Talbot again a spark for Pens' stars
PITTSBURGH -- You can have all the skill and the talent in the world, but sometimes that skill and talent need a catalyst to make them smoke.
With Pittsburgh trailing the Washington Capitals 2-1 in their hotly contested Eastern Conference semifinals series, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma benched struggling winger Petr Sykora and inserted Talbot -- who had been toiling on the team's fourth (checking) line -- into a prime spot on the wing with Evgeni Malkin and Ruslan Fedotenko.
Talbot drew an assist on the Pens' first goal of the game Wednesday, and Malkin, under siege from the media, had his best game of the postseason.
"I love Maxie. He's a nice guy, lots of energy," normally stoic Malkin said after the game. "I love playing with him."
But here's the thing about the 25-year-old native of Lemoyne, Quebec -- once upon a time, Talbot was a scoring machine. It's true. You scoff, but he was.
In 2002-03, Talbot had 104 points with the Hull Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. That same season, he had 44 points in 20 playoff games. The next season, he had 98 points in 51 games and added 27 more playoff points in 15 games.
On one night, though, Talbot recalls that he tried to take some shortcuts in his game, not working as hard as he needed to, and then-coach Benoit Groulx took him aside and delivered a hard lesson in hockey.
Talbot remembered his coach saying plainly, "You have no skills whatsoever."
Groulx told Talbot if he wanted to play in the NHL, he had to learn how to play hard-nosed defensive hockey.
Talbot took the advice to heart.
He played for Canada's World Junior Championship team and was a shutdown center playing against the other teams' top forward units. His point production dropped precipitously, but Talbot is every inch an NHLer.
Many players could not have made that kind of transition. Physically, they couldn't adjust to the rigors of killing penalties and playing physically, sometimes fighting players far bigger. Mentally, it is a wide street to cross from star to plugger, but it's one Talbot crossed without a moment's hesitation.
"It's not hard at all," he said. It was simple, he added. If he was going to play in the NHL, this was how it would get done.
"You want to be part of it," he said.
It is the NHL, the playoffs, the moment.
Defenseman Kris Letang and Talbot grew up about 10 minutes apart in Quebec. When Letang was drafted, he and Talbot shared a strength and conditioning coach during the summer.
"He won like two scoring titles, two MVP of the playoffs, he was a really skilled offensive player, but now he's got a role and he's doing really well at it," Letang said. "He's a great PK [on the penalty kill], defensively he can shut down every line, and now he's playing with Geno, so I think it might bring back his offensive side."
Remember last season in the Stanley Cup finals when then-Penguins coach Michel Therrien sent Talbot over the boards with less than a minute left in Game 5 and the Penguins trailing by a goal? It was a bold move made genius when Talbot scored to tie the game. Sykora later won it in triple overtime.
Earlier this postseason, Talbot showed his courage, if not mental acumen, when he engaged Philadelphia's penalty-minutes leader Daniel Carcillo in a fight with the Penguins trailing 3-0 in Game 6. Talbot lost the decision, but his teammates credit him with being the catalyst to their 5-3 comeback victory that eliminated the Flyers.
GM Ray Shero recalled the first time he saw Talbot. Shero was the assistant GM in Nashville in the first season after the 2004-05 lockout. The Predators were pounding the Penguins, and Preds tough guy Darcy Hordichuk flattened Zigmund Palffy. Talbot took off after Hordichuk, one of the game's toughest characters.
Shero wondered who the crazy kid was taking on his team's toughest player. Now Shero is happy to have scrappy Talbot on his side.
"He puts a smile on everyone's face," Letang said. "He's there to put some life in the room. He's always a really intense guy on the ice, he's going 100 percent at all times. We need some guys like that, and Max is doing it really well."
Captain Sidney Crosby echoed those sentiments, saying a team needs a range of personalities to form the whole. Talbot's personality is an important part of the fabric of the Penguins.
"He brings a lot of energy to the room, both on and off the ice. He brings that, so that's important," Crosby said. "For any team's chemistry, you need those different personalities.
"He's got some skill, as well, so he can make little plays down low and things like that, but he just brings that element of winning battles and creating loose pucks, and Geno's able to anticipate that a little bit."
Even though he has been thrust back into a more prominent role -- one that suggests his scoring past more than his rough-and-tumble present -- Talbot appears to have perspective.
He will not be attempting fancy, behind-the-back passes or taking on defenders one-on-three.
"If I do, I'm going to be out of there pretty quick," he said. "I can be successful, but it's not by changing my game."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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