- Craig Custance
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NEW YORK -- In the biggest games of the Pittsburgh Penguins postseason last spring, Jussi Jokinen had to watch. Down two games to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals, caught in a roster numbers crunch, he was the odd man out. He was in the press box instead of on the ice as the Bruins won two more to sweep the Penguins.
It hurt. Jokinen is a pro's pro. He understood the situation. He didn't complain, but there's no denying it hurt.
"Wasn't happy," he said, following Pittsburgh's 4-2 win over the New York Rangers on Wednesday, in which he scored another playoff game winner. "I wanted to be a part of something big here. Wanted to get a big role on this team."
One year later, he's got it. He's got that role, and it's looking like it could be a part of something big for the Penguins, who now have a 3-1 series lead on the Rangers.
His three playoff game winners are tied with Jonathan Toews for the most in these playoffs. Gaborik. Malkin. Kane. Toews. Good company. If the Penguins finish the job on the Rangers, it might be Jokinen's dagger of a goal in Game 4 that did it. It started with a blocked shot by James Neal, followed by an aggressive forecheck and then a second effort by Jokinen after his first shot was stopped by Henrik Lundqvist. Just watching the goal itself -- a spinning shot at a bad angle from the left circle -- it's not the prettiest you'll ever witness. It was everything that led up to it that made it a thing of beauty. A blocked shot, relentless hounding of the puck and a willingness to shoot from anywhere.
This is what Jokinen does: a series of correct decisions that eventually lead to something good. He never expected that twirling a shot from a bad angle might beat Lundqvist, but he did think it might produce a rebound opportunity for his linemates. This time, they weren't necessary.
"When you're hot, you're hot," Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta said. "It's not only the points he's making. He's playing really responsible defensively and with the puck. It's awesome to play with him out there. You can trust him doing the right play every time. He battles."
For Jokinen, the battling started in the summer. Following the disappointing postseason, he went back to his hometown of Kalajoki, Finland, and for the first offseason in a long time he was able to train without some nagging injury, like the previous five or six summers. This might have been the one and only benefit of not being a big part of a long, grueling playoff run.
He didn't do anything dramatically different this summer. He still hosted his usual benefit game for his hometown hockey team, paying back the team that helped him make it to the NHL. The difference was he was healthy and had a little extra motivation coming off a season in which he was not only a healthy scratch but cleared waivers in March. The guy leading the playoffs in goals this season could have been had for nothing by any team in the league after the Carolina Hurricanes put him on waivers.
Ultimately, that's what the Penguins gave up to land him in their trade with Carolina at the trade deadline. He was dealt for a conditional sixth- or seventh-round pick, and the conditions were either winning the Stanley Cup or making the Stanley Cup finals.
The Penguins did neither, and a draft pick never was exchanged. He was Pittsburgh's for free, and now, this is shaping into the best deadline deal GM Ray Shero has pulled off since adding Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis.
It's only a good deal because Jokinen used it all as fuel for his big season.
"I had a really good summer. I was able to stay healthy, do the things I wanted to do. Was really hungry coming to training camp," Jokinen said. "I really had confidence in myself that I can do it. It's been fun playing the whole year." During the regular season, he played with Malkin and Neal, but with Malkin and Sidney Crosby together in the playoffs now, the trio of Jokinen, Brandon Sutter and Neal has formed to provide a strong second punch for the Penguins.
If Jokinen wasn't scoring, keeping Crosby and Malkin together wouldn't be a sound strategy. Jokinen is allowing that monster top line to stay intact.
He said he's playing the best hockey of his career, and the numbers reflect it. His 57 points during the regular season were the most since he scored 65 in 2009-10 with the Hurricanes. His nine playoff points are the most he's scored since scoring 11 in the 2009 postseason, a playoff run in which he led all scorers with three game-winning goals.
He's providing offensive production and doing so at critical moments. Pens coach Dan Bylsma joked that Jokinen would be among his first picks in a game-winning goal pool. Do the right things often enough, and good things will happen. Any time of year.
"You always jump on the ice in the big moments. You want to be opportunistic. You want to shoot the puck and be that difference-maker," Jokinen said. "Any player wants to be at their best and wants to be the hero. I'm no different."
Jussi Jokinen has an influential role on Pittsburgh's roster, and it's looking like he could be a part of something big for the Penguins, who now have a 3-1 series lead on the Rangers, writes ESPN The Magazine's Craig Custance.