BY WILL GRAVES
Dan Bylsma has been hearing it seemingly from the moment he took over at Pittsburgh Penguins head coach four years ago.
Every time the Penguins hit a rough patch, the murmurs about finding a polished winger to play alongside superstar Sidney Crosby pop up. Bylsma understands the sentiment. It’s just that it’s a little misplaced.
Thing is, Bylsma thinks the Penguins already have the winger who can bring out the best in Crosby. Just don’t call Pascal Dupuis under the radar anymore.
He has a point. It’s kind of hard to be under the radar – even when the radar is sometimes consumed by Crosby’s star wattage – when you keep scoring goals whether Crosby’s No. 87 is skating alongside you or not.
The NHL’s leading goal scorer in the postseason isn’t Crosby or reigning NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin. It’s not future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla or All-Star James Neal. It’s a 34-year-old chameleon playing perhaps the best hockey of his career by doing all the little things right, and most of the big ones too.
Dupuis’ textbook shorthanded goal that sealed Pittsburgh’s 4-1 win over Ottawa in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Tuesday night gave him six through the first seven games of the postseason.
Heady territory for a player who had never scored more than four times in a given postseason during his 12-year career.
The affable Dupuis can’t quite explain what’s happening. To be honest, putting so much thought process into the “why” might ruin the moment.
“I don’t know where it’s coming from, maybe from playing with great players, making the right plays,” he said.
Maybe, Dupuis is far more than Crosby’s sidekick. If anything, he’s perhaps Pittsburgh’s best two-way player at the moment, a fixture Bylsma can throw onto the ice in just about any situation as a security blanket.
“He’s an extremely hard worker, extremely diligent,” Bylsma said. “He gets good goals. He gets dirty goals, shorthanded goals like the one last night.”
One that came with Crosby, Malkin and the rest of Pittsburgh’s roster of bold-faced names sitting on the bench.
The Penguins were nursing a 3-1 lead midway through the third period when the Senators went on the power play.
Enter Dupuis, who collected a little chip pass from Doug Murray inside the Pittsburgh zone then raced to the Ottawa net with teammate Matt Cooke to his right in a 2-on-1 breakway.
Rather than flip a crossing pass to Cooke, Dupuis patiently waited for Senators goaltender Craig Anderson to hedge just a bit in Cooke’s direction. Given a small gap over Anderson’s right shoulder, Dupuis fired from just in front of the net. The puck ripped just under the crossbar and the Penguins had a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series that continues on Friday.
“I had a little hole and I was confident to shoot it and I put it right there,” Dupuis said.
Something Dupuis has developed a knack for whether Crosby is in the lineup or not. He collected a career-high 25 goals in 2011-12 even with Crosby missing the majority of the season due to concussion-like symptoms. He added 20 this year in just 48 games.
And unlike some of his more heralded teammates, Dupuis didn’t build his numbers by working on Pittsburgh’s potent power-play. His 17 goals at even strength were tied for sixth-most in the league, one spot ahead of Washington’s Alex Ovechkin. That ability to deliver in traffic is the main reasons Dupuis’ plus-31 rating led the league.
“He’s been one of the best even-strength goal scorers in the league for quite some time now,” Bylsma said. “His numbers stack up with the best names that we talk about being great players and that’s playing with Sidney Crosby and without Sidney Crosby.”
Dupuis scored one of the bigger goals of Pittsburgh’s season in Game 6 of the first round series with the New York Islanders. Trailing by one midway through the second period, Dupuis was playing with fourth-line center Joe Vitale and grinder Matt Cooke when Vitale raced in down the right side. Dupuis sped to the net then redirected Vitale’s centering pass over Evgeni Nabokov to tie a game the Penguins would eventually win in overtime.
At the moment, Dupuis feels like he “has it every night.” Pittsburgh will certainly take it as it searches for its fourth Stanley Cup. His production gives opponents another headache to solve.
“He seems to have good chemistry with (his linemates),” Anderson said. “He finds a way to get open for Crosby. Crosby is a great passer and when Crosby is cycling the puck down low it seems like Dupuis’ getting to the net.”
It’s a combination that could be nearing the end of a pretty good run. Dupuis will become a free agent this summer and the Penguins will have other pressing needs, like signing Malkin to an extension.
Yet Dupuis remains optimistic he and the Penguins can find a way to make the math work.
“It’s about being on a team I feel comfortable with, playing with great teammates,” he said. “The business side of it will take care of itself eventually.”
Notes: Ottawa D Eric Gryba did not practice on Wednesday and his status for Game 2 is uncertain. Gryba sustained a lower-body injury in Game 1 after a collision with Pittsburgh D Brooks Orpik ... Senators C Jason Spezza (back) is skating in Ottawa but coach Paul MacLean says it is unlikely Spezza will be ready for Game 2. Spezza hasn’t played since Jan. 29.