Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Big Ben pick returned Steelers to glory

By Scott Brown
April 24, 2014

Ben Roethlisberger scrambles during the game against the New York Jets on September 16, 2012 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers needed more than a little luck to end their long search for the rightful heir to Terry Bradshaw, the quarterback they had taken first overall in the 1970 NFL draft. 

Ten years ago today -- and almost a quarter of a century after they selected Bradshaw by winning a coin toss to secure the top pick over the Chicago Bears -- the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th overall pick. 

As with Bradshaw, the pick set the franchise on a glorious course. 

Bradshaw struggled early in his career and was benched and booed by fans before winning four Super Bowls, but with Roethlisberger, the Steelers got a serious return on their quarterback investment earlier than anyone could have expected. 

An injury to starter Tommy Maddox in the second game of the 2004 season thrust Roethlisberger into action. And the quarterback who had been considered more of a project than the two picked ahead of him (Eli Manning and Philip Rivers) because he hadn't played against top competition at Miami (Ohio) responded by winning his first 14 starts. 

The Steelers suffered a disappointing loss toTom Brady and the Patriots in the 2004 AFC Championship Game, but they finally found their quarterback after going through their share of them following Bradshaw's retirement in 1984. 

Roethlisberger led the Steelers to three Super Bowls from 2005 to 2010, winning two of them, and he showed a flair for extending plays after his pass protection had collapsed, as well as directing clutch fourth-quarter drives -- both the result of a competitive streak that is as long as one of the three rivers that converge in Pittsburgh. 

He authored his signature comeback in Super Bowl XLIII when the Steelers trailed the upstart Arizona Cardinals by three points and were backed up at their 10-yard line with less than three minutes left in the game. 

Roethlisberger needed eight plays and a little more than two minutes to lead the Steelers to a game-winning touchdown, capping the drive with a 6-yard scoring pass to Santonio Holmes

The pass was vintage Roethlisberger: daring and something more likely seen in a backyard game, not the NFL's biggest stage. Roethlisberger unleashed the pass under pressure, throwing it into a crowd but only where his receiver had a chance to catch it. 

That unlikely play, in retrospect, serves as something of a metaphor for Roethlisberger's Steelers career, because so much had to break just right for him to wear black and gold in the first place. 

“We didn't expect that he would end up in Pittsburgh,” Ryan Tollner, Roethlisberger's agent, said. 

Indeed, 10 teams picked ahead of the Steelers in the 2004 draft, including the Browns, who would have been hailed for taking the Ohio native to lift the struggling franchise. 

And Roethlisberger's camp didn't know to what extent he was on the Steelers' radar. 

The team had met with Roethlisberger at the NFL scouting combine and also hosted him for a pre-draft visit, but they never worked him out. Tollner figured he would go to the Raiders at No. 2, the Cardinals at No. 3, the Giants at No. 4 or the Browns at No. 6. 

If none of those teams drafted Roethlisberger, Tollner thought, Buffalo at No. 13 would be the probable landing spot for his client. 

Meanwhile, another member of Roethlisberger's inner circle was convinced the Giants were going to draft him. Terry Hoeppner, his coach at Miami, had spoken extensively with Ernie Accorsi about Roethlisberger and had gotten a good vibe from the Giants' general manager.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/John Marshall MantelQB Ben Roethlisberger hasn't forgotten about all of the teams -- especially the Browns -- who bypassed him in the 2004 draft.
That is why when the Giants drafted Rivers -- they subsequently dealt him to the Chargers for Manning, who had been taken first overall -- Hoeppner fired a water bottle in disgust across the table where he was sitting with Roethlisberger and others at the draft in New York City. 

The Redskins took safety Sean Taylor with the fifth pick, providing an opening for the Browns, who needed a quarterback after Tim Couch, the first overall selection in 1999, didn't pan out. 

"[Roethlisberger] is a northwest Ohio kid, and played in-state at Miami of Ohio and here the Browns are, they've struggled at the quarterback position for a long time," Tollner said. "Ben is sitting there and they elect to go with a tight end. It's something Ben's never forgotten and he never will." 

The Browns' picking tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. proved to be one of the draft's pivotal points. But the Steelers also came close to passing over Roethlisberger after he lasted through the first 10 picks. 

The team had zeroed in on Arkansas offensive tackle Shawn Andrews, but owner Dan Rooney deftly shifted the conversation to Roethlisberger before the Steelers made their pick. 

Rooney had good reason to speak up. 

The Steelers had built their dynasty in the 1970s -- and transformed an organization once synonymous with losing -- through shrewd drafting. 

They had missed an opportunity near the end of Bradshaw's career when they passed on local legend Dan Marino in the 1983 draft and instead selected Texas Tech defensive tackle Gabe Rivera with the 21st pick. 

The Dolphins pounced on Marino with the 27th selection, and his strong arm and quick-as-a-hiccup release allowed the Pitt product to become an early star in Miami and eventually a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer. 

The Steelers, meanwhile, shuffled through enough quarterbacks in the post-Bradshaw era that seven different players led them in passing from 1983 to 2003. 

Rooney fretted that overlooking Roethlisberger also might come back to haunt the Steelers.

"I couldn't bear the thought of passing on another great quarterback prospect," Rooney wrote in his book "Dan Rooney: My 75 Years With The Pittsburgh Steelers and The NFL." 

"So I steered the conversation around to Roethlisberger. After some more talk, we came to a consensus and picked Roethlisberger." 

Ten years later, Roethlisberger remains the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl -- he was only 23 when the Steelers beat the Seahawks in February 2006 -- and joins Eli Manning and Brady as the only active quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl victories. 

Roethlisberger, who turned 32 in March, already has broken many of Bradshaw's Steelers records and is five victories away from becoming the 13th quarterback in NFL history to win at least 100 regular-season games. 

It hasn't all been smooth for Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. 

A motorcycle accident after his first Super Bowl victory left Roethlisberger seriously injured and may have contributed to his uneven play in 2006. And two sexual assault allegations made against him less than a year apart led to a four-game personal-conduct policy suspension by the NFL at the beginning of the 2010 season (Roethlisberger was never charged with a crime). 

Roethlisberger since has rehabilitated his image, gotten married and started a family. He is considerably closer to the end of his career than the beginning of it, though he played every snap last season. 

It's safe to say Roethlisberger is one of the best draft choices in Steelers history -- and the most critical one to reconnecting the team that has won a record six Lombardi trophies with its triumphant past. 

Oh, and yeah, Roethlisberger is 19-1 in his career against the Browns, the most notable and personal of the teams that passed on him 10 years ago. 

"I think that Ben getting where he did in hindsight was the best thing that could have happened to him because he went to a strong organization but he went in a position that kept him feeling like an underdog," Tollner said. "He entered the league a very respectable pick at No. 11 overall but very driven to prove that 10 teams made a very bad mistake in passing on him."

For Penguins, better to retrieve

By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Tuesday, April 29, 2014, 10:51 p.m.

Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins attempts to clear the puck after Rob Scuderi #4 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Jack Skille #5 of the Columbus Blue Jackets collide during the third period in Game Six of the First Round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 28, 2014 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Pittsburgh defeated Columbus 4-3 to clinch the first round series. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The real number to watch in the Penguins' next round of Stanley Cup playoffs won't be 87, 71 or even 29. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury eventually acquitted themselves well in burying the Blue Jackets, but they won't be the key.

Nor will anyone on the opposition, at least not if the real number to watch does his thing.

Meet F3, the closest this roster comes to a Conn Smythe candidate at this early stage.

“It all starts with F3, no question,” James Neal was telling me, smirk-free, Monday night at Nationwide Arena. “If you see how we go, it's founded off that.”

The F3 designation in the Penguins' system is simple: He's the third forward on the forecheck — hence, F3 — and the best positioned, then, to hurry back with the defensemen. The new hockey vernacular is “tracking back,” but it's basically the same old backcheck of Gordie Howe, Toe Blake, Eddie Shore. Just hustle and help out.

Dan Bylsma and staff prefer their F3 to be the left winger. That's because the Penguins set up in a 1-3-1 formation in the neutral zone once the opponent has clear possession. The initial 1 is the lone forechecker. The next 3 are a lateral linkage of the left winger, center and right defenseman. The last 1 is the lonely left defenseman.

More on him later.

There aren't many chances to go to a pure 1-3-1, especially not for a team like the Penguins that makes a ton of east-west passes and has plenty of those picked off. The play flips too quickly. So it's up to F3 to react and help nullify odd-man breaks.

Here's the rub: The Penguins' forwards aren't always overflowing with enthusiasm in that regard.

“It's hard work,” Jussi Jokinen said. “You can't just skate back there. You've got to establish position, really take the man, do the job to help your D.”

When they don't, it's a mess. That's because, in all candor, the Penguins' forwards are generally lousy in their own end. They get outhit, they lose 50/50 puck battles, they lose positioning, you name it. Worse, the defensemen then scramble to make up for it.

Here's what Rob Scuderi, one of those defensemen, said the other day about this team's ideal identity: “We're a team that, if we move the puck north and keep the puck in the offensive zone, good things seem to happen for us.”

Get that, boys?


I'm told that Jacques Martin, an NHL head coach for four franchises, was brought to Bylsma's staff for this season primarily to get the forwards to buy into all this. I was further told over the weekend that, undoubtedly not by coincidence, Martin became more involved in the daily instruction of players during the Columbus series.

Read into that what you will, but also undoubtedly not by coincidence, Martin's extra involvement coincided with dominant territorial efforts in the concluding Games 5 and 6. The Blue Jackets couldn't whip up any kind of forecheck until the frantic waning minutes of Game 6 when the Penguins had lost checking centers Brandon Sutter and Joe Vitale.

F3 isn't Martin's baby, and neither is the 1-3-1. Both were Bylsma's. But it sure sounds like Martin brought F3 back to life.

This is where Neal comes in.

He was born for F3 — great wheels, big body, aggressive stick, ability to swing the play 180 degrees with a touch — and every once in a while, he plays like it. He did so in both Games 5 and 6, easily his best of the series. He was engaged. He went back to retrieve the puck rather than wait for it.

“I think it's always been a good thing for me, being that guy who tracks back,” Neal said. “You get the puck, you get control, and you get to your game.”

That's north, as Scuderi reminds. And he'll remind for a reason: That aforementioned last, lonely defenseman in the 1-3-1 is usually Scuderi, Olli Maatta or Brooks Orpik.

Remember down the stretch when all three of them, even Maatta, were getting torched one-on-one with regularity?

Well, not now. And again, that's no accident. On one play in Game 6, Columbus hit one of its fastest forwards, Cam Atkinson, with a stretch pass to the Penguins' blue line. Pinpoint accurate, too. Didn't matter. The F3, Craig Adams, had taken away the middle, forcing Atkinson to try to beat Maatta one-on-one to the right edge of the rink.

Maatta devoured him whole.

I don't mean to oversimplify here. If anything, Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and all the rest will have to be that much better in the second round. But the very best hockey I've seen from these Penguins has come with an energetic, effective F3 as the engine, and the Blue Jackets just might have done them quite the favor in re-sparking that.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Malkin's performance a long time coming

COLUMBUS, OHIO — The wait was worth it.
For nine straight postseason games, Evgeni Malkin had a zero stuck next to his name under the “goal” column. For two years, he hadn’t recorded a hat trick. For four years, he hadn’t caused those hats to fly in the postseason.
All of that changed Monday night when his team needed it the most.
Malkin’s first postseason hat trick since the 2009 postseason — and his first three-goal game in two years — sparked the Penguins 4-3 win over Columbus to finish off the series in six games.
“I scored first goal and (got) more confidence,” Malkin said. “Just shoot (the) puck. I know it’s coming again.”
Frequent linemate James Neal had a sense this was coming.
“You could see it coming from the morning skate,” Neal said. “Everything he shot was going into the back of the net.”
Neal had been in Malkin’s ear lately, telling the former MVP to shoot more often. Following Monday’s game, Malkin playfully brushed off the suggestion that Neal convinced him to fire the puck on the net more frequently.
“No, Nealer wants (the) puck,” Malkin said. “When we go 2-on-1, he says ‘Open, open open.’ But I know (I can) score.”
Like Sidney Crosby, Malkin has struggled with injuries since winning the Cup in 2009. After that dominant year, where he won his first scoring title and Conn Smythe award, Malkin missed 54 games over the next two seasons. He returned healthy again in 2011-12 to capture the scoring title again as well as his first Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, but playoff success has been as elusive as consistent health.
Game 6 was flash back to those vintage Malkin performances. On his first goal, Malkin patiently waited as Chris Kunitz dug out the puck along the boards, then flashed to the side of the net. He wristed the puck past Sergei Bobrovsky’s blocker and stick for the goal.
Four minutes later, he struck again. Matt Niskanen saved the puck from escaping the zone on the power play and fed Sidney Crosby on the wing. Malkin slid into the slot and fired a Crosby pass underneath the crossbar.
“Confidence is everything,” Neal said. “I guess you could call it being in the zone, and it’s a good place to be.”
If there was any doubt Malkin was in the zone, it was erased on his third goal. Malkin took a breakout pass from Jussi Jokinen to go 2-on-1 with Neal, and it was clear that he was taking the shot the entire time.
“I know it was James Neal, but I was pretty sure Evgeni Malkin was shooting on that two-on-one,” Dan Bylsma said. “You kind of got that sense and feeling.”
It’s a feeling the Penguins would love to have frequently in the second round. And it’s one Malkin said he’d love to acquire earlier than he did against Columbus.
“I think more importantly we won the game and the series is done,” Malkin said. “When you score, you feel so much better. You have more confidence. I hope (in) second round I score (in the) first game.”

No Other Like Sutter in Series

By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Monday, April 28, 2014, 11:24 p.m.

Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Columbus Blue Jackets stops a shot from Brandon Sutter #16 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the first period of Game Six of the First Round of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Nationwide Arena on April 28, 2014 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — “Good.”

That was the totality of the assessment I could cull from Brandon Sutter about his injury status Monday night as he stepped gingerly through the locker room following the Penguins' hang-on-for-dear-life, hide-the-women-and-children, it-just-had-to-be-4-3 elimination of Columbus in Game 6 of their Stanley Cup playoff series.

It was just one word. Nothing else. No elaboration on how badly his ankle was hurt when he made that awkward turn with five minutes left in the second period. No prognosis for the next round.

But you know, that word probably meant about as much as anything anyone could say in this particular aftermath. Because if it wasn't painfully obvious that Sutter was his team's best player in this round while actually playing, it sure was painful to watch once he hobbled off.

“Yeah, sure, it would have been nice to have him out there in the third,” Marc-Andre Fleury was saying after surviving the Blue Jackets' three late goals that transformed the game's finish from annihilation to potential nightmare. “Our guys were doing their best, battling hard. But we all know how great Suttsy has been for us.”

Anyone care to debate that?

Hey, I'll credit Fleury for his riveting rebound from Game 4 and for making more than a few superlative saves in this one. Nods also should go to Jussi Jokinen for all his timely touches, to Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen for relentless offense from the blue line, and yeah, to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for breaking out when needed most, Crosby with superlative two-way work — including assuming most of Sutter's late duties — and Malkin for torching Sergei Bobrovsky three times. As Rob Scuderi put it better than anyone, “You're starting to see our identity come out.”

No question. But Sutter was the man. And he might well have represented the foundation of that identity.

Forget the three goals and two assists, the plus-6 rating that topped all forwards, the 50 percent ratio on faceoffs when Columbus was dominating others, the penalty killing, the even-strength checking.

Forget, even, that it was his presence, specifically his two-way versatility, that allowed Dan Bylsma to make the one move that altered the series in putting Crosby and Malkin together. “Having Brandon going the way he is, that opens up all kinds of options,” the coach said.

Set aside all that and isolate just on how Sutter has led the way by building on defense first.

“For me, my game starts with defense,” he was telling me in a lengthy chat after the morning skate. “I don't want to cheat out of the zone. I want to get all the pucks in deep. I want to make sure I'm doing the right things. And if the goals come, they come. That's a bonus.”

Talking about the individual is never easy for a Sutter. Western Canada's most celebrated hockey family has always been all about the collective, all about the W.

But who's to say there's a distinction here?

Who's to say Sutter wasn't fully focused on the team when, in the final second of the Blue Jackets' power play in the second, he lined up to block a James Wiesniewski shot?

And who's to say he wasn't fully focused on the team when he followed that ricochet for a clean breakaway?

And who's to say he wasn't fully focused on the scoreboard when he beat Bobrovsky with that top-shelf backhander?

Really, who's to say that everything in this game, this whole series, wasn't founded on the burgeoning presence of the guy wearing No. 16 on his sweater and his heart on his sleeve?

Listen to his teammates ...

Tanner Glass: “The guy's been huge. He goes out there now thinking he can be the guy who changes the game.”

Beau Bennett: “He's been dominant.”

James Neal: “He excels at both ends, and you saw it again tonight. He turns his defense to offense as well as anyone. He's underrated, I think, for what he does. Especially to do it this time of year.”

That last point's worth emphasizing mostly because it wasn't that way with Sutter last summer. He had a measly three points in 15 playoff games, his first in Pittsburgh, and … well, I'd have to get outright mean to describe how the other facets of his game went.

Suffice it to say, he realized it all. He talked with family and friends in the offseason, including dad, Brent Sutter, a veteran of just about everything hockey. He went on to a solid regular season despite centering a ridiculous 19 different wingers and various AHL farmhands. And once Ray Shero's bid to trade him to the Canucks for Ryan Kesler fell through at the deadline, he appeared to find yet another notch heading into this postseason.

“It's not easy the first time you do anything, and I didn't really get that playoff experience in Carolina,” Sutter said. “The people I talked to, especially my dad, just told me to be myself, to play my game. Don't try to do more. So when I got to playing well late in this season, that's what I wanted to have as my mindset. Just keep going.”

And so the Penguins are. In lockstep with him.

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Monday, April 28, 2014

Penguins' defense put Jackets on their heels

By The Columbus Dispatch  •  
Jack Skille #5 of the Columbus Blue Jackets moves the puck in front of the defense of Rob Scuderi #4 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Five of the First Round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 26, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Penguins played well on both sides of their blue line in a 3-1 win in Game 5 on Saturday, well enough to beat the Blue Jackets and push Pittsburgh to the brink of its fifth first-round playoff series victory in the past seven seasons.
It was without question the Penguins’ best performance of the series, absent the flightiness of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and the lapses of defenseman Kris Letang.
The Penguins are best known for their star-studded point producers, but they entered the series with the NHL’s No. 10 scoring defense (2.49 goals against per game).
For the first time, they limited the Blue Jackets to fewer than three goals.
“I think for the duration of the game, that was our most complete game as a defensive group,” Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said in Pittsburgh yesterday.
“But a lot of that is team game, as well. We did our job and it allowed our forwards to play their game better. They had more opportunities to forecheck because of how we played. It goes both ways. Our forecheck was really good and they didn’t have a ton of energy to come the other way.”
It was rarely evident during the first four games of the series, but it turns out the Penguins have some grit, too.
They hounded the puck, assaulted the Jackets’ net, took 51 shots and came very close to out-hitting the Jackets for the first time in the series.
“That’s a game we have to play,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “It’s not always going to result in 50 shots, but that’s more our style of play.”
The Penguins limited the Jackets to 24 shots after allowing 46 in a 4-3 loss in Game 4 that ended when Nick Foligno beat Fleury from 60 feet or so 2:49 into overtime.
They did so with a solid performance from Fleury, who was rarely tested, and without shutdown defenseman Brooks Orpik.
Orpik left Friday’s practice early because of an undisclosed injury and did not play in Game 5.
Letang, paired with Paul Martin on what amounted to the Penguins’ shutdown pair in Game 5, was near his best after struggling through the first four games.
Letang entered the series with 13 goals and 47 points in 80 career playoff games.
But he had no points and a minus-3 rating through the first four games of the series.
He finished Game 5 with his first goal (an empty-netter in the final moments), four shots and a team-high 24 minutes, 25 seconds of ice time.
“That was his best (game), without question,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “And it did root from the fact that he was playing great defense in that shutdown pair with Paul.”

Goc's return could make Malkin the new Dupuis

By The Tribune-Review
Published: Sunday, April 27, 2014, 10:30 p.m.

Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his second period goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game Five of the First Round of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 26, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

As general manager Ray Shero predicted months ago, Pascal Dupuis was impossible to replace for the Penguins. That was true until Marcel Goc returned from a month-long absence because of an ankle injury.
Goc played fewer than 11 minutes in the Penguins' 3-1 victory over Columbus on Saturday night. His presence may have changed everything.

Without Goc, a center, coach Dan Bylsma could not have confidently taken a shot at overloading the top line by playing Evgeni Malkin to the right of left winger Chris Kunitz and center Sidney Crosby. Were it not for Goc, Bylsma would not be seriously considering deploying that top line again Monday night, when the Penguins try to wrap up the best-of-seven first-round series at Nationwide Arena.

“Marcel Goc is not really a fourth-line center,” Bylsma said. “He's higher than that. To be able to slide (him) up to play between (wingers) Beau Bennett and Lee Stempniak — that was a big part of feeling comfortable with the (Crosby-Malkin) situation.”

Ideally, Malkin would anchor the second line with wingers Jussi Jokinen and James Neal. However, the Penguins are in a situation that is neither ideal nor normal.

They have no suitable replacement for Dupuis on the top line, and with Goc's return they have seven forwards who either are natural centers or comfortable playing in the middle.

Each of those forwards — Crosby, Malkin, Jokinen, Goc, Joe Vitale, Brandon Sutter and Craig Adams — dressed for Game 5. All but Adams took a faceoff, but Malkin and Jokinen combined for only three draws.

Mostly, Malkin and Jokinen were used as wingers. Centering the four lines were (in order): Crosby, Sutter, Goc and Vitale.

That might be the way for Bylsma to go at center going forward.

Sparking Crosby and Malkin — each without a goal against Columbus, and in the playoffs since Round 2 last postseason — is critical if the Penguins are to make a deep run. They have combined for nine points, all on assists, with six of those of the secondary variety.

Five years ago on the Stanley Cup run, Malkin (34) and Crosby (31) became the only NHL players since 1996 to each top 30 points in a postseason. The season before, when the Penguins reached the Cup Final, Crosby (27 points) and Malkin (22) were first and fifth overall among playoff scorers.

Losing Dupuis to a blown-out knee Dec. 23 did not cost Crosby the regular-season scoring title, but his production — along with that of Kunitz — dipped as the Penguins searched for a replacement.

Bennett opened the playoffs in Dupuis' old spot, but he lacks the speed Dupuis used to win puck races. Winger Brian Gibbons replaced Bennett, and his speed had resulted in scoring chances and drawn penalties — but he is injured (upper body), and he lacks Dupuis' finishing ability.

Malkin can win puck races, force the issue and finish. He is arguably the second-best center on the planet, but for these Penguins he might just be the element they have sought since Christmas — Dupuis' replacement.

Goc's return made that possible for Game 5 and likely Game 6, so all the Penguins need is for Malkin to sign off on the move.

He has blessed it, actually.

“They wanted to be together, to go after it,” Bylsma said of Crosby and Malkin. “We had a lot of opportunities to do that (in Game 5), and we did.”

Staff writer Josh Yohe contributed. Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Pirates' bullpen comes to the rescue

April 26, 2014
Bullpen picks up Pirates in 6-1 win over Cardinals
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano bends over as teammates gather around him during the third inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday, April 26, 2014, in St. Louis. Liriano left the game soon after. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle already had seen enough attrition for one day.
On Saturday morning, All-Star reliever Jason Grilli was placed on the 15-day disabled list because of a strained left oblique suffered a few days ago. Also disabled with a strained left hamstring incurred Friday was catcher Russell Martin, who pulled off a rare trifecta for a catcher last year of reaching double figures in doubles, triples and home runs.
Now comes the third inning of the Pirates’ game with the Cardinals on Saturday at Busch Stadium and his top pitcher from last year’s wild-card playoff team, lefthander Francisco Liriano, is doubled over on the mound. Fortunately for Hurdle and the Pirates, Liriano was not having a relapse with his left elbow that has caused him problems in his career.
First, it was a nosebleed Liriano had after the second inning. Liriano told Hurdle he was a little dizzy before he hit in the third but that he thought would be all right.
After flying out to end the inning, Liriano took some extra time in the dugout before returning to the mound.
“I didn’t want to come out of the game,” he said. “But I wasn’t getting any better at all. I just felt weak and queasy.”
Hurdle said, ‘’Once he started to make pitches, it just snowballed on him. When he doubled over, he finally realized he had enough and he was just trying to catch his breath.
“When they told me Liriano was light-headed, I got light-headed,” cracked Hurdle.
After Liriano had walked pitcher Tyler Lyons and had gone 3-0 on Matt Carpenter, Hurdle removed the pitcher who held the Cardinals to a total of two runs in three regular-season starts last year.
“My mom and a couple of my brothers bleed a lot, too, so I don’t know what it is,” Liriano said. “I felt weird. I couldn’t get well today and yesterday. We’ve got to figure out what it is.”
But, without Liriano, the Pirates did not drift into their fifth consecutive defeat.
Rookie Stolmy Pimentel, a 24-year-old from the Dominican Republic, relieved and finished the walk to Carpenter. In a scoreless game, he had two runners on with Jhonny Peralta, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, Yadier Molina and Allen Craig next up.
Pimentel got Peralta on a fly to center and struck out Holliday, who has driven in the only St. Louis runs in the last two games.
Adams singled to deep second, or short right, depending on your perspective as second baseman Neil Walker saved the run.
The bases were loaded for Molina, one of baseball’s hottest hitters amid a 15-game hitting streak and the subject of Yadier Molina Jersey Day that attracted a sellout crowd of 46,254.
The count went full, Molina fouled off three pitches and then Pimentel fanned him with a slider on the 10th pitch..
“Sometimes story lines get changed,” Hurdle said.
Indeed, the Pirates would score four off Lyons in the next inning and the Pittsburgh bullpen (five relievers) did the the rest in a 6-1 win that was awarded to Pimentel, who worked 2 2/3 innings.
“Pimentel pitched as big an inning for us as we’ve had pitched all year,” Hurdle said.
Pitching coach Ray Searage added: “The kid earned his stripes today. Sometimes when you come into a game like that, you don’t have time to think. All you do is react instinctively and throw strikes.
“The kid did a great job. It could have been really ugly.”
Part-time regular Jose Tabata had three more hits for the Pirates, figuring in three runs, and running his career average to .345 for 116 at-bats at Busch Stadium.