The ethic of professional sport never wavers much. No excuses are permitted, no outward sign of weakness can be shown. There are few times when the tangible factors that affect performance (injuries, wear and tear) or indirect factors (fatigue, mental and physical) are allowed to creep into the conversation because they've got another game to play, and it's right now.
Which is where the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves today - going to a seventh game in a second-round series with the Montreal Canadiens that, deep down, they figured would be over by now. The Canadiens are like a bad rash that won't go away and have mostly held the Penguins' twin guiding lights, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, in check.
Crosby's short and glittering history suggests he can find a way to raise his level when it matters the most - and tonight is another one of those occasions, same as it was in overtime of the gold-medal game during February's 2010 Winter Olympic triumph.
The Olympics were an important moment for Crosby and combined with back-to-back trips deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs, it means both he and Malkin have dipped deeply (and frequently) into the emotional reserves needed to conjure up more big wins for their teams.
When will the tank register empty? One series in, Crosby was poised to threaten Wayne Gretzky's all-time single-season playoff points total, clobbering the Ottawa Senators practically single-handedly. Now? Against the bend-but-don't-break Canadiens and coach Jacques Martin's smothering defensive tactics, he has been unable to match that performance, especially in even-strength situations.
Fatigue at this time of year is a highly charged subject, and one that both coach Dan Bylsma and Crosby dismiss out of hand. "I don't sense a fatigue from our team in terms of our mentality or what we have to go through," Bylsma said. Instead, he put the Penguins' scoring woes down to facing Montreal, a team that is "playing really well and defending really well. We are trying to get to our game and fight and scratch and claw."
As for Crosby, he echoed his coach's words and pointed out something he thought was self-evident: "We're playing a Game 7," Crosby said. "It's the playoffs. Nobody expects anything to be easy.
"This is a good opportunity. This is a challenge for us. There are some views out there that this should have been an easy series. It's 3-3. We're not losing. It's tied. They're here for a reason. We're here for a reason. It's tough. That's the way it is. It's tough for both teams. When you get to this chance, you're going to see what you're made of. Nothing is easy.
"You don't get this far without going through challenges and this is another one."
Four years ago, the Detroit Red Wings faced a challenge similar to the one Crosby alluded to - playing a long series against an eighth seed, the Edmonton Oilers. Many of the Red Wings' key players were instrumental in Sweden's 2006 Olympic victory in Turin. In the end, they couldn't summon the emotional push needed to defeat a heavy underdog, playing with little to lose that - oh by the way - hadn't had to deal with the effects of the Turin Olympics and the trans-Atlantic travel.
The NHL's Olympic discussion will begin at season's end, when each GM will be asked for input about what comes next. Publicly, not many other than the Anaheim Ducks' Bob Murray have said a discouraging word. But collectively, few love the concept, or the stress and complications it adds.
In the meantime, tonight's match will be a compelling and much anticipated fight at the soon-to-be-mothballed Igloo, where the Penguins are 21-7 in playoffs since 2008. Pittsburgh is 7-4 in seventh games, including two last year, one of which came at this juncture a year ago when the Penguins went from a young and emerging NHL power to the eventual Stanley Cup champion, defeating the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin in one-sided fashion.
No team wants to face a loveable underdog in an elimination game because they are usually so light and so loose in their approach. Pittsburgh, by contrast, looks concerned - the attack sputtering, the defence vulnerable. Marc-Andre Fleury has been up and down. Malkin, last year's playoff MVP, isn't the same night-in and night-out force that he was a year ago; and Crosby's offensive impact in this series has been limited to his work on special teams.
Still, all will be forgiven if the Penguins prevail tonight. If so, Montreal's wonderful playoff run will be consigned to footnote status in the 2010 Stanley Cup tournament rather than emerge as its overriding story; that, and the subtext of how much hockey is too much in the never-ending blur of a season that just keeps going and going and going.Report Typo/Error