Don’t Worry…At Least Not Yet

The Penguins had a 3-1 series lead over the President Trophy winners.

They had a 3-1 lead against a goalie who will likely win the Vezina Trophy as best NHL goaltender, Braden Holtby.

They had a 3-1 lead against a Capitals team with stellar offensive power and a strong defense.

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It was only a matter of time before the Capitals found their game, as the they went on to beat the Penguins 3-1 in Washington DC in game 5, trimming the Penguins’ series lead to 3-2 and forcing game 6 Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center.

Throughout Twitter, word of mouth, text messages, the radio, and other forms of media, I seem to be getting 2 different vibes about this Penguins team: one side of the spectrum believes that the Penguins will respond well in game 6 at home and finish of the Capitals.  The other side of the spectrum is saying, “Oh no, here comes a repeat of 2011 and 2014: blowing that 3-1 series lead..”

To those of you that truly believe the Penguins will win game 6, I’m glad you believe in this hockey team.  For those of you on the other side of the spectrum, aka the “Pens are gonna blow a 3-1 series lead again” side, I simply say don’t worry…at least not yet.

First of all, the Penguins just lost 1 game.  They didn’t lose the series.  The have a chance to win at home, and even if they fail to do that, they could still win game 7 in Washington…which they did en route to a Stanley Cup in 2009.

Although the Penguins did have a chance to finish off the President’s Trophy winner Washington Capitals, did anyone (not Penguins fans alone) think that the Pens would even win this series? It seemed to me that many analysts were picking the Capitals in this series.  So, in that fact alone, the fact that the Penguins are even up 3-2 in this series thus far is still pretty incredible.

Finally, although the Penguins had a 3-1 series lead, which is now a 3-2 series lead, it really did not feel that way going into game 5.  Going into game 5, every game was decided be a goal excluding game 2 (which was a 2 goal win by the Penguins due to a late empty net goal by Letang), which included 2 games, game 1 and game 4, both decided in overtime.  The Caps won game 1 on an OT winner by TJ Oshie, capping off a hat trick, and the Pens won game 4 on a goal from Patric Hornqvist.  It also includes a game 3 where the Capitals probably deserved to win and played much better hockey than the Pens, but Matt Murray simply stood on his head while making 47 saves, the most ever by a rookie goaltender in a playoff win.

Say the Capitals win game 3 without Murray’s heroics, and say they score the winning goal in OT in game 4.  All of a sudden, Washington just won this series tonight 4-1.  Crazy, huh?

My point I want to make is that this series has been way closer than it appears.  Heck, the Capitals win game 5 while being outshot 32-22 by the Penguins.  Holtby played his best game of the series, their power play came through large by scoring 2 goals, and Murray played just alright.  The Penguins did not play a terrible hockey game.  They just didn’t get the result they wanted.

So I say once again, don’t worry just yet.  The Penguins can still close this out at home.  If they don’t…then we can start worrying.  But remember, it’s not over ’til it’s over.

Some quick observations about game 5…

  • Patric Hornqvist, a player that everyone on the team loves including Sullivan, played only 10:36 of ice time in game 5.  Only Fehr (10:13) and Kuhnhackl (8:09) had less ice time.  It did not appear Hornqvist was ever injured, but he did not see his normal ice time in this game. Something to keep note of going forward.
  • The Penguins need to neutralize Ovi.  He had the opening tally tonight, and his first via his classic one-time slap shot on the power play.  He has had one too many open chances in this series, and it was about time he buried one.  He is starting to feel it, and the Pens need to shut him down before he really gets hot.
  • Crosby and Malkin need to step up.  I know there is more to it than just putting points up, but these 2 guys need to do what they’re paid to do.  The other guys have been picking up the slack, but its about time one of them has a big game.  Game 6 would be preferable.  It won’t be easy, however, as the Caps get probably their most physical defensemen Brooks Orpik back for game 6 after serving his 3 game suspension for his hit on Olli Maatta.
  • The Penguins power play needs to just shoot the puck.  The one goal they had tonight was because their power play was moving and kept Washinton’s defense scrambling by getting the puck to the net.  Kunitz jammed in the rebound.  They seem to be looking for the perfect chance, but that just can’t happen every time.  Fire the puck quickly on goal, good things will come.  This needs to be addressed. Also, noted, the pens despite terrific zone time didn’t register a shot after pulling Murray with 3 minutes to go.  Let that sink in.
  • I felt as though there were 2 very large moments in this game that really put it away for the Capitals.  First was the goal by Williams, which resulted after a clear from Dumoulin fell right on his stick, and he made no mistake with it and curried it 5-hole on Murray giving the Caps a 3-1 edge.  Then after the Pens went down 3-1, Justin Schultz had a miraculous chance in a 4 on 2 rush for the Pens, but Holtby made an unbelievable stop.  It really felt like the game was over right there and then.
  • The Penguins should stick with Murray for the rest of this series.  Even if they lose game 6, I would not even consider putting in a cold Marc-Andre Fleury in for a game that means that much, even though he is your franchise goaltender.  Let the kid that got you there play this one out.  He deserves to finish what he started.  If they advance, we can discuss who starts from there on out.
  • Oh yeah, almost forgot. Pens in 6.

 

Don’t Worry…At Least Not Yet

The Jack Adams Award Goes To…

Everyone on Twitter has been recently trying to argue as to why (not) Kris Letang should win the Norris Trophy.  I have also seen many tweets and polls discussing the argument of Crosby vs. Kane in the Hart Trophy race.  However, I think there is someone we are all forgetting about that’s been behind the recent surges of Crosby and Letang…

His name is Mike Sullivan.

Mike Sullivan should absolutely be a candidate to win the Jack Adams, which is given to the coach “adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success.”  Actually, I retract my previous statement.  He should not be considered to win the Jack Adam’s Award.  He should win the Jack Adams Award.

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Since Sullivan took over, the Penguins have posted 31-15-5 record, which includes their recent 12-1 stretch in their past 13 games.  Take away the 0-4 skid the Penguins hit when Sullivan initially took over, and the Penguins have a 31-11-5 record under Sullivan.

However, the Penguins’ record is not, by any means, the only stat one should look at when considering a coach for such a high-honor award.

Jason Mackey of DKPittsburghSports wrote a fantastic article about Sullivan taking over behind the bench for the Penguins.  If you are a subscriber to DKPittsburghSports, you can read his article here:

http://dkpittsburghsports.com/2016/04/01/sullivan-knew-it-was-time-to-be-his-own-man/

If not, I highly recommend you subscribe.  Either way, I want to mention some of the points that he touches on in this piece that I found interesting and notable.

First of all, Sullivan had a chance to leave Wilkes-Barre early in the season and take over as the assistant coach of the struggling Blue Jackets under John Tortorella, who he has worked with in the past.  Sullivan respectfully declined, saying that he believed he could be a successful head coach and wanted to wait for the opportunity.  Later, as we all know, he would take over behind the Penguins bench for the Penguins’ Mike Johnston.

Part of the Penguins’ failure to produce a win in Sullivan’s first 4 games behind the bench was that the bench was dead.  Sullivan said “I didn’t think we had any juice[.] I thought there was a lot of deer-in-the-headlights looks.”  Sullivan knew there needed to be a change, and it needed to happen fast.  He is all about passion, and always will be:

“I’m a strong believer that the essence of this game is in the passion that players bring to the game,” Sullivan said. “I like a bench that brings emotion because that’s an indication that they’re all in. When we have 20 players who don’t show any sort of emotion or reaction to what’s going on out there, that’s concerning for me.”

Clearly, he has brought this idea of emotion and passion not only to the players, but the fans as well.

I’ll be honest, my friends and I always used to talk about how the atmosphere in Consol Energy Center was dull, and how it just never felt the same as it did in Mellon, especially during the 08-09 season when the Penguins won the Cup.

Sullivan is making me eat my own words.

Even watching the games on TV, I can just feel the energy from the crowd.  In addition, being at the games, wow.  That’s all I can say is wow.  Although I was not at the 6-2 demolition of the Flyers yesterday, I can tell you that I heard that there were plenty of “Go home Flyers!” chants, which have been seldom chanted since the Penguins moved to Consol.

But hey, the Penguins couldn’t beat the Flyers in Consol, but it sure looks like they can now.  The Penguins are 3-0 against the Flyers this season, 2-0 at home, after not beating them at all in the previous 2 seasons.

Consol Energy Center is “turning its power on” as of recently, and I cannot wait to see what it will be like this year in the playoffs.

So, Mike Sullivan has brought energy, passion, and a pretty darn solid record to go with it.  Is that all?  Of course not.

The Penguins in recent years have not only struggled against the Flyers, but against the Metropolitan Division in general.

Last year, the Penguins played NYR, WSH, CBJ, PHI, and CAR 4 times.  They only beat NYR, WASH, and CBJ once in 4 tries, did not beat Philly at all, and only beat a lowly Carolina Hurricanes team twice.  They played NYI and NJD 5 times each, while only beating the Islanders once and the Devils thrice.  They would finish 9-17-4.

Meanwhile, the Penguins just recently put up 9 wins against the Metropolitan Division in the month of March.  Under Sullivan, the Penguins this year are 17-6-1.  They are 3-1 against NYR, NYI, and CAR, 3-0 against PHI, 1-2 against the Capitals (although the one of those games was the 4-1 loss in Sullivan’s first game behind the bench), 2-1 against NJD, and 2-0 against CBJ.

If not for the Penguins stellar play in the division, they would not be where they are in the standings…

Oh yeah, the standings.  Almost forgot to mention that…

When Sullivan took over, the Penguins were in 9th place in the Eastern Conference, and currently sitting outside of the 2 wild card spots.  The Penguins are now the 2nd best team in the East behind only the Capitals, and 4th best in the NHL overall.  The currently sit 2nd in the division, and their magic number is 4 (which decreases for every point the Penguins get and every point the Rangers do NOT get).

Did anyone have the Penguins in 2nd in the Metro after that 0-4 stretch when Sullivan took over?  Well, besides me, probably not a lot of people.

Then finally, there are the stats to back up the Penguins’ play.

Without listing specific goals, assists, points, etc…

  • Sidney Crosby went from being a washed up player who may as well step down as the number 2 center to Malkin and adopt a more defensive style to the 3rd best in points in the NHL with a decent chance to win the Hart Trophy.
  • Kris Letang went from having a horrendous beginning of the season to looking like a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate.  Although he probably will not win, being that he has not been consistent throughout the WHOLE year, he still will receive recognition.
  • Hornqvist went from being invisible to his normal self parked in front of the net.  He now has 3 goals in as many games.
  • Kessel has gone from “what a washed up nobody, he can’t even hit a wide open net” to “legitimate sniper/goal-scorer” in a matter of weeks.

None of these players, as well as many others that I have not listed, do not turn around as radically as they did without benefiting from Mike Sullivan’s system.

Also, do you all remember that Penguins offense that wasn’t producing earlier in the year?  That one that was 27th in the NHL is goals for when Sullivan took over?  Well, since Sullivan took over, the Penguins just happen to LEAD the NHL in goals for with 165, good for 3.236 goals/game.  Overall, the Penguins are 3rd in the NHL in goals for.

Yeah, from 27th to 3rd.  That’s not coincidence.

The Penguins also rank 1st in the NHL in Corsi for % (54.6) in all situations since Sullivan’s take-over.  Simply put, Corsi essentially is a possession metric, as I have referred to in past articles.  This means that the Penguins are the BEST possession team in hockey since Sullivan took over.  They also rank 1st in the NHL in Fenwick % (55.2), which is another one of those possession metrics.

The Penguins not only lead the NHL in shots on goal during Sullivan’s tenure, but they also rank 1st in shots on goal for %.  This basically means that the Penguins have the best ratio of shots for to shots against of any team in the NHL.

Finally, do you all remember last year, and even earlier this year, when the Penguins would find themselves trailing by even just 1 goal, and you just knew it was over?  Heck, if the other team went up 2, you may as well have just shut the TV off.  Not any more…

The Penguins rank 1st in the NHL in the following categories when leading by 2 goals: Fenwick % (67.6), Corsi for % (66.8), high-danger scoring chances for % (68.0), high-scoring chances differential (+37), and % of offensive vs. defensive zone faceoffs (67.9).

The Penguins have turned this season around.  Dare I say, they started from the bottom…now they’re here.

Oh, sorry, I forgot to mention that the Penguins haven’t had the likes of Rust, Fleury, Malkin, and others in the lineup in recent games, and yet they’re still dominating teams.

None of this happens without Mike Sullivan behind the bench.  He deserves way more than just credit or a high-5.  This guy deserves a Jack Adams.

Plus, who knows how far the Penguins will make it in the playoffs.  I’d be pretty scared to play them right now…

 

 

The Jack Adams Award Goes To…

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

Pens Struck by Lightning, Edge Sabres

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The Penguins, despite going 1-1, did not have am awful weekend in my opinion.  They fell to the Lightning once again at home, 4-2.  They did not play a terrible game, but it definitely wasn’t their best either.

First of all, Jeff Zatkoff got the nod to start the game early in the morning.  Everything was indicating towards Fleury starting the 12:30 match-up, but Fleury woke up under the weather, and told the coaching staff he was unable to play.  Zatkoff obviously had no formal practice to warm-up due to the early game, and he woke up thinking he was the backup.  Some of Zatkoff’s goals he let up were soft, but they were also due to lucky bounces for Tampa Bay, or on the 4th goal, poor defense.

Zatkoff was extremely bothered by the 3rd goal he allowed, according to DKonPittsburghSports.com.  He was quoted after the game saying “That third one, I can’t let it go through me.  I sound like a broken record.  I’ve got to find a way to find it.”

I do feel for Zatkoff, and sometimes the bounces just do not go your way.  It didn’t for the Penguins in this game, and frankly, the calls didn’t go in their favor either.

Late in the game, the Penguins were down 4-2 with about 8 minutes left.  Kris Letang was cross-checked by Paquette, and then had his stick obviously slashed out of his hands, but the refs did not make either call.  As a result, Letang got tangled up with Paquette, and somehow ended up with Paquette’s stick.  Letang, unknowingly that playing with an opposing players stick was a penalty, played the puck with Paquette’s stick and got 2 minutes for that, and another 2 for arguing.  He said after the game something along the lines of “Well he took my stick, so I took his.”

Although Letang’s emotions did get  a little out of control, he absoolutely had the right to be mad.  Paquette could have been called on 2 penalties on the play, but instead, Letang ends up in the box for 4 minutes.

All of that being said, the Penguins had a chance to win this game.  The Penguins had yet another sloppy first period performance, which has been a big problem under Sullivan.  They have been able to come back in a few of these instances, but falling behind 2-0 is not something the Penguins want to make a habit.

Unfortunately, the Penguins would fall down 3-0 instead of being the next team to score in the 2nd, which often times, they have.  The Lightning then went on a power play up 3-0, and all hope seemed lost for the Penguins.  Then Tom Kuhnhackl gave them, and the building, some life.  Shorthanded, he chipped the puck past Victor Hedman in the offensive zone and caught him flat footed.  Kuhnhackl found himself on a breakaway, turned to the backhand, and popped it top shelf.  It was a very pretty goal to call his first in the NHL.  Congrats to him.

Then, there was a turning point.  A chance for the Penguins to comeback in a game they seemed out of for most of the game.  They found themselves on a 5 on 3 for over 1 minute right at the end of the 2nd period.  The Penguins could have made the game 3-2, and potentially 3-3, as they would have still had a 5 on 4 advantage if they scored on the 5 on 3.  Unfortunately, the power play could not come through, and really, it hasn’t been very good since Malkin was injured.

The Lightning would go up 4-1 in the 3rd, which was ultimately the dagger in the heart of the Penguins.  Wilson would add his 2nd goal in as many games to make it 4-2, but the Penguins were unable to comeback, despite outshooting the Lightning 39-20.  Again, the Penguins did not play a terrible game, they just dug themselves into too deep of a hole early, and did not get the bounces/calls that they needed.  That’s hockey.

The Penguins were now off to Buffalo, in what really felt like a must win game, considering where the Penguins are in the standings.  Every game is an important one, and the Penguins really needed 2 points after falling short to Tampa Bay.

After the plane landed, Mike Sullivan waited for all the players to exit.  Except for one.  Kris Letang.  According to DKonPittsburghSports.com, Sullivan had a long chat with Letang about controlling his emotions and anger.  Obviously, if you watch Kris Letang play, he does play with so much passion and energy every night.  However, sometimes that passion turns into dumb penalties and bad on-ice play in Letang’s case.  He took 3 penalties against the Lightning.  Sullivan made the point clear: Letang has to control himself.  He is at his best when he controls his emotions, but still plays with that passion that he has.  And oh boy, did Letang and the Penguins respond.

They topped the Sabres 4-3, although the 3rd Sabres goal was scored late in an empty net situation.  Letang would have 3 assists on the day, and was easily the Penguins’ best player.  Clearly, he took Sullivan’s thoughts to heart and performed exactly the way that Kris Letang can play.

Patric Hornqvist got the Penguins in front 1-0 on a beautiful deflection goal, but Bogosian, who had a terrific game for the Sabres, tied the game at 1.  The score would remain 1-1 going into intermission.  That said, the Penguins once again had a terrible 1st period.  The score was tied, but Buffalo was absolutely the better of the 2 teams by a long shot.  Fleury was fantastic all game, especially in the 1st.

Scott Wilson would net his 3rd of the season in as many games on an absolute beautiful setup from Kris Letang.  Although, the shot by Wilson was a pretty one, too.

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Kessel then netted his 19th of the season, once again, on a beautiful setup from Letang.  He was at the point and faked a slap shot with traffic in front.  He kept his stick cocked, froze the goalie Lehner, and gave a slap pass to Phil Kessel who took his time and fired the puck into the wide open 4 by 6.  The Pens went into the 2nd intermission 3-1, and played like a completely different team than the one that played the first.

The Sabres had a power play early in the 3rd period with a chance to cut the deficit in half, but the Penguins would score what ended up being the game-winning goal.  Hagelin had the puck in the defensive zone and saw Matt Cullen hop up ice.  Hagelin lofted a pass that pass the defenders stick and left Cullen on a partial breakaway.  The puck did not go in right away, but it would evetually trickle past Lehner, who did all he could to try to keep the puck out.

The Sabres would cut the lead to 2 by scoring on the same power play that the Penguins had just scored shorthanded on a shot by Bogosian that was deflected in front by Bran Gionta.  Bogosian would add yet another with 22 seconds left, but the Penguins held on to win.

Some notes on both games…

  • Lovejoy left the game against the Lightning.  No word on the extent of his injury yet.  As a result, Ian Cole played against the Sabres with Pouliot and played a strong game.
  • The Penguins recalled Matt Murray for Sunday’s game against the Sabres in case Fleury was unable to play.  I figured that maybe Murray may have also been called up to backup Fleury until seasons end based on his performance earlier in the season, but he was just sent back down to Wilkes-Barre this morning.  So, it looks like the Penguins will be rolling with Zatkoff and Fleury the rest of the way.
  • Scott Wilson is hot.  He has 3 goals in his last 3 games.  Keep in mind he led the AHL in goal scoring when he was recalled, so clearly, the guy can score.  If he keeps his hot streak up, he will absolutely remain in the bottom 6, even when the veterans return.
  • Pouliot has looked good in his 2nd stint with the Penguins (his 1st being last year).  That being said, management/coaching need to lengthen his leash a little bit.  Last year, I felt that Pouliot was a little bit too aggressive and made some bad defensive plays as a result.  This year, I feel like he is not quite as aggressive as he should be, being that he has elite offensive talent as a defenseman.  The Penguins really want to mold him to be a Letang type, and if that is the case, I would love to see him a little more involved in the offense.
  • Trade deadline is less than a week away, so keep an eye out.  I’m sure GMJR will do something…
Pens Struck by Lightning, Edge Sabres

All-Star Break Q and A

Well, we’re a little bit over half-way through the NHL regular season.  The Penguins are currently clinging to the 2nd wild card spot in the East, but with plenty of other teams nipping at their heels.

I received some great questions about the Penguins up to this point in the season, and even some questions about the season’s future.  Let’s dive right in…

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Dakota Eckenrode: I saw a picture of Malkin and Neal at the all-star game and I really miss that guy.  Him and Malkin had such good chemistry.  Has Hornqvist been anywhere close to Neal production-wise on the Penguins?  I don’t mind him, but Neal was a pure goal scorer, and I would love to have him back.

Brad Franjione: To everyone that is not Dakota, we were talking about this just the other day.  He told me how much he missed James Neal on the Penguins and how effective his chemistry was with Evgeni Malkin.  And, well, you aren’t wrong there Dakota.

To play devil’s advocate, I brought up some stats of Hornqvist since being dealt to the Penguins vs. Neal since being dealt to the Predators (these were stats that were in an article about a week ago, but it only excludes 1 or 2 games for each player which doesn’t make a dramatic difference).  Anyways, here are the stats:

As of about a week ago, Patric Hornqvist has played 111 games with the Penguins.  He has 35 goals, 41 assists, which is good for 76 points.  24 of his 76 points have come on the power play.  He has 372 shots on goal, 58 penalty minutes, and 59 games in which he did not record a point.

Neal has played 115 games with the Predators, scoring 40 goals, 26 assists, which is good for 66 points, 13 of which are power play points.  Neal has 375 shots on goal, with 114 penalty minutes, and 67 games in which he did not record a point.

Looking at these stats sure looks like that trade was worth it.

However, Dakota brought up a good point to me in our debate of Neal/Hornqvist.  Hornqvist is playing with Crosby and Malkin, while Neal is playing with no one of the sort in Nashville.  The Predators have a solid team, don’t get me wrong, but Neal isn’t playing on Geno’s wing any more.

So Dakota challenged me to compare Hornqvists stats with the Pens vs. Neal’s stats with the Pens.  Keep in mind that I would absolutely expect Neal’s numbers to be better in every category, since Neal was more of a pure goal scorer than Hornqvist is.  The big question is how large is that gap?  Well, let’s find out.

Currently, Patric Hornqvist has played 112 games with the Penguins.  He is averaging about .31 goals/game, .38 assists/game, and .69 points/game.  This would lead to Patric Hornqvist scoring about 26 goals, 31 assists, and 57 points if he were to play at that pace for a full 82 game season.  In addition, Hornqvist averages about .51 penalty minutes/game.  In other words, he takes about 1 minor penalty every 4 games (since a minor penalty is 2 minutes).

During the playoffs, Hornqvist has played only 5 games (small sample size, I know) with the Pens, while averaging .4 goals/game, .2 assists/game, .6 points/game, and only .4 penalty minutes/game (he had only 1 minor penalty in 5 games played).  He was a +1 in a series where the Penguins lost 4-1 to the Rangers, which is actually quite impressive.

Neal, with the Penguins, played 199 games.  He averaged .45 goals/game, .48 assists/game, and .92 points/game.  If Neal played at this pace for a full 82 game season, he would be on track for 37 goals, 39 assists, and 76 points.  Also, Neal averaged .87 penalty minutes/game.  This is much closer to 1 minor penalty/ 2 games.

During Neal’s Pittsburgh time, he played in 38 playoff games.  He had .29 goals/game, .29 assists/game, .58 points/game, and a whopping 1.32 penalty minutes/game.  He was also a -5 during his playoff stint.

So, interpret the stats how you would like to interpret them.  The one thing I want to bring up is penalty minutes.  Neal is a guy that takes a lot of bad penalties and that killed the Penguins in the playoffs, and it shows with his 1.32 penalty mins/game.

The Penguins never had trouble making the playoffs.  They had trouble succeeding in the playoffs.  If you want my opinion, I would rather Hornqvist then Neal in a playoff situation, but that is just me.  On the other hand, I really do miss that Malkin/Neal combo.

Despite everything, I will say this: the Penguins need a player like Hornqvist.  They need the net front presence and passion of a guy like him on the team.  I can say that with certainty.

Plus Dakota, Nick Spaling was part of the Neal trade, and the Penguins got a 2nd round pick out of him in the Kessel trade.  Need a remind you who the 2nd round pick of the Penguins was this year?

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Tyler Knupp: Can we finally be confident in these Penguins?

Brad Franjione: This is such a simple question, and yet, it is such a difficult question to answer.  That being said, my answer is yes.

I must say, it is really difficult for me to say yes, because in recent history, it seems as though every time that the Penguins have a decent run going, it gets killed by a bad game or 2, and the confidence in them tanks again.

But…

  • The Penguins are on a 3 game win streak coming out of the all-star break, with 2 of those wins being ones in which they came back from 2-0 deficits after the first period.  This is the first 3+ game win streak under Sullivan, and the first for the Pens since they had a 6 game win streak under Johnston stretching from late October to early November.
  • Crosby is on a tear right now.  He looks like the best player in the world, which is exactly what he is, and he is not slowing down any time soon.
  • Hagelin is looking great in a Penguins uniform.  He doesn’t have a goal yet, but he has 4 assists in 5 games for the Pens playing with Malkin and Kessel.
  • Fleury is back and healthy, and oh boy did he look good against NJ.
  • Pouliot is up and has been playing over Ian Cole in recent games, which I think benefits their defense for the time being, as Cole has been playing far below what everyone was expecting from him.
  • After that ugly 0-4 start under Mike Sullivan, the Penguins are 9-3-4, giving them 22 points in 16 games.  If the Penguins were to produce at this points/game rate (1.375) across 82 games, they would finish the season with about 112 points, which would easily get them into the playoffs.

So I’m going to be bold here, but I think we can finally start feeling confident about these Penguins.

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Grant Franjione: Barring major injuries, what is your prediction for how the rest of the season and playoffs turn out for these Penguins?

Brad Franjione: Well, first let’s get a feel for where the Penguins stand at the moment.

They are currently 4th in their division with 55 points and hold the final wild card position.  Boston holds the top wild card spot with 59 points, but the Penguins have a game in hand.

In regards to the Metropolitan Division, the Islanders are 1 point up on the Penguins, although they do have a game in hand.  The Rangers are 4 points up, but the Penguins have a game in hand on them.  And then there’s the Capitals, who nobody is going to catch, so let’s ignore them for the moment.

In the new NHL playoff format implemented a few years ago, the top 3 teams in each division have an automatic playoff berth.  Then the top 2 remaining teams in points, regardless of division, get the 2 wild card spots.

I’m going with another bold prediction here: I think the Penguins will finish 2nd in the Metropolitan Division.  They are not far behind the Rangers and Islanders, and they have plenty of time to make up ground.

To add to my argument, the Penguins have 34 games remaining.  17 of them, exactly 1/2, are against division foes.  4 of these 17 are against the Rangers who the Penguins have not played yet this season, and 3 are against the Islanders.  That is a potential 14 point swing.

The Penguins really do control their own destiny with all of these division games remaining.  They can put themselves 2nd in their division, or skate themselves right out of the playoffs.

BUT…

I think the Penguins are finding their stride, and I think that they can take 2nd in the Metro Division pretty easily if they win the important games.

As for the playoffs, WHEN the Penguins get there (not if), the Penguins are going to get to the Eastern Conference Final and lose to the Capitals.  The Caps have not had playoff success, but again, barring major injuries, their team is just too good.  I don’t see the Penguins beating the Caps in a 7 game series.  I would take the Caps over the Pens in the Eastern Conference Final in 6 or 7 games.

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Grant Franjione: Another prediction question: When the 2015-16 season is complete, who will lead the Pens in goals (currently Malkin), assists (currently Letang), and points (currently Malkin)?  Will any Penguin rise to finish top 3 in the NHL in any of the above?

Brad Franjione: Let’s take this one category at a time: goals, assists, then points:

The Penguins have 37 games remaining right now, and Malkin has a 6 goal lead on Crosby, 9 on Kessel, and 13 on Hornqvist.  I think that Malkin will lead the Penguins in goals after the season’s end, but I would not be shocked if Crosby catches him or at least comes close.  Also, who knows, maybe Kessel finds his groove.  Here are my top 3 Penguins goal scorers at the end of the year:

  1. Malkin – 38G
  2. Crosby – 36G
  3. Kessel – 28G

Malkin has a slim chance to crack the top 5 in goals (currently 7th), but I doubt he cracks the top 3 unless he channels his inner Russian monster.  I think the top 3 goal scorers in the NHL this year crack 45 pretty easily, so unless Malkin, or Crosby for that matter, goes on an absolute tear, then no Penguin is finishing top 3 in goals.

As for the assists department, Letang leads the team with 27, but Crosby and Malkin are not far behind him with 24 a piece.  It also should be considered that Letang has played 10/9 games less than Malkin/Crosby respectively.  That being said, I think Sid is on fire, and I think that he passes Letang up for the assist lead at the end of the year, but not by much.  Here’s my top 3 Penguins assist leaders at the end of the year:

  1. Crosby – 48A
  2. Letang – 47A
  3. Malkin – 43A

No Penguin is even top 10 in assists currently, so I can tell you with a ton of confidence that no Penguin will finish top 3 in the NHL in assists.

Finally, let’s talk points.  Malkin leads the Pens with 47, then behind him is Crosby with 41 and then Letang with 33.  I’ll stay consistent with my earlier numbers, and so based off of that, I am going to say that Crosby finishes the season with the lead in points.  He really is playing at another level right now.  Here are my top 3 point scorers for the Pens at the seasons’ end:

  1. Crosby – 84P
  2. Malkin – 81P
  3. Letang – 58P

Despite my decision to put Letang as the 3rd best Penguins scorer, I would not at all be surprised if Kessel ends up there, espeically if him and Malkin start to click on the 2nd line.  Kessel’s numbers will go as Malkin’s do, so if that line starts really clicking, Kessel will finish top 3 in points.

In addition, Malkin could easily finish above Crosby, but I figured I would stay consistent with my goals/assists predictions.

Malkin is currently 9th in point scoring.  I could see a Pittsburgh Penguin being top 3 in the NHL in points (Crosby or Malkin), but I still would say it is very unlikely at this point in the season.

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Matthew Tonkovich: Do you think it would be reasonable to try and get Buf (Dustin Byfuglien) or David Hamhuis before the NHL trade deadline?

Brad Franjione: I actually wrote about Byfuglien earlier in the year and how I would love for the Penguins to acquire him.  That being said, I think the Byfuglien is going to be extremely difficult to acquire, and unless the Penguins want to trade Murray, Pouliot, or Sprong (one of who would probably be in that trade), then I would say absolutely not.

But by goodness I would love to see him in a Penguins uniform.

I think that Hamhuis is a far more realistic guy to add, but I do not know if he is going to be the guy.  Rutherford obviously does not want to give up any of our young/upcoming guys, but if he can get Hamhuis for a bargain, given that he is 33 in the last year of his contract, then it might not be a terrible acquisition.

I think Rutherford adds a defenseman before the trade deadline, but I am guessing it is unlikely that he acquires a legitimate top 4 defenseman.  I am thinking he adds a Lovejoy-type of guy just for depth, but by all means, if he can get Hamhuis for a good price then do it.

Ideally, I think the Penguins should be hunting for a bottom 6 forward more than anything.  Due to injury, the bottom 6 for the Penguins is currently Eric Fehr chaperoning the top 6 of Wilkes-Barre Scranton, the Penguins AHL affiliate.  Although I will say the one guy that has impressed me is Bryan Rust.  He has speed, plays with passion, and has a decent release as well.  I would not mind him in the Penguins lineup even with everyone healthy.

However, even when healthy, the Penguins’ bottom 6 has been very underperforming.  Bonino has not been playing up to his expectations at all, Fehr has been okay, Bennett has been injured as usual, Plotnikov was a complete failure, and Cullen has been…alright.

I do not have any players in mind necessarily, but if Rutherford can go out and find a solid bottom 6 guy that can contribute in the goal-scoring department, he should do it.  I loved Downie with the Penguins, but he took way too many penalties.  A Downie-type guy (who doesn’t take useless penalties) would be perfect for the Penguins right now in their bottom 6, but that’s just my opinion.

I can say this almost for certain: Rutherford is not done in the trading department.  We’ll have to see what he has up his sleeve.

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Doug Godwin: So beyond the obvious buzzword (consistency), what is the reason for the Pens’ lack of faith in Pouliot?

Brad Franjione: Consistency has been the biggest issue with Pouliot for sure, but let’s just ignore the word “consistency” for now.

I think that their lack of faith in Pouliot was due to his lack of defensive responsibilty.  Pouliot is gifted offensively without a doubt.  He is a great power play quarterback, can stick-handle as well as most forwards in the NHL, has a decent shot, and is a very smooth skater.

That being said, the coaches/GM want Pouliot to play more like what he is: a defenseman.  Pouliot has looked much more defensively responsible in his 2 games up with the Pens, and I think that is the main reasoning behind them calling him up and playing him over Ian Cole, who has not been playing good hockey lately to say the least.

They want Pouliot to become more of a Kris Letang: be able to turn it up offensively but still be responsible defensively.  If you can remember, early in his career Letang was strictly an offensive defenseman and wasn’t a very good defenseman overall.  However, over the past few years, Letang has still been providing the Penguins with offense from the defense, but he has also been defensively responsible and making great plays.

Early in the season, I remember Pouliot was interviewed and talked for a few minutes about how he can improve offensively and just kind of added a “oh yeah, I have to play defense too” kind of thing right at the end.  I think this mindset is what was keeping him out of the NHL lineup, but I think that he is beginning to find his game.  He has a ways to go, but I think he is at least on his way.  I would love to see him make an impact in the NHL in these past 37 games.  I’m a big Pouliot fan myself.  Had an assist the other night!

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Tyler Godwin: What do you think is the biggest difference between the Johnston coached team and the Sullivan coached team?

Brad Franjione: This might be one of my favorite questions to answer, because there isn’t a wrong answer.

Okay, let me start with this.

Under Johnston, the Penguins were 15-10-3 and were 9th place in the Eastern Conference.  Under Sullivan, they are 9-7-4, and now sit 8th in the Eastern Conference.  Andrew Fillipponi kind of “bashed” Sullivan by tweeting out both records with a comment saying “but hey, they’re more fun!”

Sorry, Mr. Fillipponi.  You’re wrong.  Yes, they are more fun, but they are a much better hockey team under Sullivan than under Johnston.

First of all, Fleury was playing OUT OF HIS MIND for the Johnston Penguins.  The only reason the Penguins maintained a respectable record was because of Fleury.  He has still been good, but he has since been more average than not.

Second, Johnston did not have to deal with injuries for the most part.  Meanwhile Sullivan is playing the Wilkes-Barre top 6 in the bottom 6, and he still holds a decent record.  AND Fleury was out for a few games (although Murray did play great in his absence), and it is never easy for a team to lose their starter.  But, again, they have a respectable record under Sullivan.

My third and final point (for now), is that Sullivan started 0-4 behind the bench.  I mentioned earlier than the Penguins have since been 9-3-4, which in an 82 game span, would give them 112 points.  If you can’t remember, Sullivan had little to no time to legitimately implement his system in his first few games as coach, as the Penguins played a few back-to-backs and did not have time for practice.

So what is the biggest difference between the Sullivan coached team and the Johnston coached team?  Oh, well there is a whole bunch of em!

  • The Penguins could not come back in games under Johnston because they couldn’t score goals.  If they gave up the first goal or were losing after 2, you may as well have just shut the TV off and called it quits for the night.  On the contrary, Sullivan’s Penguins have trailed by 2 goals at some point in 7 of the past 11 games.  The Penguins have managed to earn a point in 6 of those 7 opportunities.  Now, try to tell me that Johnston’s Penguins could do the same thing.  Absolutely no way.
  • The Penguins averaged 2.36 goals per game under Johnston.  Under Sullivan? 2.7 goals per game, and it’s only going to go up.
  • Johnston’s Penguins averaged 26.3 scoring chances/60 minutes, while Sullivan’s have averaged 32.1
  • Johnston’s Penguins averaged 29.8 shots per game, while Sullivan’s average 34.5
  • Johnston’s Penguins had a powerplay clicking at only 15.6%, while Sullivan’s Penguins have been clicking at 26.2% (which would put them 2nd in the NHL behind the Caps)
  • This is more of an observational thing, but the players seem to respect Sullivan much more.  He is an “in your face” type of guy, and knows how to get through to the players.  Johnston, on the other hand, looked miserable behind the bench.  There was no emotion/passion/anything (at least, not that could be seen)

(quick acknowledgement to DK Pittsburgh Sports for some of those stats!)

The list goes on…

You could pick any one of those reasons as the main difference between Johnston’s Pens and Sullivan’s Pens.

My biggest difference?  Well it’s easy, isn’t it?

Sidney. Crosby.

It was clear that Sidney Crosby became a better defensive player under Johnston.  Most of his defensive metrics spiked.  But, this caused his offensive numbers to fade, even though he was right among the top scoring leaders in the NHL last year.

Johnston wanted all of his players to play a 200 foot game and be responsible defensively, and I personally believe that this led to Crosby focusing too much on defense and not as much on offense.

Sullivan, on the other hand, unleashed Sid.  He wants the stars to show him what they’ve got.  He wants to give them time and space.  He wants them to create offense and score goals, and he is not going to lecture them how to do that, because they KNOW how to do it.

Under Johnston, Crosby had only 6 goals in 27 games. 6!!!!!!  This was good for a .22 goals/game average.  He had only 13 assists, good for .48 assists/game, which gave him .70 points/game under Johnston.

Under Sullivan, Sid is on fire.  He has 11 goals in 20 games, good for .55 goals/game, 11 assists wich gives him .55 assists/game, and 22 points which is good for 1.1 points per game.

The Penguins success will always be based on how their stars perform, and now, Sullivan has their stars performing.  Look out NHL.

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Thank you so much to everyone who participated!  I love answering Penguins related questions and I’m sure Ill be doing another Q and A real soon.  Hope you all enjoyed!

All-Star Break Q and A

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

Tuesday’s Q and A’s

Welcome to my first Q and A session!  For those of you that are new to my blog, I will be posting a Q and A article on every Tuesday.  Throughout the week, ask me questions via twitter (@FranjiPensPress) using #FranjiPensPress or comment your question on a Facebook (Franjione Pens Press) post. I will answer every question that I get, so feel free to ask away!  As for the first week of Q and A, let’s get underway:

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Alex Light: What are your thoughts on the new lines that just came out?  Sprong on the 3rd line is just a little bit off in my opinion.  Also, what do you think about the fact that Johnston is “experimenting” with some of the line changes?

Brad Franjione: There are a ton of elements that I love about the line changes Johnston made.  At the same time, there are elements I am not a huge fan of.  For those of you that are unsure about what the Penguins line combinations were as of this past Saturday against the Predators, here they are:

Dupuis – Crosby – Hornqvist

Plotnikov – Malkin – Kessel

Kunitz – Bonino – Sprong

Perron – Cullen – Rust

First of all, I love love LOVE the fact that Johnston finally put Kessel with Malkin, and put Hornqvist back with Crosby.  Last year, Crosby and Hornqvist really developed some awesome chemistry.  I also think that Hornqvist’s playing style of getting to the front of the net encourages Crosby to shoot more and gives him more space to work.

Kessel with Malkin is going to work.  I promise you this.  Malkin plays such a dominant game, and loves possessing the puck in the offensive zone.  This draws defensemen in towards Malkin, and gives players like Kessel more space to find the soft spots in the defense to look for opportunities.

I said it once, and I’ll say it again: James Neal was a 40 goal scorer with the Penguins, and he played with Malkin, not Crosby.

As of now, I am not a huge fan of Plotnikov on the 2nd line, but both Perron and Kunitz failed to succeed in a top 2 line role, so I guess Plotnikov is getting a second crack at it.

Finally, let’s talk about Sprong.  I would love to see him on the first or second line, BUT he is a natural right winger, and with the likes of Hornqvist and Kessel, it is highly unlikely that Sprong plays over either of these 2 guys.  The only way he plays in the top 6 if they convert him to be a left wing, which I do not think they will do.

So for now, I do not mind Sprong on the 3rd line…

BUT…

He should see way more than 8 minutes of ice time per game, which is about what he is getting.  He is one of the Penguins’ most skilled offensive forwards, and the Penguins are lacking in the goal scoring department.

2 + 2 = 4 right?  Then let Sprong do what he does best: score goals.

As for the last part of your question, I understand why Johnston wants to experiment with the line combinations, because clearly something needs to jump start this offense.  That being said, experimenting with line combinations is something that should be done in the preseason.  Johnston pretty much kept Kunitz, Crosby, and Kessel together and kept Plotnikov, Malkin, and Hornqvist together.

That’s your time to “experiment”, not now.  But line changes needed to be made, and I’m glad he at least did that.

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Josh Godwin: Will Bruce Boudreau coach for the Pens at some point this year?

Brad Franjione:  First, let me fill everyone in on the situation.  Bruce Boudreau is currently the coach for the Anaheim Ducks.  During the preseason, the Ducks were seen as one of the Stanley Cup favorites.  All of that being said, the Ducks are 1-5-1 to start the season, with only 6 goals scored in those 7 games.

Boudreau is probably on the hot seat, and if the Ducks continue on this downward slide, Boudreau could very easily be unemployed soon.

As we all know, the Penguins are struggling to find offense, and Mike Johnston is definitely on the hot seat here in Pittsburgh.

If both Boudreau and Johnston get fired (theoretically), I would think that there is a chance the Penguins take a look at Boudreau.  However, this would only be a realistic situation if Boudreau was fired before Johnston, and the Penguins were able to get in contact with Boudreau and initiated talks with him about coaching in Pittsburgh.

I would give a higher probability to see either Tocchet or Jacques Martin behind the bench if Johnston is let go.  But there is absolutely a chance that the Penguins would consider Boudreau if that was an option for them at the time.

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Nick Bermel: Why do the Penguins always lose to the Flyers?  Are the Flyers just the superior team?

Brad Franjione: Well, let’s start off by saying that the Flyers have not won a Stanley Cup since 1975.  The Penguins have 3 Stanley Cups since then.  Oh, and were the Flyers in the playoffs last year?

As I recall, they were not…

That being said, you do bring up a good point.  I want to say it’s been 8 games straight that the Flyers have beat the Penguins in head to head match-ups.

I think that the rivalry between the Penguins and Flyers adds some crazy intensity to every game, and I think the Flyers know how to take advantage of that.  The Flyers play in a way that really gets into the heads of the Penguins’ players, and the Penguins play into that style that the Flyers play.  Props to the Flyers for that.  In addition, the Flyers have some solid offensive threats up front in Giroux, Voracek, Simmonds, and others.

The Flyers have been the superior team in head-to-head matchups against the Penguins in recent years, but they are by no means the superior team in general.

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Raafay Rishi: Which NHL defenseman do you think the Penguins will trade for and who will the Penguins give up in the trade?

Brad Franjione:  To be quite honest, Raafay, right now the defense is not the problem.  The offense is.

But as I said in one of my previous articles, the defense is going to decline slightly as the season goes on.  The Penguins right now are stacked offensively and need help on defense…at least on paper.

Who do I think they should go after? Dustin Byfuglien.

The Penguins do not have many physical players, and Byfuglien answers that concern.  He hits people HARD.  He also has a bomb of a shot, and is a great power play guy, which the Penguins really need right now.

So, if the Penguins were to pursue Byfuglien, who do they give up?

Right now, the centerpiece of that trade for me is David Perron.  He has offensive skill and can be a decent player, but he just does not seem to fit anywhere into the Penguins lineup right now.  The Penguins would have to throw in something else besides Perron, but I think he would be the centerpiece.

Some other pieces that the Penguins would consider using along with Perron could be players such as Kunitz, Scuderi, or even young defenseman Derrick Pouliot.

I’m not sure if the Penguins will pursue Byfuglien, but I do not have a problem with taking advantage of the offensive surplus and helping firm up the defensive corps, especially considering that the Penguins only have two top pair defensemen and a bunch of other bottom pair guys.

Now that I think about it, I’d buy a Byfuglien shirt.

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Casey Chafin: Let’s jump to the major conclusion that Johnston is out.  What do you look for in a replacement, style wise?  And what immediate changes should the new guy implement?

Brad Franjione: If you do not know, Johnston’s style has a very “defense first” mentality.  The offense is created through defense and the defense move up into the play to help create offense.

So Rob Scuderi is supposed to provide offense for this team?  Yeah… Okay…

The coach of the Penguins needs to be a guy who coaches in an offensive-minded style.  The Penguins are built upon their star players’ success.  They have star power up front, and they are clearly one of the best offensive teams in the NHL, at least on paper.

The Penguins should be winning 6-3 type of hockey games, not 2-1 hockey games.  The new coach needs to be one that puts the emphasis on offense, not defense (although defense is obviously still important).

In regards to the second part of your question, I think the biggest immediate change (besides the overall strategy) is the power play.  The power play is just not working, but it needs to be.  The players are too good for it not to work.

In the last 3 years of Bylsma’s stint with the Penguins, the Penguins had power plays clicking at 19.7%, 24.7%, and 23.4% which ranked them 5th, 2nd, and 1st in the NHL respectively.  So clearly Crosby, Malkin, Letang and co. can be successful.  Obviously the power play can work, but it obviously hasn’t under Johnston and Tocchet.

The Penguins finished with a power play percentage of 19.3% last year, which is not too bad at all.  That being said, the power play was clicking at about 40% for the first 20 or so games.  This means in the last 60 or so games, the power play was not working so well.

This year, the Penguins power play is only clicking at a 7.1%, which is 29th in the NHL.

This needs to be fixed, and it needs to be a priority for the head coach that takes over Johnston, because I do not think he will be here much longer.

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Doug Godwin: What would you attribute Sid’s lack of production to over the last 2 years?  Declining skills?  Coaching?  NHL changing?

Brad Franjione: Well, let me start with this: last year, scoring in the entire NHL was down.  The Art Ross winner Jamie Benn had only 86 points.  Crosby finished with 83 points, and finished first in the NHL in points per game.

The NHL is general is changing.  Goalies are getting bigger, the pads are getting bigger, and goals are harder to come by.  It showed last year.

Although Crosby was first in the NHL in points per game, he really hasn’t looked like “vintage Crosby” over last season and this season.  Especially this season.

If you recall, Crosby had one great game against the Panthers this year where he registered a career high 9 shots on goal and had 3 points in that game.  He had some hop to his step and played an absolutely terrific game.  Past that, he has been invisible.

I think part of his problem right now is coaching.  Johnston has been questionable to say the least, and considering he had no NHL coaching experience before taking over the Penguins, I’m not sure how much respect and trust Crosby has in this guy.

His main problem?  He needs to shoot.

Hopefully this problem is partially solved through reuniting him and Hornqvist, but regardless, Sid needs to shoot.  He showed us all that when he shoots the puck, good things happen.  When you’re as good of a player as Sidney Crosby, you’ll score goals and put up points when you shoot as much as he did against the Panthers.

Case and point: Alex Ovechkin.  The guy has a tremendous shot, and shoots the puck like crazy.  He gets rewarded by collecting Rocket Richard trophies like it’s his job.

Remember that Crosby was a Rocket Richard winner himself.  He has the ability to do it, but now that he isn’t the only star player on the team, he feels the need to pass the puck.  A LOT. Like, way too much.

Yeah, Crosby is not as young as he once was, but he hasn’t lost much skill at all.  I do not think this is an issue at all.  He just needs to play with confidence and be a little more selfish with the puck.

You want to see Crosby’s production trend in the upwards direction?  Tell him to shoot.

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Grant Franjione: Two questions for you: how do you explain the Penguins complete inability to bounce back from even 1 goal deficits when trailing after 2 periods of play?  Also, when I watch the Penguins, it just seems like chances to score in today’s NHL are just super tough to come by, but yet I see less offensively talented teams have occasional outbursts of 4, 5, or even 6 goals in a game. What are those teams doing that the Penguins aren’t?  Are they just luckier?

Brad Franjione:  Well, let’s take this one question at a time.

So, from what I could remember, the Penguins were actually a pretty good comeback team when playing under Dan Bylsma.  They have been the exact opposite under Johnston.  Although some of the players change every year, the Penguins have had the same core players throughout this span.  So, is their inability to come back simply based on the head coach?

Well, the problem is that I FEEL like the Penguins were a good comeback team under Bylsma.  But I wanted to convince you AND myself that the Penguins were a much better comeback team under Bylsma than they are under Johnston.  So I decided to do some research and calculations.

From the beginning of the 2009-2010 season to the end of the 2013-2014 season, which is the time frame where Bylsma was the head coach (excluding his stint with Pens in 2009 when they won the Cup) the Penguins won 21.19% of their games when trailing going into the 3rd, which is good enough for 2nd in the NHL during that span.

Yeah, the 2nd best winning percentage when trailing going into the third period!

The Penguins are currently 0-21-5 in that category under Johnston.  Yikes.

Last year, the Penguins scored only 12 goals in 23 opportunities when they entered the 3rd period trailing.  In this situation, the Penguins were only scoring .53 goals per period, while they averaged .89 goals per period throughout the season.

This year, the Penguins are 0-3 in this situation, and have yet to score a goal when going into the 3rd down by at least a goal.

Oh, and I’m not done yet…

The Penguins, under their 5 full seasons under Bylsma, won 45.35% of their games when they allowed the first goal of the game.  Their NHL rank in this category in this 5 year span? 1st.  You heard me, 1st.  The best team in the NHL at winning games when allowing the first goal.

Under Johnston, the Penguins have only won 26.32% of these games.

Convinced yet?  If not, I have one more stat for you.

Under Johnston, it seems as though the Penguins have at least been pretty good at holding a lead when they get it.  They are 4-0 this season when scoring the first goal, and have not been trailing in any of these 4 games.

So, under Johnston, the Penguins have won 69.82% of their games when scoring the first goal.  Under Bylsma?  The Penguins won 74.47% of their games when scoring the first goal.

Why did they get rid of Bylsma again?

To answer the second part of your question, let me start with this.  The Penguins shooting percentage this year is 5%, which is 29th in the NHL.  Last year, the Penguins had a shooting percentage of 8.39%, which is less than the shooting percentage of any Penguins team under Dan Bylsma.

So, why are the Penguins not scoring a ton of goals with their offense?  Well, they aren’t scoring on many of their shots.

So, why aren’t they scoring on many of their shots?

Johnston’s strategy entails shot volume, which does seem pretty logical right?  The more pucks you throw on net, the more pucks that are going to go in.  At least, it seems that way…

To Johnston’s credit, the Penguins finished 4th in the NHL in shots per game last year, and currently sit in 4th place in the NHL this year in shots on goal per game.  But is shot volume really the answer?

Here is my thought: when a coach preaches about shot volume, as a player, you are going to focus on shooting the puck (unless your name is Sidney Crosby, then you’re never going to shoot the puck).  However, I think this gives the players a mentality of “let’s make sure we get shots on goal.”  In other words, they’re shooting to shoot.

They’re not shooting to score.

I think this is the underlying difference.  Shot volume is important, but the some of those shots need to come on quality chances, and the players have to shoot to score, not just to shoot.

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That concludes this week’s Q and A!  I’ll be doing the same thing next Tuesday!  As always, thank you again to everyone who keeps up with me, and a special thanks to those who participated in my first Q and A session.

Remember to follow me on Twitter @FranjiPensPress and like me on Facebook at Franjione Pens Press.

My next article will be up late on Wednesday night after the Penguins face off against the Capitals on rivalry night.

Tuesday’s Q and A’s