PITTSBURGH — Lining the walls of the press box at PPG Paints Arena are framed newspapers highlighting the major moments through the years that have made the Pittsburgh Penguins one of the most successful playoff teams of this era.
Before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, a couple of writers stopped to look at the front page that documented the luckiest — if not the most important — moment in franchise history. It was a page from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s July 23, 2005, edition and featured a smiling, 17-year-old Sidney Crosby — his whole life ahead of him — beneath the giant headline “JACKPOT!”
He’s really come a long way pic.twitter.com/cNKFsv2ZBU
— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) May 13, 2017
That moment changed the fortunes, not only of Crosby and the Penguins, but also of the player who was selected next. A kid named Bobby Ryan from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, went second, to the Anaheim Ducks. After the Ducks grabbed Ryan, then-Anaheim GM Brian Burke quipped, “I can’t believe he was still there.”
In a strange twist to this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, those top two picks from 2005 have ended up impacting three of the four remaining teams. Crosby, of course, is a major reason why the Penguins are still alive. The Ducks have advanced in large part behind the offense provided by winger Jakob Silfverberg, who has eight goals in 12 postseason games this spring while averaging a point per game. His 51 shots on goal lead all players this postseason.
Silfverberg was acquired with a first-round pick (which was eventually turned into forward Nick Ritchie) in the trade that sent Bobby Ryan to the Ottawa Senators. It was Ritchie’s goal in Game 7 against the Oilers that propelled the Ducks into the Western Conference finals.
And then there’s Bobby Ryan. He may be the most interesting part of the equation right now.
After the worst regular season of Ryan’s 10-year career, in which he averaged only 15:32 minutes per game and registered just 25 points in 62 games, he’s finally making his impact this year — and at just the right time.
It has taken Ryan awhile to get comfortable in Ottawa first-year coach Guy Boucher’s system, one that focuses more on the trap and defense than the high-end offensive skill Ryan brings to the table. When did the winger finally figure it out?
“Game 82,” Ryan answered. “It took me longer than most. I had a tough year with the learning curve. I had some growing pains with it, and I think that’s evident. … I bought in like everyone else on the team and stuck with it. I’m finally, I guess, getting a reward for it.”
To better understand how challenging this season was for Ryan, you have to go back to the summer leading up to it, when he penned a moving piece to his mom, Melody, in The Players’ Tribune a few days after she died of liver cancer.
He shared the incredible story of how his family changed names and moved to California so his dad could avoid jail time after assaulting his mom. That story has been well told, but never had the bond between Ryan and his mom been expressed so eloquently.
Ryan explained how his dad, Bob, was caught and how his mom had to take on the responsibility of raising him without much money, while allowing him to play a sport that required lots of it. How she’d work in rinks so he could get ice time and work at the airport so they could afford tickets to hockey tournaments out of town.
It’s just about impossible, especially on Mother’s Day, to get through that piece without being crushed by emotion as Ryan says goodbye to his mom at the end.
“It’s my first without being able to text my mom,” said Ryan on Sunday. “But I woke up this morning, and I was able to text my wife because it was hers. You take the good with the bad on days like today.”
Ryan started the season carrying the weight of losing his mother. And he had to learn a new system focused on defense after having built a career predicated on offense.
“Bobby had a tough year also on a personal level,” Boucher pointed out following the Senators’ Game 1 win over the Penguins. “Some years are tougher than others in that respect. So he had a lot of things to manage.”
Ryan saw this postseason as a way to reset. There was nothing he could do about the injuries and struggles and his odd fit at times within the Senators’ new style. That was done.
Instead, he found ways to elevate his game so that his story is evolving from one of disappointment and pain to one with, suddenly, limitless potential.
Ryan’s performance in Game 1 showcased what he brings to the table offensively. His no-look, backhanded pass set up Jean-Gabriel Pageau‘s goal, which opened the scoring in the series. Even Pageau, who has gotten used to seeing the winger’s skill up close, was impressed that Ryan was able to find him from behind the net.
“You need really good vision and a lot of talent to make that pass,” Pageau said. “I don’t think I could make that pass. He’s almost on the other side of the net and it’s hard for the goalie to follow the puck. I just had to put it in.”
Ryan later scored the game winner in overtime, further proof that he doesn’t need much more than a crack of opportunity to change a game, much like the stars on the other side of the ice.
He now has 11 points in 13 playoff games, but it’s not just his offense that stands out the most. Ryan has rounded out his game.
“The difference in watching Bobby play in this year’s playoffs versus prior seasons is his commitment level,” Burke, now the Calgary Flames‘ president of hockey operations, said on Sunday. “This coach has clearly gotten to him. When you add the intensity we were all hoping for when he turned pro — and he has brought that now — this is the package the Anaheim Ducks thought they were drafting.”
Ryan’s teammates see a skilled offensive player doing anything he can to lift the group.
“The guy has always been a world-class player, but I think you’re seeing a lot of desperation. Playoff time brings the best out of those big-time players,” said Senators defenseman Marc Methot. “He’s blocking shots, he’s doing all those dirty things that maybe typically you don’t see a highly skilled forward like that do. It’s elevating his play, and it’s showing. He’s getting good karma for it.”
If there was a player on this Senators roster who could have used a little extra good karma this year, it was Ryan. Right now — the personal pain, the professional transition — all that is being pushed aside for a playoff run that is becoming a special one for Ryan and the Senators.
It’s the power of being able to reset.
“I think that you just want to redeem yourself, right?” Ryan said. “You let yourself down. You let your teammates down and everyone around you. Now, I’m getting to, I guess, redeem myself a little bit. That’s all I’m trying to do.”