STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS: Iginla's decision to be tested vs. Bruins
PITTSBURGH — Faced with the choice of his hockey life, Jarome Iginla figured he couldn’t go wrong.
As the hours before the March 28 trade deadline ticked away and the suitors for the Calgary Flames’ longtime captain dwindled down to Boston and Pittsburgh, the six-time All-Star understood both franchises provided him the chance to win his first Stanley Cup.
Only one, however, included the added bonus of playing with good friend Sidney Crosby. And when the Penguins quite literally lured Iginla east in the middle of the night, the ripple effect forced the Bruins to a backup plan that turned out better than they imagined.
Spurned by Iginla, the Bruins acquired Jaromir Jagr from Dallas hours later. Now the two clubs — and their two high-profile late additions — find themselves in each other’s way as the Eastern Conference finals get set to begin Saturday.
“I knew that there was a possibility this would be the case,” Iginla said.
One that just as easily could have arisen if Iginla opted for Boston instead. While it appeared for a few hours the Bruins had the inside track, the Olympic gold medal winner insists he didn’t back out of a deal with Boston when the Penguins swooped in at the last minute.
“I never said yes and then no,” Iginla said.
Though the Bruins initially disagreed — claiming an agreement was in place — they have since moved on, adding a necessary part in Jagr to lead to a showdown that has felt inevitable for the last three months.
“I always thought you had to go through them to get to where we want to go at some point,” Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli said. “It’s been well chronicled, the Iginla stuff and the Jagr stuff, so we’re happy with who we got.”
So are the Penguins.
The 35-year-old Iginla has fit in almost seamlessly in Pittsburgh, picking up 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 13 regular-season games despite being shuttled between the first and second lines while occasionally being moved away from his natural position at right wing.
Things have been more settled in the postseason. Coach Dan Bylsma placed Iginla on the second line with reigning NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin and All-Star forward James Neal.
The results have been sublime. Iginla quietly rolled up four goals and eight assists in the opening two rounds of the playoffs, his powerful shot and ability to create a little havoc in front of the opposing goaltender perfectly complimenting Malkin’s deft passing and Neal’s sniper-like instincts.
“You want to play together and play hard and not disrupt (their chemistry),” Iginla said. “So you find different places to go and contribute. Is that going to the net? Getting out of the way in certain positions? Knowing where we all like pucks? I think it’s just kind of tying everything together and I’ve been enjoying it and I think it’s been getting better and better.”
The result is just the second trip to hockey’s final four in Iginla’s 16-year career. He led the Flames to the Cup finals in 2004 only to fall to Tampa Bay in seven games. Four straight first-round exits followed before the bottom fell out. Calgary was heading to its fifth straight season on the outside of the playoffs looking in when general manager Jay Feaster approached Iginla and asked him if he would consider waiving his no-trade clause.
Iginla wanted to help the Flames rebuild almost as badly as he wanted a shot at the Cup. A brief conversation with Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero convinced him the best chance to do both sat with the Penguins.
Pittsburgh sent the Flames college prospects Kenneth Agostino and Ben Hanowski and a first-round pick in the 2013 draft for one of the best players of his generation, one still trying to get his hands on his sport’s most coveted chalice.
The move proved refreshing in more ways than one. Iginla and fellow newcomers Jussi Jokinen, Doug Murray and Brenden Morrow, became de facto roommates at a downtown Pittsburgh hotel. Iginla found wearing a jersey without a “C” on it liberating. He has kept a decidedly low profile since his arrival, speaking to the media only occasionally while letting Crosby handle the duties that come with being the voice of the franchise.
Don’t misunderstand. Iginla isn’t hiding but simply enjoying a rare taste of relative anonymity.
“It’s been a nice change,” Iginla said.
One that will likely come to an end if the Penguins make it to the next round. Iginla is the latest in a long line of veterans who have uprooted their lives — think Ray Bourque going from Boston to Colorado — in pursuit of glory. He will become one of the faces of the finals if the Penguins advance.
Iginla is more than ready to handle it. If anything, he’s proven he’s adaptable. Iginla played at least 19 minutes 17 times with Calgary this season, a number he’s topped just three times in 24 games with the Penguins. Yet Bylsma has yet to hear Iginla mention it, and he doesn’t expect to.
Neither do his teammates.
“I think you’ll have a hard time finding somebody in this world to fit in better anywhere,” Murray said. “He’s a great guy and he’s obviously a good player. He demands respect right away.”
Even if respect from the Bruins will come in the form of bodies being thrown into Iginla’s path at every turn. He welcomes the challenge, even if the guys slamming him are the ones that could have been his teammates.
All that’s over now. Any leftover hard feelings with the Bruins is just so much collateral damage.
“I knew Boston was a great team,” Iginla said. “It was one of those situations when I (chose Pittsburgh) that I knew there was a big possibility we’d be in this situation, and here we are. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”