Ex-Penguin Talbot bringing the pain
VOORHEES, N.J. -- Three summers ago, when the Stanley Cup arrived in Sidney Crosby's hometown in Eastern Canada, the first person off the helicopter that ferried the fabled trophy into Halifax, Nova Scotia, was Max Talbot.
Crosby's close friend and teammate spent two days with Crosby and the Cup at the captain's lake house outside Halifax.
Earlier that summer, Talbot had shared in the Cup celebration of his good friend and Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury.
So, if there is anyone who has an insight into what has transpired in this wacky first-round series between the two rivals -- a series that could end with a Philadelphia Flyers victory in Game 4 Wednesday night in Philadelphia -- it's Talbot.
Likewise, if there's anyone who might be conflicted during a series such as this, it is Talbot.
But make no mistake, friendship and shared history might make for strong, enduring bonds, but they are nothing compared to the desire to win today.
"I did not have any concerns about Max. We never had a conversation or there was never that pause in my thought process about using him against certain players because maybe he wouldn't be hard or he wouldn't play the way he needed to," head coach Peter Laviolette said Tuesday.
"It's not about that right now. I think it shows in the way Max has played. He's a guy that just doesn't care. He's ready to play and it doesn't matter who it's against."
This series has been defined by dramatically divergent personalities, both individually and as teams.
The Flyers and their ability to respond to adversity and stay cool stand in direct opposition to the Penguins' inability to protect leads and stay disciplined, as evident in Sunday's ugly 8-4 loss.
Whenever there has been an opening for the Penguins to assert themselves in this series, the Flyers have closed it. Talbot has played a significant role in keeping his old mates from getting on the kind of roll he was part of in 2008 and 2009. Talbot and his linemates, rookie center Sean Couturier and, in Game 3, Eric Wellwood, along with defensive partners Nicklas Grossmann and Braydon Coburn, have dominated the Penguins' top line of Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and James Neal.
"Geno's a guy that needs the puck. You can't really give him time and space because he's going to make you look bad," Talbot said. "You can't really give him free ice because he's probably one of the most skilled guys out there, so Sean has been in his face. He's such a smart 19-year-old the way he plays with his stick and his position."
Both Couturier and Talbot have collected three goals and an assist through the first three games of the series. Two of Talbot's goals have been short-handed markers that proved pivotal in erasing early Penguins leads.
Not that any of this should be a surprise, given Talbot's penchant for scoring big goals. He will forever be remembered -- and in many cases, lionized -- for scoring both goals in the Penguins' Game 7 victory over the Detroit Red Wings in the 2009 Stanley Cup finals.
But at the end of last season, Talbot didn't fit into the Penguins' plans economically and the Flyers jumped at the chance to ink the 28-year-old to a five-year deal worth $8.75 million.
It has been money well spent.
"If you go back and think about Max's first two playoff games, I think it goes back and reflects on his whole year. You'd be hard-pressed to find a stride on the ice that doesn't matter," Laviolette said. "It doesn't matter which way he's going. He accounts for every stride. He makes sure that he works; he makes sure that he does his job. He's a passionate guy; he's a terrific team guy. We found out that offensively, he was able to contribute as well. Just a really good addition for our team."
Talbot had a career-best 19 regular-season goals this season, but at the risk of invoking the "but he's better in the locker room" cliché, well, he is.
As was the case in Pittsburgh, where Talbot was the glue guy, the emotional catalyst on the ice and in the dressing room, he has evolved quickly into something similar in Philadelphia.
Former Flyer and Penguin Rick Tocchet admitted he's been surprised by Talbot's offensive production, but he thinks his work with the young players on the Flyers team has been crucial to the team coming together this season.
"To me, his dressing-room leadership has been off the charts from what I've heard," Tocchet, now an analyst, told ESPN.com Tuesday afternoon.
If Laviolette had no hesitation about Talbot's head space in this series, did Talbot himself worry about what this playoff clash might be like?
"Not really because I think [the] big test for me was obviously the regular season, and it went pretty good against the Penguins, so personally I just basically built on that," Talbot said. "You know how much I love the playoffs, so whatever team we were going to play, I was trying to be ready. I kind of had a feeling we were going to play them and when it happened, well, I got more excited than anything else. I take it as a challenge. It's far from over but personally it's definitely been a good challenge and I like it."
Talbot has shown nothing of any conflicted emotions. He's jawed with defenseman Kris Letang, who at one point slashed Talbot across the legs and then on Sunday tried to imitate Talbot's famous "Shhhhh" motion after a fight with Kimmo Timonen.
"No comment," Talbot said. "Yeah, I saw it."
As for Crosby, Talbot said he wasn't surprised to see his good friend involved in a number of scrums and a quasi-fight with Claude Giroux in Game 3.
"I see Sid as such a great competitor. He shows up every night, every game," Talbot said. "When it's not going his way, he tries to do other things. He's kind of like me but with 10 times more skill. He's going to do everything he can, whether it's spark his team or get a win."
And, no, he wasn't offended when Crosby said he didn't like anyone in the Flyers' dressing room.
"He's actually a great friend but you know what, it gets heated up in the moment and everything, and that's OK," Talbot said. "I don't have any comment really about that. I'm sure I'm going to talk to him after the series and it's going to be fine."