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.