-- In a series where we've talked incessantly about the experience of the Detroit Red Wings
and the youth of the Pittsburgh Penguins
, maybe after a 4-0 loss in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final it's time to look to one of Pittsburgh's veteran leaders for help.
How about Petr Sykora
? He just happens to be playing in his fourth Stanley Cup Final series -- previously playing with New Jersey in 2000 and 2001 and with Anaheim in 2003.
"Petr has been a great leader for us and a voice of reason," said linemate Ryan Malone
. "When Sidney Crosby
was injured back in January, Sykkie really picked up his game. In this room, he's a great teammate ... he talks a lot about his experiences in the Finals."
OK, so what are Petr's Principles to winning?
Trying to catch the 31-year-old winger from Pizen, Czech Republic, can prove taxing, as I found out when I tried to flag him down to talk about his successes of the past while he was walking briskly out of the Penguins’ dressing room to catch a taxi on his way back to the hotel before this year's Final began Saturday.
"I don't want to jinx myself," he said. "I don't want to ..."
Seeing that this interview might be too brief to use, I encouraged Petr to talk about his role as an experienced player in so many important playoff situations and the advice he might have to share with his young teammates, most of whom are going into their first Cup battle.
Sykora shifts gears from fast-forward out of Joe Louis Arena to a slower walk, much the way he plays on the ice. Shifty. Great at changing speeds to find an opening.
"He's a shooter, a goal-scorer, who is a master at finding soft spots in an opposition's defense and then ... boom ... a split-second shot to a very small target," observed Malone, who plays on Pittsburgh's scoring line that includes Sykora and Evgeni Malkin
The thought of being a mentor to his teammates pleased Sykora, who, oh-by-the-way, has taken Penguins phenom Malkin into his home to help the youngster learn the new ways and cultures he must face in North America. You can see the pleasure he gets in helping out. You can see that he's smart, intuitive, with skills that are dazzling. A pretty good package, eh?
"I've told my teammates along the way that to get there and lose is devastating," Sykora said. "I've told them that until we win it there's nothing to celebrate."
Clearly, he knows of what he speaks. His Cup Final experiences also encompass the good and the bad.
After three previous trips to the Stanley Cup Final, Petr Sykora
has one Stanley Cup ring after winning the Cup with the Devils in 2000, along with trips to the Final in 2001, when Colorado rallied from a 3-2 deficit to beat the Devils, plus another trip there in 2003, when Sykora's Ducks lost in Game 7 to his former New Jersey teammates. But Petr's reluctance to talk in specifics about this series against the Detroit Red Wings
might come from the fact that, in spite of winning one Cup, he never really got the opportunity to celebrate on the ice with his New Jersey teammates in 2000.
Sykora missed the best part in the greatest moment in his hockey career that took place in Dallas on June 10, 2000, when the Devils won the team’s second Stanley Cup. The victory was a little bittersweet for Petr, because he wasn't on the ice when linemate Jason Arnott
scored the winning goal 8:20 into the second overtime of a 2-1 Game 6 triumph. Instead, Sykora was in a hospital bed at Baylor Medical Center, after sustaining a concussion from a devastating first period hit by Stars defenseman Derian Hatcher
in which Sykora had to be taken from the ice on a stretcher.
Forget that Sykora wasn't there in the end, "The A Line" -- Arnott, Patrik Elias
and Sykora -- was a key factor in New Jersey’s success, producing 24 goals and 33 assists in the 23 playoff games.
During the postgame celebration, Elias and coach Larry Robinson
actually wore No. 17 Sykora jerseys to honor their injured teammate. When the locker room celebration began to die down there was another tribute in store for Sykora a few miles away from Reunion Arena.
"Patty and Jason got into a taxi and came to the hospital to see me. They had the Cup," Sykora remembered, getting a little emotional over a subject he really didn't want to talk about earlier. "When they walked into the room, we all started crying. It was unbelievable."
Sykora had nine goals and eight assists in the 23 playoff games in 2000. He added another 10 goals and 12 assists in 25 playoff games the following year and added four goals and nine assists in 21 games with Anaheim in 2003. This year, he has five goals and three assists in 15 games.
"When you’re scoring goals and the team is winning, that’s what you play for," Sykora told me. "I think all of us are having a lot of fun. But there's a lot more work to be done."
Sykora has found his niche on a line with Malkin and Malone ... and in an offensive role. There's no reason to believe this talented threesome can't produce more than the two shots they had in Game 1.
"It's been fun," said Malone. "We all grow up looking to be put into situations where we can put pressure on one another to score goals. That's how it's been here this season."
Even though he grew up a long way away from the battles for the Stanley Cup and the chances he would ever play in the National Hockey League were probably slim, Sykora said, "I remember trying to keep up with the NHL when I was growing up. When the Stanley Cup Final came around each spring, I would set the alarm for 3 a.m. so that I could see the best playing at their best. After watching the Finals every year for so many years, I wanted to play against the best."
Not much has changed since Sykora made his way to North America in September of 1994 to play for the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League. At that point, he was rated the top prospect for the 1995 Entry Draft by NHL Central Scouting.
But for some unknown reason, scouts went to watch Petr play in the IHL and some of them just shrugged, saying he was too skinny, that he didn’t look like he was the listed 5-11, 172 pounds. Although Sykora had 12 goals and 17 assists in 29 games for the Vipers before he ventured off to play in the World Junior Championships, he sustained a shoulder injury at the tournament and that pushed him down to the 18th pick by the New Jersey Devils
One of our Petr’s Principles on hockey here: Never underestimate the intestinal fortitude or heart and soul of a player.
Maybe he wasn’t the biggest or the best, but he had the skills and smarts and instincts that every team prays for.
"It seems like a long time ago when I came over when I was 17 and weighed just 155 pounds. Learning to play the North American style was difficult," he said.
"He’s an opportunist," Penguins Czech teammate Marian Hossa
said. "He has great skills ... and it seems like he waits for the big moments to cash in."
He looked like a mainstay forever in New Jersey, but then was traded to Anaheim with defenseman Mike Commodore
and a couple of prospects for Jeff Friesen
, Oleg Tverdovsky
and a prospect in July of 2002. Ten months later he was playing against New Jersey for another Stanley Cup. After the lockout, he spent a little less than half of the 2005-06 season in Anaheim before he was traded to the New York Rangers
in a deal with a couple of other nondescript names. A few months later, he became a free agent. In late July, after all of the big-name free agents had been signed, the Edmonton Oilers
On July 2 last summer, Ray Shero
, Pittsburgh's second-year G.M., wasted no time in adding Sykora to an already gifted, young lineup.
"Petr is a guy with that experience. He's been through this before be it up 3-0 or up 3-1 in a series, he knows not to look forward to the next series," Shero said. "It’s been a nice story for him this year. When we signed him it was well-documented this was the place he wanted to play with the players we had, and we felt his background in winning and all the playoff battles, it seemed like a good chance to take. We were hoping for a good year from him, but to get what we got out of him, it's been a nice story."
And the Penguins are hoping that Petr Sykora
's experience will be felt even more now that Pittsburgh is down to the older and more experienced Detroit Red Wings