Monday, April 11, 2011

The "New Look" Penguins, Playoff Preview Part 1.

Round 1 of the 2010-11 Stanley Cup playoffs begins this Wednesday for the Penguins as they face the Tampa Bay Lightning. The number of storylines to discuss this series is a mouthful. The most notable being Ryan Malone's return to Pittsburgh. His father Greg, is also a scout for the Lightning. He was a scout for the Pens for several years, he helped find some guy named Goligoski during his Univ. of Minnesota days.

This isn't the run-and-gun Pens team we've been so used to seeing the past 4 playoff series. Albeit, they still forecheck and can control the offensive zone in similair fashion to those previous teams. But, never has there been a 6 man D core as good as this one. Nisknanen's play has been mediocore at best the past couple weeks but having him as a number 6 guy isn't a bad thing, especially with the way his partner Lovejoy is currently playing (3 assist game yesterday in Atl).

The Pens finished last season 4th in scoring, while their defense was near the bottom. Trade deadline acquisition Leopold didn't work out that great, Eaton was weak and sloppy, Gonchar became slower than Gill as the season progressed (remember Moen's goal in game 7?), and Niskanen is better defensively than Gogo. The biggest summer signings were Michalek and Martin. Big Z blocks, skates, and now shoots like nobody on this team. He is the only D-men who can get shots on net in a Gonch-esque fashion, aka hard slappers. Bylsma was quoted as saying Martin reminds him of Lidstrom, maybe if Martin suddenly became an offensive warlord, then yes. But, Martin does have a great stick and an ability to shut good players down while not being overly physical, in the same way that Lidstrom does.

The other thing the Pens have going into this playoff series, is a very very hot goaltender in Fleury. Since is 0-6-1 start, he has suddenly become a Hart Trophy candidate. His rebound control has been especially impressive this year and he's had to steal at least 20 games since Sid and Geno went down. Both have been out for 28+ games. Given the lack of scoring the Pens have provided, Fleury and the defense have given them hope. And then Kovy and Neal have been finishers in the shooutouts.

The Pens are much better on D and in goal then they were last year going into Round 1. The Senators almost took it to game 7 and the Pens played decent in the Montreal series before completely melting in game 7. Scoring will be and has been a big problem since Sid and Geno went down. But guys like TK, Dupuis, and Kunitz have really elevated their game. TK has a career high 21 goals, Duper who was horrible the first 3/4 of the season has heated up (16 goals) and created a nice 3rd line with Connor and Talbot.

The Lightning remind me of the Habs in some ways. They have some great role players: Moore, Hall, and Thompson. And they also have some game-breakers: Stamkos, St. Louis, and Lecavalier. Roloson is NOT halak, but his playoff numbers over the years have been very good. He lead the Oilers to a Cup Final appearance in '06 before going down with an injury. The Lightning D is also not as strong as the Habs. Gill, Gorges, and Subban were excellent last year. Brewer and Clark are the only defensive studs on the backend with Kubina having a big shot.

Part 2 of the preview will discuss possible matchups. But in the meantime, the Pens will need a scoring line they can count on. Letestu, Kovy, and Neal have been terrible. And the Staal unit has been matched up against the top lines of opposing teams. Kovy has been averaging a point per game the last 28 games in the playoffs, he'll need to continue his playoff production. And Letestu has started scoring but he needs to be visible. Will Neal start burying his chances? Kovy has given him ridiculous looks and he hasn't been able to finish. Getting a dirty goal would help. The Pens still can roll all 4 lines, and their 3rd line has been tenacious lately. Rupp and Asham have also found their games on the 4th line just in time for the most physical part of the year.

More to come, stay tuned...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Eric Staal and the Canes Swoop Into Town

Win big or lose big seems to be the Canes motto this month. They've scored 7 goals in 3 of the past 7 games and allowed 22 goals in 3 of those games. But overall they are a not so bad 9-9, not bad at all given the lack of star/quality players outside Eric Staal. Rookie Skinner will be one to follow closely tonight as he has 6 goals and was dead silent during the last Pens/Canes tilt nearly a month ago.

The Canes added overpayed d-men Ian White in a trade with Calgary a couple days ago. White has been known to score some big goals against the Pens over the years.
On the Pens side of things Geno is heating up, Orpik has looked as good as ever, and Michalek is slowly developing into the shutdown guy we paid the big bucks for. Geno and Asham have developed some good chemistry over the past week and they seem to glide side by side when they come up ice.

The Pens are correcting early problems one step at a time, the way it should be done. First off, Fleury has been terrific, his rebound control especially. The softies and goals on the 1st few shots of the game have diminished. The Pens have also improved defensively allowing a league low 26.8 shots/game. Letang and Orpik have played well together as have Martin and Michalek. Finally Disco Dan took Engelland away from the other teams top lines and has him playing a more comfortable role.

Coming off the first (or one of the few) 60 minute efforts, the Pens will look to win their 4th out of their last 5. The Canes have some gritty forwards who can score like Tuomo Ruutu and Chad LaRose who has 6 goals on the year. Look for Pitkanen to play at least 30 minutes tonight and Corvo as well. The Pens have eaten up Corvo over the years, playoffs included. Much of the Pens recent success has come from lack of turnovers and speed. Lines 1-4 are getting the puck deep, crash and banging, and tiring opposing d-men down. Chris Connor who's all of 5'9 has shown tremendous speed and strength while playing alongside TK and Letestu.

The Canes are coming off an offensive blowout where Staal netted a hat trick. But the Pens don't have Elliot or Leclaire in net, thankfully. Look for Michalek/Martin to get matched up against the Staal/Samsonov unit. The lineup will be the same as Wednesday's game. I like how the Sedin's and Luongo said they were unimpressed with the Pens and feel they are the inferior team. Yeah that's why the score was 3-1 Pens and should've been 4-1. The Nucks are deeper at wing, yes but they're D is just as good as ours IMO and Luongo doesnt' show up for the big games (Olympics don't count that team was sick).


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Gustavsson Comes up Big Late, Leafs Win 4-3

The Monster as they call him in Toronto nation, was huge tonight. 25 shots isn't necessarily a lot but he seemed to make key saves when the Leafs needed it the most. Former Sabre and Thrasher Macarthur had a solid game scoring 2 goals and creating offense for an otherwise quiet night by the whole Leafs team. Kessel and Versteeg were less noticeable than Adams and Rupp, yet 4 goals on 14 shots still managed to beat Fleury.

Fleury let in a few he'd like to have back but there were several big faceoffs in the Pens zone which they lost and the Leafs would score right after. The PP goal by Macarthur comes to mind, as does the Beauchemin goal after a Zigomanis (former Pen) faceoff win. The Leafs did an excellent job of taking away the outside shot by the Pens D (for the majority of the game), the Pens did not. The Leafs D had good looks all night and were able to score 3 goals that way.

The most impressive part of the Leafs team is their defense. All 6 guys are big, physical, and do a solid job of moving the puck up ice. Even a guy like Gunnarsson made very few mistakes. The highlight of the night for the Pens seemed to be the Engelland fight vs. heavyweight Colton Orr. I was surprised to see Engs drop them with the big man who's taller and about 20 lbs heavier. Yet Engs KOed him at the end and the crowd seemed to wake up. Good to see Crosby with his 1st of the year and Geno continue to be a beast.

It still boggles me how Geno is so bad on shootouts/penalty shots. He never makes a move and just shoots it and misses most of the time. Some positives for the Pens include the net front presence, Kunitz is doing a great job on the PP or whenever he's out there of screening the goalie, and getting rewarded with a goal tonight. For a defense playing without the likes of Orpik and Michalek, their shutdown pair, they were solid in transition. Lovejoy had his best game of the year. Great play to breakup a 2 on 1 Sjostrom and made a nice pass to Crosby for the 3rd Pens goal.

The most noticeable forwards were Sid, Geno, and Kunitz. Geno is playing like a monster this year he's creating so much havoc for opposing teams and its creating scoring chances like its nobody's biznass. Sid got better as the game went on and Kunitz's MO seems to be those little passes up to the forwards. He did it back in game 7 when the Pens won the Cup and he's doing it again now. But the top 6 wingers like Dupuis, Tangradi, and Letestu are non-factors. Putting Geno and Sid together is effective but separately there's very little chemistry. Those 3 aforementioned guys are getting their chances but are not burying them. Dupuis was robbed by the Monster, Tangradi bobbled a pass from Crosby near the net, and Letestu had some point blank looks at the last minute of the game and couldn't score.

Paul Martin is an animal. There were at least 3 plays where Toronto attempted to clear the puck high out of the zone and Martin jumps up and saves the puck from exiting. He is very confident with the puck on the point and is able to make high percentage passes to the other guys. He doesn't have Gonch's slapper (basically no one does) but he doesn't give up too many bonehead passes and is very good defensively.

Give credit to the Monster and the Leafs for playing a team game when their stars (Steegs and Kessel) weren't shining. The Pens need to find some flow in their top 6. The 3rd and 4th unit are grinding away, hitting, and providing energy but the top 2 lines need to produce. It's hard to blame Fleury when you see so little shots but he can be better.


link to fight:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bobrovsky, Flyers Play Spoiler, beat Pens 3-2

Don't expect Mike Comrie to get any sympathy from Hilary, at least not after tonight's play. He had 4 shots and was all over the puck in the 1st period, then went into hibernation mode never to be seen again. What started out as Lemieux pouring some of Mellon Arena's ice onto the new turf, ended with the Pens desperately trying to tie the game at 3. Newly named starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was pretty calm in net and gave the Flyers a chance to win. He had excellent rebound control unlike Mr. Fleury but he also got lucky when he had no idea where the biscuit was, the Pens were just unable to capitalize.

Crosby wasn't a factor in this game and his linemates Kunitz and Dupuis were just as bad. On the other hand the Tangradi/Comrie/Geno line generated a ton of offense and hemmed the Flyers in their own zone on several occasions. Once Comrie learns to lift the puck maybe they'll put some numbers up. But Geno was a machine. He was playing with that hop we saw in him a couple years ago and he was constantly creating turnovers and making things happen.

Besides the Geno and Tangradi the Pens defense (namely Michalek and Martin) were outstanding. Martin made a great backhand dish pass to TK for the 1st goal of the game and Michalek created the shot that lead to the 2nd goal of the game. But it was Michalek's defense on the PK and against the Richards/Carter unit that was just as impressive. Those two will definitely be worth the big $$$. Then again Martin's style of play is reminiscent to Leopold, they even look alike but Martin's a better player, and hence the bigger paycheck. Goligoski really impressed me, he played well on the PP point and played as good defensively as I've ever seen him play.

Bobrovsky's 29 saves highlighted the victory for the Flyers who look a lot more dangerous and a lot like the team we saw in the Stanley Cup Finals last spring. They have skilled players down through their lineup. And as long as Hartnell and Carcillo aren't taking bonehead penalties, they are very tough to beat. The Nikolay Zherdev experiment will be one to watch but having a 3rd line of Giroux/Zherdev and Van Riemsdyk is scary. TK and Letestu both had good games, when TK's hopping around the ice like a gazelle you know he's on his game.

Don't worry Pens fans, it's only one game and the Pens played well enough to win. A couple posts go in and it's a different score. Letang's flu-like symptoms were evident in his terrible pass to Martin on the PP, which lead to a Giroux goal. I like the physicality that Engellend brings on defense but he had a tough time moving the puck up ice throughout the contest. Look for Lovejoy to be inserted on Saturday night vs. the tiny and Halak-less Canadiens. Oh and that Fleury save on Carter looked all too familiar didn't it? Flashback to game 2 a couple years back, almost a carbon copy. Carter failed to lift it again.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hawks One Win Away

Game 5 was an outright downpour by the Chicago offense. Work ethic and desperation finally matched the talent level of the Hawks. The 1st period in particular featured 3 goals and an offensive display the Flyers weren't ready for. Leighton wasn't too sharp, but it was far from his fault.

Versteeg, Sharp, Kane, Byuf, and Keith have been catalysts throughout the series. I still think Toews can elevate his game even more but the fact that he leads the playoffs in points makes him a legit Conn Smythe candidate, along with his teammate and standout d-men Keith. Seabrook/Keith are an exciting pairing to watch because they can not only shutdown opposing top lines, but go on the offense when needed as well.

As good as Chicago looked in game 5, Philly is far from done. For one thing they finally have a coach in Laviolette who has them playing smart and physical hockey, not just physical. It woulda took thousands of dollars to pay Stevens to bench Carcillo in favor of Lappy or Powe. Remember a couple years ago how knucklehead Downie cost the Flyers 2 games against the Pens in the Conference finals? Downie has since become a much better player. The Flyers also have one of the best d-men of our era, Chris Pronger. His media antics help relax the team and sway the focus away from guys like Richards/Carter to himself. He's won a Cup in Anaheim and lost in the Finals as a member of the Oilers in '06.

Don't forget the Flyers fans either. They are loud, abusive, energetic, and will help revive the Flyers back into their good 'ole Flyer form.
The team never seems to give up, game 5 was evidence of that. And they also have 2 great scoring lines with a very potent 3rd line to go along with it. Leino, Giroux, and Briere have been instrumental throughout the Flyers Cup run. Leino was on the losing side last year for the Red Wings while being nowhere near the player he has become now. He is playing like Sergei Federov with a hint of Peter Forsberg. He's been that good.

Will Michael Leighton get the go for Philly? Obvi. The waiver pickup leads the playoffs in Gaa and save %, so yes he'll be there. Niemi will need to be more sharp in Game 6, as will the Chicago defense. Both Philly and Chicago are very weak with their bottom 2 defense pairings. Veteran Boynton was put in the lineup in favor of Hendry the last couple games, and he has looked slower than Gill and Sutton combined. And on the Philly side, I think half of Flyer nation cringes everytime Kraijcek gets the puck, not to mention when Bartulis gets it. He's only played 3-6min a game lol.

I'm rooting for the Hawks and I know they have what it takes. On paper they are far and away the best team in this series. They have 4 dangerous scoring lines and some solid (surprise) d-men in Sopel and Hjalmarsson. Will Philly rise to the occassion and feed of the crowd once again? We shall see, but expect them to give a Russell Crowe( in Gladiator) type effort.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Cinderella Lives On as Habs Take Game 7...What happened?

Nights can happen where nothing just seems to go right. The refs make bad calls, the goalie let's in a softie and so on. But how often do those nights happen to the Pens in high pressure moments in the playoffs? Can't remember the last time the Pens got rattled, maybe in the first couple games of the Detroit series in 2008, but that's it.

Tonight the Pens were doomed and all of us including critics, fans, and experts thought this would be a tight hockey game going into the 3rd period. But the dam would break just 10 seconds in, 10 seconds!!! Sid knocked down Gorges and was called for boarding, very iffy penalty but that's fine. On the PP just 20 seconds into it Gionta deflected a PK Subban shot and somehow some crazy way it snuck in between Fleury's right arm and right pad, 1-0 Habs.

A goal like this, just seconds into the game, was clearly deflating for the Pens. It wasn't the start they wanted nor were expecting. But so what? It's only a one goal game, time to regroup because there are still 59 minutes to play. The Pens had a very hard time generating any offense in the first period. There was no forecheck and no speed, nor composure. The frustration would be evident on the Habs 2nd goal off the stick of former Pens forward Dominic Moore. Gonch failed to clear the puck out and Orpik was too busy pushing Lapierre behind the net while Moore was left wide open for a turn around shot, 2-0 Habs.

Being down 1-0 seemed like the end of the world for the Pens, at least that's what their body language was telling me. They knew scoring the 1st goal in this game would be huge, especially when Halak is the goalie your facing, goals will be very very hard to come by. But the game prolonged and Cammy sniped the 3rd Habs goal on a nice play off another Pens defensive miscue. And the worst play of the night came when Gonch simply let Moen skate around him and score a shorty for a 4-0 lead. I think Fleury should've been pulled after the 3rd goal but it didn't matter at the end.

The Pens would finally get to their game during the 2nd half of the 2nd period. As the referee kicked the puck up to Kunitz and he shot it five hole, 4-1. After an expired PP with under 5 min left, Poni fired a shot from the point and it was deflected by Staal, 4-2 Habs and the building began rocking. Every fan stood up cheering as loud as they possibly could. For good reason too, I mean Staal was the first Pens player to screen Halak since they did it in game 1.

The tables were quickly turning towards the Pens favor as the hitting and forecheck picked up like none other. TK and Cammy got into a scuffle behind the net and that was a trade anyone would take. TK who has 0 goals in 10 playoff games vs. Cammy who leads the playoffs with 13 goals. As the period was winding down Gorges took a penalty and the Pens would have a 4 on 3 PP to begin the 3rd period, can you ask for anything better? The hockey gods were giving the Pens every opportunity to get back into the game.

But some of that momentum seemed to be lost during the intermission. The Pens failed to score on the 4 on 3 and failed to score on a Gill holding penalty. The best PKer for the Habs in the box and still no goal is scored. Both Sid and Geno had glorious chances right in front but they couldn't lift the puck. Anything low is easy pickens for Halak. It shouldn't take 7 games to realize that.

The Habs added a 5th goal by Gionta who looked like a baseball player and the game was over. The Pens outshot the Habs 18-3 in the 3rd and still no goals to show for it. Brent Johnson did a terrific job in relief of Fleury, especially early on he made some huge stops on Cammy and Gomez. But what happened to the Pens this series? Was this game just a fluke or did some similar patterns from previous games continue here?

For one, Fleury was not the same goalie as last year. He had one good game where we won 2-0 and he made some great saves but otherwise he was mediocre at best this series and this playoff season. Where was that big save in a timely moment the past couple games? And most importantly where were the Pens big guns? The Habs big guns: Gionta and Cammy outperformed Geno and Sid by a considerable margin. Cammy had 7 goals while Gionta had 5, Sid and Geno had 1 each. In game 7 Sid and Geno's level of play was even worse than in previous games.

We're used to seeing Sid explode past defenseman and forwards alike, not once did that happen here. And what about our defense, who was our shutdown pair? Orpik/Gonch? You kiddin' me, and its def. not Letang/Eaton. Don't get me started with how bad Gogo/Leopold were either. The likes of Gill/Scuds were clearly missing for the Pens all year long. There was a clear lack of a big d-men clearing space on the PK and shutting down or containing the oppositions top guns.

Gonch's age is finally catching up to him and although he is an outstanding offensive talent, his defense is downright awful. The Moen goal and the Moore goal were just a few examples of it. Sure a lot of pressure should be put on Geno, Sid, and Fleury but what about their wingers? Poni had 3 goals in 27 games and just 2 points in the playoffs. Feds was nowhere and like Poni, saw himself a healthy scratch for a couple games this series. Guerin's age has also caught up to him as his 5 on 5 play was terrible.

The strongest part of the Pens playoff run was their secondary scoring production from guy's like Cooke, Talbot, and Adams. Cooke played above and beyond his expectation and the other two seemed to continue where they left off during last year's Cup run. But other supporting cast members such as TK, had 0 points in 10 games, wow. Staal was decent, but not great. An upset like this shouldn't come as unexpected as it might seem.

The Pens are far and away a better team on paper than the Habs, but the Habs had heart, hunger, and a desire to win which the Pens couldn't match. Sure the Pens wanted to win, but the physical side had finally taken toll on them. They've played 303 games (including the playoffs) the past 3 seasons and roughly 50 playoff games. As we all know playoff hockey is a whole different monster from the reg. season. It's been an incredible run and when you run into a hot goalie and an opportunistic/energetic team, it's never gonna be easy. Remember in the 1st round, the Sens almost took the Pens to 7 games. Without Michalek and Kovy (2 top 6 wingers) and without Kuba , a top 4 defenseman.

If the Pens did prevail past the Habs, Philly/Boston wouldn't be a problem. But whoever wins the Chicago/San Jose series will annihilate anyone coming outta the East and they woulda beat us. So a repeat Cup performance is basically a pipe dream, at least with this group of Pens players. The Pens had another solid season and with the core still in place, the future still looks as bright as ever. But GM Ray Shero will have some major re-tooling to do, especially on the backend. Maybe starting summer off early is the best recipe the doctor could've ordered for these defending Stanley Cup champs, somethin' Ovie can't even say.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The "Other" Goalie Comes up Big at the Bell...Pens win 2-0

Where have all the Canadiens gone? The boys in red were storming up and down the ice in the 1st period of play but then they disappeared and in came the Pens offensive attack. Dump pucks in deep, crash and bang the Habs D, and initiate a ferocious forecheck. This lead to some quality scoring chances from Cooke, Gogo, and Sid which were all turned away by the force field called Halak in the 2nd period.

But then a scrum ensued at the end of the 2nd where Sid got into it with Gill, Gorges and company. You can only wish for a power play situation where both the USS Gill and Gorges are in the penalty box. And after going cold the past couple games, Mr. Malkin one timed a cannon of a shot past Halak as Kunitz/Sid were providing a pair of screens in front. No goalie, not even Halak can stop Geno's shot when it's on the money like that.

Fleury stopped all 18 shots he faced and a few of which made Halak's saves look ordinary.
Once off a Gionta stop Fleury slid side to side then again on a try by Cammy, MAF was in the zone. The smiling assassin is 8-1 in game 3's since the 2008 playoffs, not too shabby.
But it was a collective team effort tonight at the Bell Center, where the fans are always makin' some type of noise: booing the refs for a non-call, singing the soccer anthem, or booing Sid.

Persistence, investment, and speed were the key components to a Pens victory tonight. After weathering the storm in the 1st period the Pens didn't let up. They came out with 14 shots in the 2nd and completely took over the game from a territorial standpoint. This lead to penalty calls which lead to the eventual Geno game winner. The Habs were having an impossible time exiting the zone the 2nd half of the game. Even with speedsters such as Gomez, Cammy, and Gionta the Pens were able to forecheck and get to their game.

Letestu, who was inserted in Guerin's place in the lineup, looked very good centering the 3rd line with Cookie and TK. Cooke has been engaged on nearly every shift he plays, we know he can hit and agitate but the guy is showin some skill as well. Once Geno scored his PP goal he had a couple shifts after where he was just flying around the ice. Let's hope the monster has been unleashed. Halak played well, but Fleury was better.

PENS LEAD SERIES 2-1, GAME 4 on Thursday