Saturday, April 30, 2011

Steelers fill needs with Gilbert, Brown in NFL draft's second day

Take huge Florida offensive tackle in second round, Texas CB in third

Saturday, April 30, 2011
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers never came close to drafting the twin brother of center Maurkice Pouncey in the first round, so they did the next best thing by drafting one of his best friends in the second round -- and they got their cornerback from Texas on the third.

Addressing two desperate needs on the second day of the draft, the Steelers took tackle Marcus Gilbert of Florida in the second round and cornerback Curtis Brown of Texas in the third.

Gilbert, a strapping offensive tackle and former Pouncey twins linemate, is a 6-foot-6, 330-pound blocker who started the past two years for the Gators, 27 times at right and left tackle and three times at guard.

"He's a high energy player, he's athletic, he plays the game physical the way we like here, and we feel like he can play different positions for us," said Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler. "It's also an added bonus that he and Maurkice are best buds. There is chemistry there, and that chemistry is a big thing in the offensive line room."

Brown became their third-round pick after many predraft opinions pegged Longhorns cornerback Aaron Williams to go to the Steelers in the first round.

Surprisingly, new Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake said Brown was the more polished of the three Texas cornerback prospects in this draft.

"Probably the best cover corner coming out" of Texas, Lake said. "Aaron Williams was the first [Texas] corner taken. Aaron's bigger, but we thought he was more of a safety.

"We thought Curtis definitely is a cover corner who can play the nickel as well as the outside."

The Steelers added another cornerback to an undistinguished list that, at the moment, does not include their best, Ike Taylor, an unrestricted free agent who remains in limbo during the league work strife.

"If we can somehow find a way to get Ike back and get Curtis involved, it would only strengthen an already strong secondary," Lake said.

The Steelers have uncertainty at offensive tackle as well as cornerback. Two are coming off surgeries, another Florida product in Max Starks (neck) and Willie Colon (Achilles).

Flozell Adams is 36, and two other tackles besides Colon are free agents, Jonathan Scott and Trai Essex.

"There's uncertainty," Kugler acknowledged. "We just think we got a good football player that adds to the room. We have a player that we feel is not just locked into one position, and we feel that is important.

"We have a guy that plays with energy and passion, and that is most important."

The Steelers drafted Gilbert higher than any offensive tackle in the past 11 years, or since they drafted Marvel Smith in 2000.

Kugler praised Gilbert's versatility, saying he can play both guards and both tackles, although he will remain primarily a tackle. On which side, Kugler could not say.

Gilbert said he is thrilled to be reunited with Maurkice Pounce on the Steelers offensive line, one day after twin Mike Pouncey was taken 15th overall by the Miami Dolphins.

"Just to go to a team with a former Gator and a former offensive lineman that I played next to is a blessing," Gilbert said.

"I can learn a lot from him. He can teach me a lot, and I can follow his lead. He came in and did a heck of a job."

The protective instinct runs in the Gilbert family. His father, Jeff, served as a Secret Service agent for presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and during Barack Obama's campaign.

The Steelers were interested in drafting a cornerback in the second round, and it looked like the one they were interested in would fall to them, Miami's Brandon Harris. But then the Houston Texans popped into the No. 28 spot via trade and snapped up Harris. The Miami Dolphins also jumped in front of the Steelers at No. 30 and drafted running back Daniel Thomas of Kansas State, and the Steelers picked Gilbert at No. 31.

Their inability to draft a cornerback in the first two rounds could have left the Steelers dangerously thin there. Taylor, a longtime starter, is an unrestricted free agent, and none of their others have been consistently good enough.


Radio City Music Hall, New York

APRIL 28-30

TV: ESPN & NFL Network

For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at Ed Bouchette: and on Twitter @EdBouchette.

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Heyward's strengths are a perfect fit for Steelers

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Steelers first-round draft pick Cameron Heyward poses with head coach Mike Tomlin and team president Art Rooney II during a news conference Friday. The Steelers consider Heyward, a defensive lineman, a perfect fit for the franchise. "I think he fits us. I think we fit him," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a fellow Ohio State graduate. "We've got enough Michigan guys around here. It's good to have a couple of Buckeyes."
(Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review)

The player that the Steelers presented with a No. 1 jersey, symbolic of his place in this year's NFL Draft, got benched his sophomore season at Ohio State.

It happened away from the bright lights and roaring fans at Ohio Stadium, and Cameron Heyward never learned from it. That is actually a good thing, Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said Friday.

Heacock pulled Heyward from what essentially was a walk through after the overzealous defensive end buried the starting quarterback on a pass play. It wasn't the first time that Heyward had gone "100 miles an hour," as Heacock recalled, during a drill that called for much lesser speeds.

"He felt bad, and by no means did he try and do it," Heacock said of the hit that earned Heyward a permanent place on the sidelines for that particular drill. "He can't go just half speed."

That relentlessness is a major reason why the Steelers introduced Heyward as their first-round draft pick Friday afternoon — and to large degree, brought him home. The son of the late Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, who crashed and dashed his way to stardom as a running back at Pitt in the 1980s, was born in Pittsburgh and still has grandparents and other relatives living in the area.

"I think he fits us. I think we fit him," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a fellow Ohio State graduate. "We've got enough Michigan guys around here. It's good to have a couple of Buckeyes."

To say Heyward shares that sentiment is an understatement.

His draft experience qualified as a bizzaro one, as Heyward actually wanted to fall in the first round so the Steelers could take him. That is how much he wants to play in Pittsburgh.

"It's a funny story," Heyward said, "because the (New York) Jets were picking, and my phone rang, and I knew they had their pick in, and they hadn't announced the Pittsburgh was going to pick, so I got nervous, and my agent came up to me (with his phone) and said, 'It's a Pittsburgh number.' I said 'Thank God.' I'm just very thankful."

So are the Steelers.

"I'm not sure whose smile was bigger last night when we drafted him: coach LeBeau or (defensive line) coach (John) Mitchell," Steelers president Art Rooney II said. "Obviously, we're excited to have him here."

The Steelers have the luxury of not rushing Heyward and letting him learn under starters Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, as well as Ziggy Hood, their first-round pick in 2009.

The 6-foot-5 Heyward, who played at around 305 pounds last season at Ohio State, may be able to make more of an immediate impact than Hood did two years ago.

Ohio State incorporates some of LeBeau's principles into its defensive schemes. And Heacock is among the Buckeyes defensive coaches that have dropped in on LeBeau at Steelers headquarters — and not just to make a social call.

On how that will help Heyward make the transition from Ohio State to the Steelers, LeBeau said, "There will definitely be some carryover and some things he can relate to. They run some of our pressures, and their scheme is not the same, but I think there are some similarities."

Heyward's assimilation into the Steelers has already started. A number of players, including strong safety Troy Polamalu, have welcomed him to the team on their Twitters pages.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Hines Ward are among the Steelers that have called Heyward.

Any concerns the Steelers might have about Heyward, who said he is fully recovered from the elbow surgery he underwent in January, don't concern his character.

He has already completed the requirements for his degree at Ohio State, and Heacock said Heyward regularly visited hospitals and elementary schools during his time in Columbus.

"I don't know if I ever coached anybody that had the character and did things the right way he did academically, athletically, socially," Heacock said. "He was just flawless."

Not that Heyward sees himself that way.

"I have a lot to learn and just take baby steps and continue to improve," Heyward said. "I feel as though I owe this city a lot. To start off my career here and hopefully end it here, that's a true pleasure."

Friday, April 29, 2011

Heyward selection in NFL Draft a special moment

Friday, April 29, 2011
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers waited nearly 3 1/2 hours to make their first-round pick Thursday night in New York. When their turn finally came at No. 31, they barely needed 3 1/2 seconds to take Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward.

I'm thinking they like the big fella.

"This is a special moment for this organization," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "He's one of those special players I mentioned the other day. He has impeccable character, work habits and toughness. It's hard to find a hole with this guy. We got a guy we really coveted."

It's a pick that makes a lot of sense. Aaron Smith is 36 and coming off three major injuries in four seasons. Brett Keisel will be 33 in September, Casey Hampton 34. It's time to get younger on the defensive line.

Heyward -- son of former Pitt star Craig "Ironhead" Heyward-- was very productive at Ohio State. He should be a starter by the 2012 season.

Who wouldn't be happy with that?

Other than Maurkice Pouncey, of course.

The widespread speculation that had the Steelers trading up to get Florida offensive lineman Mike Pouncey was crazy. He went at No. 15 to the Miami Dolphins. It would have cost way too much -- perhaps second-, third- and even fourth-round draft choices -- to move up that high. Giving up that much for a guard just isn't worth it. I'm not sure it's worth it for any player other than a franchise quarterback.

Look at what the Atlanta Falcons had to give to the Cleveland Browns to move up to sixth from 27th to take Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones: A second- and fourth-round pick this year and a first- and fourth-round pick in 2012. That's insane. For a wide receiver? Congratulations to the Browns for pulling off that heist. They had the best first day of the draft.

Even though the Steelers were a Super Bowl team last season, they have too many other needs to give up a draft bank for Mike Pouncey.

That isn't to say the selection of Pouncey wouldn't have been a sexy pick and made for a wonderful story. Couldn't you just imagine him and his twin brother, Maurkice, holding down two-fifths of the Steelers' line for the next 10-12 years? What an upgrade Mike Pouncey would have been over Steelers guards Ramon Foster and Chris Kemoeatu.

But the pressure on Pouncey would have been enormous. Steelers fans would have expected him to be just as good as Maurkice, who became the team's best lineman virtually from the first day of training camp and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Would that have been fair to Mike?

Know this about the kid: He looked absolutely thrilled when the Dolphins called him. Why not? He was picked higher than his brother, who went to the Steelers with the 18th pick. He also gets to stay home in Florida. The family is from Lakeland. Maurkice Pouncey, who was with his brother at the draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York, put on a Dolphins ballcap to support his twin and almost looked jealous.


I said almost.

I'm happy for Mike Pouncey.

I'm also happy the Steelers kept their second-, third- and fourth-round picks.

Those needs, remember?

It's nice to think the Steelers will get a cornerback in the second or third round tonight. They had better get a cornerback. They will need to pick up two if they can't sign Ike Taylor as a free agent. It's frightening to think the team will go into next season with Bryant McFadden and William Gay as its starters.

Colbert told everyone before the draft that he wasn't as down on his corners as others were. "We got to the Super Bowl with those guys." That's true, but the Steelers' cornerbacks struggled big time against Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his superb group of receivers. They're going to struggle against the top quarterbacks in the NFL. The team needs to re-sign Taylor and upgrade through the draft.

It's also nice to think the Steelers will get an offensive lineman, preferably a tackle. Who knows how healthy Willie Colon and Max Starks are going to be next season? Or even if Colon will be on the team because of his uncertain status as a free agent? Can you count on Flozell Adams, 36 next month, who saved the team in 2010 after Colon's Achilles tendon injury? Do you want to have to count on Jonathan Scott again next season?

Day 1 of the 2011 NFL draft is in the books. The Steelers are off to a really nice start. But they still have much to work to do. It's nice that they have the picks to do it.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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Ohio State's Heyward a mirror image of his father

Thursday, July 29, 2010
By Colin Dunlap, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Ohio State defensive lineman Cameron Heyward is projected to be a first-round pick in next year's NFL draft.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- What could a defender do when powerful running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward -- who weighed anywhere from 250-325 pounds during his playing days at Pitt and in the NFL -- ran the football directly at him?

"I would go straight-up with him, see how tough he really was, make him bring it," 6-foot-6, 287-pound defensive lineman Cameron Heyward of Ohio State said of his father, the late Ironhead.

A wide smile crossed Cameron's face.

"That's my mentality; I'd take it head-on, see who had the stronger head. I mean, they called him Ironhead, but I'd make him bring it."

Ironhead Heyward (who died in May 2006 at 39 from a brain tumor) would have been proud of the noggin-knocking response from his son. Cameron Heyward will be a senior for the Buckeyes this season and is one of the finest college defensive linemen in the country, projected to be a first-round NFL draft selection at season's end.

Cameron Heyward isn't one to back down from much.

That's the way you learn how to function when, as a kid you get the news that your stout, strapping, NFL-tough father might not have long to live. The man everyone called Ironhead for his impenetrable cranium had Chordoma, malignant growths that wrapped around his brain. He died after a seven-year fight.

"The doctor told him, 'This could be fatal,' and I was in there, I heard that when they told him," Cameron Heyward said. "That's not something easy to hear about your father, about someone who was my best friend. When I heard that, I didn't know what to think."

Cameron Heyward did not know what to think when the tumors forced a stroke, paralysis, blindness in his father before they killed him.

He did not know what to think when his father set off for hospice care, a destination with a presumed ending.

All he could do back then, while he was busy becoming a high school football star in Suwanee, Ga., was take it all in with his two younger brothers, watch and learn how his father dealt with his affliction.

Ironhead did not make it to Cameron's high school football senior night, dying in May between Cameron's junior and senior seasons.

It is not the very end Cameron remembers most, though. He recalls the selfless nature with which his father went about things, even when he knew his own time was dwindling.

"He was still writing to the others who were sick, encouraging them," Cameron Heyward said. "It was like, there's this big thing facing him, and he wasn't worried about himself, he was more worried about encouraging others he had met who were facing tough times. That says a lot about the type of man he was. He was just someone who was so willing to help others."

And those who know Cameron best say that is how he is, willing to help others, provide them with a smile any way he can -- the same way his father was and the same as his mother, Pittsburgh native Charlotte Heyward-Blackwell.

Cameron Heyward lived in Pittsburgh until he was about 7 and spent some teenage summers with his maternal grandparents in Highland Park. In February he returned to attend the wedding of his aunt, Shannon Jordan, to former Pitt football player Vernon Botts.

The young man who usually is noticed most when driving his burly shoulders into a quarterback made his impact this time with some strokes of a pen, and it left an indelible mark on his family.

"He took the time to sit and write a letter for the wedding," said Judy Jordan, his grandmother and retired Pittsburgh Public Schools fifth-grade teacher.

"When our daughter read it, she could barely hold it together from that point on. Cameron explained in that letter how happy he was for her and Vernon. Cameron wrote how our daughter's relationship inspired him to achieve that kind of happiness and how seeing them happy inspired him to want to be a great man every day.

"That was something very special. But that is just the kind of young man he is."

Heyward's grandfather, Rufus Jordan, a retired vice president of the city's teacher's union, added, "So humble. Cam is just so humble."

Cameron remembers that, as a boy, he was scooped up by his father and taken into the Atlanta Falcons' locker room after each home game.

"He was the big kid, the big joker," Cameron Heyward said. "He was just fun to be around."

So much so, it seems not much time passes between stories of his dad.

When someone -- particularly from one generation back -- bumps into Cameron, the talk always turns to his father.

"When you hear about my dad, it is almost like he's immortal," Heyward said. "You can definitely say, when he encountered a person, he inspired them, or he made them laugh, or after that meeting they at least remembered they had met him. He left an imprint.

"I guess that's what I carry with me most about him. He left an imprint, and it would be nice to think I could do the same."

Colin Dunlap: or 412-263-1459.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Game 7 home ice meaningless

Thursday, April 28, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 27: Arron Asham #45, Chris Kunitz #14 and Jordan Staal #11 react after losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 27, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Lightning defeated the Penguins 1-0. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Maybe we can remember this before we spend six to eight weeks next winter trumpeting the importance of home-ice advantage.

Maybe we can dispense with the thundering this-is-our-house entreaties that explode from the Consol Energy Center's state-of-the-art amplifiers, the aural bravado that simply isn't worth the decibels it absorbs, much less describe any relationship to reality.

Now, with the only semi-startling events of a forgettable Wednesday night, the Penguins are 2-6 in Game 7s on home ice, having lost, 1-0, to the indestructible Tampa Bay Lightning, just as they closed Civic Arena last spring to the Game 7 delight of the Montreal Canadiens.

Oh yeah, home ice around here is huge.

Three of Tampa Bay's four wins in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals came in Pittsburgh, the only place in North America where the home team lost Game 7 on home ice.

There was no more appropriate way for this Penguins season to end than in the middle of another frantically inept power play, which is exactly what was in full regress at the sound of the final horn of the final game of the inaugural season across the street from the Civic tomb.

Destiny might have a new home, but it has got a chicken-scat power play.

Tampa Bay scored the only goal it needed to win Game 7 on a virtual replay of the exquisite play it worked against Marc-Andre Fleury in the second period of Game 6. Dominic Moore took the puck behind the net just far enough to force Fleury to turn his head, and just as he did, Moore slid the biscuit in the opposite direction with the backhand to a waiting Sean Bergenheim at the goal line.

Bergenheim flicked it home again -- again from about 15 feet away -- and again he gave the Lightning a one-goal lead, this time in the final game of a series that seemed more combustible with every twist of the wrist.

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 27: Dwayne Roloson #35 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes a save on Tyler Kennedy #48 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 27, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Lightning defeated the Penguins 1-0. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

But for their last comical power play, the one that left them 1 for 35 in the series, and 0 for 25 at home, Dan Bylsma kept Alex Kovalev off the ice, even when he pulled Marc-Andre Fleury for an extra skater. The head coach had clearly run out of patience with Kovalev, whose second Pittsburgh engagement will go into history as pretty much a bust. And it's pretty much history as we speak.

But even 6 on 4, the Penguins could do nothing with Lightning goaltender Dwayne Roloson.

Perhaps the most underrated of all the potential determinants of this series when it began April 13, Roloson continued two incredible postseason statistical trends that doomed a Penguins team without the snipers to do anything about it.

Roloson has been in four postseasons with four teams, and the older he has gotten -- the man is 41 -- the better his goals against averages have been. It was 4.32 with Buffalo in 1999, 2.60 with Minnesota in 2003, 2.33 with Edmonton in '06, and 2.05 when Game 7 started, which, you might have noticed, ended 2.05 goals below his average. On top of that, Roloson was 5-0 in elimination games.

His performance is all the more remarkable when you consider the volume of rubber the Penguins threw at him, 36 shots last night and 257 for the series, 11 more shots per game than the Lightning put on Fleury.

Finally, maybe we can somehow become comfortable with the inescapable truth of the highly complicated Penguins-Lightning dynamic, which is this:

The most significant event between these teams came not in any frozen moment of the past two weeks, but on the night of Jan. 5, when Sidney Crosby drifted in a diminished fog from the Uptown ice surface under the compound effects of punishing hits he absorbed in two consecutive games and left the balance of this hockey season to his teammates.

They did all they could, chasing the best record in the Eastern Conference to the season's final week, ignoring anyone who said they were kidding themselves for entertaining any notion of a postseason that would penetrate May.

But, in the end, they were unable to overcome Crosby's absence, compounded by the knee injury to Evgeni Malkin, which left them looking strikingly ordinary to downright inept in the offensive zone. Bylsma's forwards look absolutely first-rate as complementary players -- role players if you must -- but they strike little fear in the opposition without top-shelf centers to set them up. Kris Letang, who appeared capable of picking up some of that slack, failed to get a goal over the final 31 games, including the seven against Tampa Bay.

If nothing else, Game 7 gave us the long-awaited news on Crosby. I'm pretty sure he's not coming back this year.

Gene Collier:

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Where was Kovy?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 27: Alexei Kovalev shakes hands with Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher after Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 27, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Lightning defeated the Penguins 1-0.(Getty Images)

It's not often you see a player go from top power play to healthy scratch in the same game.

It happened to one Alexei Kovalev on Wednesday night in the biggest game of the season — Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning — and it has to leave you questioning coach Dan Bylsma in the wake of a bitter 1-0 loss.

Particularly galling was the sight of the Penguins flailing away with a 6-on-4 advantage in the final minute (goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had been pulled) as Kovalev watched from the bench.

Aren`t those precisely the kinds of situations he was brought here for?
"It`s pretty hard to say I wasn`t happy (about Kovalev`s absence)," said Tampa Bay goalie Dwayne Roloson, who made 36 saves. "He`s a world-class player, so skilled and so good."

Actually, Kovalev is a shell of his former self. He was terrible in this series. Not just a passenger but a disruptive one, harming his own team with careless plays. One easily could have made a case to scratch him for Game 7, in favor of Eric Tangradi, who could have stood in front of the net on the power play.

But if you`re going to play Kovalev, use him in a 6-on-4 with the season on the line, for goodness sake, especially on a night when he came out flying and was the Penguins` best player on an unusually effective power play in the first period.

Asked about Kovalev`s absence for the 6-on-4, Bylsma said he wanted "guys on the ice who were battling, giving us the best chance to cash in on an opportunity."

Best chance to cash in? Why, then, was Mark Letestu on the ice? How about James Neal, who finished his first Penguins go-round with two goals in 27 games — one on a deflection by the other team and one on a shot from the half boards that somehow eluded Roloson in Game 4?

It`s not Kovalev`s fault, by the way, that none of his teammates know what to do with his passes.

I can understand limiting Kovalev at even-strength in the third period (he played 2:11 in the frame). He was turning over pucks as if they were pancakes. He was credited with four giveaways overall. But let`s be serious: If the Penguins were afraid of Kovalev`s risky play, they shouldn`t have acquired him in the first place. His middle name is risk.

Kovalev, by the way, was unavailable for comment in what surely was his final game in a Penguins sweater.

Meanwhile, the real story of this game was a familiar one: The Penguins` failure to find the net.

The game also had New York Islanders` overtones, as seemingly every soul-crushing Penguins loss does. Roloson is a former Islander; and the lone goal-scorer last night, Sean Bergenheim, was an Islanders draftee.

This was the second time in franchise history the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead. The first was 1975, when they went to Game 7 against the Islanders — having been up three games to none — and did everything within their power to win. Except score, in a 1-0 loss.

I don`t have the numbers, but I`m guessing the ‘75 team couldn`t have been as bad as this year`s club on the power play. The Penguins were 1 for 35 with 42 shots in the series. Still, Bylsma made no changes to his first unit — sending out Kris Letang, Zbynek Michalek, Neal, Kovalev and Jordan Staal in the first period.

Kovalev had his best period of the series in the first and seemed to shoot more in a two-minute span than he had in the previous month. Roloson held strong on that power play, and the second one did not go so well, drawing boos from the sellout crowd.

It would have been interesting to see what the Penguins could have done with a five-minute man advantage — OK, probably nothing — which is precisely what they should have had after Tampa defenseman Mattias Ohlund smashed Talbot from behind, sending Talbot head-first into the boards. Talbot crumpled to the ice and did not rise for several seconds as play went on.

The no-call by either referee — Dan O`Halloran or Brad Watson, who was closer to the play — had to be particularly galling to the Penguins, as it was O`Halloran who called the dubious boarding penalty on Sidney Crosby 10 seconds into last year`s Game 7 against Montreal.

The Penguins were the only team in the NHL that failed to a win a game when trailing after two periods, a stat that surely would not have held if their two superstars, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, had not missed so many months. The final three games of the series marked the only time all season the Penguins lost three straight games in regulation.

There`s no telling if Kovalev would have made the difference on that final 6-on-4, but having him on the bench was inexcusable.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Highlights (Game 7): Lightning 1, Penguins 0

Fleury is Penguins' saving grace

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

TAMPA, FL - APRIL 25: Goaltender Mark-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins defends the net with the help of teammate Zbynek Michalek #4 against Steve Downie #9 of the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the St. Pete Times Forum on April 25, 2011 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)

The chants should start the second he takes the ice — if not before — and reverberate throughout Consol Energy Center for every shot, every save, even if the Tampa Bay Lightning score a goal.

Fleury! Fleury! Fleury!

Face it, Penguins fans: Marc-Andre Fleury is your best hope.

This Eastern Conference quarterfinal series has come down to Game 7, and the Penguins will rely on their best player this season to be the best player on the ice tonight. Fleury has to hold up his end, has to make sure he allows the Penguins to score more goals than the Lightning.

You should have every reason to believe that he is going to do it.

Fleury has not lost a game he had to win in a season where the Penguins have spent long stretches without either Jordan Staal or both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and even Matt Cooke. Fleury is the most valuable player for the Penguins, maybe the NHL.

Now, he has an opportunity to prove it.

"It's a game that you need your best players to play their best," Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said. "Everybody needs to be at their best. I think he's been our best player all year, especially in the playoffs so far. He's been playing really well. We expect him to have his best game of the series."

Game 7s are often defined by a goalie making a spectacular save. Fleury shined in such situations in the 2009 playoffs, whether it was the glove grab of the rocket launched by Alex Ovechkin at Washington in an Eastern Conference semifinal or the Secret Service save of Nicklas Lidstrom's last-second shot at Detroit that clinched the Stanley Cup championship.

Fleury has a chance to erase the nightmarish ending to last postseason, when he was pulled against his hometown Montreal Canadiens amid a 4-0 deficit in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series in the final game at Civic Arena. That defeat haunted him into the early part of this season.

But Fleury bounced back, as he usually does.

He might not be a Vezina Trophy finalist, but Fleury kept the Penguins in games long enough to win in overtime or by shootout. He has shined at times this series, absolutely stealing Game 1 by making 32 saves in a 3-0 shutout and was almost as brilliant in stopping 29 of 31 shots in Game 4.

The series numbers might favor Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson, who has a .941 save percentage to Fleury's .890 and a 2.05 goals-allowed average to Fleury's 2.79. But let's be honest here. Fleury is facing a firing squad in Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos. The Penguins are shooting mostly blanks, as evidenced by going 1 for 30 on the power play.

They have won the three games when he allowed two goals or less, lost the three games when he gave up four goals. That statistic alone is why Fleury must be at his best, why he needs the sellout, whiteout crowd to be boisterous in backing him whether the Penguins are leading or trailing.

As Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said after Game 6, "goalies have to be outstanding in the playoffs for your team to win, and in key moments, even more."

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma sidestepped talking Tuesday about the importance of Fleury's play in Game 7, placing the emphasis on the entire team instead of one individual. Bylsma can tinker with the lineup all he wants, subbing Mike Comrie or Eric Tangradi or Deryk Engelland to provide a spark, but such moves would be more out of desperation than decisiveness. Unless Crosby or Malkin made a miraculous recovery overnight, this is the best the Penguins have to offer at the moment.

So it comes down to Fleury.

The Penguins believe he's ready.

"We know he's going to play great," center Mark Letestu said. "He's obviously a big leader on this team. He's going to be somebody we're going to lean on — hopefully not too heavily — but I'm sure there's going to be some big stops in there for us. His experience probably brings him a lot of confidence in this situation, and it breeds throughout the room. It gives us confidence to go out there and get him a few goals to work with."

If the Penguins don't, their fans better be behind Fleury.

He needs you, but not nearly as much as you need him.

Letang slumping instead of rising to playoff occasion

Wednesday, April 27, 2011
The Penguins didn't do a new contract with Sergei Gonchar after last season because it wasn't fiscally prudent to guarantee him a third year at his age, 37 at the time. They also had Kris Letang to run their power play.

The Penguins traded promising offensive defenseman Alex Goligoski to Dallas for power forward James Neal in February to help them not just this season, but for many seasons to come. They still had Kris Letang to quarterback their power play.

That's a lot of faith in Kris Letang. He hasn't lived up to it.

That isn't to say the Gonchar decision and the Goligoski trade weren't good moves by Penguins general manager Ray Shero. They were. That doesn't mean Letang, who turned 24 Sunday, won't be a terrific defenseman for the next decade. He has a real chance to be just that. It doesn't even mean Letang won't be the hero tonight when the Penguins play the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series at Consol Energy Center. He's due.

It just means Letang hasn't been what the Penguins expected he would be since two things happened at virtually the same time: People started talking about him as a Norris Trophy candidate and teammate Sidney Crosby went out of the lineup with concussion-related symptoms.

Letang hasn't been the same consistent player.

The Penguins' power(less) play is 1 for 30 against the Lightning. Letang hasn't scored a goal of any kind in the series, although he did hit a post in the 4-2 loss in Game 6 Monday night. He hasn't scored a goal in 31 games dating to Feb. 11.

No one has missed Crosby more than Letang. Clearly, the two make magic together. Letang was on his way to that Norris Trophy with six goals and 30 assists in the first 41 games with Crosby on the ice. He had just two goals and 12 assists in the 41 that followed after Crosby went down after the Jan. 5 game.

"Everybody misses him, not just me," Letang said Tuesday. "Our team. Our coaches. Our organization. He's the best player in the world. What do you expect? Everybody needs him."
No argument here.

But the Penguins miss Letang's production. He was a force in the playoffs last year with five goals in 13 games. He made Shero look smart for giving him a four-year, $14 million extension a few weeks earlier. But that was with Crosby and, for that matter, Evgeni Malkin, who has been out since Feb. 4 with a knee injury.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged Letang's game has been impacted by their absence. "He feels more offense falls to him and doing some things maybe more himself."

Not so, according to Letang.

"Not at all," he said when asked if he is pressing. "I keep doing my thing and playing my way."

That might be the problem. Letang's way isn't good enough now. One for 30, remember?

That's not nearly good enough for a team that's offensively challenged 5-on-5 without Crosby and Malkin.

By Tuesday, the power play had become a tiresome topic in the Penguins' room. The problems started long before the playoffs. It was 6 for 76 in the final 23 regular-season games.

At least rookie center Mark Letestu took the issue head on.

"For us, it's the mentality of, 'It's the next one,' " he said. "If you look back at the numbers, it can be discouraging. It's a single-digit percentage. But we're looking to the next one. If we score one [in Game 7], the power play will look great."

It would be nice if Letang gets it. That might get him going. It might get the offense going. Not that Letang can do it by himself.

"It's a unit of five," he said. "It's a question of everybody getting shots. You don't put pressure on [Alex] Kovalev. You don't put pressure on anyone."

It's interesting that Letang mentioned Kovalev. He has done nothing in the series after scoring the first goal in Game 1. He doesn't even look as if he's interested in shooting on the power play. It might not be wrong for Bylsma to sit him tonight for rookie Eric Tangradi.

Neal hasn't been much better. He hasn't had a power-play goal since joining the Penguins, although he did get a significant even-strength goal to beat the Lightning in double overtime in Game 4. Jordan Staal has had just one power-play goal since Feb. 11. Maybe his first goal in the series against the Lightning in Game 6 will lead to something bigger tonight.

"It's not so much of Kris Letang having to do more [in Game 7] or one person on the power play needing to come up with a big game," Bylsma said. "It's going to be our team and how we play. It's putting ourselves in position to win the hockey game because of the way we play.

"As a team, for Game 7, if we can do that, someone will put on the cape. It could be Kris Letang ... But it's more important how we play vs. one guy going out and thinking he has to put the cape on to help us win the game."

That's Bylsma's way of saying he hopes Letang doesn't press. I'm guessing he'd love to see him score a goal, though. Wouldn't we all?

Ron Cook: More articles

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sanchez returns to Pittsburgh a world champion

Giants' second baseman: 'This is what we as players strive for'

Monday, April 25, 2011
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Former Pirates All-Star Freddy Sanchez won a World Series title last fall with the Giants.

Minutes after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in the fall, the champagne was spraying about the clubhouse, and a Fox Sports reporter approached Freddy Sanchez with a question he had fielded many times in previous months but now came with fresh meaning: Could you ever have imagined this when you were playing in Pittsburgh?

Sanchez's answer might have surprised the national television audience, but likely not those who followed his career with the Pirates.

"I loved my time in Pittsburgh," he spoke unflinchingly into the microphone that night. "I've got nothing but good memories."

Ask Sanchez now, and he will acknowledge he was ready for the question.

"People sometimes try to pin me down on that," he said by phone from San Francisco the other day. "But I'd never say anything bad about Pittsburgh because I'd never think it. People here say to me all the time, 'Oh, you had to have been glad to get out of there. It had to be terrible.' The way the Pirates and the fans treated me ... I had a great experience there."

With one exception.

"My only regret was that we couldn't win. That's still a regret."


Tomorrow night, Sanchez will take the field at PNC Park with the Giants as a champion, having gone worst-to-first in barely more than a year. That might have another player pounding his chest, but Sanchez still speaks of his 2009 trade with a pained tone, still speaks of Pittsburgh with palpable affection, and yes, still expresses regret about not having contributed more to the Pirates than three All-Star selections and a National League batting crown.

Which is to say, that shiny new ring clearly has not tarnished him in the slightest.

"I made Pittsburgh my home," Sanchez said. "It was a great place to play, a great sports town. I wanted to be there. I wanted to be part of that team that turned it around. With all the tradition that's already there, I wanted to be part of the new tradition, to start with having a winning season and eventually getting to this point."

By that, he meant the Giants' championship, the franchise's first in San Francisco, a five-game victory against the Texas Rangers.

"It was just the best feeling," Sanchez said, going back to that Nov. 1 night in Arlington, Texas. "This is what we as players strive for, to win a World Series, to win a ring. I'll have that for the rest of my life. It's been a long road for me. With everything that I've gone through ... wow, I couldn't have imagined I'd be a World Series champion."

So, he couldn't imagine that in Pittsburgh?

"Not in 2010. Honestly, I couldn't have imagined it would happen this soon, but I did think about it. I did believe that things could get better with the Pirates. I still feel they'll get better. It's a good, young team."

Sanchez, 32, was born with a club right foot and pigeon-toed left foot, but he learned how to walk, then run, before excelling at baseball. And, to hear him tell it, he had to overcome quite a bit in another sense when the Pirates traded him to the Giants July 29, 2009, for pitching prospect Tim Alderson, now in Class AA Altoona's bullpen after a large step backward last summer.

"When I got traded over here, it was one of my hardest days in baseball," Sanchez said. "I felt like I left home. I was missing Pittsburgh and, on top of that, I was hurt. It was probably one of the most miserable seasons I've ever had, mentally, emotionally, physically ... everything."

Knee and shoulder troubles that kept him out of San Francisco's lineup for all but a few games down the stretch. The Giants missed the playoffs, and some San Francisco fans tore into management for acquiring damaged goods.

"That might have been the hardest part," Sanchez said. "If I was hurt with the Pirates, people there still knew what I could do, what I'd done. No one knew that in San Francisco. They brought me here to help them go to the playoffs, and I couldn't do it."

Sanchez recalled communicating with Jack Wilson, his best friend and the double-play partner the Pirates traded that same day, "every day for a long while there." Sanchez and Wilson had approached Pirates general manager Neal Huntington about signing extensions together two weeks before the trade. Huntington made one offer, labeled it take-it-or-leave-it, and both soon were traded without further dialogue.

"Between that and the injuries, it took a toll on me and Alissa and my family," Sanchez said, referring to his wife. "I would take it home with me. And the two of us, we were questioning every day why this happened, why I got traded, why this, why that. We were happy in Pittsburgh. My wife and I are firm believers that things happen for a reason, but this was tough."

It would brighten considerably before long.

A slow recovery from right shoulder surgery kept Sanchez out of San Francisco's lineup for the first 38 games of 2010, but he healed enough to help the Giants win the National League West Division, then added 16 hits in the playoffs. That included a brilliant Game 1 of the World Series in which he doubled in his first three at-bats and added a single.

The shoulder still hindered him.

"Really, I wasn't at my best. I pretty much just did what I could. In playoffs and the World Series, there were days I couldn't go out and take batting practice. I wanted to save the strength I had in the shoulder for the game."

A couple days after the final out, Sanchez and the Giants were paraded through the hills of San Francisco, with an estimated crowd of 1.5 million cheering, crying and tossing black-and-orange confetti from the skyscrapers. As with other players, Sanchez and his family were transported by a series of cable cars.

"It was just a sea of people, something they said was even bigger than what they used to do for the 49ers here," Sanchez said. "Having Alissa and the boys with me on the cable car ... unreal. And even now, I still have fans coming up to me, wherever we go, just saying, 'Thank you for what you did for the city of San Francisco.'"

Currently, Sanchez is batting .289 with 16 of his 24 hits going for extra bases. He attributed that good start partly to another shoulder surgery after the World Series to remove two sutures from the previous one. They had failed to dissolve and were rubbing his labrum with each arm rotation.

"That's made a huge difference. I'm doing what I want to do now, first time in a long time."

He sounds no less satisfied about life off the field, three weeks after signing a contract extension through 2012 that will pay him $6 million annually. That is $1 million more annually than the Pirates' extension offer in 2009.

"San Francisco's been great for us," Sanchez said. "I don't know that it will ever be the same anywhere other than Pittsburgh, but we feel like we've found another home here. They've embraced me here. It's been great. And I'll tell you this: I've come a long way since I was traded over."

Dejan Kovacevic:

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Playing a Game 7 is a chilling prospect

Tuesday, April 26, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
Lightning players celebrate a second period goal by forward Sean Bergenheim during Monday's game at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla.

TAMPA, Fla. -- No one ever admits as much, but part of what you earn when you jump ahead, 3-1, in any best-of-seven series is a temporary license to screw around with that lead, and now no one will accuse the Penguins of failure to exercise all said rights and privileges therein.

Coming off a pasting on home ice Saturday that chopped their lead in half, the Penguins followed up at St. Pete Times Forum Monday night by failing to so much as put a shot on the net for more than half the first period, setting the tone for another feckless giveaway, this one gladly accepted by the Lightning as a 4-2 victory that puts the season on the line Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center.

The Penguins have had a 3-1 lead nine times in their postseason history, and eight of those times they hammered things down without facing the chilling prospect of a Game 7. The one time they were compelled to do so, the New York Islanders beat them; that was 1975.

That's real historical Chiller Theatre stuff right there.

Moreover, no one need be reminded that losing Game 7 on home ice is something of a Penguins vice if not a full-blown habit, and there's a certain hockey symmetry about the prospect of that very thing.

A year ago, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin flying around the offensive zone and Sergei Gonchar quarterbacking something called the power play, the Penguins still coughed away Game 7 to the Montreal Canadiens in the second round to close Mellon Arena. Doing the same thing a year later to the Lightning in the first round might just be the natural order of having none of those stars this time around.

"There is some experience on our team with that kind of drama and emotion," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after his team's first road loss of the postseason. "A do-or-die situation for both teams is a different kind of emotion and something we're familiar with."

The emotion of a Game 6 Monday night didn't seem to electrify anybody in uniform. Tentative probably isn't the precise adjective to describe the early chapters, so let's just say that both teams could have benefitted from a shot clock.

The Lightning, having spent most of the morning interviews explaining how it was an inexperienced but evolving playoff team after five games of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal, instead looked as jumpy as a Lindsay Lohan public relations staffer.

"We know how to act and what to do now," is what Lightning coach Guy Boucher was selling Monday morning.

Halfway through the first period, no one was buying it.

The Lightning spent the first 9:37 without managing a shot on goal, by which time the Penguins had just put their fifth shot past Tampa Bay goaltender Dwayne Roloson for a 1-0 lead. Pascal Dupuis got his first goal of the postseason and the all-important first goal of the game, or so it was thought. The first goal had signaled victory in the first five games of this series until Monday night. But in those first five games, the team scoring first was also the team scoring second. So shift your focus to the second goal. The team with the second goal has won all six games.

But shockingly enough, the Penguins answered Tampa Bay's offensive indifference with a whopping 10:32 in which they didn't generate a shot on goal, by which time the Lightning had tied the score. Teddy Purcell flipped home a Ryan Malone rebound to arrange that.

For an offense that had been outshooting the Floridians by an average of more than 11 shots per game, it was way out of character, but fortunately for the Lightning, the Penguins' power play continued with its all of its trademark consistency.

Consistently wretched.

The hockey audiences who inhabit St. Pete Times Forum like to boo melodically as the Penguins carry the puck up ice on the power play. They should be cheering.

Tampa Bay has got these Penguins right were they want 'em when there are four Bolts against five Penguins. There's no safer place in this series for Boucher's team than short-handed. Its strategy should be a fairly consistent menu of roughing, high-sticking, hooking, elbowing, tripping and interfering with the goaltender, all of which, come to think of it the Lightning did one or more times. The only things it missed where slashing, boarding, fighting, biting, low-sticking, slapping, too many men on the ice, and parking in a fire lane. But there's still a game left.

The Penguins are 1 for 30 with the man-advantage, but don't worry, at home, they're 0 for 20.

"We'll certainly look at what we can do better," Bylsma said.

Having done exactly that since about January, I suggest he simply call off the search.

By contrast, Tampa Bay used two first-period power plays to build the momentum that would carry it through most of two periods.

"They scored right after the second power play," Bylsma said.

The guy behind the other bench said he doesn't believe in momentum in the playoffs. You may count that among today's few comforting thoughts.

Gene Collier:

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Highlights (Game 6): Lightning 4, Penguins 2

Monday Madden: Pens aren't road worriers

By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times
April 25, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 23: Steven Stamkos #91 of the Tampa Bay Lightning scores past Brent Johnson #1 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 23, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Lightning defeated the Penguins 8-2. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

It's a belated Easter basket full of refreshing hockey notes! I suspect Penguins fans are all a bit hard-boiled after Saturday's debacle...

-- Panic may have been prevalent in certain quarters after the Penguins' 8-2 defeat by Tampa Bay Saturday, but not in the home locker room. This is a veteran team. The Penguins lead the series 3-2, are 2-0 at Tampa and have a decided edge on defense and in goal. No need to be rattled.

-- The Penguins dominated the better part of the first period, but their finishing let them down. It's happened before. It might happen tonight. No secret there. The Penguins have to sweat blood to score goals. When the defense and goaltending disappear, so does their chance of winning.

-- The save percentages of Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson occupied Mr. Blutarsky territory, but the defense hung both goalies out to dry. Steven Stamkos' first goal was a microcosm: Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek were both near Stamkos, but neither physically intervened and both were on the wrong side. Stamkos' body wasn't challenged. His hands did the rest.

-- The last thing the Penguins wanted was for Stamkos, Simon Gagne, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis to get in a groove at the same time. That moment arrived Saturday. The Penguins had better hope it's fleeting.

-- It's hard to imagine the Penguins' defense and goaltending imploding again anytime soon. But it's likely that the Penguins will continue to scratch and claw for minimal goals. Their power play stinks; that's a lock. So the Penguins must keep winning close games. Sometimes you lose a coin flip.

-- Memo to James Neal: Once is not enough.

-- It's difficult to question Dan Byslma, who should be a lock for NHL Coach of the Year. But Eric Tangradi's size contributes more on the power play than Chris Conner's speed does five-on-five. Anything that pumps even a little life into that wretched man-advantage unit should be embraced.

-- Under Bylsma, the Penguins are 0-5 trying to close out playoff series at home. What's that mean? It means they had better win tonight at Tampa.

-- Sidney Crosby was spotted at the Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy comedy show at Consol Energy Center Friday. I wonder if his doctors knew? Cornpone humor for simpletons can't help a bruised brain.

-- If you think the local media's daily updates on Crosby produce information of any significance ... you might be a redneck. Two steps remain: Cleared for contact, cleared to play. Any "news" besides that is the status quo.

-- The Penguins racked up 106 points, second-highest in team history, despite having Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal in the same lineup exactly twice all season. Imagine when everybody is healthy and producing.

-- I've never seen a team sabotage its goaltending like Philadelphia. Rookie Sergei Bobrovsky was No. 1 all year. The Flyers pulled Bobrovsky when he struggled in Game 2 against Buffalo. They should have gone back to Bobrovsky for Game 3, but journeyman Brian Boucher started. Boucher blew up in Game 5. Bobrovsky's confidence is surely shredded, so now Michael Leighton is back in the picture. Leighton was last spring's playoff hero, but he spent this season in the minors. Idiots. If Bobrovsky was good enough to start all year, one bad game shouldn't have buried him.

-- Goaltending in general is at low ebb this postseason. Two of the three Vezina Trophy finalists (Nashville's Pekka Rinne, Vancouver's Roberto Luongo) entered last night's action with goals-against averages more than 3.50.

-- Hate to say it, but this might be the Capitals' year.

-- Note to Consol Energy Center ticket-holders: Lack of a free T-shirt shouldn't kibosh the whiteout. WEAR SOMETHING WHITE. Most of you don't seem to be making fashion statements. The only runway you could walk is the pavement outside Goodwill. WEAR SOMETHING WHITE. Be a fan.

-- Road warriors: Penguins 2, Tampa Bay 1 (OT). Snack on danger, dine on death.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Lightning sticks this one in the ol' Easter bonnet

Sunday, April 24, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
Lightning forward Steven Stamkos, No. 91, celebrates a second period goal with teammates Eric Brewer, No. 2, Martin St. Louis, No. 26 and Vincent Lecavalier during Saturday's game at Consol Energy Center

And there you have it -- the big rabbit, but what did you expect for Easter?

Game 5 of this thickening Eastern Conference quarterfinal turned out to be just what Tampa Bay Lightning boss Guy Boucher ordered, a giant bunny of an 8-2 victory right in front of 18,535 stunned eyewitnesses.

Holy weekend.

Lest you missed it, Boucher's preamble had gone something like this:

"Since he's been with us, he's certainly given us confidence that any game he can pull a few rabbits out of his hat," Boucher said in reference to 40-something goaltender Dwayne Roloson. "Obviously [in Game 5], we're hoping the rabbit's going to be big."

Roloson's terrifying Day of the Lepus performance came on the heels of his stopping 50 of 53 shots in a double-overtime loss Wednesday in Tampa, and, when he stopped the first 22 he saw from the Penguins Saturday, it not only pulled Game 5 out of his hat, it pulled the Lightning back into a series that continues Monday night in Florida.

"We haven't solved anything," cautioned Lightning main bolt Martin St. Louis. "You have to play every minute, every shift. There's no figuring this game out sometimes. We got a lot of help offensively in this game. Our guys contributed."

This is how you chop the Penguins' 3-games-to-1 advantage in half, it turns out:

You get five goals in 10 minutes, three seconds after getting only four in the previous 162:38. You have Steven Stamkos get two goals in four minutes, 12 seconds after having scored only five goals in the previous 58 days.

"It's funny this time of year; I was watching the game between Chicago and Vancouver the other night and that was going similar to this," said Lightning forward Simon Gagne, who buried two rebounds to help erect a 5-0 Tampa Bay lead by the time the second period Saturday was just seven minutes old. "In this game, we got good chances, in part because the rebounds went to good spots, and the puck bounced to places where we could put it in.

"Sometimes, that's the way hockey happens, and we're just glad that's the way it went today."

By early in the third, a full-fledged Pirates game had broken out. It was 6-0, then 7-0, with the starter long gone, that being Marc-Andre Fleury, who exited down by four.

"If you've got a flower and you want it to grow," Boucher was saying about something else entirely, "if you pull the Flower, it's not going to grow faster."

Wait a minute, hadn't Dan Bylsma just pulled The Flower?

Let's try and keep this column related primarily to rabbits, shall we?

The plain hockey fact was that Tampa Bay floated onto the uptown ice at noon Saturday just about begging to get beat. The Penguins had innumerable early opportunities in a scoreless game that began under the conspicuous statistical thunderhead that the team scoring first had won every game in this series.

But Brooks Orpik's blast from the point made its way around five bodies before hitting the post to Roloson's left, and the Penguins' power play started another shameful 0 for 7 that took it all the way to 0 for 20 at home in the postseason.

"Sometimes, you need your goalie to be the best player on the ice early in games," said Gagne. "We were tentative for the first few minutes. We knew they'd be coming hard."

The first goal went instead to Gagne, who finished the kind of pretty offensive sequence the Lightning was supposed to be knitting this month but rarely has. Teddy Purcell and Vincent Lecavalier passed it to each other four times in one flash of Lightning, right before Purcell rang it off the post to Fleury's right. The puck went straight to Gagne and into the back of the net at 16:57. Just 43 seconds later, Stamkos backhanded a bouncing puck in the slot over Fleury for a 2-0 lead at the first intermission.

When Lecavalier and Gagne scored within five minutes of each other early in the second, the Lightning hadn't even started scoring power-play goals, but it put four of those in, too, the most ever against the Penguins in a playoff game.

"I think we were just trying to shoot a lot more," said Boucher. "In the other games, we didn't, we waited for better opportunities. We're a team that drives to the net a lot and we did that again."

You would have thought Boucher would admit to an easy day at the office. He'd gotten his big bunny in the form of an 8-2 victory, but it turns out it was so easy it was almost too easy.

"They're just extremely tough to manage, games like this," he said. "You don't want to get anybody injured, but you try not to drain anybody, either."

Boucher likely played Ryan Malone too much given the massive lead, and I would have pulled Roloson somewhere around 5-0, because again, he is 40-something.

Perhaps the Penguins will benefit from those things Monday night as they hope not to chase this postseason down the rabbit hole.

Gene Collier:

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Tampa Bay never finds a reason to quit, and Penguins are to blame

Sunday, April 24, 2011
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
Lightning forward Simon Gagne pushes a puck past Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury during Saturday's game at Consol Energy Center.

Eddie Johnston has served the Penguins for about 100 years in every capacity from coach to general manager to wise, old adviser. He's one of the smartest hockey people I've ever known. When he speaks, I listen.

"We've got to jump on 'em," Johnston said Saturday before the Penguins played the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 of their Stanley Cup playoff series.

The Penguins did just that once they dropped the puck shortly after high noon at Consol Energy Center.

"We've got to give 'em a reason to quit," Johnston said, more emphatically.

It was a heck of a plan, anyway.

Too bad the Penguins couldn't execute the second part of it despite thoroughly dominating the first 16 minutes-and-change.

Chris Kunitz got a lucky bounce off the boards and one-timed a wicked slap shot that Lighting goaltender Dwayne Roloson couldn't have expected yet somehow turned away just 1:28 in. The Penguins' power play couldn't score after Tampa Bay defenseman Pavel Kubina went off on an interference call at 6:47 despite getting four good chances. Brooks Orpik beat Roloson with a blast from the blue line at 13:09 only to have the puck clang off a goal post. Tyler Kennedy had not one, but two good opportunities at 16:10 and 16:33 only to have Roloson make both saves.

That's why the Penguins lost.

It wasn't because Tampa Bay later scored a touchdown and a 2-point conversion in its playoff-sustaining 8-2 win.

The Penguins just couldn't give the Lightning that reason to quit.

"It's difficult to put a team out," coach Dan Bylsma philosophized afterward. "They're playing for their last breath."

The good news for the Penguins is this loss counted as just one. It was so ugly it probably should have counted for three, but that's not the way it works in the playoffs. The Penguins still hold a 3-2 lead going into Game 6 Monday night at Tampa. Yes, they would be smart to jump on the Lightning early and give 'em a reason to quit.

You know, by scoring the first goal.

The team that has scored first has won every game in the series.

Bylsma talked at length about the "comfort" and "confidence" that first goal provides. Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher mentioned that his team played with more "poise" after Simon Gagne gave the Lighting a 1-0 lead by knocking a rebound by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury at 16:57 of the first period.

I would say so.

The Lightning scored another goal 46 seconds later and three more in the first seven minutes of the second.

The Penguins were kicking themselves after the game for completely falling apart after a goal by Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos made it 2-0.

"We've got to keep going," winger Pascal Dupuis said. "We can't put our heads down when they score a couple ... We tried to score right away after they scored. There was plenty of hockey left. If we had just played our game and kept the puck in their zone, I think we could have come back."

We'll never know, will we?

Actually, we do know. We have a pretty good idea, anyway. The Penguins aren't built to come back from 2-0 without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They have to play with the lead.

The same is true of the Tampa Bay club, which dominated the Penguins in every way after Gagne got the first goal. It finished with a 4-2 edge in even-strength goals. Its power play went 4 for 7. It held the Penguins' power play to 0 for 7.

Repeat after me:

This loss counted as just one ...

If you really want something to worry about, worry that Tampa Bay's great Stamkos woke up in time to save the Lightning. He had two goals and an assist after doing nothing in the first four games. He scored 119 goals in his first three NHL seasons, yet his first goal Saturday was his first even-strength goal against the Penguins in 17 career games.

You're crazy if you think Stamkos isn't good enough to tilt the series Tampa Bay's way.

Of course, I thought Tyler Kennedy's goal in Game 4 was going to get the Penguins' power play going. You saw how that worked out Saturday. I also thought James Neal's winning goal in double overtime in Game 4 would get him going. He was a minus-2 Saturday and had just one shot on goal.

So you never know.

"This one is easy to handle. You just throw it out with the garbage," Penguins winger Mike Rupp said, pretending to shoot a wad of tape into a nearby trash can.

"You come back and play a better game the next game."

That sounds like a good plan, as well.

It's nice to think the Penguins will execute it a little better than they did Johnston's plan.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Steelers struck gold in '71 draft

Friday, April 22, 2011

One of the more humorous introductions in Pittsburgh sports history took place 40 years ago in the Downtown Hilton.

After receiving a knock at the door of the suite where the Steelers were hosting players they recently drafted, Art Rooney Jr. opened to find a young man wearing slacks and a blue jacket.

So unimposing was the visitor that Rooney, who headed the Steelers' player personnel department, mistook him for a bell hop and asked if he was dropping off a letter.

"No," the young man said, "I'm Jack Ham."

Ham, as Rooney recalled recently with a laugh, ended up delivering much more than mail for the Steelers. He headlined a draft class that ranks among the greatest ever assembled — and helped set the standard for future Steelers drafts, including next week's.

The 1971 NFL Draft produced Ham, whom Steelers chairman emeritus and owner Dan Rooney has called the greatest outside linebacker in NFL history, and fellow Steel Curtain defense stalwarts Dwight White and Mike Wagner.

The Steelers, with their Midas touch, also selected tight end Larry Brown, who caught the only touchdown pass in Super Bowl IX and later excelled at right tackle, and defensive tackle Ernie "Fats" Holmes, who dominated his position during the six seasons he spent in Pittsburgh.

"That was a heck of a draft," said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. "They've had so many years where they just had great draft after great draft — '71 was outstanding and '74 was phenomenal."

The Steelers' 1974 draft produced four players who eventually were inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is considered by many to be the greatest draft class in NFL history.

But the '71 draft, which also included receiver Frank Lewis and guard Gerry "Moon" Mullins, helped lay the foundation for the dynasty that bloomed in the middle of the decade.

Five players from the draft played significant roles on all four Super Bowl-winning teams in the 1970s. Eight played in at least one Super Bowl — nine if you include safety Glen Edwards, who signed as an undrafted free agent in '71.

The class helped reverse the losing that had birthed the nickname "Same old Steelers" and provided ample building blocks for the franchise's rise.

Ham did not expect to land with the Steelers after a decorated career at Penn State. Nor was he particularly happy, he recalled, when the Steelers chose him with the eighth pick of the second round.

Ham said the New York Giants and San Diego Chargers had told him they planned to draft him in the first round.

The Chargers took running back Leon Burns with the 13th pick, and he rushed for 223 yards during the one season he spent in San Diego.

The Giants selected running back/receiver Rocky Thompson. He played a little more than two seasons with the Giants and had 302 rushing and receiving yards combined.

Both teams might have shied away from Ham for the same reason Art Rooney Jr. thought Ham was a part of the Hilton staff when they met face-to-face for the first time: Ham was not the biggest guy coming out of Penn State, and there had been differences of opinion about him among Steelers coaches and scouts.

Rooney said a couple of assistant coaches pushed to take Ham with the eighth overall pick. Coach Chuck Noll opted for Lewis, a speedster from Grambling. Rooney agreed with the pick, correctly guessing that the Steelers could get Ham in the second round.

Yet when he was available in the second round, a Steelers coach who had wanted to take Ham in the first round lobbied for Bowling Green linebacker Phil Villapiano.

Rooney was apoplectic.

"I screamed, 'Well, you're the same guy that wanted to take Ham in the first round. Now you're waffling!' " Rooney said. "You would break the tension by laughing, as it was a joke."

The Oakland Raiders picked Villapiano with the 45th overall pick — 11 after the Steelers selected Ham. Villapiano won a Super Bowl with the Raiders and played in four Pro Bowls, but history would prove the Steelers made the right call.

Ham added almost 15 pounds of muscle, and he made playing linebacker seem as natural as a fish in water.

"He was a perfect fit for Chuck Noll," Rooney said.

Ham's future roommate turned out to be a pretty good fit, too.

Injuries during his senior season at Western Illinois and playing at a small school caused Wagner to slide to the 11th round. An injury provided an opening for Wagner, and he became a starter his rookie season.

By the time he retired 10 years later, Wagner (pictured at right) had won four Super Bowl rings and played in two Pro Bowls.

Not bad for the 268th pick who received a $3,000 signing bonus.

"Forty years is kind of scary," said Wagner, who stayed in Pittsburgh and is a successful businessman. "It was a great class, and the guys from '71, we're really proud of what we did."

By the numbers: The 1971 NFL Draft

4 — Players inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Jack Ham, Jack Youngblood, John Riggins and Dan Dierdorf)

8 — Players taken by the Steelers who played on at least one Super Bowl-winning teams in the 1970s

17 — Total rounds (compared to seven today)

267 — Players selected ahead of Steelers safety Mike Wagner, the lowest-drafted player in the class to make the Pro Bowl.

442 — Total players picked

32,838 — Career passing yards by Ken Anderson, a fourth-round pick by the Bengals and later a Steelers quarterback coach

68,308 — Career passing yards of the quarterbacks (Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning and Dan Pastorini) taken with the first three picks of the draft

Steelers' selections

The Steelers' 22-member draft class in 1971 included five men who would play at least nine NFL seasons and featured one Hall of Famer (Jack Ham). Here's a look at that class:

Frank Lewis (1st round): WR — 13 seasons

Steelers traded Lewis in 1977 after John Stallworth and Lynn Swann made him expendable

Jack Ham (2nd round): LB — 12 seasons

Eight-time Pro Bowler has the most interceptions (32) by a linebacker in Steelers history

Steve Davis (3rd round): RB — 5 seasons

Was kick returner for '74 Super Bowl team; finished career with Jets

Gerry Mullins (4th round): G — 9 seasons

"Moon" man started at right guard for 1975 Super Bowl team

Dwight White (4th round, pictured at right): DE — 10 seasons

Hero of Super Bowl IX, his 46 sacks are eighth on the Steelers' all-time list

Larry Brown (5th round): T — 14 seasons

Played tight end from 1971-77, then moved to right tackle; made Pro Bowl in 1982

Mel Holmes (5th round): G — 3 seasons

No starts in 29 career games with Steelers

Ralph Anderson (5th round): DB — 3 seasons

After two years with Steelers, made 10 starts with Patriots in 1973

Craig Hanneman (6th round): DE — 4 seasons

As L.C. Greenwood's backup, he was beaten on Ken Stabler's TD run that preceded Immaculate Reception

Larry Crowe (8th round): RB — 2 seasons

Never played for Steelers; had one carry for 2 yards in '72 with Eagles

Ernie Holmes (8th round): DT — 7 seasons

Battled personal issues but still ranks 10th on Steelers' all-time sacks list with 40

Mike Wagner (11th round): DB — 10 seasons

Starting FS on four Super Bowl-winning teams; sixth on Steelers' interceptions list with 36

Al Young (13th round): WR — 2 seasons

Had six catches for '72 Steelers, his final NFL season

Note: The following picks never played in the NFL: Fred Brister, LB (fifth round); Worthy McClure, T (seventh); Paul Rogers, K (eighth); Mike Anderson, LB (ninth); Jim O'Shea, TE (10th); McKinney Evans, DB (14th); Ray Makin, G (15th); Walter Huntley, DB (16th); Danny Ehle, RB (17th)

About the writer

Scott Brown is the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Steelers beat writer and can be reached at 412-481-5432 or via e-mail.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cooke suspension was a sick joke

Thursday, April 21, 2011

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 17: Chris Campoli #14 of the Chicago Blackhawks hits Raffi Torres #13 of the Vancouver Canucks after Torres knocked down Brent Seabrook #7 with a hit behind the net in Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the United Center on April 17, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Upon further review, the NHL's draconian punishment of Penguins winger Matt Cooke looks preposterous and vindictive.

It has served no higher purpose, that's for sure.

It has not altered the behavior of head-hunting players; it has not changed the pattern of neglect established long ago by NHL chief disciplinarian Colin Campbell. That much is clear in the first round — make that the knockout round — of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

I am no defender of Cooke, but what precedent was there for slapping him with a maximum 17-game suspension for his elbow on Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh? Valuing playoffs over regular season, it could be argued the suspension is more like 25 games — maybe more — which is beyond ludicrous. Prior to that, Cooke had been suspended 10 games over his 11-year career.

Now, look at Tampa Bay winger Steve Downie, who was suspended 20 games for a vicious hit on Ottawa's Dean McAmmond three seasons ago. Downie delivered a carbon copy of that hit Monday night ... and was suspended for one game.


Or consider Vancouver's Raffi Torres, who in his first game back from a four-game, head shot-induced suspension, nearly decapitated Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook, who had not yet touched the puck behind his net. Torres was not suspended.

Double wow.

Don't try to convince me the length of Cooke's suspension was about anything other than the NHL's thin-skinned, old boys' network lashing back at Mario Lemieux. The Penguins co-owner, you might remember, wrote a scathing letter ripping the league in the wake of the debacle on Long Island on Feb. 11, when the Penguins and Islanders combined for 346 penalty minutes — third-most in an NHL game in the past 21 years.

The Penguins, attempting to spearhead a ban on head hits, were hardly in position to argue Cooke's suspension. Don't think Campbell didn't know it. Campbell, per league policy, was not available Wednesday to comment on suspensions.

Flash forward to the playoffs, where the motto has become "Head Shots for Everyone!" and keep in mind that this is the environment into which Sidney Crosby is contemplating a return.

You think a Downie-, Cooke- or Torres-type wouldn't delight in the chance to light up Crosby like a Christmas tree?

What's the risk, a one-game suspension?

I don't know who to blame anymore. Is it the players, too many of whom lack respect for fellow union members? The owners, who refuse to wrest control of their league from a faction of old-school GMs? The league, whose idea of a head-shot deterrent is doling out one-game suspensions — or worse, no suspensions?

Likely, it's all of the above, plus those fans who revel in the head-bashing and tell you to watch tennis if you don't like it. What they ignore is that hockey can be played in physical, intimidating fashion without gutless attempts to injure. Brooks Orpik's crushing but legal hit on Steven Stamkos in Game 1 was a perfect example.

I wonder if we've all lost our minds as I watch the clip of Torres skating 100 mph and decking Seabrook behind the net. Apparently, as Campbell attempted to explain, there is no rule in the NHL that prohibits launching oneself into a defenseless and puck-less player's skull. Campbell actually called it a "legal play" which makes you wonder why Torres was sent to the penalty box for interference.

Maybe Campbell's right. I have no idea anymore — never did, actually — on what represents a suspension-worthy hit. Neither do players, coaches, fans or referees.

And how rich is it that Campbell and Kris King are two of the NHL's top spokesmen for defining clean play? They might as well hire Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen to preach on clean living. In their combined 1,485 NHL games, Campbell and King totaled 81 goals and 3,322 penalty minutes.

Downie and Penguins winger Chris Kunitz — suspended a game for his ridiculous elbow to the head of multi-concussed Lightning forward Simon Gagne — served their one-game suspensions last night. Both should have been benched for the rest of the series, at least.

Kunitz's elbow was no different from Cooke's on McDonagh. True, Kunitz is not a repeat offender, but that stuff gets over-emphasized. What if your first offense is swinging your stick like a baseball bat and beheading somebody?

Might be worth a game or two in Campbell's world.

NHL's so-called discipline on head shots borders on criminal

The Tampa Tribune
April 20, 2011

TAMPA, FL - APRIL 18: Adam Hall #18 moves out of the way as Steve Downie #9 of the Tampa Bay Lightning checks Ben Lovejoy #6 of the Pittsburgh Penguins into the boards during the first period in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the St. Pete Times Forum on April 18, 2011 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

One game. One hour.

Sixty minutes, maybe a little more with overtime.

That's how long Lightning winger Steve Downie and Penguins winger Chris Kunitz have to sit for their head hunting in Game 3 of their playoff series. One-game suspensions for acting like Barbary apes.

And the NHL wonders why we think it's a joke when it comes to discipline, even with all its talk about cracking down and outlawing blindside head shots, which was outlawed just this season.

Downie's half-rink dash and Lady Bada-Byng launch into Pittsburgh's Ben Lovejoy in the first period of Game 3 and Kunitz's downright dirty elbow, with intent, to Simon Gagne's head a short time later deserved harsher punishments.

I guess NHL Commissioner Gary "No Neck" Bettman and his guys up in New York were too busy announcing their 10-year, $2 billion TV deal to bother taking any of this other stuff all that seriously.

What, the playoffs come around and all their big talk about big hits goes away?

If these guys were any more asleep at the wheel they'd be air traffic controllers.

Me? I think both Downie and Kunitz should be sitting out the rest of this series, at the very least.

This is how the NHL Senior Executive Vice President Colin Campbell, who is all over the place on supplemental discipline, described Downie's incident:

"Downie left his feet and launched himself at the head of his opponent and he came from a considerable distance, with speed and force, to deliver the check."

That is not exactly accurate -- Downie did not hit Lovejoy's head.

But his feet were about 3 feet in the air as he collided with Lovejoy.

One game.

Imagine if he had hit Lovejoy in the head. Downie has done that before.

Or imagine if Downie played for another team and had hit Marty St. Louis.

Imagine reaction in Tampa Bay.

This is how Campbell described the Kunitz incident:

"Kunitz delivered an elbow directly to the head of his opponent."

Accurate, completely, real thug stuff.

One game.

Why not just hand out candy instead?

It's not just the fact that Downie is a habitual offender when it comes to this sort of thing, which he most certainly is, with repeat offenses during his career.

This time: one game.

Nor is it just the fact that Gagne has already suffered several concussions in his NHL career.

Nor is it just the fact that this series, and these NHL playoffs, are going on without Sidney Crosby, who still hasn't been cleared to play after a concussion received on a blind-side shot from Washington's David Steckel, and which was aggravated by a hit by none other than Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman.

And it's not just the fact that already missing from this series was this season's answer to Luca Brasi, the oft-suspended Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke, who got in so many cheap, dangerous shots this season that the league suspended him late in the regular season, right on through … the first round of the playoffs.

The guy shouldn't play at all.

Clearly, no one is getting the message, which maybe says the message isn't loud and clear enough.

In the cases of Downie and Kunitz, it shouldn't matter that Lovejoy and Gagne weren't seriously injured. Lovejoy even managed to get the puck up ice, and up ice it went, eventually into the Lightning net, for the first goal in the Penguins' 3-2 Game 3 victory.

The NHL has its Rule 48, the head shot rule. NHL general managers, at their recent meetings, talked a great game about getting serious about head shots. The league has established new protocols for concussions, including leading players to a "quiet room" for observation and examination by doctors during games. Leave your rally drums at the door.

But none of this matters if the NHL is going to do nutty things, as evidenced by the case of Vancouver Canucks winger Raffi Torres, who was suspended the final two games of the regular season, and first two games of Vancouver's playoff series with Chicago, for a head shot on Edmonton's Jordan Eberle.

Well, in Torres' first game back, Game 3 against the Blackhawks, Torres knocked Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook from the game with a shoulder to the head behind the net. Campbell and the league ruled no suspension was necessary. Torres played in Game 4. Seabrook, still recovering, did not.

In other news, a study published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that the amount of time NHL players missed because of concussions rose from 1997 to 2004.

A couple of months ago, before the Lighting played the Penguins -- who were without Crosby then, too -- Gagne talked about his concussion history and the new league rule on head shots.

"I think they're doing the right thing," Gagne said. "It took them a while before bringing a rule, but I think it's going to take a little more than that. We have a rule on a blind (head) shot, but we're still having guys hit in the head. Until you go 100 percent against hits to the head, you're going to see those cracks.

You're seeing those cracks right now, in these playoffs, the playoffs missing Crosby.

Is this going to be a NASCAR deal, where you put up safe walls and require head-neck restraints after Dale Earnhardt is gone? Is it going to take a hockey player paralyzed, or worse?

Bettman, Campbell and the other league executives, they're the one who need to be led to a quiet room and have their heads examined.

This league was crazy for dropping so small a hammer on Downie and Kunitz, and even more so when it came to Torres. It borders on negligence, criminal negligence if it ever comes down to that, and it just might if someone gets hit in the head one time too many, or in just the wrong way, and never gets up.