Friday, March 30, 2012

Gut Check - Penguins 5, Sabres 3

So what happened?

Brent Johnson had a very shaky start.  He also had a very strong finish.  The backup netminder was fighting the puck all night long, allowing two very soft goals in the first period and multiple rebounds.  However, when it came down to crunch time, there were no crucial rebounds, and there were no goals for the Sabres.

The resurgence of Johnson through the second half of the game may be the most important thing to come out of this contest.  Assuming the Pens give him one more assignment prior to the start of the playoffs, it will give Johnson a chance to continue his momentum and head into the post-season on a high note.

Back to the game - the big guns earned the results tonight.  Sid had four points.  Sullivan had three.  Geno had two.  The power play scored twice.  The offense provided some timely scoring in general, especially to pick up Johnson after a rough first period.

The intensity is also worth mentioning.  There were nearly 60 hits thrown in this game.  It felt like a playoff game, with some nastiness going back and forth early and then settling down as the game wound down (probably due to fear of taking a penalty).

Who scored?

Malkin (48), Crosby (5), Neal (38), Sullivan (15), Staal (25)

The Good?
  • Sid became the seventh youngest player to reach 600 points tonight.
  • Matt Niskanen returned and stepped right into the top 4 defensemen on a night when Engelland and Strait weren't used as much.
  • Neal's power play goal was almost perfect from the perspective of a Pens' fan.  Geno controlled the puck and somehow gained the zone.  He dished it to Crosby who threw a diagonal pass to Neal cutting down the slot.  Neal finished off "The Whitney Play" better than Ryan ever did by burying the puck behind Miller.
The Bad?
  • Johnson in the first period.  Not good, especially on the Ennis goal.  Fortunately, he turned things around quickly.
The Ugly Dumb?
  • How on early was Thomas Vanek one of the three stars?  Did he do something special I didn't notice?  He was the beneficiary of a bizarre bounce that rewarded him for being the last man out of the offensive zone.  He was also a -1, which means he was on the ice for at least two other goals against.  Second star?  Really?
Any Surprises?
  • I was surprised that HCDB kept flip flopping his lines.  He seemed to have Sullivan and Neal switching spots much of the night.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 48-24-6.  They are five points behind the Rangers and four ahead of the Flyers.  

Who's next?
Get ready to feel the hate.  The Flyers come to Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon.  It's on NBC.  You just know Hartnell will do something dumb.

Game #78 - at Buffalo Sabres

No time for the regular preview, as real life has intruded on blogging time lately.

Let's just say that the Sabres (winners of 5 straight) have allowed a total of three goals in their past four games.

The Penguins (losers of three of the past four) have allowed SIXTEEN TWENTY (edited to correct poor math from person who may or may not have a degree in mathematics).

Things are going to have to change, and change quickly, for the Pens.  It only gets more difficult from here.

No Letang.  Niskanen is on the trip, so he may play (and I think he is needed, if only to have someone to play the point on the power play).  Hopefully no ill effects from the puck to the face that Sid took last night.

Go Pens!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Islanders 5, Penguins 3

So what happened?

Poor, inconsistent play for the Penguins in both of these games against the Isles.  You could see the emphasis in defense in terms of their posture in their own zone (the points were wide open for the Isles because everyone was packing it in), but though the look was there, the results were not.  The Isles were able score twice at even strength, and both goals were largely due to defensive breakdowns.

The offense wasn't much better for the Pens, who struggled to generate any kind of consistent pressure.

I think these two games are best forgotten quickly.  The opportunity they missed in these four points was huge.

Who scored?

Dupuis (24), Staal (24), Malkin (47)

The Good?
  • Duper has a 12 game point streak.  That's tied for the longest streak this season in the NHL.
  • Sid took a puck to the face, but returned to the game (which is the "good" part of that equation).
  • Geno reached 100 points on the season.
The Bad?
  • You could tell the defense was very wary of the speed of Grabner.  You could also tell there was a huge difference without Niskanen and Letang.
The Ugly?
  • The power play for the Pens with five forwards.  They're going to get killed if they keep deploying that - at least throw Paul Martin out there and have him stand by the red line if necessary.  The short-handed chances against have to stop.
Any Surprises?
  • I was really surprised HCDB broke up Malkin, Neal and Kunitz.  I know it probably makes the team stronger overall, but I'm not sure I would have done that.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 47-24-6.  They are five points behind the Rangers and just two ahead of the Flyers.  All three teams have five games remaining.

Who's next?
A trip over to Buffalo for a game tomorrow night.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

100 - Penguins 5, Devils 2

So what happened?

The Pens were opportunistic with their scoring chances.  They only fired 28 shots on net (a low total for them), but were still able to get four past Martin Brodeur, who did not have one of his better games.

None of the goals were overly pretty, other than Crosby's beautiful breakaway, but they all were right place at the right time type of goals.  Kunitz was available for a pass when Geno stole the puck from Brodeur behind the net.  Dupuis was charging toward the net on the rush when a rebound was tipped back out to him.  Staal had the puck following him, and although he misplayed it a bit, he was able to shoot back against the grain and beat Brodeur.

The defense was also not bad, though they did suffer through several extended sessions in their own zone.  If a team like Jersey can do that, imagine what the Flyers or Rangers might do given the chance.  The Pens will need to clean up their play in their own zone before they're ready to face the tougher opponents next weekend.

Who scored?

Kunitz (23), Staal (23), Dupuis (23), Crosby (4), Malkin (46)

The Good?
  • Faceoffs - Sid, Geno and Staal were all positive on the draw.  That's crucial against a team like New Jersey.  Winning the draw means they have a harder time setting up their trap.
  • Letang and Crosby both took hard hits (Letang collided head-to-head with Zubrus) and nether seemed any worse for wear.  Hopefully that good feeling continues tomorrow when they wake up.
  • Paul Martin was a +4 in almost 23 minutes of ice time.  He probably didn't play quite that well, but he also wasn't as bad as his +/- showed earlier in the season.
The Bad?
  • Ben Lovejoy left with an apparent injury.  With Matt Niskanen also hurt currently, I imagine we'll see Simon Despres if Lovejoy will be out for any extended period of time.
The Ugly?
  • Patrick Elias on faceoffs.  Eight draws, eight losses.  It doesn't get any uglier than that.
Any Surprises?
  • Dan Potash's face when he was goosed by Pascal Dupuis after the second period (I can only assume Dupuis goosed him - you couldn't see what actually happened).  Potash, to his credit, held it together after he was finished jumping.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 47-22-6.  They have 100 points on the season!!  They are one point behind the Rangers and four ahead of the Flyers.  All three teams have seven games remaining.

Who's next?
It's a home and home with the Islanders, starting on Tuesday at Consol.

Game #75 - vs New Jersey Devils

2011-12 Game 75

New Jersey Devils (42-27-6, 90 points) at Pittsburgh Penguins (46-22-6, 98 points)

Matt Cooke - goal scoring machine!?!

Why does it matter?

It was only one loss, but if the Pens fall into a small skid here, they could find themselves facing Philadelphia without home ice advantage in the first round.  I think that's a situation that the team might rather avoid.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - Last night was the first regulation loss in over a month.
  • Devils - The only time they're winning in the past six games is when Brodeur throws a shutout.
Questions to be answered
  • Whose pain will be more motivating?  The Pens had a painful loss last night to the Sens, but the Devils have lost four out of six, including an embarrassing loss to the Pens where they were out shot 44-14.
  • What is wrong with the power play?  Not only did they look disjointed last night, they allowed a key short-handed goal.
  • How will the Pens respond?  It has been so long since their last loss in regulation - can they bounce back or will we see lots of guys making an individual effort to try to run the gauntlet?  That would be playing right into the Devils' hands, in my opinion.
Keys to the game
  • Team defense.  Focus on keeping the puck out of the danger areas.
  • Clean play in the neutral zone.  Last time, the Pens had no trouble shredding the trap.  Let's hope they can do it again.
  • Don't lose confidence.  Even if Brodeur is standing on his head, keep pushing.

Fiasco - Sentaors 8, Penguins 4

So what happened?

You had to know the Pens were going to lay an egg sometime.  Given how they've played against Ottawa this year, this wasn't a total surprise.  The biggest reasons for the loss?  Geno's line was a combined -9.  Even if they're not scoring (which would have been okay tonight), they can't be in the hole that much.  I know one of those came from a shorty on the power play, but more defensive zone responsibility when you have a shaky goaltender would be smart.

And that brings us to the other reason - Brad Thiessen.  He wasn't really at fault on most of the goals, but, for instance, as soon as Spezza started his breakaway (when all five Penguins were way too far into the offensive zone), you knew he was going to score.  Steigy and Errey were right - Marc Andre Fleury is more important to the team than a lot of people give him credit for.

Hopefully this one is already out of the memory banks and they're thinking about New Jersey.

Who scored?

Cooke (18, 19), Kennedy (9), Crosby (3)

The Good?
  • Cooke had two.
  • If you were a defenseman not named Michalek or Orpik then you had a decent game statistically.
The Bad?
  • Everything else.  Giving up 8 is never good.
The Ugly?
  • The backup goaltending situation.  Hopefully this won't be an issue in the playoffs, where you can ride Fleury as long as he stays healthy.
Any Surprises?
  • I was surprised to see Crosby double-shifted in the first two minutes of the game.  I think it was because Malkin needed a skate adjustment, but still, on the front end of a back-to-back?
What's their record now?
The Pens are 46-22-6.  They are all alone in fourth place in the conference, two points ahead of Philly and three points behind the Rangers.

Who's next?
The Devils come to Consol for a key Atlantic division game.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Quitting - Penguins 5, Predators 1

So what happened?

No one on the home team was quitting at all tonight.  They kept after Nashville, taking away time and space as the Preds tried to come back from a multiple goal deficit.  Nothing worked for the Predators tonight.

This was the closest blowout you could imagine for the first two period.  The Predators had multiple glorious scoring chances, with several wide-open nets, and couldn't finish a play.  They were off ever so slightly, and that cost them a chance to earn points.

The Pens, for their part, got two grinder goals from Dupuis and Cooke, and Geno's line did the rest.  I guess the Cooke goal was also on Geno's line, since he was out there instead of Chris Kunitz at the time.

Solid offense and solid goaltending from the Pens tonight.

Who scored?

Malkin (44, 45), Dupuis (22), Cooke (17), Kunitz (22)

The Good?
  • Malkin had 10 shots.  Everyone else combined for 13.  TEN shots... in a game that was pretty tightly played.  Wow.
  • The role of Sidney Crosby was played by James Neal, who had 4 assists.  It was a career high in assists, and tied a career high in points.
  • Letang has two points and was +2.
The Bad?
  • Matt Niskanen left with an injury.  Letang looked like he may have hurt his knee and went to the locker room for a spell, but returned and played the rest of the game.
The Ugly?
  • The Preds effort level in the third period.  They looked like they were going through the motions.
Any Surprises?
  • I was surprised at how much better the Pens seemed than the Predators.  Maybe it was because the Preds couldn't find the net, but it felt like the Pens kicked the stuffing out of one of the better teams in the West.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 46-21-6.  They are all alone in fourth place in the conference, four points ahead of Philly and just one point behind the Rangers.

Who's next?
Saturday night - Ottawa - Consol Energy Center.

Game #73 - vs Nashville Predators

2011-12 Game 73

Nashville Predators (42-23-8, 92 points) at Pittsburgh Penguins (45-21-6, 96 points)

Will Radulov propel the Preds deep into the playoffs?

Why does it matter?

The Pens didn't waste much time getting things turned around again in destroying the Jets on Tuesday.  Now they face a much stronger opponent who are getting back a potential game-changer in Alexander Radulov from the KHL.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - Going back to the middle of February, 13 games, 25 points earned.  It doesn't get much better than that.
  • Predators - Three losses in their past four, including a bad home loss to the lowly Oilers on Tuesday.
Questions to be answered
  • How much impact will Radulov have?  He will play tonight, for sure, probably with Hornqvist and Legwand.  That makes a pretty tough top line.
  • Can the Pens stay out of the box?  The Preds power play is deadly (#1 in the NHL), and the PK for the Pens is suddenly leaky over the last two games.
  • Will Sid ever score a goal?  I'm joking, of course, but it would be nice to see him rip one past Rinne on the rush tonight, wouldn't it?
Keys to the game
  • Play even-strength.  The Preds haven't been involved in too many special teams situations lately, but then they get a power play chance, they're very good.  Don't give them extra chances.
  • Match up.  The Preds are deep, with good scoring depth.  They won't blow you away with their talent, but they will keep coming at you.
  • Traffic.  Create chaos around Rinne, who is another big goaltender (6'5")

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Third - Flyers 3, Penguins 2 (OT)

So what happened?

First off, the reason for "The Third" - I'm suggesting that's the new name for Scotty Hartnell.  At least twice yesterday, he jumped in as the third man on a confrontation.  Coming from the man who won't fight Arron Asham, that takes tremendous courage.  Congratulations, Scott Hartnell The Third, you have the heart of a lion.

If you had said that the Pens would play the Rangers, Devils and Flyers, all on the road, and come out with 5 points (out of six possible), I would have taken that any day of the week.

Unfortunately, when the only loss comes at the hands of the Flyers, in the last part of those three games, it leaves a foul taste in your mouth.

That's a good thing.  The Pens will now have some things to correct and some extra motivation going into a slightly easier part of the schedule.

As for the game itself, the Pens jumped out to a 2-0 lead.  It would have been worse, but Bryzgalov was excellent between the pipes (as was Fleury, for that matter).  I can't believe Bryzgalov wasn't one of the three stars for the game.

The Flyers scored twice in the third period to tie the game, and again with one second left in OT to earn the extra point.

The Flyers goal in OT was one that should not have happened - James Neal had a chance to get the puck deep in the Flyers zone.  Instead, he and Dupuis tried to make a play and wound up coughing up the puck.  That led directly to the Hartnell goal.

Who scored?

Adams (5), Malkin (41)

The Good?
  • The first two periods were more of the same from the Pens.  Domination in terms of possession, zone time and shots.
  • You could make a case for Kris Letang as Team MVP.  Things are that much different when he's playing.
  • Geno had a great individual play on his goal.  Nice to see him keep pushing.
  • Sid seems to be slowing stepping up his level of play, including getting more involved down low and going to the dirty areas (like the front of the net).
The Bad?
  • The third period.  The Pens couldn't keep their system when the Flyers stepped up their play.  It was a good test for the Pens, and right now this time they didn't earn a passing score.
The Ugly?
  • Just your usual stupid thuggery by the Flyers.
Any Surprises?
  • The music people at the arena - usually when they play the musical line where the crowd chants "Crosby Sucks!", the folks in Philly drop the drum beat so as not to dilute the crowd chanting.  This time, they didn't tacitly endorse the chant by playing the full thing, so the drum was playing over the crowd chanting.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 44-21-6.  They are all alone in fourth place in the conference, two points ahead of Philly and just one point behind the Rangers.

Who's next?
Winnipeg comes to Pittsburgh on Tuesday night.  Four of the next five games are on home ice for the Pens.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Game #71 - at Philadelphia Flyers

2011-12 Game 71

Pittsburgh Penguins (44-21-5, 93 points) at Philadelphia Flyers (41-22-8, 90 points)

I think this card says it all.  Cup foursomes, indeed.  Go Pens.

Why does it matter?

You figure the Pens have to come down to Earth sometime, but man, I sure hope it isn't against the Flyers.  After the Ranger's loss to the Avs tonight, the Pens can tie the Rangers for the #1 spot in the East by earning two points in Philadelphia tomorrow.  It will be Sid's first trip back to Philly (where he usually gets fired up), as well as a key divisional game.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - If they can keep playing this way, I'm not sure anyone can beat them right now.  Eleven wins in a row.  Wow.
  • Flyers - After losing to Boston in a shootout, the Flyers are 7-1-1 in their past 9 games.
Questions to be answered
  • Do the Flyers finally have a goalie?  Over his past 9 games, Bryzgalov has allowed just 10 goals.  Pretty sharp.
  • Will the Flyers be dumb enough to get Sid and Geno fired up?  If I'm the Flyers, I let sleeping dogs lie and stay away from the dumb stuff.  I can't see the Flyers being that smart.
  • Can the Pens simplify things and adjust to play a defensive style against the Flyers?  It will be needed, as the Flyers are the top scoring team in the NHL (the Pens are #2).
Keys to the game
  • Discipline, both around the stupid stuff you know the Flyers will try, and (more importantly) against the high-powered offense.  Nothing dumb in the gray areas (neutral zone and near the blue lines).
  • Stick up for each other.  I don't think this will be a problem, but everyone needs to pay special attention tomorrow.
  • Roll the lines.  The Pens may be working on some tired legs, especially after getting the Newark monkey off of their backs.  Keep everyone fresh as much as possible.

Total Domination - Penguins 5, Devils 2

So what happened?

Almost from the drop of the puck, the Pens were totally dominant in this game.  There are several ways we can document this:

  • The score: 5-2
  • The shot margin: 44-14 (wow!)
  • Your ice time leaders among forwards:  Staal, Dupuis and Cooke, with only Staal approaching 20 minutes

Long story short, the Pens grabbed an early 1-0 lead.  The Devils tied it, but the Pens put the game out of reach 4-1 by scoring three goals in a little over 150 seconds in the middle of the second period.

If you want to know how disinterested the Devils were, they were out shot 18-4 while trying to come back in the third period.  That's just not trying.  I don't care if they Pens are the hockey equivalent of the 1927 Yankees, the Devils should be able to do better than that.

However, I'm sure the Pens will take it.  They played a really nice game today and will hopefully be carrying some of that over to tomorrow in Philly.

Who scored?

Neal (32), Dupuis (20), Cooke (15, 16), Malkin (40)

The Good?
  • Sid had three assists, and we saw him really use his speed on a rush in the third period.  It was the first time I can remember thinking that he was going full-bore since his return.  He also had six shots on goal.
  • Letang also had six shots and played a team-high 22:34.
  • Matt Cooke now has four goals in two games.  He's unstoppable!
  • Brodeur certainly allowed a few soft ones, but he made some amazing saves, or this game could have been 10-2.
The Bad?
  • Kovalchuk's play on Geno's power play goal (which I think was the back-breaker).  Sid was being pressured on the half-wall, and Kovalchuk cycled up high in the zone to take away the back-pass to Letang.  He should have been positioned in the middle of the ice.  He wasn't, and Sid was able to make a nice (though pretty easy) pass all the way across the box to Geno, who absolutely buried it behind a helpless Brodeur.  Bad decision by Kovalchuk.
The Ugly?
  • They didn't make a big deal out of it on the broadcast, but the Devils earned four different 10 minute misconducts on four different players in the third period.  They were playing with less than three lines by the last four minutes of the third period.
Any Surprises?
  • Flower might have gotten away with a trick I've never seen - it looked like he hid a stick behind the net when a tired unit iced the puck in the second period.  Engelland had broken his stick, and the last we saw of it, it was laying perpendicular to back of the cage on the ice.  The next time we saw it, it was laying parallel to the same back of the cage, and Flower was conveniently pointing out that there was a broken stick on the ice.  Did he hide it there?  I kept wishing for a replay that would show him moving the stick... but I think he did it.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 44-21-5.  They are all alone in fourth place in the conference, three points ahead of Philly and just two points behind the Rangers with a game in hand.

Who's next?
A chance to end these divisional games (and the road trip) on a high note in Philly tomorrow afternoon.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Game #70 - at New Jersey Devils

2011-12 Game 70

Pittsburgh Penguins (43-21-5, 91 points) at New Jersey Devils (41-25-5, 87 points)

Geno will need to remain assertive with Sid's return.  He got off to a good start against the Rangers.

Why does it matter?

A ten game winning streak, the return of Crosby and Letang, the overall health of the team... everything is coming up roses right now for the Pens.  It will all be for naught if the Pens lay a few goose eggs this weekend. They need to come out with at least three points, if not four, if they want to have a decent shot at staying in the #1 or #4 spots in the East.  Both the Devils and Flyers are breathing down their necks.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - Ten straight wins.  How long can they keep this up?  Hopefully for another few games, at least.
  • Devils - Five wins in six games, and Brodeur is hotter than ever.
Questions to be answered
  • Can the Pens get themselves fired up?  They need to carry some emotion into the game with them, because you know Jersey will try to put them to sleep.
  • Can the big guns score?  Newark has been a house of horrors in recent history for both Sid and Geno.  They'll need to find a way to break through.
  • Can the defense stay disciplined enough?  With the way Kovalchuk can and will float in the neutral zone, the D will need to be extra-aware of where he is.  Kovalchuk has 9 points in 4 games against the Pens this year.
Keys to the game
  • No screwing around in the neutral zone.  Get the puck and go north.  Keep it simple.
  • Score first (and second).  The Devils have been keeping the chances against to a minimum, so getting the first goal will help to bring them out of their trap.
  • Get traffic in front of Brodeur.  He's stopping everything right now.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bright Lights - Penguins 5, Rangers 2

So what happened?

Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang each had highly successful returns to the lineup.  Sid had a point and was +3 in 16 minutes of ice time.  Letang also had an assist and was +5 while leading the Pens with over 24 minutes on the ice.

The Pens didn't play their best game tonight.  At times, it looked like things were going in slow-motion.  The Pens never were able to really get to their game, and they were guilty of several bad turnovers and poor play in their own end.

Having said that, they still found a way to win against the team that has been the best in the East to this point this season, and it wasn't all that close.  The Pens will be truly scary once Sid is back up to full speed and the power play heats back up again.

Who scored?

Cooke (13, 14), Malkin (39), Kunitz (21), Dupuis (19)

The Good?
  • Both Sid and Letang came through healthy (as far as we know).
  • Geno didn't disappear or defer to Sid.  He had 8 shots on goal and his line played well.
  • Paul Martin had a pretty strong game as well, aside a poor decision to pinch, which allowed a two-on-one where the Rangers nearly scored.
  • Flower was terrific, making several show-stopping saves look easy.  His stick save with less than a minute to go (in garbage time) was incredible (and incredibly lucky).
The Bad?
  • Martin Biron was not good tonight.  The Rangers as a team just didn't seem to have it.
The Ugly?
  • Jordan Staal took a nasty high stick to the face (it was inadvertent).  Wonder if he's ever going to wear a shield?
Any Surprises?
  • No, not really.  Things went just as you might have hoped.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 43-21-5.  They are all alone in fourth place in the conference, two points ahead of Philly and New Jersey, and four points behind the Rangers.

Who's next?
A critical pair of divisional weekend games, both on the road, starting with New Jersey on Saturday afternoon.

Stars aligned for Pens tonight?

Not only will tonight's game against the Rangers feature the return of Sidney Crosby, but now Kris Letang will also make his return to the lineup.

The return of Letang adds another offensive dimension that the Penguins have been missing.  It also means that the power play will likely consist of Malkin, Neal and Kunitz up front with Crosby and Letang on the points.  If they want to work Sid down low, they can pull Kunitz and put Sullivan at the point with Letang.

The Rangers will be without Lundqvist and will start Martin Biron, who has not faced the Pens this year.

The Rangers are also without Ryan Callahan and Michael Del Zotto.  Callahan is their #2 in goal scoring.  Del Zotto is on the second defensive pairing.  Given the lineup for the Pens will have two excellent scoring lines (maybe three, depending on where Sid spends most of his time), being without Del Zotto is significant.  Suddenly you'll have either Anton Stralman or Stu Bickel going up against either Malkin or Crosby (pick your poison).

Of course, you know this means the Rangers will circle the wagons and this will be one tough game.

Game #69 - at New York Rangers

2011-12 Game 69

Pittsburgh Penguins (42-21-5, 89 points) at New York Rangers (44-18-7, 95 points)

Now this is a cool card.  Not sure I'd pay $55 for it, but still pretty cool anyway.

Why does it matter?

After their last game, the Pens were just two points behind the Rangers.  The Blueshirts have won twice since then, to give themselves a six point cushion.  Worse yet, a Flyers win with a Penguins loss would put the Pens back into a tie with the Flyers for second place in the division (with Jersey just behind).

To put it mildly, these divisional games today and over the weekend are critical.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - Nine wins in a row, and it feels like the team just might keep getting better with a few guys returning.
  • Rangers - They've looked tough in beating two cupcakes (the Isles and Hurricanes).  They lost three in a row prior to that to playoff teams like the Devils, Senators and Blackhawks.
Questions to be answered
  • Will Lundqvist play?  The Pens have faced him every time this year, winning two and losing two.  King Henrik has been very solid overall against the Pens this year.
  • Can the Pens put up enough shots to win?  The Rangers like to limit the chances against, and they've been pretty successful in doing so.  Generating offense consistently will be tough.  Fortunately, the Pens now feature three lines with world-class centers.
  • Will Letang play?  As nice as it is to have Sid back, I think Letang is the real key to the power play.  If he plays, it makes that unit a difference maker every shift they're out there.
Keys to the game
  • Shake off the rust.  Having Sid back will help with that, but the Pens haven't played since Sunday, and they have a bad habit of falling behind in recent games.  That would be death against the Rangers.
  • Roll the lines.  This will help to keep the minutes down for Sid, and will keep everyone more fresh heading into the two big games this weekend.
  • Get shots on net.  The Pens need to play in the offensive zone, and the shots on net is the best indicator that they're successful in doing that.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Game #67 - vs Florida Panthers

2011-12 Game 67

Florida Panthers (31-23-12, 74 points) at Pittsburgh Penguins (40-21-5, 85 points)

Campbell is a -5 in three games this season against the Penguins.  Get Malkin out there against him!

Why does it matter?

With a win by the Penguins tonight (and a loss by the Rangers in Chicago), the Pens could pull within four points of the top spot in the Eastern Conference (and the top of the Atlantic division).  If they're not going to finish in the #6 spot, the #1 spot is as good as any since there's a big drop off between the #7 and #8 spot.  Games like these are critical to having a chance at the #1 seed, especially with Sid possibly returning on Sunday.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - The second line carried the day as the Pens came from behind to beat the Maple Leafs.
  • Panthers - Three losses in four games.  In their past two road games, they've been shut out by a combined score of 12-0.
Questions to be answered
  • Will the power play for the Pittsburgh Penguins please report to Consol Energy Center?  Power play to the Consol Energy Center, please?
  • Will it be a shooting gallery again?  The Pens fired 41 shots in each of the past two meetings with the Panthers.  That, combined with the recent road results for the Kitty Cats, doesn't bode well for them.
  • Is this a trap game?  With Crosby due to return soon, the Panthers being crappy lately and the Pens reliance on playing from behind, this could be the game where things are topsy-turvy.
Keys to the game
  • Get the top line going.  They were shut out against Toronto.
  • Execute on special teams.  The PK for the Panthers has been pretty bad.
  • Matchups - there are some good ones to be had against the Panthers.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Duper - Penguins 3, Maple Leafs 2

So what happened?

I'm late to the party with this review, so let's just say that it was a good win for the Pens.  They fell behind 2-0 and came roaring back to win 3-2.  It was the second line that did all the damage.

Who scored?

Dupuis (16,17), Staal (22)

The Ugly?
  • How do you know your defense isn't up to snuff?  When Arron Asham blows past you on a speed move to the outside.  No offense to Arron, but he isn't exactly a speedster.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 40-21-5.  They are all alone in fourth place in the conference, two points ahead of Philly, and six points behind the Rangers.

Who's next?
Friday night the home stand continues against the Panthers.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Game #66 - vs Toronto Maple Leafs

2011-12 Game 66

Toronto Maple Leafs (30-29-7, 67 points) at Pittsburgh Penguins (39-21-5, 83 points)

According to his sig, Clarke spells his name "Cl McAthu", which seems like something out of Lovecraft.

Why does it matter?

The Leafs think they still have a shot at the playoffs.  I sure hope they do, because if they make it, it will likely mean that the Southeast division (where the Caps play) will only get one team in the playoffs.  That would be all kinds of awesome.  Desperation has set in for Toronto, and the feel will be similar to the past three games for the Pens.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - The team keeps rolling, and now Sid is close to returning.
  • Maple Leafs - What happened in February?  After starting the month with three straight wins, they finished the month with a 1-9-1 run.  Talk about choking... but they've changed their coach, so we'll see if that makes a difference.
Questions to be answered
  • Kessel and Lupul?  Forget about them - it's Grabovski and MacArthur the Pens need to watch, as both have had great success against the Pens this year (6 and 5 points respectively).
  • Can the Pens stop the trend of being out shot?  You know that has to be killing HCDB, who would rather control the game by keeping the puck in the offensive zone (shots are a decent indicator of that).
  • Any chance we see Thiessen or Johnson?  You have to figure the team will want to get Flower some rest as we go down the stretch.
Keys to the game
  • Play like it's a road game.  Keep things tight and don't give the playmakers from the Leafs any room to skate.
  • Work for your chances.  The power play has been short on chances the past few games.  If the refs aren't blowing the whistles, work harder and force them to do it.
  • Shut down their power play - the Leafs scored twice last night against the Bruins with the man-advantage.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Crosby cleared for the runway, but not for takeoff (yet)

Sidney Crosby has been cleared for contact.  He'll be practicing with the team this week and will not return any earlier than Sunday against Boston.

There were a few pieces of information that I thought were interesting buried in the article:

  • Sid took a shot in the neck to reduce the inflammation in his C1 and C2 joints in the neck.  It seems to have produced some results.
  • He has been symptom-free for "a few days".
  • Last time he was cleared, it took six weeks before he came and played in a game.  Hopefully this time won't be as long.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Tough - Penguins 2, Coyotes 1

So what happened?

The Pens started slowly again.  They took a lead, again.  This time, however, they had to hang on for the win.

Phoenix fired lots of shots on Marc-Andre Fleury.  Fortunately, most of them were from some distance (at least for the first two periods) and there were no significant rebounds.  The goal they did score was in the third on a nice chip by Ray Whitney.  I thought Malkin should have been busting his tail get get back into the play - he looked more like he was gliding from the blue line in.

On the other end of the ice, Smith was playing very well, but he flubbed two shots in the first period.  Both went over the right pad and under the right arm / blocker.  Both were slightly deflected by Smith himself (in other words, he was just a tiny bit off in trying to stop them).  The Pens were very close to being shut out tonight.

There were no significant special teams chances, which is somewhat surprising given how physical this game was.

Who scored?

Michalek (2), Kunitz (19)

The Good?
  • Michalek with his second of the year against his former team, and it was a seeing-eye shot.
  • Tyler Kennedy seemed solid in his return.
  • The Pens put together several great shifts in the offensive zone, and they didn't really allow any extended shifts to Phoenix.
  • HCDB rolling the forward lines in a tight games.  Only Jordan Staal played more than 20 minutes up front.  That's good to see - in a tight game that is mostly even strength, it tells you the coach trusts his team.
The Bad?
  • Getting out shot again.  I think that may be more a function of how Phoenix was playing, but you know HCDB can't be happy with the shot totals.
The Ugly?
  • More faceoff headaches.  Staal and Vitale combined to win 11 while losing 22 (yikes).
Any Surprises?
  • Brian Strait - four blocks and four hits.  It was a solid night for him in just over 12 minutes.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 39-21-5.  They are all alone in fourth place in the conference, four points ahead of Philly and New Jersey, and eight points behind the Rangers.

Who's next?
Wednesday night the Leafs come to Consol.

Game #65 - vs Phoenix Coyotes

2011-12 Game 65

Phoenix Coyotes (33-23-9, 75 points) at Pittsburgh Penguins (38-21-5, 81 points)

30 goals for this guy.  Also - Pinnacle has some really different photos in their set.  I like the different shots they get.

Why does it matter?

The Penguins have somehow found their way to the #2 spot in the points race in the East.  They can't enjoy it, however, with New Jersey and Philadelphia breathing down their necks.  Earning two points before moving on to some tougher Eastern Conference opponents is key.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - Five in a row after kicking the stuffing out of the Avalanche on Saturday.
  • Coyotes - After winning six in a row, the Coyotes have lost two in a row, both at home, including their most recent debacle against the Blue Jackets.
Questions to be answered
  • Who are these guys?  Ray Whitney a +23 with 59 points?  Radim Vrbata has 30 goals and is a +21?
  • Anyone call Cal O'Reilly?  He spent 23 games with the Coyotes this season and could probably lend some insight.
  • Will the secondary guys keep scoring?  This could be the biggest factor in the Pens' chances for continues success.  Teams are going to focus on Geno more and more, so the other guys will need to get used to stepping up.
Keys to the game
  • Thank the Blue Jackets.  Seriously - they softened up the Avs and we saw what happened in Colorado. Now they've worked their magic on the Coyotes.  Let's hope for a similar result (though I think this one will be tougher).
  • Don't be afraid of the power play.  The Coyotes power play is woeful (though they have scored on the power play in each of the past two games).
  • Kennedy.  Tyler Kennedy is a game-time decision.  He would add some more speed and shooting to the third line.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Secondary - Penguins 5, Avalanche 1

So what happened?

The Avalanche came out and fired the first seven shots of the hockey game.  It was as one-sided as it sounds, as the Pens were slow to get things going.  Fortunately, that sluggishness only lasted about five minutes, and from that point, it was a good old-fashioned beat down.

Asham scored on a 3-on-2 slapper, Engelland scored on a beautiful deflection off the rush from Staal, Geno scored by out muscling Hejda and putting a rebound in (the original shot was Neal hitting the crossbar), Park scored coming out of the penalty box on a breakaway and Sullivan scored into the empty net.

The game really wasn't close enough to pull the goalie, but I guess the Avs figured "Why not?"

Nice to get the two points in a laugher and wrap up a successful road trip.

Who scored?

Asham (3), Engelland (4), Malkin (38), Park (6), Sullivan (13)

The Good?
  • Look at the names that scored - Asham, Engelland and Park - three great names to see if your a Pens' fan.  That is a huge lift for a team that can sometimes be top-heavy.
  • The fans traveled well - I can't remember a road game with so many vocal Pittsburgh supporters.
  • Fleury, fortunately, was ready to start the game, even if all of his teammates weren't quite there yet.
  • The defense was really good.  Paul Martin had a good game with two assists and a +3 rating.
The Bad?
  • The Avalanche were just plain bad.  They didn't seem to respond to any challenges very well.
  • Maybe you could say the Pens took a few too many careless penalties, but let's face it - the game was largely out of reach.
The Ugly?
  • Um - the faceoffs.  We won't mention that Staal won just three out of 15 and the team as a whole won just 19 out of 53.  Not a good night at all in the faceoff circle.
Any Surprises?
  • Erik Johnson, former #1 overall pick, was a -4 on the night.  Some folks complain about Paul Martin - this guy couldn't get out of his own way tonight.
What's their record now?
The Pens are 38-21-5.  They are all alone in fourth place in the conference, four points ahead of Philly and New Jersey, and eight points behind the Rangers.

Who's next?
Phoenix comes to Consol on Monday night for the start of a four-game home stand.

Game #64 - at Colorado Avalanche

2011-12 Game 64

Pittsburgh Penguins (37-21-5, 79 points) at Colorado Avalanche (33-28-4, 70 points)

Steve Sullivan is expected to play tonight.  No word on whether he'll finally disclose the location of the Fountain of Youth he's been sipping from.

Why does it matter?

The Avs are fighting for their playoff lives.  They're currently three points behind the Dallas Stars for the eighth spot in the West.  The Pens will have a battle on their hands.

What has been happening lately?
  • Pens - Four wins in a row, and 16-4-1 in their past 21 games.  Simply amazing.
  • Avalanche - They were doing better in February, but then they lost at home to Columbus on Thursday, 2-0.  Pretty poor.
Questions to be answered
  • Who will quarterback the power play?  With Letang out, I guess you put Matt Niskanen on the point with Steve Sullivan.  That makes me a little bit nervous.
  • Can the D absorb the minutes?  When Letang was out previously, things were a little bit choppy on the blue line.  Paul Martin, especially, saw his numbers suffer.
  • Can Geno keep going?  He has a six game point streak on the line, and the Pens will need him to spur the offense tonight.
Keys to the game
  • Dig in.  With Letang out, the remaining D will need to suck it up and step up their play, at least on the defensive side of things.  The forwards will need to do most of their own work and not count on having a guy like Letang joining the play.
  • Different uniform, same dork.  Steve Downie now plays for he Avalanche.
  • Special teams - the Avs PK has allowed a goal in three straight, and their power play simply doesn't get many chances.  The Pens have a clear advantage here - they need to exploit it.