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?

 

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