PITTSBURGH – The conspiracy theorists in Ottawa believe the Pittsburgh Penguins purposely lost last Sunday’s regular-season finale to Philadelphia in order to avoid the Flyers in the first round and instead draw the Senators.
“You can be sure that I wasn’t trying to tank the game the other day,” veteran Penguins winger Gary Roberts said with a laugh Wednesday.
That’s because the whole Ottawa thing is getting old for Roberts, who faces the Senators in a playoff series for the fifth time in the last seven seasons.
“I’ve seen enough of Ottawa over the years,” Roberts chuckled after the pre-game skate at Mellon Arena. “They’re a competitive team and a character team. But I’ve seen enough of them to know – I don’t need to go home and study the Ottawa Senators.”
Indeed he doesn’t. Roberts was up to his old tricks Wednesday, scoring twice as Pittsburgh took Game 1 of the series 4-0 Wednesday night. Roberts has scored 14 of his 32 post-season goals against the Senators.
Roberts skated for the Toronto Maple Leafs teams that knocked the Senators out in the 2001, 2002 and 2004 playoffs – scoring a big overtime goal in the ’02 series to win Game 3. Ottawa finally beat him last spring when the Penguins went down in five games.
Had the Senators had their way, Roberts would have joined them last season before the trade deadline. But former GM John Muckler couldn’t find a fit with the Florida Panthers and the rugged winger was instead shipped to the Penguins. It’s been reported that Senators owner Eugene Melnyk was fuming that his team didn’t get Roberts and that it played a role in Muckler’s firing at the end of last season.
Ottawa’s loss was definitely Pittsburgh’s gain. The Penguins, at first, viewed Roberts as a rental player last season. But once they saw the kind of leadership he brought to a young dressing room, they asked him to re-sign last summer. He obliged with a US$2.5-million, one-year deal. He’s a popular fixture with his younger teammates.
“He’s been through a lot of these series before, especially with Ottawa, so he brings a lot of leadership, a lot of experience,” superstar centre Sidney Crosby said after Wednesday’s skate. “He’s a warrior. He does it year after year. We have a lot of guys that look to him, that experience is what you need in the playoffs.”
Roberts, a Stanley Cup champion with the Calgary Flames in 1989, knows the leadership role only goes so far as long as he’s still producing the goods on the ice as well. So it’s with great pride that he remains a factor at age 41, putting up two goals and two assists in last spring’s five-game loss to Ottawa.
“There’s no doubt that you have to be a contributor for guys to listen,” said Roberts. “This dressing room has a lot of character and a lot of respect for each other, guys really care for each other. So I don’t believe that’s going to be an issue but still, I have to be a contributor to be heard I think.”
Roberts is just happy to be back in the lineup. He came back last Sunday after missing three months with a broken fibula. Some had feared his career was done.
“It’s been a long road for sure,” said Roberts.
The worst was discovering he had another injury after doctors first cleared him to skate when his leg healed.
“So I go out there and skate and realize only then that the whole time I’ve had an ankle injury, too, and because of all the swelling it went undetected,” he said. “Nobody’s fault. That was the most frustrating part for me, it set me back five or six weeks. Now I’m in a situation where I haven’t played a lot of hockey but playoff hockey and adrenaline will get me going and hopefully I contribute in some way to help the team win some games here.”
He turns 42 next month. Is this it for him?
“I’ve taken every year as a bonus of late,” said Roberts. “It’s been a great ride and I’ve enjoyed myself. I’ll continue to do it as long as I have the passion to prepare to play. Right now I still feel like I have that passion and hopefully I can go on and play for the next two months and make up for some lost time this past winter. Then I’ll reflect on my season once July and August comes along and make a decision.”