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Trade to Penguins has rejuvenated Iginla

Monday, 04.29.2013 / 3:34 PM
Dan Rosen  - NHL.com Senior Writer

Matt Niskanen is in awe of Jarome Iginla.

"The first morning he got here, I looked across the room and it was like, 'Holy hell, that's Jarome Iginla,'" Niskanen, the Pittsburgh Penguins' 26-year old defenseman, told NHL.com. "I've skated with Sid [Crosby] and Geno [Evgeni Malkin] for a while, but I don't know, he's been around for so long and been so good for so long that it took a little adjustment. I don't think I'm used to it yet. He's a legend."

Iginla doesn't have to be legendary for the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup this season. That's part of the reason he waived his no-movement clause to facilitate a deal to the Penguins shortly before the NHL Trade Deadline.

Pittsburgh is where Iginla can be like Niskanen -- another player focused on helping the Penguins have a magical spring. It's a role that has rejuvenated Iginla after his more than 16 seasons with the Calgary Flames came to an unceremonious and disappointing conclusion not long after a lackluster 2-0 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on March 26.

After wearing a "C" on his red sweater for nearly a full decade in Calgary, Iginla has been letterless in black and yellow for the past month, helping him feel free, fast and fortunate again at 35 years old.

"I'm feeling as good as I've felt now as far as energy than I have in a while," Iginla told NHL.com. "I don't mean years or anything, but this year has been a tough year. It was a contract year, we had the lockout, and I knew we had to get off to a good start or I was maybe moving. There were unknowns, uncertainties. I love playing hockey, still love it as much as I ever have, but it was stressful leading up to the trade.

"This is exciting, this new experience. I don't feel that pressure or have that pressure of being a leader at all."

But he is one because of who he is. That's unavoidable. Iginla's reputation around the NHL is unparalleled. He is as respected a teammate, a professional, a player and a leader as there is in the League today.

Even though he isn't trying to promote himself in that fashion in Pittsburgh, he does anyway. The Penguins are better for it. They know it.

"He brings a presence, a calmness almost," Penguins forward Matt Cooke told NHL.com. "He's obviously won in a lot of places -- juniors, World Juniors, Olympics, World Championships. There's only one missing."

And there's additional motivation for the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup again so Iginla can experience lifting it. It would justify his choice and his faith in them.

"I think that everyone recognizes that he made a choice (of the Penguins over the Boston Bruins) and everyone is excited about his choice," Cooke said. "I think that spoke volumes and gave even more confidence to this group that we were his choice. It maybe enabled us to be that much better.

"He carries that aura about him that exudes confidence, exudes patience. That's an important feature he brings to this group."

Iginla hasn't been on a contender in a long time, so long he had to think back to 18 years ago, when he was a junior with the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League, to remember the last time he felt as good about his team going into the playoffs as he does about the Penguins.

"We won the Memorial Cup and we were rated first overall," Iginla said. "In the NHL, we [the Flames] never got there. Even when we went to the Cup Final [in 2004] it was all underdog stuff, so I haven't been in this situation in the NHL."

His initial impression of the Penguins hasn't changed.

"Right when I first got here you could see that it was a confident but not overconfident group that likes playing with each other, and different players do whatever they do really well," he said. "Everybody does something a little bit different, but they enjoy doing it and they do it well."

Iginla said it took him five games to feel the same way, to get up to speed with the rest of his new teammates. He had one goal and one assist.

"The first five games at least, you're stickhandling and the puck doesn't feel right," Iginla said. "You're thinking. You're anxious."

He called coach Dan Bylsma's system different than any he has experienced in the NHL, which is saying something; Iginla played for 10 different coaches in Calgary. Iginla said his adjustment was difficult because after relying on his instincts for so long it now seemed like he had to relearn how to play, where he was supposed to go.

He didn't, of course. The game isn't any different in Pittsburgh than it is in Calgary, save for the talent level. But Iginla had to figure out the Penguins' way of doing things, how to thrive in a competitive, winning environment again.

He had nine points in the last eight games of the regular season.

"It's starting to get to the point where I'm not thinking about trying to go to the right place," Iginla said. "It's been nice to get here and have some time before the playoffs to get accustomed to it, but definitely there was some time when I just wasn't feeling normal."

Iginla's biggest on-ice impact has been on the power play, where he has scored three of his four goals, all from the left side of the ice after the Penguins worked the puck on the right side to set him up.

He uses a big right-handed shot Bylsma called a weapon the Penguins haven't had in his four-plus seasons as coach. Once Crosby returns to the lineup, Iginla may even have more space to work on the left side because the defense will be turned toward Crosby and Malkin on the right side.

"There are attributes about players that when you watch them on the ice, all of us and the people in the stands shake their head at, take a double look at and say, 'Wow, look at that, that's amazing,'" Bylsma said. "In the past 10 days, over and over again he takes that shot from that spot on the ice and people do a double take. It's a weapon. It's a cannon. He's released it a couple of times and you question whether the net can keep the puck in or whether it's going to go right through the net. That's what he has right there.

"It's added a dimension to our power play that has been very dramatic."

Iginla has added a dimension to the Penguins that has been as powerful as his shot.

Niskanen can't believe it. A month has passed and he's still shaking his head.

"I don't want to take anything away from Sid and Geno, but it's just that he's been around for so long and he's been that Canadian superstar for a while now," Niskanen said. "He's come in and just meshed with everyone really well. He's a really good fit."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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