Just Maybe, This Team is For Real

kuhn and cullenAs the calendar changed from February to March, the Penguins were clinging onto the last wild card spot in the playoff race.  To top it off, they had a 16 game month ahead of them, 12 games being against division opponents.  It looked like it was going to be a tough hill to climb for the Penguins.

In February, the Penguins played some tremendous hockey games, and some not so tremendous hockey games.  They failed to produce more than 2 wins in a row.  They were not a bad hockey team by any means, but they were absolutely inconsistent.

Going into the month of March with an inconsistent team was a scary thought, also considering the standings.  The Islanders, Rangers, and even Flyers could have all jumped on the Penguins and buried them in the standings, potentially even right out of the playoffs.

But the Penguins have turned the tables.

The Penguins are 8 games into a 9 game streak all against the Metropolitan Division.  They are 7-1 in those 8 games, and have also won 6 games straight, the longest such win streak under Mike Sullivan.  Oh, and 5 of these games are without Evgeni Malkin, but the Pens are 5-0 in those games.

During this stretch the Penguins have been defying the odds.

They beat the mighty New York Rangers in New York, against the same goalie that has been giving them fits in the regular season and playoffs the past few years: Henrik Lundqvist.  Not only that, but the Penguins scored 4 on Lundqvist and added an empty net goal.

They beat the Flyers this Saturday in absolute dominant fashion.  The Flyers did strike first, but the Penguins dominated the game and won 4-1, while only allowing 17 shots on goal, which is the Flyers’ season low.  This is a team the Penguins have not beat, regardless of venue, in the past 2 years.  This year, the Penguins are 2-0 against them.

They beat the best team in the NHL yesterday.  Not only did the Penguins beat the Capitals, they controlled the game and won in dominant fashion, 6-2, allowing the Capitals only 18 shots.  The Capitals had not allowed 6 goals this season until last night.

Heck, the Metropolitan Division as a whole has given the Penguins fits in recent years.  Just last year, the Penguins had a 9-17-4 record.  This year, since Sullivan took over behind the bench, the Penguins are an incredible 14-5-1 (Johnston’s Penguins were 1-2-1 against division foes)

Maybe, just maybe, this team is for real.

So, what can the Penguins attribute to this sudden resurgence?

Mike Sullivan has turned this team around.  He has given them an identity, and the players are embracing it.  Since Sullivan took over the Penguins are 3rd in the NHL in goals for (135), 4th in goal differential (+25), 2nd in high danger scoring chances for percentage, (56.0%), 1st in shots for/60 minutes (33.9), 8th in shots against/60 minutes (28.5), and they lead the NHL in Corsi for percentage at 54.7%, which essentially indicates possession.  That being said, even coming from a stats guy, the stats alone do not tell the tale of Sullivan.

To start off, he has made the players more disciplined.  The story that stands out to me is the one of Kris Letang.  The Penguins just lost a game at home against the Lightning on February 20th, 4-2, in which Letang took 3 penalties, 2 of them in the 3rd period, and most of them were just bad penalties to take.

After the plane arrived in Buffalo, where the Penguins would play the day after, Sullivan kept Letang on the plane and had a chat with him.  They both agreed that Letang is at his best when he plays with passion, but is able to keep disciplined.  He responded by turning his penalties into points, literally.  He turned 3 penalties into 3 points (3A), which helped the Penguins defeat the Sabres 4-3.  Since then, Letang has been noticeably more disciplined on the ice, and his play has been the best it has been all year.

Look back at the Penguins vs. Flyers game this past Saturday.  The Penguins did not stoop down to the level that Philadelphia likes to play at.  I believe this is the main reason they have struggled against the Flyers in the past years, because the Penguins were undisciplined, played into the Flyers game, took bad penalties, and the Flyers made them pay.  However, in this 4-1 dominant win by the Pens, they maintained their cool and did not let the Flyers so much as budge them, and made it hurt where it hurts the most: the scoreboard.

Another huge reason for the Penguins recent success is scoring depth.  The Penguins entered the season looking like it would be one of the best teams in the NHL given its apparent forward depth, but this was entirely untrue.  These “depth guys” were not scoring, and neither was the whole team.

Now, the team does not have to rely on Crosby, Kessel, Malkin, and Letang to win hockey games, even though Sid is on a roll with an 11 game point streak.  Last night, the line of Rust, Kuhnhackl, and Cullen had 7 points for crying out loud!  If the Penguins want to make a legitimate run in the playoffs, they need the depth guys to continue producing.  It has something they have been lacking since the 2009 Stanley Cup year.

Also, something that many of us did not see coming, is that the defensive corps is playing some kind of hockey.  2 of the Penguins 6 goals yesterday came from defensemen, including one from Schultz who has been tremendous since he has arrived in Pittsburgh, which was his first as a Penguin.

But it isn’t just about offense.  The Penguins allowed just 35 shots in the last 2 games combined, and seem to finally be clicking on all cylinders.  Dumoulin and Daley has been working as a tremendous 2nd pair, and Cole and Schultz have found some tremendous chemistry as a 3rd defensive pair…AND the Penguins still have Pouliot and Lovejoy scratched!

I’ve said it before: all of these division games could make or break the Penguins season.  Well, the Penguins currently find themselves in 2nd place in the Metropolitan Division, and they do not seem to be slowing down any time soon.  This is a hockey team that shouldn’t be messed with.

Dare I say this team is reminding me more and more of 2009?

 

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Just Maybe, This Team is For Real

Sheary Shines, Pens Top Rangers

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For those of you that follow me on Twitter (@FranjiPensPress), you know that I not only watched the game like a normal human in Pittsbugh on NBC, but I got to go to the game in New York with my older sister Kelsey who lives there.

Its on my bucketlist to go to a Penguins game in every NHL arena, and MSG marked my 3rd (previously Consol obviously, and Bell Center in Montreal). So I wanted to not only recap the game and give my impressions, but also talk about my experience at MSG, so enjoy!

Upon arriving to the arena, I mostly just saw a sea of blue jerseys, while me and Kelsey walked up with our black and gold. I’ll tell you what, it feels so darn cool being in the visitors house. Anyways, so we got a picture taken (from a kind Rangers fan) which is right at the top of the article. I must say, for a Rangers fan, he did a good job (haha).

We got into the arena and, of course I had to be close to the ice for warm-ups, because I’m basically an 8 year old when it comes to being a pens fan. Unfortunately we didn’t get any pucks flipped to us, but my sister got this picture of my intently watching the warmups..see, I’m basically 8 (although, the picture would probably look a heck of a lot cuter if I was actually 8. Oh well)

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On our way to our seats I actually got a Rangers fan to look at me and say “wow, a Hornqvist JERSEY?! You must be pretty hard core..” Why yes sir, I am. Thanks for noticing. And it ended up being a pretty good jersey to wear, considering he scored the opening goal of the game in a 5-3 Penguins victory.

Our seats were in the upper bowl, but they weren’t too far back. And we were about at the blue line where the Penguins shot twice, so I couldn’t complain at all. I really liked the atmosphere/arena a lot, although the concourses got extremely crowded at intermissions.

Before the puck drops we’re sitting in our seats, and to my right on the end is a lady and her son, who was about 6 years old. The lady was sitting next to me, and was on the heftier side. I’m pretty big too, plus I like the leg space. So after about 5 minutes she looks at her son and says “hey honey how about I switch you seats so you can be closer to the ice!” He leans closer to his mom, tugs her jersey, and says “But mom, I don’t wanna sit next to the PENGUINS fan…”

Priceless.

I laughed it off and told him if I was his age, I would probably do the same thing. So hey, I can’t blame the kid!

Quick note before I get into the recap: this little 12 year old girl sang the national anthem and she was fenominal. I forget her name, but she sounded like a woman in her 20’s. It was a real treat.

Okay, so now that my story time is through with (hope you all enjoyed!!) let’s get into the recap and hockey talk…

The pens had a rough first period, but came out tied 1-1. The Rangers owned the play early and Fleury had to come through in a big way, and boy did he. The Rangers even had about a minute of 5 on 3 time early in the game, and it could have easily buried the Penguins, but Fleury was their best penalty killer.

Shortly after the kill, the Penguins got a power play of their own, but unlike the Rangers, were able to capitalize. Schultz had the puck behind the net and was able to get it up to Letang. Although he did not get an assist on the goal, he made it happen. Letang then gave a pass to Crosby who one timed the puck on net. The rebound went off of Lundqvist and behind the goal line, but Hornqvist was able to pounce on the puck behind the goal line and bank it off of Hank and in to give the Pens the lead, 1-0.

By the way, the kid that didn’t wanna sit next to me didn’t like it at all. He actually started tearing up and his mom told him to suck it up. I looked at him and told him the Rangers were playing well and that it was only a matter of time before they got one back.

I was right.

It started with a Penguins chance. Kunitz came down the left wing in a 3 on 2 situation, and the defenders have Kunitz a lane. Instead of shooting, Kunitz forced a pass through the center of the ice that was never touched and turned into a 3 on 2 the other way, resulting in a pass from Stepan to Kreider for a tap-in. Fleury couldn’t do much about it, and Kunitz needed to shoot the puck. The game was tied up at 1, and stayed that way to intermission.

Onto the second, and the Penguins would get their lead back. The Rangers turned the puck over in their own zone, and the puck found the stick of Schultz at the point. Head up the whole time, he took a shot which deflected off of Conor Sheary’s stick and past Lundqvist. This time, Schultz would get the assist, and by the way, Sheary wasn’t done yet.

After Sheary scored I looked over to my sister and began telling her how the Penguins have been having trouble holding 1 goal leads in hockey games. Not long after that, the Rangers got a power play, and it didn’t take them long to score. Stepan won the offensive draw clean back to Yandle. He then drifted to the middle of the ice and passed back to Brassard who had some time to think about it. He then let a slap shot go that may have gone off of a Penguins’ stick and past Fleury. And so it was tied again, 2-2.

At this point I leaned to Kelsey to tell her I got my Pens predictor wrong, because I predicted 3 combined goals…because Rangers. But this one was a more offensive game than I thought, but hey, I wasn’t complaining!

Before the 2nd period ended, the Penguins would get the lead back and keep it going into intermission, and it was Conor Sheary yet again.  Eric Fehr had the puck and dumped it into open ice for Kuhnhackl, who then found Sheary who had a full head of steam, gaining speed from the far goal line. He found himself on a breakaway and, despite the puck being on edge, buried it past Lundqvist.

It took only about 5 minutes into the third period for the Rangers to tie the game once again. McDonagh carried the puck into the zone and beat Olli Maatta, who was caught a little flat footed. That being said, he then snuck in a wraparound behind Fleury. It’s a save Fleury should have made, and one that he will normally make. He probably wanted that one back, but luckily it didn’t hurt the Penguins. 3-3 hockey game.

Then came one of the weirdest goals I have ever seen. Cullen had the puck behind the net, and was slightly interfered with. A delayed penalty was coming up. On his knees he then just whipped the puck to the front of the goal, and I went off of BOTH skates of Marc Staal, and went into the net 5-hole on Lundqvist. That’s 2 goals of the Penguins 4 goals to this point that came from behind the net! Impressive… Also, congrats to Dominik Simon who played in his first NHL game today and got an assist on Cullen’s goal with Wilson out due to injury.

Crosby would later add an empty netter to seal the deal for the Penguins. 5-3 was the final.

The Penguins now have a chance to move into 3rd in the division with a win against the Islanders on Tuesday and Islanders on Monday against the Panthers. Plausible…

Here are some of my impressions from the game…

The Penguins virtually had no 2nd line. Kessel-Bonino-Hagelin just didn’t do much for me. Yes, Malkin is out, so it could just be a chemistry issue. But these players will need to start producing, especially with Malkin out 6-8 weeks.

Crosby keeps his point streak going. He was 1-1-2 tonight, and is 4-9-13 during his current 7 game point streak.

Despite Fleury giving up 3 goals, he played extremely well. As I mentioned, he probably wants back the goal by McDonagh, but he kept the Penguins in the game early. It could have easily been 3-1 NYR going into the first intermission.

I really enjoyed MSG, and I hope you all enjoyed reading my personal experience as well as my recap from the game. If you have any personal questions about my thoughts feel free to tweet at me, DM me, comment, or whatever. I’d love to answer more questions if you have any.

As always, Lets go Pens!

Sheary Shines, Pens Top Rangers

Fehr Shines in Debut, Pens Blank Leafs

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The Penguins played arguably their best game last night against the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Yeah, the Maple Leafs are not that good this year, but the Penguins performed how they should perform against a team like Toronto.

The Penguins won this game 4-0 on Halloween night.  What was “spooky” is that Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Letang (arguably the Penguins’ top 4 skaters) combined for 0 points last night.

Zero.

But the Penguins still won the game 4-0 due to their forward depth, which was finally on display last night.  Finally, that whole “playing four scoring lines” really payed off.  3 of the Penguins’ 4 goals came from bottom 6 forwards, something the Penguins rarely saw last year.

The Penguins struggled last year when the star players were shut down.  It has been a problem for the Penguins, especially in the playoffs during the past few years.  They really do play their best when their star players produce, and that does not take rocket science to figure that out.

But the Penguins didn’t need star power last night.

This game really gave me some newly found hope for the Penguins.  I would imagine that the star players such as Malkin and Crosby feel a weight lifted off their shoulders when they do not feel the absolute need to produce.  There is a ton of pressure on these guys in Pittsburgh, but knowing the Penguins have the potential to score 4 goals without getting any production from their top guys is astounding.

I think this will result in them playing a looser, more relaxed game.  Sometimes when you feel too much pressure, you grip your stick a little too tight and try too hard to make things happen.  I think a game like this really has to be a confidence booster for the Penguins, and will take some of the heat off of the star players.

I am sure many of you were busy tick-or-treating, handing out candy, at Halloween parties, or maybe even a combination of the 3.  For that reason, I’ll go into a little more detail on the recap, and as always, I’ll give my impressions.

Recap

First Period

About 9 minutes into the period, Rich Clune absolutely hammered Ben Lovejoy into the boards.  Lovejoy was a bit shaken up but ended up to be okay.  Eric Fehr pounced on the loose puck after Lovejoy lost it from the hit, and gave it up to Plotnikov who one-touched a pass to Matt Cullen.  Cullen came flying down the right side of the ice, but was denied by Bernier.

With about 6:30 left in the 1st period, the Penguins were about 20 seconds into a power play, but it was the Leafs that had a great shorthanded chance that was denied by Marc-Andre Fleury.  Grabner, one of the fastest NHL skaters, found himself behind the Penguins defense, but was denied by Fleury.

Seconds following the save, Perron controlled the puck and skated it into the offensive zone.  Perron slid a pass to his right that was received by Bennett, who gave it right back to Perron on a give and go play.  Perron fired a shot from a wide angle that was stopped by Bernier.

Bernier thought he had the puck between his pads, but the puck snuck through and was sitting just behind his pads right on the goal line.  Luckily, Chris Kunitz drove the net on the Perron shot and noticed that the puck squirted through Bernier’s pads and knocked it into an empty cage.

Pens 1 Leafs 0

The Penguins spent the last 4 minutes of the first on a power play, after Rich Clune took a boarding major against Rob Scuderi.  The second power play unit came through earlier in the game, but the Penguins came up empty on this one, and did not have a ton off good opportunities.  They really could have opened the game up early, but were not able to cash in.

After the first: Pens 1 Leafs 0

Second Period

About a minute into the period, Kris Letang had possession of the puck and threw a pass across the ice that was eventually received by Bennett, who worked hard to beat a man to the puck.  Bennett knocked a pass backwards to Bonino, who fed a quick pass over to Kunitz who was streaking down the right side.  It was a great passing play by the Penguins, but Bernier said no.

2:22 into the second period, the Maple Leafs had a chance to stop the bleeding a with a power play opportunity.  Keep in mind the Leafs were only down 1-0 at this point.  The Leafs won the offensive zone draw, but Matt Cullen intercepted the pass that was intended for the point man Gardiner.  Cullen fed a pass to Fehr, and Fehr did the rest.

He skated the puck into the offensive zone on the left side, and it appeared as though he tried to pass the puck to Matt Cullen, the pass was broken up by a Maple Leafs defenseman, but the puck hit the left pad of Bernier and came back out in front of him.  Fehr crashed the net, got his own rebound, and skated across the goal mouth to the right, out-waiting Bernier, and fired it home.  Fehr scores in his Penguins debut, and makes it a shorthanded one at that.

Pens 2 Leafs 0

Later on the same Maple Leafs power play, Nazem Kadri fed a puck down low to James Van Riemsdyk who mad a twirling move to the front of the net.  JVR tried to stuff it in, but Fleury kept it out.

With just over 6 minutes to go, Evgeni Malkin received a pass from Kris Letang.  Malkin fed a pass to the middle to David Perron, who found Phil Kessel flying down the left wing.  Kessel put a hard shot on Bernier, but Bernier got just enough of it, and the puck went wide.

Half way through the period, the Leafs were in the Penguins zone.  Eric Fehr raced to a loose puck and chipped it out to the blue line.  Defenseman Martin Marincin of the Leafs could not handle the bouncing puck, and Matt Cullen took advantage and poked it ahead.  This turned into a 2 on 1 with Cullen and Plotnikov, but Cullen needed no help and beat Bernier with a great wrist shot and registered his first in a Penguins uniform.

Pens 3 Leafs 0

After the second: Pens 3 Leafs 0

Third Period

Just over 4 minutes into the period, the Leafs dumped the puck into the zone and it was played behind the net by Fleury.  Dumoulin came behind the net to retrieve the puck from the Penguins goaltender and skated the puck up the ice.  Dumoulin skated just past center ice before firing a long shot towards Bernier.  The puck took a bounce off the boards after it missed the net to the left of Bernier and came right out in front.  Patric Hornqvist with a head full of steam got to the puck first, and one timed a quick shot past Bernier.  His 2nd in as many games.

Pens 4 Leafs 0

13 minutes into the period, the Penguins were buzzing in the Maple Leafs zone.  Letang fed a pass to the point to Malkin, who faked a slap shot and slid a pass over to Ben Lovejoy who one-timed a shot on net.  There was a ton of traffic in front of the net, but the Penguins lead remained at 4.

After all was said and done, Fleury got his 40th shutout of his career, made 21 saves, and also recorded an assist on the Hornqvist goal.

Final Score: Pens 4 Leafs 0

Impressions

Eric Fehr

Wow.  Just wow.  Eric Fehr may have been the best Penguins acquisition this year besides Phil Kessel, but the acquisition did not get much attention because of the Kessel trade.

That being said, Eric Fehr played a terrific game for the Penguins last night.  He led the team with 2 points (1G – 1A – 2P), scored a shorthanded goal, and looked great wearing the black and gold.

Fehr is a big guy that can kill penalties, hit, and even score some goals in the process.  He is a great all around player and the Penguins have him inked for 2 more years after this.

I do not expect Fehr to put up 2 points a game by any means, but look for him to make a huge impact to the Penguins’ forward depth as the season progresses.

Bottom 6 Production

The Penguins’ bottom 6 forwards came though in a huge way in this game.  The top 2 lines were shut down for the most part, but when it came down to it, the Penguins found scoring from their depth guys.

All I have to say is that a game like this would NEVER have happened last year.  Unless Sutter/Downie had all 3 goals, because they were basically the only respectable offensive bottom 6 guys last year.

If you disagree, then you think that Goc, Adams, Lapierre, and Spaling could score 3 goals in a game. Ha.

MAF

The team MVP from last season is at it again.  Fleury leads all starting NHL goaltenders with a 1.71 goals against average, ranks 2nd among starters with a .942 save percentage (only trails Lundqvist who has a .943), and is tied for first in the NHL in shutouts.

If he keeps up what he is doing now, he will be the team MVP once more, and may even be a Vezina candidate (this is a long shot, but as of right now, Fleury’s name could definitely be argued)

Thanks to all who continue to read, as always.  This week I will do another Q and A session on Tuesday, so make sure you get your questions in by Monday, because the article will go up Tuesday at midnight.

Also, follow me on Twitter @FranjiPensPress and like me on Facebook at Franjione Pens Press.  Looking forward to your questions!

The Penguins’ next game is Wednesday against Brandon Sutter and the Vancouver Canucks.  The game is in Vancouver so it will be a late one with a puck drop at 10 pm, but as always, I will be writing an article afterwards with a recap and impressions in case you cannot stay up to watch.

Fehr Shines in Debut, Pens Blank Leafs