Enough Is Enough

The Penguins just lost 3-1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning in game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Consol Energy Center.  It was a game where Tampa Bay did not carry the play nor have the majority of the scoring chances, but they had high quality chances and capitalized where the Penguins didn’t.

This game had very weird, and also very unfortunate, moments for both teams:

  • The Penguins’ Kris Letang was hit from behind by Lightning forward Ryan Callahan into the boards.  Interestingly, Callahan received a 5 minute major, but not a game misconduct.  This hit will be looked at by the league for sure, and Callahan could very well be suspended.  Letang did return and played the rest of the game.
  • Lightning goalie Ben Bishop had to be carried off by a stretcher in the 1st period after falling awkwardly on his left leg.  Although no one is exactly sure what the issue with Bishop is yet, it seems unlikely he will return any time soon.  Vasilevskiy finished the game for the Lightning.
  • Tyler Johnson, Lightning’s top line center with Steven Stamkos out, was hit knee on knee by Kunitz against the boards.  Johnson exited and needed help off of the ice, but he did return.
  • Brian Dumoulin got hit hard into the boards and went down to the ice and appeared unconscious.  He did not return.

Despite injuries to both sides, the Lightning players stepped up and buried the opportunities that they needed to bury.  The Penguins did not.  It really is that simple.

The first Lightning goal was simply Olli Maatta getting burned.  Again.  Hedman fired the puck down the length of the ice to Killorn who was waiting at the blue line.  Maatta had awful position on him, and allowed him to skate right on in, and Killorn made no mistake on the breakaway, beating Murray 5-hole.

The second Tampa Bay goal came on the power play, as a shot was deflected in front from a point shot and found a wide open Palat who had a 4 x 6 staring him down.  He didn’t miss, either.

The final Lightning goal came off of a bad pass from Malkin that could not be handled by Dumoulin.  The result was a 3 on 1 for the Lightning, and it only took 1 pass and a one-time shot by Drouin which put the Lightning up 3-0.

Hornqvist would add a power play goal late in the 2nd, but the game had already been decided by that point.

Although the Penguins out-chanced the Lightning and even out-shot them, I did not feel like they came out with any type of desperation at all.  I just never sensed it.  This could be attributed to coming off of 2 series wins against 2 of the Penguins’ biggest rivals.  It could just simply be that they weren’t ready.  Regardless of the reason, the Penguins need to buckle down and win game 2.  If they fail to do so, this series will be a quick one, and might not even be coming back to Pittsburgh.

Although the Penguins did not play their worst game, enough is enough.  Well, what do I mean by that?

Maatta has gotten his fair share of chances, and yet he continues to get burned by the opposition.  Enough is enough.  He is a smart kid and I still like that the Penguins signed him to a 6-year deal, but ever since he’s battled back from injuries this year, his reaction time and skating has been too slow, especially against a fast Tampa Bay team.  The guy is pretty much a lock for at LEAST 1 breakaway allowed per game.

Oh yeah, also considering the Penguins have Justin Schultz on their bench who skates very well, has great speed, and has been on the ice for five goals against since being aquired by Pittsburgh.

Sorry Olli, enough is enough.  If Sullivan knows what he is doing, Schultz should play game 2 and Maatta should sit.

The Penguins need to learn to shoot when they have a high scoring chance.  Enough is enough.  I saw the Penguins not shoot on a 2 on 1 OR a 3 on 2, both of which occurred in the same minute or 2 span.  Quit trying to make the pretty play and get some garbage goals.  Oh and shoot when you have odd man rushes.  Take a note from Tampa, they had 2 tonight.

Also the Penguins were lacking net front presence tonight.  It seemed like their shots would either be blocked, or Vasilevskiy/Bishop saw it the whole way.  I don’t care who is in net, both of these guys are good.  Yeah sometimes the bounces will go your way, but the Penguins need to shoot the puck with traffic in front if they want to win game 2.

Finally, and probably the biggest issue, Malkin and Crosby need to start producing…and I mean NOW.  Enough is enough.

genosid

I get that these 2 along with Kessel are 3 of the only active 4 NHL players that have above a point per game in the playoffs, but they sure aren’t living up to that recently.

Both players played very well against the Rangers, and as a result the Penguins toppled them in 5 games.  Meanwhile against Washington, the Penguins received 1 goal from Crosby and Malkin combined.  One. measly. goal. AND it was scored in game 1 from Malkin.  Neither Sid or Geno scored in games 2-6 of the Washington series, and neither of them scored in game 1 against Tampa Bay.

I understand that there are plays made that don’t show up on the score sheet.  I know these guys want to score.  But they haven’t.  They got away with it against Washington, but it is only a matter of time before the Penguins begin to slide without their top 2 players producing.  And for that matter, Letang has been very quiet offensively, too.

However I think it is time that just “making a good play here and there” and “playing hard” just isn’t enough for Sid or Geno.  Malkin did have some good looks on the power play, as did Sid, but to me neither player really seemed like they had that extra push or energy to jolt them over the top.  Neither of them looked like generational talents. This is a huge issue for the Penguins going forward. It helps to have depth scoring, but they can only pick Geno and Sid up so often.

So, how do the Penguins get Geno and Sid going?  Here are my thoughts:

  • Sid needs to have a shot first mentality.  He has always been his best when he shoots before he passes, but he seems to be deferring way to often lately.  He had an assist on Hornqvist’s goal, but Sid needs to start shooting the puck. Period.
  • In the words of @EvgeniMalkinEgo on Twitter, Evgeni Malkin has “two pieces of cheese as linemates.”  He isn’t wrong.  It is hard for Malkin to get going with the likes of Fehr and Kunitz, neither of who are stellar offensive players.  Rust is the only somewhat legitimate offensive player that could plug in on Malkin’s line, but he admitted to not liking playing with Geno due to their clashing playing styles.  My solution?  It’s Daniel Sprong time.  The kid has a shot and isn’t afraid to use it.  The Penguins need to give Malkin a somewhat legitimate forward to work with, and Sprong fits the bill.  Will that actually happen?  Never in a million years.  Should it happen?  In my opinion, yes.
  • My final idea: play Geno on Sid’s wing. Kessel, Bonino, and Hagelin is your 2nd line regardless of where Malkin plays. Why not try to get both Sid and Malkin going by playing them both on the top line? It’s an idea that the coaching staff should seriously entertain, considering I doubt they will recall Daniel Sprong this year unless it becomes necessary.

Until Malkin and Sid get going, this series will be a short lived one for the Penguins.

Game 2 is Monday night at Consol Energy Center.  A win for the Penguins could be a huge momentum builder going into Tampa Bay.  A loss puts them down 2-0 in 2 home games to open up the series, and the Penguins are lucky to come back to Pittsburgh for a game 5 if that is the case.

Enough is enough.

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Enough Is Enough

Murray or Fleury?

matt-murray-marc-andre-fleury-900x506In game 5, Matt Murray stopped 16 of 19 shots.  Although his stat line in this game was not exactly impressive, (.842 save percentage and just above a 3.00 goals against average) you can hardly blame the kid.

The first goal he allowed was an absolute howitzer of a one-timer from Ovechkin.  Not much Murray could do on that goal.  Ovechkin made a great shot, and the defense needs to start reading that play.  It’s almost way too predictable, but its starting to work.  Ovi has been taking that shot all series long, and it was only a matter of time before he scored on it, and he will continue to do it until the Penguins shut it down.

The second goal he allowed was on a near identical play.  Ovechkin let a one-time shot go, although this time Murray made a great pad save.  However, TJ Oshie outworked the Penguins defense in front and knocked in the rebound.  Again, Murray could not have done much to prevent that goal from happening.

The third and final goal for the Capitals was one Murray probably could have stopped, however you can’t put all the blame on him.  Brian Dumoulin attempted to clear the puck and put it right on the stick of Justin Williams, who could have sat down and enjoyed a nice 3 course meal before shooting the puck while skating in on Murray.  The puck went 5-hole, but Williams never even gets this golden chance without the turnover from Dumoulin.  In addition, the shot was deflected by a Penguins stick, and did not go where Williams intended.  If he gets the shot of clean, Murray just may have made the save.

And yet, many Penguins fans, analysts, and even nhl.com are claiming that Fleury may, and even will, get the nod in game 6 on Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center.

Ha. Ha.

Wait, this isn’t a joke?

Matt Murray should be your starter in game 6.  And if the Penguins lose game 6, he should be your starter in game 7, and potentially in round 3 against Tamba Bay.  In my opinion, the earliest that the Penguins should even consider using Marc-Andre Fleury is in game 1 of round 3.

So why would I not play Marc-Andre Fleury in game 6?  There are plenty of reasons to support my argument, which is the right decision, involving keeping Matt Murray in net.

In the words of Rob Rossi, the Penguins have 2 options in net for game 6: “a rookie, or a Cup winner.”  Ok, that’s fair.  Here, I would say the Cup winner…but only if I’m basing a decision solely off of that statement.

Let’s rephrase this scenario to make it more accurate.

The Penguins have 2 options in net for game 6: a 21-year-old goaltender with promising potential that has a .937 save percentage and a 1.96 goals against average in the playoffs, or a 31-year-old goaltender who hasn’t played a game in a month, and is coming off of his 2nd concussion of the year.

Hmmm…I’ll take the 21-year-old guy.

Crazy how a little rephrasing can totally change the scenario.

So what, we should all be calling for Matt Murray’s head since he let in 3 goals on 19 shots? Well, Holtby let in 3 goals on 23 shots in game 3, and I do not recall many people calling for his head following that loss.

Heck, if Fleury was healthy, played in every game thus far, and had Matt Murray’s stats up to this point…are we calling for Matt Murray after Fleury lets in 3 goals on 19 shots, in which he couldn’t really do anything about each goal?  I would say no, but that’s just my opinion.  However, when the “franchise guy” Fleury is on the bench, it seems as though yinzer nation just wants an excuse to put him in. I get it, but it’s ridiculous.

Ride the hot hand.  The Penguins guy is still Matt Murray.  Oh, and I’m not done yet.

Let’s start thinking hypothetically (although I do not always enjoy thinking hypothetically, it makes sense for this situation).  Say the Penguins start Fleury in game 6.

If he wins, then great.  The Penguins will move on and the coaching staff will decide which goalie starts game 1 of the next series against the Lightning.

If he loses, notably if he plays subpar or even just lousy, then what?  Do you, yet again, turn to the Cup winner/franchise goaltender to try to muster up a game 7 win in Washington?  Or do you go back to Murray, who is the main reason the Penguins are at where they are to begin with.

Now the Capitals go into game 7 with confidence and momentum, and the Penguins coaching staff is scratching their heads as to which goalie they want to play in game 7.  The risks are just not worth it.  Not to mention that starting Fleury over Murray in game 6 would be taking a huge shot at Murray’s confidence, considering he didn’t really do much wrong in game 5, or in the playoff in general, to warrant being taken out of the lineup.

Let me draw you an almost identical parallel.

It was 2004.  The Pittsburgh Steelers lost Tommy Maddox to injury in game 2 of the regular season, which was a loss to the Ravens 30-13.  He was replaced by rookie Ben Roethlisberger, who everyone figured would be a half-decent quarterback, but nothing fantastic.  He ended up leading the Steelers to 15 straight wins, 14 in the regular season, and a 15-1 record.

Now tell me this: say Maddox was ready for game 12, and despite the Steelers winning game 11, in addition to games 1-10, Roethlisberger had 3 interceptions, but none of which were really on him.  Do you put Maddox back in?

No.  And it’s not even close.

My final argument is that Matt Murray deserves to finish was he started.  As a referred to in my previous article, the Penguins would never have owned a 3-1 series lead if not for Murray.  He is the reason the Penguins are in the position they are in, and he deserves to finish the job.

Heck, even if Murray and the Pens finish the Caps off in game 6, many will be calling for Fleury to start game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in round 3.  To this, I still say the starter should be Matt Murray.

Why?

Well, let’s look at the stats.  The Penguins are 0-3 against the Lightning this year.  In the first game, the Lightning won 5-4 in OT.  Fleury posted a .800 save percentage.  In the second game, Fleury had a horrid .714 save percentage, allowed 4 goals, and was pulled in favor of Zatkoff, who started the 3rd and final game against the Lightning.  Murray has yet to face the Lightning, but I like to think he can’t be much worse, especially with how he has been playing this year.

 

Game 6, I’ll take Matt Murray.

Game 7, if needed, I’ll take Matt Murray.

If the Penguins advance to play Tampa Bay, I’ll take Matt Murray.

If they advance to the Stanley Cup, well, it’s hard to not go with Matt Murray.

I love Fleury, and regardless of what happens in the playoffs this year, he will be the starter for the Penguins next year.  However, for now, the Penguins need to keep riding Matt Murray.  Case closed.

Murray or Fleury?

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.

angry sully.jpg

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…

Our Penguins Are Back

Bones and HagsJust recently, I was in attendance for the Penguins’ dominant 6-2 against the NHL-leading Capitals.  Something about the atmosphere of that game was just absolutely incredible.  The fans were into the game.  They started chants without being prompted, including “HOLTBY” during the third period.  And oh boy was that place BUMPIN.

It almost felt like the atmosphere that the good ol’ Mellon Arena had.

Josh Yohe of DK on Pittsburgh Sports noted that after this game, he felt it was the louded he has heard that arena since it was erected.  Incredibly, it did not take long for the fans to change his mind.

Just 2 night ago, the Penguins fell behind to the Buffalo Sabres 3-0 early in the game.  It looked like it was going to be another loss against another subpar game.  However, the Penguins responded in the 2nd period, rallying to score 4 goals, 2 shorthanded on the SAME Buffalo power play, and ended up winning the goal in overtime.

Yohe reported after the game that although he had nothing against the Washington crowd, he said that after the Penguins scored their 4th goal, the crowd was even louder than before.

Our Penguins are back.  They have brought themselves from not being able to score goals early in the season to now being 4th in the NHL in goals for.  They have electricity again.  They have speed.  They are playing like the Penguins are SUPPOSED to play.

Credit GMJR for upgrading the Penguins’ speed.  He traded Perron for the speedy Carl Hagelin.  He traded Scuderi who looked like he was skating in mud for Trevor Daley who has been an absolute perfect fit in the Penguins system, and I still don’t know how he pulled that trade off.  Even the guys that started in Wilkes-Barre including Rust, Kuhnhackl, Wilson, Sheary, etc, have brought energy and speed to the lineup.

Credit Mike Sullivan.  He really has been getting to these players, and they are clearly buying into his system.  These players believe in what they are doing, and it has been clearly reflective in their play.  They’re having fun, and the fans are clearly feeling it as well.

Something just feels different about these playoffs than the past few years.  I can’t help but think about 2009: coaching change mid-season, getting hot at the right time…its all in the cards.

The Penguins went 14-2-3 starting March 1st in 2009 when they went to win the Cup.  They got hot at the right time, and they rode their momentum right into the playoffs.  They are currently 12-4 since March 1st this season, and playing undoubtedly their best hockey of the season.

Heck, the Penguins have been rolling without Evgeni Malkin!  They are now 9-1 in their last 10 games without Malkin in the lineup.  And no, that is not a typo.  9-1.  More impressively, the Penguins have scored 5 or more goals 4 times in 10 games without Geno. So, how in the world have the Penguins been able to put up a record like that without their second best player?

They’ve been getting contributions from everyone.  Cullen has stepped up.  Bonino has come out of nowhere.  Kessel looks like the player many people believed he would be when he was first acquired, and is also developing tremendous chemistry Carl Hagelin.  Murray has been great when called upon, and despite his rough start in Buffalo, he made the big saves when he needed to.  Letang looks like a legitimate Norris candidate, and Crosby is looking more and more likely to make a strong case to win the Hart Trophy.

The Penguins have been lacking role players for the last few years.  If a team wants to make a deep playoff run, they need not only their star players to step up, but they need role players to come through as well.  If you recall, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup due to 2 goals from Max Talbot, who was a 3rd/4th line guy.

talbot.jpg

This team is winning hockey games, and they’re prepped to win plenty more come mid-April.  It’s almost playoff hockey time in Pittsburgh…thank goodness our Penguins are back.

 

Our Penguins Are Back

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

Sprong Deserves the “Kessel” Treatment

sprong goalIt was December 19th.  Daniel Sprong, one of the Penguins’ brightest future prospects, was sent back down to his QMJHL team, the Charlettetown Islanders.  In his 18 games with the Penguins, Daniel Sprong scored 2 goals, had no assists, and was a -1.

One of the biggest criticisms of Sprong is that he has not quite developed a solid defensive game yet, which led to him playing somewhere between 4 and 7 minutes per game on the fourth line.

So yeah, Daniel Sprong’s defensive game is not spectacular, but I do not think it ever will be.  He can and will get better and has to be more responsible in the defensive zone, there’s no doubt about it, but the Penguins need to accept that Sprong isn’t going to be winning any Selke Trophies any time soon.

Since Daniel Sprong’s return to the QMJHL, he has posted 15 goals and 29 assists, which is good for 44 points in only 31 games.  This would give him his best points per game total, 1.42 PPG, since he started playing in the QMJHL.  During his previous 2 years he posted 1.01 points per game and 1.29 points per game respectively.  This may be in the QMJHL, but the stats don’t lie.  He is posting impressive numbers.

Daniel Sprong may not be the most sensational defensive forward out there, but boy is he gifted offensively.  He has a fantastic release, super quick hands, is a fast skater, and can pass the puck too.  But the difference is that he was a constant healthy scratch, played on the 4th line, and barely got to play at all.

So you’re probably asking “what difference? You said the difference is…The difference between what?”

Phil Kessel.

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Phil Kessel was brought to the Penguins to score goals and provide offense.  Many believed, including myself, that Kessel could easily post 40+ goals being that he was a lock to play with either Crosby or Malkin.  Although Penguins’ fans did set high expectations, I do think Kessel has absolutely under-performed as a whole.

In 70 games, Kessel has 21 goals and 27 assists, giving him 47 points.  This is not an awful output, but from a guy like Kessel playing with guys like Malkin and Crosby, it should be higher.  Also, he has been insanely inconsistent.  Although he just had a goal and an assist last night against the Hurricanes, he scored his first goal in 8 games (and his previous goal was an EN goal), and often follows performances up like these with a dud.  That being said, I want him to prove me wrong, and gosh darn it I hope he does against Philly tomorrow.

Similar to Sprong, Phil Kessel is not any threat defensively.  Currently, Phil Kessel is a +2 for the Penguins.  His only other season he was a “plus player” was 2008-2009 with Boston when he posted a +23.  That being said, Phil Kessel was not brought here to play defense: he was brought here to score goals.

Kessel has not left Crosby or Malkin’s side for the most part.  And, well, he’s Phil Kessel.  It doesn’t make much sense to move him down to the 3rd or 4th line.  He has been kept on the first PP unit until only recently, despite not shooting as often as he should or scoring for that matter.

Meanwhile, Daniel Sprong never had any legitimate chances to play with Crosby or Malkin because the coaches felt he was a liability.  Then, when it came time for power plays, which is where Sprong would be extremely effective on the right side, the coaching staff still did not use Sprong, and continues to use guys like Kessel and, at the time, Perron.

It should also be noted that Sprong not only did not get these opportunities, but he played almost all of his game under Mike Johnston’s system.  He played only 2 games under Sullivan, which were within that 0-4 start when Sullivan was hired.  Now, the Penguins have an identity, and for me, Daniel Sprong fits right in.

So, although I am not advocating for Sprong to play over Kessel, my argument is this: if Kessel gets a chance on the top PP, and a chance to play with Malkin and Crosby, why not let Sprong have his chance next year?

Kessel hasn’t been “demoted” due to his lack of defense.  Rather, the coaching staff feels he can score, and so they give him his chances.  Okay, fair.  So give Sprong a chance.

Kessel, until recently, continued to be put on the top PP unit despite his lack of quality shots and goals.  But the coaching staff felt he would turn around.  Again, fair.  So why not let Sprong, who is often selfish with the puck (in the best sense of the word), a chance with the top PP, or at least one of the power play units?

Let Sprong do what he does best and provide offense.  Sprong is only 19, and will only be getting better, but the Penguins need to give him a chance to do so in the top 6 if they want him to develop correctly.

Sprong Deserves the “Kessel” Treatment

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