Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Playoff Atmosphere - Penguins 4, Stars 3 (SO)

So what happened?

This was one exciting hockey game.  There were huge momentum swings, big moments, huge goals and even bigger saves.  It felt like a playoff game to me.

Other than the part where it was decided by a shootout.

Both sides played hard and, for the most part, clean.  There were more hits recorded than shots on net (and there were 62 shots on net), if that gives you any idea of the effort being put forth.

The Stars had leads of 1-0 and 2-1, but the Pens used two quick goals early in the third to take a 3-2 lead.  The Stars scored shortly after that to tie the game at 3-3, and then the goalies stepped up.  Marc-Andre was especially good in helping to stem the tide, given that the Pens played shorthanded for the end of the third and almost the first two minutes of overtime.  He kept the Pens in a position to win.  He also stopped two different breakaway attempts.

Kris Letang was injured on an apparent hit to the head in the first period.  He didn't return.  Martin, Michalek and Orpik all played at least 25 minutes.

Steve Sullivan also missed the third period with an injury.  Geno and Staal both played big minutes.

Nice to see the Pens get two points out of it.

Who scored?

Sullivan (12), Adams (4), Kunitz (18)

The Good?
  • Killing it on the shootout.  On a rare night when Flower allowed two in the shootout, Neal, Kunitz and Dupuis all cashed in.
  • The team really played well in a hostile environment.  The arena was loud tonight.
  • Great to see Adams get a dirty goal.
  • Kunitz's goal was on a sick deflection.
The Bad?
  • Both Letang and Sullivan left with injuries.
  • The Pens put the Stars on the power play too much in the second half of the game.  The final three power play attempts belonged to the Stars.
The Ugly?
  • For the love of God, Eddie Olczyk should be shot the next time he says "Pas-qwal" Dupuis.  I want to jump through the TV set every time I hear it.
Any Surprises?
  • I was surprised the Stars didn't roll four lines, especially in the third period when the Pens were shorthanded because of injury.  The fourth line seemed to have some jump for them.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 37-21-5.

Who's next?
A Saturday night showdown with another team hanging around the fringe of the playoffs in Colorado.

Best Pittsburgh Sports Blog Tournament - the Final Four!!

While this blog was dismissed easily by those mini-ponies, who have clearly been hitting the juice (Sean - we need to test for performance enhancing drugs next year!!), the tournament has gone forward.

It's currently time for the Final Four.  Get over there and vote for your favorite of the remaining blogs.

My support is going to the Pirate blogs that remain - Rum Bunter and Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke (which was my inspiration for starting Igloo Dreams over six years ago).

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Grind it out - Penguins 4, Blue Jackets 2

So what happened?

The Blue Jackets were intent on making this a hockey game.  They held the fort during the first period by limiting the quality of the scoring chances for the Pens, and Curtis Sanford, in his first game back from injury, didn't allow any second chances.

The strategy was working, as the Pens out shot the Jackets 15-5 during the first period, but were unable to score.  Things took a turn for the worse when Rick Nash scored on a shorthanded goal midway through the second to give the Blue Jackets a 1-0 lead.

However, Geno got the Pens on the board with a power play goal late in the second, and then in the third, the cracks in the armor started to show for Sanford.  He just wasn't quite as fast or on top of his game as he had been earlier.  Shots that I think he would have stopped in the first period started to go in, and before you knew it, the Pens were up 4-1.  Vinny Prospal scored with less than 5 minutes left to make it mildly interesting, but the Jackets never really threatened after that.

Who scored?

Malkin (37), Dupuis (15), Letang (9), Vitale (4)

The Good?
  • Another two power play goals - the Pens have six power play goals in just 13 chances over their past four games.  That's incredible.
  • Thiessen was solid in his NHL debut.  The team insulated him well for the most part (other than the Nash breakaway while the Jackets were shorthanded).
  • What more can you say about Geno?  He is the best player in the world right now.
  • Faceoffs for Staal and Malkin were solid - both were over 55%.
  • Great persistence for the Pens - the shots weren't going in early and they weren't getting any rebounds, but they didn't panic and just kept working.  It paid off.
The Bad?
  • Letang was a -2, meaning he was on the ice for both goals against.
The Ugly?
  • Nothing, really.  Just two points for the Pens.
Any Surprises?
  • Again, pretty plain vanilla victory.  Nothing too surprising.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 36-21-5.

Who's next?
A quick road trip to Dallas and Colorado.  The Pens play Dallas on Wednesday night.

Game #62 - vs Columbus Blue Jackets

2011-12 Game 62

Columbus Blue Jackets (18-36-7, 43 points) at Pittsburgh Penguins (35-21-5, 75 points)

Brassard leads the Jackets in points in the month of February

Why does it matter?

The Blue Jackets are terrible.  They're the worst team in the NHL by nearly any standard.  They've just traded away much of their offense.  Why does this make them dangerous to the Pens?  Because they have a bunch of guys fighting for jobs, and money talks.  Also, they'll have Curtis Sanford back, and his numbers are pretty decent.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - Some luck early led to a laugher against the Bolts.
  • Blue Jackets - They're 4-4-1 in their last nine, including some impressive wins over Anaheim, Minnesota (twice) and San Jose.
Questions to be answered
  • Will the Pens be able to get up for this game?  The Blue Jackets are going to steal some points if the Pens keep having a slow start and keep going to the box.
  • Will we see Brad Thiessen make his NHL debut?  Might not be a bad idea to give Flower some rest.
  • What is up with Dustin Jeffrey?  He didn't seem to be playing all that poorly, but clearly there's something up since he's a healthy scratch.
Keys to the game
  • Jump on them early.  The Bolts Blue Jackets have been sellers with trades, sending out Downie, Moore and Kubina Carter and Vermette.  That has to affect the morale eventually.
  • Generate your own emotions.  Without some of the chippy guys on the other side, the Pens have a tendency to become cold and emotionless.  They need to find a reason to be fired up. 
  • Take them seriously.  I know facing the Bolts Blue Jackets is a long way from the Rangers, but these two points are just as valuable.
Wow - it's almost like they're the same as the game against Tampa Bay...

Lucky - Penguins 8, Lightning 1

So what happened?

So the short version is that the Pens were the beneficiaries of some very lucky bounces in the first period that led directly to a 3-0 lead.  Kunitz deflected a shot off of Hedman, Cooke bounced on a rebound and Staal was granted a breakaway short-handed when the linesman ran interference on Hedman at the point.

Then the Bolts made the dumb mistake of getting Malkin angry.  How can teams not figure out that their smartest move is to let him try to get himself motivated?  One hat trick later, the game was completely out of reach (it may have been out of reach prior to that, but he completely buried them).  One of the goals was a highlight reel end-to-end rush going through or around three different Lightning.  It looked like Mario Lemieux was back on the ice.

Otherwise, the way this game started, the Pens were very lucky with how things turned out in the first.

Who scored?

Kunitz (17), Cooke (12), Staal (20, 21), Malkin (34, 35, 36), Dupuis (14)

The Good?
  • The offensive output, including two power play goals and a shorty.
  • Nice to see Cooke and Dupuis pick up goals to go with the big guys.
  • Fleury absolutely dominated early in the game.  He made several amazing saves to keep the Bolts off the board.
The Bad?
  • A slow start... again.
  • Way too many penalties - the lack of discipline will cost them if it continues.
The Ugly?
  • Roloson's two handed shove to the face of a prone Evgeni Malkin.  It was cheap, and Roloson is lucky he didn't bounce Geno's head off of the ice, because that would certainly draw the attention of the league.
Any Surprises?
  • The top line (Geno, Neal and Kunitz) were all under 15 minutes of ice time.  I figured it would be lower than normal, but I was really surprised how much Bylsma was able to rest them in the third.  Should make things better for Columbus today.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 35-21-5.

Who's next?
A trip to Buffalo for a Sunday afternoon game against the Sabres.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Game #61 - vs Tampa Bay Lightning

2011-12 Game 61

Tampa Bay Lightning (27-27-6, 60 points) at Pittsburgh Penguins (34-21-5, 73 points)

Somebody asked for a decent backup goalie?  Roloson is a UFA after this year and he would be cheap.

Why does it matter?

This is the last weekend of the weird month of back-to-back weekend games, all but one during the daytime.  The Pens need to beat a non-playoff team like the Bolts to keep pace with the Devils and Flyers.  Unfortunately, recent history against bad teams isn't good (see last Sunday in Buffalo).

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - The best overall performance of the season against the Rangers last Tuesday.
  • Lightning - They had won three in a row at home against the likes of San Jose and Anaheim, and then they went to Winnipeg on Thursday and were down 4-0 after two periods.  They almost came back, but a terrible first few periods for them.
Questions to be answered
  • Can someone slow down Steven Stamkos?  The man is on a tear, with 11 points in his last four games (6 goals, 5 assists).  He was held scoreless when he faced the Pens almost two weeks ago.
  • Can the Pens take advantage of Stamkos?  He's only a +2 over those four games.  Four points came on the power play, so unless the Bolts allowed a shortie, the opposition has scored five times in four games while Stamkos is on the ice.
  • Who will throw the sucker punch for the Bolts now that Downie is gone and Vinny is hurt?
Keys to the game
  • Jump on them early.  The Bolts have been sellers with trades, sending out Downie, Moore and Kubina.  That has to affect the morale eventually.
  • Generate your own emotions.  Without some of the chippy guys on the other side, the Pens have a tendency to become cold and emotionless.  They need to find a reason to be fired up. 
  • Take them seriously.  I know facing the Bolts is a long way from the Rangers, but these two points are just as valuable.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Game #60 - vs New York Rangers

2011-12 Game 60

New York Rangers (38-14-5, 81 points) at Pittsburgh Penguins (33-21-5, 71 points)

Richards has four points in three games against the Pens this year.

Why does it matter?

The Rangers are the top team in the East.  This is an important divisional game for the Pens.  They need to win more games in the Atlantic since 10 of their final 23 games are within the division.  This game is a good place to start.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - Another split weekend, with a great Saturday followed by a nasty Sunday hangover.
  • Rangers - Just rolling along with nine wins in their past 12 games.
Questions to be answered
  • Can the Pens get back to their game?  The shot totals from the last three games (26,30,26) aren't looking good.  They need zone time to generate offense (and shots).
  • Will Geno get things going again?  In his last three games, he has two points (both assists) and is a -3.
  • How will Martin and Letang respond from their -4 performance on Sunday?  I think Letang will be flying.
Keys to the game
  • Score three or more.  The Rangers have not won a game this year when their opponent scores 4, and their record when allowing three is also poor.
  • Stay focused.  The Rangers don't score a ton of goals, and they count on converting on chances when they get them.  The forwards need to be especially aware in the defensive zone to help out.
  • Initiate, don't retaliate.  Take it to them and be physical from the drop of the puck.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Since the game today was miserable...

This video really made me laugh.  I saw it right after the end of the Pens game, and I had a smile back on my face almost instantly.  The title is "Guilty cat".  If you've never lived with a cat, this may not be as funny to you, but it brightened my Sunday.

One Step Back - Sabres 6, Penguins 2

So what happened?

As well as things turned out yesterday in Philly, they turned out equally as bad today in Buffalo.

The short version (and I don't want to think about this one too much, so that's all I'm going to provide) is that Brent Johnson didn't have his best start.  The team started slowly in general and never really got things going.

The Pens had a few decent chances they couldn't convert on.  Geno had a breakaway that he didn't convert on, and there were several other good chances that fell by the wayside.

This was a missed opportunity.  Time to forget and move on to the next one.

Who scored?

Engelland (3), Staal (19)

What's their record now?
The Pens are 33-21-5.

Who's next?
Tuesday night the Pens will get the chance to improve their Atlantic Division record when the Rangers come to town.

Neal's Deal is Real - Pens extend James Neal

The Pens have re-signed James Neal to a six-year contract for $30 million.  He'll have a cap hit of $5 million per year.

A cap number of $5 million puts him in the same category as the following forwards:
Ryan Kesler
Mike Ribeiro
Tomas Plekanec
Brian Gionta
Martin Havlat
Patrice Bergeron

Now, I don't know about you, but I don't think I'd take any of those guys over James Neal at this point.  If they Pens didn't have Jordan Staal, then you could make the argument that you'd rather have Kesler, but other than that... no way, no how.

This was a great move by Ray Shero at a good cap number.

Game #59 - at Buffalo Sabres

2011-12 Game 59

Pittsburgh Penguins (33-20-5, 71 points) at Buffalo Sabres (24-27-7, 55 points)

Why does it matter?

No time for a proper preview - game time is 60 minutes away.  Let's just say the Pens need to avoid the letdown.  This is an excellent chance for the Pens to earn two points on the road against a poor opponent.

Exhilarating - Penguins 6, Flyers 4

So what happened?

Wow - I don't know where to start with this one.  Let's start by saying this may have been the worst effort by the Pens all season in terms of their discipline in staying out of the box.  While the refs were still blowing their whistles (which stopped after the second period), the Pens handed the Flyers multiple power play chances.  Some of them were mystifying, like the hooking call on Brooks Orpik, but most of them were just dumb, like the slashing call on Paul Martin.  The Pens were fortunate the Flyers were unable to capitalize more then they did (the Flyers scored just once on the power play).

Anyway, long story short (since the Pens play again in about 90 minutes in Buffalo), this was a heated rivalry kind of game that we've come to expect against the Flyers.  The Pens used two short-handed goals to keep themselves in the game (it was tied 3-3 going into the third period), and then scored three times at even-strength to blow the game open in the third.

The Flyers biggest problem was their play between the pipes.  Both Bryzgalov and Bobrovsky were terrible (Bryzgalov looked as bad as I've seen any goalie look all season on those short-handed goals).  It's nice to see the questionable decision to spend tons of money on Bryzgalov backfire to this point.

The Pens weren't really doing much in the first two periods, aside from killing penalties and scoring short-handed.  They managed just 15 shots through two.  Once the special teams play stopped in the third, however, the Pens simply dominated.  They out shot the Flyers 15-8 in the third and put the game out of reach, basically by the time Pascal Dupuis scored just 2:09 into the third.

This is one of the few games that actually had me yelling and cheering while watching.

Who scored?

Cooke (10, 11), Staal (18), Jeffrey (4), Dupuis (13), Neal (30)

The Good?
  • See the other four names that aren't Malkin or Neal that scored goals?  That's really good.
  • Zac Rinaldo was not in this game.  That's also good, because I think he would have tried to hurt someone.
  • We found out that Scott Hartnell is afraid to fight Engelland.  Claude Giroux was leveled on a clean check by Deryk Engelland early in the first.  Hartnell immediately went up as if to challenge Engelland, but never dropped the gloves (which Engelland certainly would have done with Hartnell).  Scott didn't try to fight until late in the game when he managed to get close to Joe Vitale, who is about 3" shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Hartnell.  Vitale, I have no doubt, would have dropped them with Hartnell if the linesmen hadn't already been involved.  You want to know the problem with the Flyers?  When it comes right down to it, they're gutless.
  • The PK scoring twice was great.  Cooke's goal was against a 5-on-3.
  • Flower made several key saves when the Flyers were still in the game.  He wasn't great all day, but he did make the big saves when it counted.
The Bad?
  • Bad decision to pinch by Kris Letang on the first Jagr goal.  He can't take those chances in a four-on-four situation.
  • Lack of recognition by the Pens that Jagr likes to shoot that wrist shot from anywhere near the circle. I think anyone that has seen Jagr play more than a few times knew what was coming, and Jagr burned the Pens twice in a row with that shot.
The Ugly?
  • The stupidity of the Flyers.  Coburn's cross-check on Malkin in neutral ice with the puck nowhere near?  STUPID!  JVR slash to the hands / wrists of James Neal after the whistle in the middle of everyone (and in response to a light shove from Neal)?  STUPID!  In fairness, Paul Martin's slash after taking a slightly late hit?  STUPID!  Discipline is key.
Any Surprises?
  • The refs were surprising, and not in a good way.  They made some of the most bizarre calls against both teams, and the result was an inconsistent mess.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 33-20-5.

Who's next?
A trip to Buffalo for a Sunday afternoon game against the Sabres.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Game #58 - at Philadelphia Flyers

2011-12 Game 58

Pittsburgh Penguins (32-20-5, 69 points) at Philadelphia Flyers (32-18-7, 71 points)

Giroux is taking his place among the game's best players.

Why does it matter?

The Pens have a chance to take over second place in the division and the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference with a regulation win over the Flyers.  That would be a strong step towards earning home ice in the playoffs.  Oh, and winning in Philadelphia is always nice.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - The Ducks made road kill out of the Pens on Wednesday.
  • Flyers - They've struggled lately, especially in the division, but they just blasted the Sabres on Thursday.
Questions to be answered
  • Can the Pens start to win consistently in their own division?  They'll need to if they want home ice in the playoffs.
  • Can any line other than the first one generate pressure?  That was non-existent on Wednesday against the Ducks.
  • Will the Pens be able to shut down all of the scoring lines from the Flyers?  At least the top three lines are a consistent threat to score, and the Flyers are tops in the NHL in goals per game.
Keys to the game
  • Use special teams to your advantage.  Buffalo game aside, the Flyers have been inept recently both on the power play and the penalty kill.  The Pens need to encourage them to return to those ways.
  • Limit their chances.  The Flyers like to rack up the shots, but the Pens have had some success in keeping them in check.
  • Make smart line change and match up well.  It will be important not to get the wrong line trapped out there against Giroux.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Best Pittsburgh Sports Blog Tournament

The fourth annual Best Pittsburgh Sports Blog Tournament is now up and running over at Sean's Ramblings.

Sean does this tournament every year.  It's an honor to be one of the 32 blogs selected, especially considering this is a small blog with light traffic.  Thanks to Sean for continuing to do this.

As usual, we're correctly seeded near the bottom of the bracket.  Unfortunately, we're also going up against those nasty mini ponies from PSAMP again.

We've managed a few upsets over the first three years, but haven't found a way to put down those mini ponies just yet.  My sense of optimism isn't very high for an upset this year.

At any rate, it's all in good fun, and a good way to discover some great Pittsburgh sports blogs that you may not have heard about.

Vote early, vote often.

Deflating - Ducks 2, Penguins 1

So what happened?

The Pens were unable to assert their style of play on the Ducks.  Instead, the Ducks were successful at taking away time and space from the Pens.  They didn't allow the Pens to set up shop in the offensive zone with any kind of consistency or regularity.  The one time the Pens were successful at zone time, they had two extended shifts, back-to-back, in the offensive zone.  Unfortunately, at the end of the second shift, they turned the puck over high in the zone and it led directly to the game winning goal by Selanne.

All told, you'd have to say this was a disappointing effort.

Who scored?

Staal (17)

The Good?
  • It was nice to not put yourself into a hole by scoring first.
  • Every Penguin had a winning record on faceoffs.  I don't know if that has ever happened.
  • The first period was good - the Pens out shot the Ducks 13-7.
The Bad?
  • The Pens managed just 13 shots combined for the second and third periods.
  • The Pens should have been able to out work the Ducks, who had just played the night before and were essentially playing three lines (Parros and Pelley played just over 5 minutes each).
The Ugly?
  • The slashing call against Kunitz at the end of the game.  No question it was a penalty, but it was also being ignored most of the night, especially on plays that weren't in a scoring zone (this was in the corner).  Why call it there?
Any Surprises?
  • I was surprised how quickly the Pens went flat in the second two periods.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 32-20-5.

Who's next?
Another set of weekend games, both in the afternoon, starts on Saturday in Philly.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Game #57 - vs Anaheim Ducks

2011-12 Game 57

Anaheim Ducks (23-24-9, 55 points) at Pittsburgh Penguins (32-19-5, 69 points)

Dan, we miss your twitter feed.

Why does it matter?

It's a rare visit from the resurgent Anaheim Ducks, and one of those all-bird games (Ducks vs Penguins).  Penguins can't fly, but ducks look absolutely comical trying to take off and land.  The Ducks also have a very familiar coach - Bruce Boudreau.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - Jordan Staal returns and the Pens reel off two nice wins over the weekend.  Coincidence?  I don't think so.
  • Ducks - In the middle of an eight game road trip.  They're 2-0-1 so far, and they almost ended Detroit's home winning streak.
Questions to be answered
  • Can the Pens cool off the Ducks?  The boys from Anaheim were 10-22-6 after a loss on January 4th.  Since then they're a scorching 13-2-3.
  • Will the Pens be able to get to their game?  The Ducks recent success has been built on defense, much like what Boudreau was trying to install with the Caps.  Limiting the chances against is key, and the Ducks have been doing a good job of that.
  • Can the Pens take advantage of the big guns from the Ducks?  Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan have terrible numbers as far as +/- goes away from home this year.  Getzlaf has just two goals and is a -10 on the road.
Keys to the game
  • Get Kunitz going.  He has been doing everything right for the Pens, and now it's time to show his former team they made a mistake in trading him.
  • Special teams.  The Ducks are all over the place as far as the power play and penalty kill goes.  Convert your chances.
  • Get traffic in front of Hiller, who is playing really well right now.  I guess we could see Dan Ellis, but I'd be surprised.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Slow Start - Penguins 4, Lightning 2

So what happened?

After a (very) slow start, this was a much better overall effort by the Pens as compared to their last game against the Jets.

The first period was a little bit worrisome.  The Pens allowed two quick goals by Steve Downie, only 11 seconds apart, to fall behind 2-0.  They didn't play particularly well in the first period either.  They were redeemed by getting a power play goal from Geno on a nice pass from Letang in the middle of the ice.

Once the second period started, the Pens were able to "get to their game" in a big way.  Brent Johnson had to make a few key saves, but he didn't see that much in the way of sustained pressure as the Pens simply dominated the possession of the puck.

If the Bolts were trapping, it was impossible to tell as the Pens were able to enter the offensive zone easily.  Once there, they set up shop and stayed.  They were in there long enough that vendors started selling popcorn to make money off of the visitors.

Great way to earn two points and continue to (hopefully) get the monkey off of their back where the Lightning are concerned.

Who scored?

Malkin (31, 32), Kunitz (16), Letang (8)

The Good?
  • PFC Downie converted twice by being in the right place at the right time.  Good for him.  I didn't see much nonsense from him either.
  • The top line (and power play) provided all of the offense today.  That tells you the Bolts don't really have a shut-down defender that can control the game.
  • Matt Niskanen played almost 20 minutes, including a team-leading 18:48 at even strength.
The Bad?
  • Those Downie goals... the first one should not have gone in - either Martin needs to block it or Johnson needs to make the save.  The second one - the pass can't go all the way across.
  • Paul Martin played only 17:12, good for fifth among the defense.  He was, however, playing good minutes in the third period (6:30).
The Ugly?
  • Root Sports - they missed several penalty calls.  A few times they didn't notice that the Pens were on the penalty kill.  They also didn't announce the Too Many Men penalty on the Bolts.
Any Surprises?
  • I was surprised that they were able to come back from a 2-0 deficit again.  Teams usually don't recover from starting out that way.  The Pens need to fix the slow start issue, or it will burn them come playoff time.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 32-19-5.

Who's next?
Quack!  Quack!  Quack!  The Ducks are coming to Consol on Wednesday

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Game #56 - vs Tampa Bay Lightning

2011-12 Game 56

Tampa Bay Lightning (24-24-6, 52 points) at Pittsburgh Penguins (31-19-5, 67 points)

Ryan hasn't played since January 21st at Phoenix.  He has an upper-body injury.

Why does it matter?

The Bolts are playing pretty well at the moment.  They just won yesterday in Buffalo, and they've improved slightly on their completely terrible record away from home.  The Pens need to beat these guys.  Any team that plays such a sleep-inducing trap deserves to lose every game.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - A sloppy win over the Jets vaulted the Pens over New Jersey and within two points of Philly in the division.
  • Lightning - 2-1-2 over their past five, which is a nice way of saying they've lose three of their past five games.
Questions to be answered
  • Can the team improve on the defensive end?  They can't count on a team being a porous as the Jets were yesterday.
  • Will we see Brent Johnson?  After Flower allowed five yesterday, it wouldn't surprise me.  HCDB has said it would be a game-time decision.
  • Who will watch Stamkos?  He's heating up again.  He has 37 goals on the season, and 31 of those are at even-strength.
Keys to the game
  • Slow down Vinny and Marty - they always seem to kill the Pens.
  • Keep things tighter.  The Bolts will convert the glorious scoring chances that the Jets were unable to convert yesterday.

Offensive - Penguins 8, Jets 5

So what happened?

This game was fun to watch, but it isn't the kind of game you want to see out of the Pens on a regular basis.  Yes, the offense exploded for EIGHT goals, which ties the high-water mark for the season.  The defense (and Fleury) allowed five on just 25 shots.  That's not good.

The Pens started the game slowly and were down 2-0 by the midpoint of the first period.  They scored twice to tie the score at 2-2, and I think most people felt pretty comfortable that they'd find a way to win.  The Pens had a 5-3 lead going into the third.

The Jets kept hanging around.  If I'm a Winnipeg fan, that's what I take away from this game - the team didn't quite.  Of course, I'm pretty ticked that Andrew Ladd took a really stupid slashing call (and it was blatant - there was no doubt it was a slash) with just three minutes left in the game.

To their credit, the Jets pulled to within one goal early in the third.  The Pens scored the next two to make it 7-4, and the Jets scored again to cut it to 7-5.  They were trying to get within one when Ladd took his ill-advised penalty.

Who scored?

Jeffrey (3), Neal (29), Kunitz (15), Letang (6, 7), Malkin (30), Park (5), Staal (16)

The Good?
  • The power play was effective again.  That second power play goal was the result of a scrum around the net.  The puck went to the net and it looked like a small war broke out instantly.  Bodies were everywhere and both sides were working their tails off.
  • Malkin, Kunitz, Neal, Letang and Staal all had multi-point games.
  • The offense was a team effort, with key goals coming from Jeffrey and Park.  That was nice to see.
The Bad?
  • Flower was really not sharp, and the guys in front of him weren't giving him that much help, either.  Fleury did make some nice saves a few different times, or it could have been worse, but he let in a few that I'm sure he would want back.
  • Dustin Byfuglien made some bad choices of when to jump in the play.  He jumped in a few times and no one covered for him, leading directly to more than one goal.  He was on the ice for five goals against.
The Ugly?
  • Pavelec having to play through allowing eight goals.  You'd think they would have pulled him at the end of the second.
Any Surprises?
  • I was surprised the Pens were so sloppy in their own end.  They did limit the chances, but the ones they allowed were way too good.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 31-19-5.

Who's next?
A rare Sunday night game against the Bolts.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Game #55 - vs Winnipeg Jets

2011-12 Game 55

Winnipeg Jets (26-24-6, 58 points) at Pittsburgh Penguins (30-19-5, 65 points)

Now that's a nice looking card.  It's not $250 nice, but still nice none the less.

Why does it matter?

Smoke and mirrors.  That's the only way I can come up with the fact that the Jets are anywhere near the playoffs.  Their road record is terrible and their offense is worse.  They are middling to average on just about everything else.

This, of course, means the Pens will have quite a game on their hands on Saturday afternoon.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - 1-2-1 over their past four games.  The Pens need to get things going again.
  • Jets - Like the guy in pickup basketball that has the shooting motion that looks like a train wreck, the Jets pulled one our of you-know-where and made a shot won a game on the road against the Caps on Thursday.
Questions to be answered
  • How will Staal do in his return to the lineup?  Even better, what does that do to the lineup?  Do the Pens have too many centers again?  In practice, Jeffrey was skating on the wing.
  • Can the Pens keep the power play going?  The afternoon games last weekend resulted in a 3-6 performance on the power play and a shutout on the PK.
  • Can someone slow down Alex Burmistrov?  He has three points in two games against the Pens.
Keys to the game
  • Keep it close.  The Jets have won by more than one goal just twice since the start of 2012.
  • Remember Christmas.  The Pens played the Jets on December 23rd, out shooting them 39-19 and winning 4-1.
  • Stay healthy.  There isn't another injured forward who is ready to jump back into the lineup yet, so no one else can get hurt.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Hal Gill to the Penguins? Really?

As much as I'd like to see the U.S.S. Gill patrolling the ice at the Consol Energy Center come playoff time, I don't see it.  The Pens don't have an abundance of cap space, and they already have seven healthy defensemen.

First, the current blue line has seven healthy members.

  • Assume that Despres, as good as he has looked, is headed back to Wilkes-Barre.  
  • Looking beyond this season, Matt Niskanen is a restricted free agent.  He counts for $1.5 million against the cap.  The Pens need to play him to continue to figure out if they want to keep him longer term.  He's currently your sixth defenseman at even strength, in terms of time on ice.
  • Even if they wanted to, who would you move / sit to make space for Gill?  He would instantly be the slowest defense the Pens have for a team built on speed, and his Corsi numbers aren't very good for a team that values quick thinking and good passing.

As far as the cap situation goes, according to, the Pens can take on a full season salary of about $4.6 million, and by the trade deadline, assuming things continue as they are (ie, Sid and Staal are still out), they'll be able to take on about $5 million.  Gill's cap number is $2.25 million.  The Pens have to be looking to add some scoring up front, especially with the latest injury to Tyler Kennedy.  Ray Whitney or some other rental player has to be looking very enticing right about now.  Gill would take up nearly half of what the team has to spend (assuming that they want to spend it).

Lastly, what would they give up for a few month rental of Hal Gill?  If it's anything more than a fifth or sixth round draft choice, then I think it's too much.

Unless there's some rash of blue line injuries, I don't see this happening.

Game #54 - at Montreal Canadiens

2011-12 Game 54

Pittsburgh Penguins (30-19-4, 64 points) at Montreal Canadiens (20-24-9, 49 points)

Would he look good in black and gold?  Sure, but there's no way he's coming back - who would you sit?

Why does it matter?

The Pens need to bounce back from their disappointing performance against the Devils.  The Habs are backed into a corner - they have to win now if they want to have any chance at the post season.  To this point, other than their penalty kill, they've been resoundingly just below mediocre.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - Remember that great feeling we all had for about 24 hours?  It was gone by the time the Pens finished their game against the Devils.
  • Canadiens - They did just shut out Winnipeg, but they had lost three in a row prior to that.
Questions to be answered
  • Who will step into the hole left by Tyler Kennedy?  Colin McDonald will likely take his spot in the lineup.  What does that do to the Shamrock Line?
  • Can the Pens get themselves going for this one after a poor effort on Sunday?  At least the Habs will let them have a bit more room to skate through the neutral zone.
  • Will anyone go after Subban after his cheap slew-foot last time?  I sure hope so.  Engelland needs to get a hold of him and not let him back down.
Keys to the game
  • Ramp up the shots.  The Pens, after putting on an offensive clinic for the month of January, are suddenly struggling to crack 30 shots in a game.  The Habs have allowed 23 or fewer in their past three.  The Pens need to get to their game.
  • Skate.  Dump the puck and pursue aggressively.  Make sure the high forward is back-checking hard.  Out work the Habs.
  • Support Fleury.  No more passes to a wide open guy in front of the net, like they allowed in the first two minutes of the game against the Devils.

Letdown - Devils 5, Penguins 2

So what happened?

The effort may have been there, but the intensity wasn't, as the Pens were down 2-0 by the end of the first period.  They were unable to mount any kind of attack at even strength, and were also unable to figure out how to dump the puck away from Martin Brodeur.

All of these things, along with a completely hideous non-call against Ilya Kovalchuk while the game was still in doubt, led to a bad showing in New Jersey.

Who knew the Pens could predict the Super Bowl winner?  They beat the Boston team but lost to the New Jersey team.

Who scored?

Niskanen (3), Malkin (29)

The Good?
  • The power play scored twice.
The Bad?
  • A slow start killed the Pens.  The Devils were up 1-0 before the game was three minutes old.
The Ugly?
  • The non-call against Kovalchuk.  The Pens were on the power play and he was pressuring Paul Martin, who was going back to retrieve the puck in the Pens' zone.  Kovalchuk put both hands on Martin and turned him partially in order to get around him and play the puck.  It led directly to the goal scored by Zubrus.  Really terrible non-call, and it made the game 3-0.
Any Surprises?
  • I was mildly surprised to see Fleury start after how well Johnson played against the Leafs earlier in the week.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 30-19-4.

Who's next?
Montreal, against Captain Slew Foot, on Tuesday

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Game #53 - at New Jersey Devils

2011-12 Game 53

Pittsburgh Penguins (30-18-4, 64 points) at New Jersey Devils (29-19-3, 61 points)

Upper Deck has the best photography of any hockey cards by far.  Nothing else is close.

Why does it matter?

With a win today and a Flyers loss to the Rangers, the Pens can tie Philly for second place in the division and the #4 seed in the East.  Feels like it has been forever since the Pens were close to the top of the East, but they're almost back.

The Devils have been an offensive juggernaut over their last three games, averaging 5 goals per game.  They jumped out to a 6-0 lead over the Flyers yesterday.  The Pens will need to be ready.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - A great win over the Bruins in Boston.
  • Devils - Three wins in a row, with only average goalie play and excellent offensive play.  Who are these guys?
Questions to be answered
  • Can the Pens keep the Devils special teams in check?  The Devils have scored a power play goal in four straight, and four of their six goals came via either the power play (three) or the penalty kill (one).
  • Will the Pens be ready for another early start after a tough win yesterday?
  • Who will fight Kovalchuk?  I don't really expect him to fight, but he did pretty well against Schenn yesterday.
Keys to the game
  • Stay out of the box.  The Devils power play is lethal right now.  The best thing to do is avoid it entirely - no dumb penalties.
  • Stay patient.  The trap will frustrate most teams.  Dump the puck away from Brodeur and put in the hard work to go get it.
  • Get traffic in front of Brodeur.  Martin has been really good the last few games against the Pens.  Create a mess in front of him to make it more difficult.

Solid - Penguins 2, Bruins 1

So what happened?

Marc-Andre Fleury clearly ate his Wheaties before this game.  He stopped all but one shot from the Bruins, who curiously had 20 of their 29 shots fired by defensemen... many of them from near the blue line.  That certainly makes it easier on a goalie, but Flower certainly held the fort over several long stretches when the Bruins were bringing it.

Otherwise, it was a solid team effort.  The Pens rose to the physical challenge as a team, with big hits placed on both Chara and Lucic among several others.  Brooks Orpik and Chris Kunitz were two of the notable hitters, with Kunitz bringing down Chara and Orpik hitting Pie into the middle of next week.

This was a solid response after the loss in Toronto on Wednesday, and it came against one of the better teams in the East.

Who scored?

Cooke (9), Malkin (28)

The Good?
  • Cal O'Reilly centered a line with Sullivan and Kennedy (Shamrock Line, anyone?) in his first game with the Pens.  He played over 13 minutes without contributing much.
  • Geno had his first power play goal in almost forever (19 games, I think).  Could you imagine his numbers if he was pumping in goals with the man-advantage too?  It shows that he may increase his scoring pace as things go along here...
  • Flower, obviously, was great.
  • The refs, for catching Kris Letang picking up the puck after being tripped in an effort to keep the play going.  Letang was correctly whistled for two minutes.  It wasn't a smart move by Letang, but it was nice to see the refs make the right call.
The Bad?
  • The Bruins didn't seem to be ready to go.  They also didn't respond very well to the physical challenge from the Pens.
The Ugly?
  • Nothing ugly, really.
Any Surprises?
  • No one did anything dumb after some of the bigger hits.  It was actually refreshing - deliver a clean, hard hit and the response is just trying harder on the ice.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 30-18-4.

Who's next?
The Devils, in New Jersey, in just a few hours from now.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Budweiser does it right with Canadian Super Bowl commercial

If you haven't seen this, you need to watch it.  Here in the USA, this would translate to the rec league basketball or softball that most guys have played at one time or another (because ice time is $$$ and you have to play late at night or early in the morning in many cases).

Really cool commercial.  I wish they'd show it here in the states.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Game #52 - at Boston Bruins

2011-12 Game 52

Pittsburgh Penguins (29-18-4, 62 points) at Boston Bruins (32-15-2, 66 points)

Anybody want a peanut?

Why does it matter?

The Bruins are good... really good.  They haven't lost two in a row since early December.  They're the #1 team in goals scored per game and the #4 team in goals allowed per game.  Their special teams are both in the top ten as well.  This will be a tough challenge.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - The winning streak is over following a shutout loss to the Leafs.
  • Bruins - Their coach says they're going through the motions right now.  They've traded wins and losses over the past 10 games.
Questions to be answered
  • After a game where there weren't that many good offensive chances, how will the Pens respond against the Bruins?
  • Can the Pens break the Bruins pattern of trading wins and losses?  They're "due" for a win.
  • Can the Pens get to the power play?  They earned just three trips in two games against the Leafs.
Keys to the game
  • Get traffic in front of the goalie.  Both netminders for the Bruins have been excellent on the season.  They need traffic in front.
  • Buckle up.  The Bruins bring a nasty brand of physical hockey.  The Pens can play that way, but they need to be smart about it.
  • Initiate, don't retaliate.  The zebras always catch the second guy.  Taking dumb penalties against the Bruins can be death.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Tight - Maple Leafs 1, Penguins 0

So what happened?

We saw the other extreme of hockey last night, as neither team was able to register more than 25 shots, and and neither goalie had to make any amazing saves.  Neither team could score on the power play, either.  No one could even get any sustained offense going.

The difference was one mistake by the Pens, not picking up Clarke MacArthur coming off of the bench from a line change.  He came down the right side unattended.  The Leafs got him the puck and he cut to the middle and beat Johnson, who had sold out to protect the short side.

There were a few miscues with the Johnson play:
Not marking him when he came off of the bench
Allowing him to cut to the middle when he had the puck - that shouldn't happen
Johnson overplaying and thus being totally unprepared for his cutback

Aside from that, the defense was fine.  The offense just wasn't there.

At least the Pens have a few days to work on it before their busy weekend.

Who scored?

No one.

The Good?
  • Keeping the Leafs in check offensively.  Things never got to be what you'd consider to be wide-open hockey.
The Bad?
  • Not establishing any kind of offensive rhythm.  They were never able to get to their game.
The Ugly?
  • Letang was high-sticked in the face (not called) and twice has his legs kicked out from under him (not called).  He was ticked, as was (I think) every Pens fan that was watching.
Any Surprises?
  • Geno and company getting shut down, essentially, by the Leafs was surprising.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 29-18-4.

Who's next?
Weekend back-to-back, both in the afternoon.  Get used to this - the Pens play back-to-backs every weekend in February, with seven of the eight games being in the afternoon.