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.

 

Advertisements
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.

Kessel pens

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

Pens Struck by Lightning, Edge Sabres

stamkos

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.

Pens buff.jpg

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

Just 1 Point This Time…

crosby panthersJust over a week ago, the Penguins played the Florida Panthers in Florida, just like they did tonight.  The Panthers scored a goal towards the middle of the 3rd period, and a shorthanded one at that, to put them ahead 2-0.  All hope seemed lost.

Then, with 5 minutes left, the Penguins began their comeback magic.  They scored 2 goals, tying up the game, and then winning it in overtime on a goal by Kris Letang, his second of the game.

This game tonight played out in a similar fashion.

Florida jumped out relatively early in the first period on what I believed to be somewhat of a lucky goal.  Alex Petrovic fed the puck through the slot, and I swear it went by almost every Penguins player, and at first, I was mad they weren’t playing good defense.

However, it ends up that the puck deflected off of a Penguins stick, which then caused the puck to hop over Kessel’s, but the puck still landed perfectly on Bjugstad’s stick and he made it 1-0.

Florida, in general, dominated the first period.  Fleury kept them in it, but the Penguins needed to pick things up.

The second period was better for the Penguins, but they still couldn’t find the back of the net.  Sid had some chances to shoot, but passed up on some opportunities.  In the words of Mark Madden, who I got to watch the game with today down at Buford’s Kitchen in downtown Pittsburgh “Crosby is at his best when he’s shooting the puck.  He needs to shoot there.”

Couldn’t agree more, Mark.

Anyways, the Penguins entered the 3rd down 1-0.  Hagelin had a breakaway shorthanded early in the period, but he tried to go five-hole on Montoya and was denied.  When the game was in the late stages of the 3rd period, all hope seemed lost.  But then…

The Penguins found a spark that gave them a chance in Florida once again.  This time, it came off of the stick of Chris Kunitz.  Crosby tied his man up on the faceoff to Montoya’s left, and Kunitz came in and dug the puck out.  He skated to the slot and absolutely rifled a shot off of the crossbar and in past Montoya to tie the game with 3:19 remaining.

The game would go to overtime, where I believe the Penguins outplayed the Panthers but were unable to score.  Bryan Rust had 2 glorious chances that would not go, Letang had a great chance…but the greatest chance of all came off of the stick of Phil Kessel.

Crosby skated the puck into the zone and the entire Florida team flocked to him, only for him to find Kessel streaking down the middle of the ice.  The guy has a dangerous shot, and he was as wide open as wide open can get  in the 3 on 3 overtime, but Montoya denied him.

Also, honorable mention to Crosby who somehow disrupted a Florida 3 on 1 chance.  It was a tremendous defensive play and at the moment, gave the Penguins a chance to get an extra point.

Then…onto the shootout.

Huberdeau was first for the Panthers.  The left-hander skated from right to left and tried to fool Fleury with a wrist shot and wait Fleury out.  Well, he did fool Flower, but the post gave Fleury some love.

Crosby then shot for the Penguins and scored on Montoya.  Crosby loves to go high glove or 5-hole (between the goalies legs).  Tonight, he went 5-hole and put the Penguins up 1-0 in the shootout.

Next shooter for the Panthers was USC guy Vincent Trocheck.  Trocheck tried to open up the 5-hole of Fleury, but Fleury made sure that he closed the door.  The Penguins now had a chance to win it.

Onto the ice came Chris Kunitz.  He made a great move, as the left-hander skated right ro left, faked the shot, and went backhand.  Unfortunately for Kunitz, Montoya made a fantastic glove save.

However, the Penguins had yet ANOTHER chance to win, and Fleury just needed to stop Bjugstad, but could not.  Fleury went with the poke-check, but Bjugstad’s long reach allowed him to go to the backhand and avoid Fleury’s poke-check to keep the shootout going.

Despite Fleury not being able to make the save, the Penguins once again had to chance to win the shootout on the stick of Letang, who had just won them a shootout on Friday night.  Letang tried to make a similar backhand move, but Montoya was ready for it and didn’t buy what Letang was selling.

Reilly Smith then shot for the Panthers, but he was quickly poke-checked by Fleury, as he came to a dead stop right in front of the net.

Kessel then had a chance to end it for the Penguins.  He came in flying and just took a straight up wrist shot.  My goodness was it a rifle, but it pinged right off of the crossbar and back out.  Montoya had no chance of stopping the shot, it was just a fraction of an inch too high.

Florida then had its chance to go on top, and who else but former Penguin Jussi Jokinen.  He did the same move as Huberdaeu essentially, but he did not hit a post.  He found the back of the net.

Cullen then came in with a chance to tie the shootout.  He deked a few times, tried to go 5-hole, but was denied by Montoya.  Not the same result for the Penguins as last time they were in that building…

Impressions

I know he has not been producing, but I am really high on Bryan Rust right now.  The guy has some serious speed and has been creating chances for himself.  I think he will benefit once some of the veterans come back, and I do not think he will leave the lineup.

Flower had a strong performance.  The team has struggled to score goals in its past 3 games, but it should be noted they have gotten 0 production from their bottom 6 AHL guys and they are without Geno.  Hopefully he is ready to go on Thursday against Detroit.  I have heard he is progressing, so we will see what his status is come Thursday.

The Penguins shot low on Montoya a lot.  I do not know if he is not as good when the puck is shot low or if that’s just where the puck was going tonight.  Ironically, the only goal in the game came on a shot from Kunitz where he DID go high on Montoya.  Just felt that was an observation I should share…

Well hey, you win some you lose some, but the fact that the Penguins could get a point out of this game where they were down for the majority of it is still a huge confidence booster, even though they had the potential to get 2.

Don’t be concerned about this game or even the Penguins 3 game funk with goal scoring.  When 39-year-old journeyman Matt Cullen is centering your 2nd line of Hagelin and Kessel, your team is not going to score many goals.  That is not, however, a knock on Cullen.  He is a good hockey player, but he is a fourth line center and PK guy.  He shouldn’t be centering 2 speedy snipers.

Malkin will be back soon, the bottom 6 will no longer be all AHL guys soon enough (although I do like Sheary and Rust), and the team will improve.  There is no doubt about that.  The fact that the Penguins got a point out of tonight…I’m happy with that.

I can confidently say this: the Penguins would have NEVER got that point under Johnston.  This team has much more resolve/comeback ability under Sullivan and will only get better as the injured guys get healthy again.  Looking forward to see what’s to come…

I really do want to try my best to keep up with the recap articles, so I will do my best to post one after the Thursday game against Detroit.  Let’s hope they get Geno back for that one.

Until next time…Let’s Go Pens.

Just 1 Point This Time…

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…

____________________________________________________

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?

___________________________________________________

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.

__________________________________________________

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.

____________________________________________________

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.

____________________________________________________

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.

____________________________________________________

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!

____________________________________________________

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.

_________________________________________________

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

Believe

Just 2 nights ago, the Philadelphia Flyers marched into Pittsburgh with a 13-2-1 record at Consol Energy Center.  Heck, the Philadelphia Flyers Twitter account tweeted this photo below with the caption: “Home sweet (second) home #PHIvsPIT”

And unfortunately, it has been their second home.  The Penguins haven’t beat Philadelphia, regardless of venue, since October 17, 2013 going into this game.  Last time the Penguins won at Consol Energy Center against Philadelphia was March 24th, 2013 in a game that took OT to decide.  Tyler Kennedy had the game-winner in OT.

After the 1st period, the Penguins gave up 2 power play goals to Brayden Schenn and Jake Voracek, and were trailing 2-0 after the first.

Given the history of these 2 teams at Consol, I along with many other fans I would assume, thought this game was over and done.  I was wrong.

The Penguins battled back in the 2nd, and went into the 2nd intermission up 3-2, scoring 2 power play goals from Daley and Kessel, and adding 1 more from Crosby that was a ridiculous shot at a ridiculous angle.  Kessel netted another goal in the 3rd to make it 4-2.  Giroux did respond for the Flyers, but the Penguins held on and won 4-3.

This was not only a great come from behind win, but an absolute HUGE 2 points against a Flyers team that is chasing them in the standings.

This afternoon, the Penguins took on the Canucks despite the snowy conditions here in Pittsburgh.  Once again, the Penguins found themselves down 2-0 at the intermission on 2 goals by Canucks’ forward Jannik Hansen, who had a terrific game, and looked like one of the fastest forwards in the league.

Evgeni Malkin scored a 5 on 3 power play goal in the 2nd period to cut the lead in half, but the Penguins were still trailing 2-1 going into the 3rd.

A few minutes into the 3rd period, Canucks’ forward Bo Horvat fired a shot top corner on Fleury, using Letang as a screen, and gave the Canucks a 3-1 lead with only 14 minutes remaining in the game.  Once again, it did not look so good for the Penguins.

Then, just a minute later, Evgeni Malkin was at it again.  He carried the puck into the slot and was skating right to left.  He tried to get Miller off of his angle, but Miller never gave Malkin a good chance to shoot.  Malkin ended up carrying the puck behind the net, but was able to throw the puck to the front.  Luckily for Malkin, the puck went right off of a Canuck stick and into the net.  It was 3-2 now, and the Penguins had life.

Not much longer the Penguins tied the game 3-3.  Who scored?  Well, who else???

Malkin notched his 10th career hat trick on this goal, and single-handedly brought the Penguins back in this game.  What a great game for Geno.

With only 7 minutes to go, Bryan Rust notched his 2nd of the season, and his 1st since returning from injury, and what a big goal it was.  Kuhnhackl got his first NHL point on the assist.  Although Rust scores the goal, it never would have happened without Eric Fehr.  Fehr screened Miller and never allowed Miller to see the sneaky quick shot that Rust took.  It wasn’t a hard shot, but because Miller never saw it, he did not fall into the butterfly, and the puck went 5-hole and gave the Penguins the lead.

Crosby then scored on an empty net, which ended up being a huge empty net goal.  That being said, Hagelin could have easily scored on the empty net, as he was in a 2 on 1 with Sid going towards an open net, but he passed it and Sid buried it.  Classy play from Hagelin, who has yet to score as a Penguin.  Although, he has been getting his chances and has been playing very well.  I love how much he can create with his speed.

Jannik Hansen scored with 16 seconds remaining to cap a hat trick of his own, but it wasn’t enough to tie the game, and the Penguins held on and won 5-4.

I want to take you back in time for a second…

Can you all remember earlier in the year, when the Penguins could not come backto win games under Johnston?  It seemed, at least to me, that if the other team scored the first goal, the game was over.  The Penguins just could not come back in games.

Now, that is different.

The Penguins just overcame back-to-back 2 goal deficits in the first period.  Although I wish the Penguins wouldn’t continue to give up the first 2 goals in games, it is just visible that this team believes in itself and that they believe in their coach.

Their power play is clicking, their offense is clicking…

They are starting to play Penguins hockey.

So yeah, their record under Sullivan isn’t great yet, but I can tell you from watching the Penguins recently, they are playing with some desire.  They want to win.  They believe that they can win.  I believe they can win.  And you should too.

I feel a win streak coming on…

 

Believe