By Ron Cook
Sunday, May 3, 2009 9:47 PM
It's playoff hockey, which means the teasing goes with the territory just like the eight fresh stitches under Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton's right nostril and the four new stitches above his right eye.
Eaton's day Saturday in the 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals included his staggering third goal of this postseason and a couple of nasty high sticks to the face, which drew large quantities of blood but -- most painfully -- no penalties.
Not surprisingly, Eaton's unexpected goal-scoring rampage was a topic of conversation in the room yesterday before and after the Penguins' practice at the Verizon Center. Cuts and stitches are so routine, you know?
"So, you're a sniper now, huh?" someone asked Eaton.
You should have seen him smile, a smile so big it had to pull on those stitches below his nose.
"I'll take that kind of ribbing any day," Eaton said.
The man has to be enjoying the playoffs more than anyone on the team for reasons that go far beyond those three goals. He missed all of the fun of the Penguins' run to the Stanley Cup final last season because of a severe knee injury. "The playoffs are why all of us play this game," Eaton said. "There's nothing worse than being hurt and having to watch your teammates go to battle. Being a cheerleader is not what any pro athlete wants to do."
That's why it's so neat to watch Eaton have this kind of success. Again, it has very little to do with his goals, which are a bonus from a guy who had zero in his first 23 career playoff games and just four in 68 regular-season games this year. He plays sound defense. He routinely gives up his body; he had a team-high three of the Penguins' 20 blocked shots in Game 1. He makes good decisions with the puck in his end. And, most impressively, he shows more jump skating than he did before his knee injury.
Penguins general manager Ray Shero looks pretty smart for giving Eaton a two-year, $4 million contract after last season. Back then, though, Shero looked like a fool. Eaton didn't just miss most of last season with his injury, he missed most of the 2006-07 season with a dislocated wrist and a sprained knee.
"It meant a lot to me that they brought me back," Eaton said. "It also motivated me to show they made the right decision."
Eaton has done that by being a solid two-way player.
"Obviously, defense is my first priority," he said. "But I try to create offense off the rush and by keeping pucks in the zone or by jumping in on a play. Our job is to be the fourth and fifth options offensively. [Coach Dan Bylsma's] philosophy is five men on offense, five men on defense."
The three Eaton goals are the result.
His first merely added the finishing touch on the Penguins' 4-1 win in Game 1 of the series with the Philadelphia Flyers. The second was huge in their climb out of a 3-0 hole to win Game 6. And the third came Saturday on a harmless looking slapshot from the left point that somehow trickled through Capitals rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov and pulled them into a 2-2, second-period tie.
"I didn't even know it went in until I saw the guys around the net put their sticks up," Eaton said. "I was like, 'What? That went in?'"
The goal was so bad from Varlamov's perspective that he said later, "The second goal could have killed a 21-year-old goalie." He said it proudly because he stayed strong and got the win.
"I'm sure he'll say he would stop that shot 99 times out of a 100," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "But if you don't get it on net, it's never going to go in."
"There are no bad shots in playoff hockey," Eaton said, grinning again and stretching his stitches to the limit.
The Capitals' stick work? Eaton could have done without that.
"I have eight minutes [of penalty time] on my face and we got none of it," he said. "I asked the referee why a penalty wasn't called either time. He said I didn't stay down and make a big deal of it. I don't understand that. I thought the NHL was trying to eliminate diving."
Maybe it's just as well penalties weren't called, as inept as the Penguins' power play has been. It was 0 for 5 Saturday, is 0 for 17 in the past four games and is 4 for 37 -- a sickly 10.8 percent -- in these playoffs.
The goal scorers clearly aren't getting the job done. Eaton has scored more than everybody on the team but Sidney Crosby (five) and Evgeni Malkin (four). He has scored more than first-line wingers Bill Guerin (two) and Chris Kunitz (zero) combined.
Eaton has to like what he sees in the mirror these days, bloody stitches and all.
But Guerin, Kunitz and so many of the others?
Not so much.
At least for now, definitely not so much.