... Academic All-Pacific 10 Conference. ... Four-year starter, he helped beat Pitt in Sun Bowl, 3-0, with an interception, a pass breakup and four tackles.

ROUND 5 (168) -- Joe Burnett, WR/KR, 5-9 1/2, 194, Central Florida -- Small but stocky with so-so speed. Burnett has good return ability on both punts and kickoffs with five run back for touchdowns in his career. ... Steelers secondary coach called him a "playmaker" and that he will get a chance to become one with them. ... Has good closing speed. ... Starter all four seasons and was first team all-Conference USA.

ROUND 5 (169) -- Frank Summers, 5-9 1/2, 242, Nevada-Las Vegas -- Could become the short-yardage back they've looked for since Jerome Bettis retired. ... Summers is not a candidate to become a starter but can run low and get the tough yards, and he might be able to play some fullback. ... One of 30 prospects to visit the Steelers. ... California native who played in junior college before his two seasons at UNLV. ... Can catch a little as well. ... Runs 4.63.

ROUND 6 (205) -- Ra'Shon "Sonny" Harris, DL, 6-4, 303, Oregon -- Strong, inconsistent one-year starter. ... Played tackle for the Ducks but could play end or tackle with the Steelers. ... Started all 13 games last season but finished only as his team's 10th-leading tackler. ... Redshirted and stayed five seasons at Oregon. ... From Pittsburg, Calif.

ROUND 7 (226) -- A.Q. Shipley, C, 6-1, 302, Penn State -- Maniacal worker who overcame some physical shortcomings to become a pro prospect. ... Has shorter arms than pros would prefer for pass blocking and he's not as versatile as some of the centers drafted a day earlier. ... Moon native who grew up a fervent Steelers fan. ... Dominated against excellent USC defense in the Rose Bowl. ... Although drafted late, he'll get a chance to stick with the Steelers because of their lack of centers.

ROUND 7 (241) -- David "D.J." Johnson, TE, 6-2, 270, Arkansas State -- H-back in the mold of Sean McHugh of the Steelers, playing either fullback or tight end. ... Averaged 16.2 yards per catch last season on 22 receptions. ... Started the past three seasons. ... Native of Pine Bluff, Ark.

First published on April 27, 2009 at 12:00 am

Profile of Steelers' third round draft picks Mike Wallace & Keenan Lewis

Former high school teammates drafted by Steelers

Monday, April 27, 2009
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Scott Boehm/Getty Images

Cornerback Keenan Lewis, right, covered Mike Wallace, left, in practice at O. Perry Walker High School. Receiver Mike Wallace, left, was high school teammates with Keenan Lewis, right, in New Orleans.

In addition to being a 157-pound cornerback, Keenan Lewis was a kick and punt returner his senior season at O. Perry Walker High School in New Orleans. And a pretty good one, too, according to one of his former coaches.

But, after the third game of the 2003 season, Chargers coach Frank Wilson decided he needed to find a way to get the fastest player on his team on the field. So he replaced Lewis with a junior wide receiver named Mike Wallace.

"The rest, as they say, is history," said David Johnson, who was the offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach at Perry Walker. "Keenan never returned a kick again."

That was the beginning of Wallace's career as a return specialist, and all he did his senior season in high school was return four kickoffs for touchdowns, four punts for touchdowns, and have another seven called back. It was part of a spectacular season in which he scored 27 touchdowns for the Chargers and accepted a scholarship to Oregon State.

But the only way he was going to Oregon State was if Lewis, his best friend since the two were kids growing up in the Cutoff section of Algiers, a neighborhood of New Orleans, went with him.

"The people at Oregon State saw the highlight tape and they told Keenan to pack his bags," said Johnson, head coach at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans. "So Keenan went to Oregon State."

As it turned out, Lewis and Wallace never played together at Oregon State.

When Wilson, his head coach during his sophomore and junior seasons in high school, accepted a position as running backs coach at Mississippi, Wallace transferred to Ole Miss without enrolling at Oregon State to be with his former coach.

"I was a little upset he didn't go to Oregon State," Lewis said. "But he made the best choice for him and I am happy for him."

Five years later, the best friends are reunited again. They were each selected in the third round by the Steelers -- Wallace with the 84th overall pick and Lewis with the 96th -- two childhood chums from the tough West Bank side of New Orleans getting to share a locker room all over again.

And getting to face each other in practice.

Wallace, the second-fastest wide receiver in the draft who was timed at 4.28 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine; and Lewis, a tough, physical cornerback who has added 50 pounds since high school and weighs 208. The two celebrated their selection together, just like old times, at Wallace's house in New Orleans yesterday.

"This is crazy," Wallace said. "I never thought in a million years we'd be on the same team. And for us to be on the same team and go in the same round, around the same time, is one of the better things that could have happened."

With the Steelers, Lewis will be no better than the No. 4 cornerback this season, playing behind Ike Taylor, William Gay and nickel back Deshea Townsend and competing with another rookie, fifth-round pick Joe Burnett of Central Florida. But secondary coach Ray Horton said Lewis is comparable to Taylor because of his size and ability to run (4.55 in the 40). Because he is so physical, Lewis can be used to bump receivers at the line of scrimmage, something Horton said comes in handy when playing teams such as the Arizona Cardinals, who have two physical receivers, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.

"You have to be physical to play in this game," Horton said. "You can be a cover corner if you want to be a cover corner, but you better pick the ball off, and there are not a lot of guys that do that because cornerbacks are so good. You have to stop the run to make them throw the ball, and he is a big physical corner, a la Ike Taylor."

Lewis appreciated the comparison to Taylor, who was born in New Orleans and attended Louisiana-Lafayette. Lewis worked out before the draft with Taylor at Tom Shaw's Performance Enhancement Center in Orlando, Fla.

"I love Ike," Lewis said. "It's a blessing to be working with him."

And be reunited with his best friend.

"For those guys to get to the NFL and then be on the same team, it's truly a blessing," Johnson said.

Gerry Dulac can be reached at
First published on April 27, 2009 at 12:00 am

WR runs fast toward future

Monday, April 27, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

His speed alone gives this kid a real chance to make it big in the NFL. Certainly, that's what the Steelers noticed first about Mississippi wide receiver Mike Wallace, who was the second-fastest guy at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. Heads always turn when a player runs a 4.28 40-yard dash. That's why the Steelers couldn't pass on Wallace when they made their second pick in the third round of the draft yesterday. That's also why Wallace should be their kickoff return man on opening night against the Tennessee Titans Sept. 10, thankfully making the days of lumbering return men Gary Russell and Najeh Davenport a forgotten annoyance from the past.

But if Wallace's speed extraordinaire opened the Steelers' door, it's his appreciation for life and the opportunities it offers that give him his best shot of becoming a real pro football star. This is a kid who says of growing up on the roughest side of the tracks in New Orleans, the sadly and appropriately named Cutoff section of town: "I didn't want to be another statistic on the streets."
And it's the same kid who says: "It seemed like everybody was making my mama cry when I was growing up. I told myself I wasn't ever going to do that."

We're talking serious, powerful motivation.

Over time, it has evolved for Wallace from wanting to use football to get to college and make a better life for himself to seizing an opportunity in the NFL to make a better life for his mother, Sonjia, who sacrificed so much for her five children as a single mom, especially after they had to be temporarily relocated because of Hurricane Katrina.

"My hero," Wallace called her.

"Actually, she's got to come to Pittsburgh with me. I can't cook and she's a great cook."

That made David Johnson smile. He was one of Wallace's coaches at O. Perry Walker High School in New Orleans and knows the family well. He didn't even try to sugarcoat Cutoff, describing it as a place where violent crime takes place "almost on a daily basis." He also talked serious, powerful motivation for Wallace.

"He always wanted to get better in football and always wanted a way to get out of the neighborhood," Johnson said. "Believe me, this kid won't take this opportunity for granted."

Not after seeing an older brother, Reggie, go off to jail to do serious time for selling drugs.

Not after seeing a half-brother, Arnold, shot and killed on the streets a few years ago for a reason that Wallace still can't explain.

Not after seeing a good friend, Jamal Dorsey, shot and killed after a silly argument over a bowling ball just a few weeks ago in an incident in which shots also were fired at Wallace's sister, Jahlisa, who wasn't hit.

"It's crazy. I've seen so much of it that I'm immune to it, really," Wallace said of the violence.
"I'm just trying to do the best I can with the cards I was dealt. I've had to struggle my whole life. I'm proud of myself for staying focused and not letting the negative stuff bring me down."

From Wallace's standpoint, the very start of his NFL career couldn't have gone any better. He's not just joining a six-time Super Bowl-winning franchise with the likes of Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Super Bowl MVP receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes and another New Orleans legend, Ike Taylor. He's coming in with New Orleans homeboy and high school teammate, Oregon State cornerback Keenan Lewis, who also was picked by the Steelers in the third round yesterday, 12 selections after Wallace.

"A one-in-a-million shot," Wallace said of that daily double.

It's funny, a little earlier, during those few moments before the Steelers took Lewis, Wallace talked with some trepidation of facing the big adjustment of "living on my own" in Pittsburgh, "being in the real world" and "becoming a man" -- as if he isn't one already -- a long, long way from Cutoff. Then, just like that, he was saying, "Hopefully, Keenan and I will be there together for a long time."

The two are sitting in a nice spot with the Steelers, Lewis at a position weakened by the loss of free-agent Bryant McFadden and Wallace not just as that kickoff return man but as a deep-threat receiving replacement for departed free-agent Nate Washington.

"I like to say he can take the top off the coverage," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said of Wallace. "He's a burner."

It all goes back to that serious, powerful motivation.

Wallace isn't just running hard from his troubled past in Cutoff. He's running all out to get to his future and all of the wonderful promise that it holds.

The Steelers think the kid ran fast at the combine?

They haven't seen anything yet.

Ron Cook can be reached at More articles by this author
First published on April 27, 2009 at 12:00 am

First-round triumph significant for Pens

Monday, April 27, 2009

Penguins Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz celebrate Sidney Crosby's second period goal against the Flyers in the ddeciding game of their seven-game series in the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs on Saturday.
Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review

It was only the first round, and even after winning it the Penguins are still 10 playoff victories shy of the total they amassed last season.

So, any potential comparison of this year's team with last year's entry remains a moot point, at least for the time being.

Eventually, they'll either get closer than to within two victories of the Stanley Cup or they won't, and then we'll know.

At that point, they'll either be better or they won't.

Still, the just-completed postseason rematch with Philadelphia screams for such an assessment.

The Penguins beat the Flyers in five games in the Eastern Conference final last season, punctuating their advance to the Stanley Cup final with a 6-0 drubbing on home ice.

This season, they survived a first-round series in six games, ending it via a rally from a 3-0 hole in a 5-3 triumph on Saturday at the Wachovia Center.

Clearly, it was tougher this season.

But it was tougher because the Flyers were much better, not because the Penguins regressed.

"From what I saw, they were better, for sure," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "They're dangerous. They had a lot of depth. Their first three lines were all contributing. They're definitely strong up the middle with (centers Claude) Giroux and (Jeff) Carter and (Mike) Richards. (Goaltender Martin) Biron played pretty well, too.

"It was tough, for sure."

Much as it pains any Penguins fan to give the Flyers credit for being anything other than a collection of Neanderthal cementheads, Crosby understands how good they really are.

Penguins assistant coach Tom Fitzgerald does, too.

"They're a great team," Fitzgerald said. "We just beat a very good team. Four lines, and they've got stars and scorers and beef and goaltending and a mobile defense.

"I tip my hat to them."

Had Bill Cowher been coaching the Penguins against the Flyers, he no doubt would have taken off his hat and given it to them.

The Flyers were that good.

Still, the Penguins were better.

They won games when they were the better team on a given night, when the play was even enough to demand overtime, when they were being out-chanced, outshot and out-skated, and, finally, when they were actually out-playing Philadelphia but still on the wrong end of a 3-0 deficit thanks to a conspiracy of breaks, bounces, misfires and struck goalposts.

Having done all of that, you have to tip your hat to the Penguins, too.

It was only the first round. Still, they've accomplished something significant in winning.

But does that make them better than they were last season, at least at this stage of the postseason?

"I don't know if you can read that much into it," Crosby said. "Playoffs are tough. Year to year, you gotta do the same things over and over."

That includes facing adversity, something the Penguins didn't really do in last year's playoffs until they emerged from Detroit down two games to none and not having scored a goal.

This time, they lost a potential clincher in Game 5 against the Flyers and then found themselves seemingly destined for a Game 7 before adversity was overcome.

"Now, we faced it real early," Fitzgerald said. "Hopefully, we can continue to grow with it."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ward, Steelers agree to extension

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Hines Ward said last week that he wanted to retire as a Steeler.

It looks like the veteran wide receiver may get his wish.

Ward and the Steelers agreed to a four-year contract Saturday. Terms weren't disclosed, but reported it is worth as much as $22 million. Ward, 33, had been heading into the final year of his contract.

The new deal accommodates the Steelers as much as Ward because it should provide them salary-cap relief for the upcoming season.

The Steelers, who earlier this month signed outside linebacker James Harrison to a six-year, $51.175 million deal, still have a number of starters heading into the final year of their contract.

The team has been busy creating room under the salary cap.

In addition to Ward's deal, the Steelers restructured cornerback Ike Taylor's contract last week.

Ward is entering his 12th NFL season, but the 6-foot, 205-pounder hasn't shown any signs of slowing down.

He caught 81 passes for 1,043 yards and seven touchdowns last season. It was Ward's first 1,000-yard receiving season since 2004 and also the first time since the '04 season that the four-time Pro Bowler played every game.

Ward attributed his good health to coach Mike Tomlin allowing him to rest an extra day during the week instead of practicing.

Not that last season didn't take its toll on Ward.

He played in Super Bowl XLIII on a sprained right knee and had shoulder surgery during the offseason. Ward said last week he is easing into offseason practice but added that he will be completely healthy by the start of training camp.

Ward, a third-round pick in the 1998 draft, has become one of the Steelers' more popular players because of his production and physical style of play.

He, as much as any Steeler, has come to embody the team's blue-collar mentality, and Ward is the organization's career leader in receptions (800), receiving yards (9,780) and receiving touchdowns (72). He made it clear following the Steelers' first offseason practice that he wanted to finish his career where it started.

"I want to go down as one of the best receivers to play for the black and gold," Ward said last Monday. "I don't want to put on another uniform."

It doesn't look like he will have to.

Profile of Steelers' first round draft pick Evander Hood

Missouri's coach said 'you're a better football team when' Hood's around, and the Steelers couldn't agree more

Sunday, April 26, 2009
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Michael Norris/The Amarillo Globe News

Evander Hood becomes emotional after being selected by the Steelers. Hood was at a draft party in Amarillo, Texas, when called by the defending Super Bowl champions.

Josh Young has known Evander "Ziggy" Hood for a long time, since the two were in middle school in Amarillo, Texas. They played on the same side of the ball at Palo Duro High School and remained friends when Hood went to Missouri and he went to West Texas A&M as an outside linebacker.

Young said he doesn't know a lot about the Steelers, but he said he has seen enough to know they play hard and play together. And he can't think of a better fit for their team -- and their locker room -- than his best friend.

"People are just kind of drawn to him because of his presence," Young said. "You will want to be his friend. When you get around someone who works as hard as he does, you want to work that hard, too.

"He works as hard as he possibly can every play. He woke up this morning and ran before the draft because he never takes a day off. He'll give everything he has."

That is one of the overriding reasons the Steelers selected Hood, a defensive tackle who will play defensive end in their 3-4 defense, with the 32nd overall pick in the NFL draft.

He has a dominating presence on the field, testament to the double-team attention he received at Missouri, where he registered 10 sacks, 15 stops behind the line of scrimmage and 16 quarterback pressures the past two seasons. But he has equally daunting presence off the field, a player who has a positive effect on his teammates and an almost instant camaraderie with nearly everyone he meets.

"I tell people, "You're a better football team when he's walking around your locker room,' " Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said.

"That was evident the first time we met him," said Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert. "He was somebody we felt good about from the first time we scouted him and talked to him at the combine. This is a high quality player and person."

"He's a Steeler-type of player," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "There are no holes in this guy."

Precisely why Young said he has been his friend for so long.

"He's a great guy," said Young, who is scheduled to graduate from West Texas A&M in August. "He's always there for you. I knew if I would call him, if I had any trouble, he'd be there for me. That's why we're still friends."

Hood's stock began to rise after the scouting combine in February, where his workout was solid, but not spectacular. Not satisfied with his performance, Hood went back to the weight room, improved his strength and developed more quickness.

The extra work is the reason his stock began to rise. At Missouri's two pro days, he bettered his performance in nearly every category from the combine -- running a 4.83 in the 40-yard dash and ranked first among the draft's defensive tackles in 10-yard burst (1.62 seconds), 20-yard burst (2.81 seconds) and shuttle run (4.55 seconds).

"I think when they actually got to talk with him and see what he's like personality-wise, they found out this guy is pretty special," Pinkel said. "I think [they decided], 'Hey, we've got to rethink this guy a little bit.' "

And the Steelers did, none of which surprised Sara Nengesha, Hood's girlfriend for nearly four years.

"You will not believe his work ethic," said Nengesha, 22, who lived in the same campus dormitory as Hood and met him on a blind date when the two were freshmen at Missouri. "And the time spent is not only making himself better, but everyone else better. That's just the way he is in everyday life. He is someone you can always, always count on. If he makes a promise and says he's going to do it, you better believe it's going to get done."

Nengesha said she was reluctant to date Hood because he was an athlete and "all the things you hear about athletes." Nearly four years later, she refers to him as "the man of my dreams," a declaration that draws a warm-heated chuckle from Hood.

"He's not your typical athlete and he's not your normal everyday guy," Nengesha said. "Football is something he does. It's not who he is."

Tomlin said much the same thing after he was hired as Steelers coach, saying of himself, "Football is what I do; it's not who I am."

Told about Tomlin's belief, Nengesha said, "Football is a huge part of our lives. But it doesn't take over our lives."

Hood seems like a natural fit for the Steelers. He certainly will be given every opportunity to do so on the field, where he is the first defensive lineman to be selected in the first round since Casey Hampton in 2001.

"I think he's a perfect fit," Young said. "He's not going to get there and cause any trouble. I can't think of anyone who would fit in any better."

Just call Talbot 'Rocky'

Sunday, April 26, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Tom Mihalek/Associated Press

The second-period fight yesterday in Philadelphia: The turning point in the game?

PHILADELPHIA: Max Talbot certainly isn't the first guy to be beaten and robbed in South Philadelphia, but he's likely one of the few to be victimized in shifts.

Mike Richards stole a hockey puck from him and fired it at the Penguins' net late in the first period yesterday, with Mike Knuble ripping home the rebound to put the Flyers on their way to a 3-0 lead. But it wasn't until early in the second that Talbot was beaten fairly savagely about the face and head by Philadelphia mauler Daniel Carcillo in an incident that would have been a footnote to Game 6 (actually more like a facenote) had not something momentous unfolded in the direct aftermath of the assault.

When Talbot and Carcillo floated to their respective holding cells at 4:21 of the second period, the Penguins were adrift somewhere in 95 minutes and 13 seconds of goal-free offensive hockey.

Fourteen seconds later, Ruslan Fedotenko scored the first of five Penguins goals that turned a frothing Wachovia Center sellout into a wake for a Flyers season that ended in stunningly close proximity to its apex.

Everyone thought not.

"I had to make up for [turning the puck over]," Talbot said in a highly satisfied Penguins dressing room. "That seemed like a good way to do it."

The fight lasted less than a minute, the first 15 seconds being consumed by both parties' inability to get their hands free, but, once that was accomplished, Carcillo landed several hard rights that drove Talbot to the sheet.

"I can see where him fighting might get them going," said Carcillo, who served a one-game suspension earlier in this series for leveling Talbot on a faceoff. "Even him just showing up; it doesn't matter whether you win or lose.

"In hindsight, maybe I shouldn't have fought him."

PHILADELPHIA - APRIL 25: Sidney Crosby waits for a face off against the Philadelphia Flyers during Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Round of the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wachovia Center. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

As a noted football coach once said preposterously, "hindsight is 50-50," but this might actually have been the case on the day the Penguins advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals. They clearly needed more than Max's unsuccessful one-rounder, so there's at least a 50 percent chance it had nothing to do with anything, but higher authorities seemed to agree that this 5-3 Penguins victory might not have come about otherwise.

"When you see what he tried to do, to lift our spirits, it's good when you can follow that up," said Sidney Crosby, who somehow managed to score two goals, generate about 12 good scoring chances, and win 20 of 33 faceoffs without earning a star. "You want good things to happen after something like that."

Even Dan Bylsma, who was spared a possible Game 7 with nearly as many ominous implications as the swine flu, didn't question the significance of this hockey game's one venture into boxing.

"I think Max Talbot really changed the momentum with that," Bylsma said. "Max just took it upon himself. Right after that, we got the goal."

Fedotenko's stuffer merely sliced the Flyers' lead to 3-1, but, when Mark Eaton scored less than two minutes later, any psychological edge the Flyers had established seemed to shift beneath their feet. Eaton came hard to the net on a 3-on-1 the Penguins generated out of Philadelphia's end. Tyler Kennedy shot the puck from the left-wing circle, and Eaton came right up Broad Street on Flyers goalie Martin Biron, slapping the rebound past him with a short baseball swing many a Pirate might envy.

"I was a center fielder [growing up nearby in Delaware], a singles hitter," Eaton laughed. "That was like a bunt down the third base line. I guess baseball came in handy today."

PHILADELPHIA - APRIL 25: Mike Richards congratulates Marc-Andre Fleury after Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Round of the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wachovia Center. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Crosby laughed, too, when asked if he always had suspected he has as good a baseball swing as Eaton, because Crosby's tying goal 10 minutes later came on a similar play. Crosby crashed the net from the wing opposite where Bill Guerin was carrying the puck, and, when Guerin flipped it at Biron, Crosby interrupted Biron's juggling act by swatting the puck behind him in much the same motion.

"I didn't expect to see [Eaton] there doing that, but we'll take 'em any way we can get 'em," said Crosby, who again silenced more than 20,000 tormentors with customary brilliance. "You've got to go to the net sometimes and you've got to score like that sometimes."

No one would have blamed the Penguins if they had come into Game 6 wondering if they would score again. Biron shut them out in Pittsburgh Thursday night, and though the first period yesterday was rife with scoring chances, they were down, 2-0, at the first intermission and 3-0 at the bell for the Talbot-Carcillo bout.

"Even when we were down, 2-0, 3-0, we kept playing the right way," said Bylsma, now the owner of his first playoff series victory. "They really tested us. In the playoffs, you're going to be challenged. We really got a good punch in the gut from them. They let us know how hard it was going to be."

It was awfully hard until Talbot punched back, and, even though he traded one for about six, he'll take that deal anytime it provides the kind of inspiration with which the Penguins dismissed the Flyers for the second consecutive spring.

Gene Collier can be reached at or 412-263-1283. More articles by this author
First published on April 26, 2009 at 12:00 am

Calm, cool, collected Pens eliminate Philly

Sunday, April 26, 2009

PHILADELPHIA - APRIL 25: Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal celebrate after defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Round of the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wachovia Center. The Penguins defeated the Flyers 5-3 and won the series 4 games to 2. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — There's an obvious star power that emanates from these Penguins, but also a presence.

A confidence, an attitude, an intangible that suggests no matter the situation or circumstance, they've got it covered.

It's there because of No. 87 and No. 71 and No. 29 and a couple of others.

It's there because of what they achieved last season in a postseason run that brought them to within two victories of the Stanley Cup.

And it's there because of what they've been through this season, one that started in Sweden and threatened to collapse shortly thereafter until a coaching shakeup and a couple of late-season roster additions restored order and, eventually, their personality and swagger.

You can't see it but you can sense it.

It's what sustained these Penguins during a rally from a three-goal deficit in what became a series-clinching, 5-3 triumph over the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals Saturday afternoon at the Wachovia Center.

"These guys have seen it all already," Penguins senior advisor Eddie Johnston said.

That's why, even with the Flyers leading, 3-0, and 20,072 foaming at the mouth, the Penguins refused to fluster.

It's a presence that wasn't there a year ago.

PHILADELPHIA - APRIL 25: Evgeni Malkin celebrates after assisting on his teams fourth goal against the Philadelphia Flyers during Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Round of the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wachovia Center. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

It explains their rallying from two goals down in the same hostile environment in Game 3, a game they tied but eventually lost.

It accounts for them being badly outshot and outplayed in Game 4 but never losing their focus and somehow finding a way to survive.

It's revealed in Sidney Crosby sitting at his locker, greeting wave after wave of questioners after an opportunity to close the series at home had been blown in Game 5 and insisting, through what he said and through the composed, collected and convincing way he was saying it, that all remained well.

Crosby was being the captain at that moment, even after the game was over.

Based on how the Pens kept coming in Game 6, it's apparent his leadership resonated with teammates eager to follow.

"You develop a trust and a belief," Crosby said. "You never want to put yourself in a difficult situation like we did, 3-0 on the road like this. But I think we also realize if we play the right way we're going to see some good results.

"I think everybody expected more of each other from the last game and we believed we could depend on each other for more."

They'd had their chances in the first 20 minutes of Game 6 — gorgeous, open looks that resulted in either missed shots or shots never taken, many more than the 2-0 score suggested.

Sensing as much, there wasn't any panic, even when it became 3-0.

"There was never any doubt," assistant coach Tom Fitzgerald said.

PHILADELPHIA - APRIL 25: Sidney Crosby skates against Matt Carle during Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Round of the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wachovia Center. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The Penguins have gradually become hardened that way ever since interim coach Dan Bylsma showed up Feb. 15.

"I think they saw during the early spans, maybe it was that 5-0 road trip, that when you play the right way you become a good team," Fitzgerald said. "And when you do it consistently you become a very good team."

The kind that rallies, rather than rattles, when it's down 3-0 and the entire building is screaming for blood.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Steelers' brass finds what it likes under the Hood

Defensive lineman from Missouri fills one of team's needs; now for the other one

Sunday, April 26, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Finally, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and director of football operations Kevin Colbert delivered ...

Hold on.

I know, I know.

They delivered in a pretty big way in Tampa on Feb. 1, but I'm talking about the NFL draft here.

A year later, Tomlin, Colbert and the Steelers got their man.

It's nice to think they'll get another today.

On more than one occasion between the painful loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC playoffs after the 2007 season and the start of the '08 NFL draft, Tomlin said the team needed to get bigger, stronger and younger on the offensive and defensive lines.

The problem was that '08 draft didn't cooperate. Seven offensive linemen -- including six tackles -- and five defensive linemen were taken before the Steelers picked Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall with their No. 1 pick. Two more offensive hogs and six defensive linemen then went before they took Texas wide receiver Limas Sweed with their second selection.

The Steelers never did get bigger, stronger and younger.

That they won Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa didn't change that fact.

That's why it's a lot easier to like the start of the '09 draft a lot better than the '08 draft.

Assuming Missouri defensive end Evander "Ziggy" Hood can play, of course.

Who knows?

Maybe the man will provide a Holyfield-like punch to the Steelers' defense.

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

"I think anything I put my mind to, I know I can do it," a delighted Hood was saying over the telephone last night from his hometown of Amarillo, Texas. "I'm going to take everything I can and everything I know and put it to become one of those star players and make sure I don't let down the whole Steelers organization."

Sounds good, doesn't it?

With the terrific Aaron Smith getting ready to start his second decade in the NFL and Brett Keisel headed into the final year of his contract, the Steelers clearly had a need at defensive end.

Tomlin and Colbert will tell you that's why they were so delighted to grab Hood when they finally made their No. 32 pick in the first round at 7:30, 3Â 1/2 long hours after the draft extravaganza kicked off.

"There are no holes in this guy," Tomlin gushed.

"This is a high-quality player and person," Colbert said.

I don't know about you, I'm willing to trust Tomlin's and Colbert's judgment and believe that they got it right, not just with Hood, but by trading their pick at the end of the second round to the Denver Broncos for two third-round selections today.

They have earned at least that with me.

That's why I'm still thinking Mendenhall is going to be a really, really good player. It wasn't his fault that Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis played his shoulder like an accordion early last season. It's also too soon to write off Sweed, although he sure did look like a bust when he dropped that touchdown pass against the Ravens in the AFC championship game in January.

He'll really make Tomlin and Colbert look smart if he comes back to play well as the Steelers' third wide receiver this season behind their two Super Bowl MVPs, Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.

It might take a year or two for Hood to make any kind of impact, but his selection added to what's looking like a mighty fine football weekend around here.

It started Friday when the Steelers reached agreement with free-agent veteran cornerback Keiwan Ratliff. If nothing else, he'll add depth at a valuable position, one weakened by the loss of free-agent Bryant McFadden to the Arizona Cardinals.

Then, things got a whole lot better when word came that the Steelers reached a long-term contract extension with Ward, who was heading into the final year of his current deal. That came as no surprise, really. Ward learned from his mentor, Jerome Bettis, that a few more dollars elsewhere aren't worth leaving a city where you are an icon. It's no secret that he wants to put every franchise receiving record so far out there that they'll be almost impossible to break.

Still, it's wonderful to know he will finish his Hall of Fame career here, right where it started and right where he belongs.

Now if Tomlin and Colbert can just get that quality offensive lineman with one of their three third-round picks today ...

Ron Cook can be reached at
First published on April 26, 2009 at 12:00 am