Talbot is Pens' unlikely savior
With their Stanley Cup chances on life support and goaltender Marc-André Fleury on his way to the bench for an extra attacker, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Michel Therrien surveyed his team for the right player to send out in the final minute of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
There was Petr Sykora, a past Stanley Cup champion with the New Jersey Devils who, despite having been blanked thus far in the final by the Detroit Red Wings, has the most dangerous one-timer on the team.
There was Ryan Malone, the linebacker masquerading as a winger who, despite a broken nose and a face that looked like it had lost a 10-rounder with a Veg-O-Matic, could screen goalie Chris Osgood.
There was Pascal Dupuis, Sidney Crosby's customary left wing who had been playing a strong game on the puck.
There was ... Maxime Talbot?
"I just loved the way that he played last night," Therrien said on Tuesday. "The time he was on the ice, he was doing the right thing. And as a coach, you gotta see those things. And he was good defensively as well. He was around the puck, around it at the right time. And it's a feeling, too, that coaches need to have at that time. And certainly he deserved to be there."
So Talbot joined Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa as the quartet of Pittsburgh forwards buzzing around the net in the most desperate minute of the season. As they say on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others...
"Fleury's coming and [Therrien] says, 'Max, get going," Talbot recounted on Tuesday. "And I'm like: 'I'm sorry. Me?' I didn't say it, but that's what I thought. But Coach Therrien has these feelings sometimes, and you have to give him credit. With all the talent we had sitting there on that bench ... I've scored some goals like that before, but I didn't expect to be there. But I jumped on the ice, and I had a feeling, too, that I was there for a reason. And it worked out."
As the season ticked down, Talbot, a fourth-liner, an energy guy, the son of a construction worker who inherited an impressive work ethic, scored the biggest goal of his career with 34.3 seconds left to send the game into overtime. (In 101 regular season and playoff matches in 2007-08, this was the first time the Penguins had scored after pulling the goalie.)
There is no way Osgood should have abandoned the post to his left, and there is no way Talbot should have had two solid whacks at the puck from the doorstep without Detroit defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom or Brian Rafalski knocking him on his derrière, but Talbot's persistence is the hallmark of the play that saved Pittsburgh's season.
On a team that provided a month's worth of hockey heroics in one evening and part of the next morning -- Malone played with a mangled kisser and cotton crammed up his already broken nose; defenseman Sergei Gonchar returned from back spasms sustained into a late-second period run-in with the end boards to play on the power play in the third overtime; the struggling Sykora told NBC's Pierre McGuire on the bench during overtime that he would score the winner, which he did at 9:57 of the third extra session to end the fifth longest game in Stanley Cup Final history -- there was no contribution greater than the one provided by a eighth-round draft choice who had scored a mere 30 goals in 186 NHL games.
The last team to score in the final minute of a Stanley Cup Final to stave off elimination was the 1936 Toronto Maple Leafs, which received the late goal from Pep Kelly. Pep Kelly and Peppery Talbot. Coincidence? Doubtful.
"He was probably a no-name like me," Talbot said "Probably a fourth-liner." (Kelly scored 74 goals in 288 NHL games.)
If Crosby is the face and heart of the Penguins, Talbot is the soul and funny bone. When Crosby was out with his high ankle sprain during the season, Talbot donned Crosby's gear for a morning skate -- No. 87 sweater, helmet, gloves, the works -- and broke everybody up. Talbot figured that because all anyone wanted to talk about was Crosby, the least he could do was oblige.
In the dressing room as on the ice, passion and playfulness can be invaluable assets. Talbot is the team extrovert, the player who embraced the challenge of rooming on the road with Malkin, whom he bumps into on the bench with his shoulder like some fourth-grader at recess in sophomoric efforts to coax a smile and more game out of the Russian center. Maybe it worked in Game 5 when Malkin set up Sykora's marathon-ending power-play goal, the center's first point of the final.
Said Talbot: "I take pride in that. It's what I try to do. Yes, you want to bring what you bring on the ice, but off it you want to be a leader."
But his most conspicuous work is done with netminder Fleury, with whom he stages mock fights just before the Penguins hit the ice for a game. Fleury explained that the ritual started with a single punch after the goalie returned in late February from a high ankle sprain, but now it has metamorphosed into a faux Thrilla in Manila that television cameras love.
"[It's] been going for a while," Fleury said. "We got some wins and now we're going at it. It's getting a little ridiculous, but it's still working."
Talbot and Fleury go back a long way. They grew up about a half hour away from each other, outside Montreal. They played some peewee hockey together. They were opponents in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Talbot wormed his way onto Team Canada as a role player because of his energy and ability to blend into a group, and joined Fleury, already a star, in the 2004 world junior tournament in Helsinki, the year the goalie banked in the gold-medal- losing goal off the backside of his own defenseman, Braydon Coburn.
Talbot has seen Fleury at his best and worst, his boldest and least confident. Fleury's 55-save performance in Game 5 surely is the pinnacle.
"I've known Marc very well, and that's the greatest game he ever played," Talbot said. "It was probably one of the greatest saves I've seen in the second period against (Detroit's Mikael) Samuelsson. The toe save. You look at him, and he's having fun. He was so good last night, it was inspiring for us."
With Fleury playing a career game and Talbot cashing in a surprising opportunity, the Penguins proved they have plenty of fight.