Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Penguins Third-of-a-Season Review

A Tale of 1/3 of a Season

A third of the Penguins' season is in the books. The Pens have played 16 games and sit atop the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference with a 11-5-0 record and 22 points. New Jersey have the same number of points, but Pittsburgh have an extra regulation/overtime win, giving them the tie-breaker at this early stage.

Let's look at some positives and negatives before dishing out some just-for-fun 16-Game Awards at the end.

Things I Like So Far

Road Warriors

Pittsburgh are the best road team in the league right now, going 8-2 in 10 road contests so far. They have been able to come out and set the tone early, quietening the hostile crowd by scoring the first goal in every road game to date, netting at least one first period tally in each. Their only road losses have come in New Jersey and in Sidney Crosby's Winnipeg debut.

A stinker of a second period cost two points in Winnipeg, despite Crosby's pair of first period goals. The Penguins' indiscipline cost two points in the Prudential Center - they were assessed 12 minor penalties (including some dreadful calls by the officials) - despite the penalty killers holding New Jersey to just 2-for-10 on the power play. And let's face it, the Devils' neutral zone trap has been giving the Pens (and the rest of the league for that matter!) palpitations for years. And let's not forget the evergreen Marty Brodeur - check out this robbery of Chris Kunitz if you missed it.

There are a number of other traveling highlights. Special teams play has been solid too. The power play has 11 road goals at a 28.4% clip; the penalty kill has conceded goals in only 5 of the 10 games. Of James Neal's 11 goals, 7 have come on his travels. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been lights-out on the road, winning 5 of 6 starts and posting a .939 save percentage and 1.82 goals against.

With the Pens having a heavy dose of road games early on, and with only a .500 record at Consol Energy Center so far, their road performance has been the key to leading the Conference.

Fast Starts

As well as scoring first in every road game, the Pens have taken the lead in 13 of their 16 games, winning 10 of those contests. This shows the importance of getting that first marker, but perhaps more important than merely scoring first is scoring early. Twelve of those goals have been scored in the first period (Brandon Sutter had the temerity to wait until 2:27 of the 2nd in the 5-1 win over New Jersey on February 2nd!), either taking the opposing crowd out of the game early or firing up the usually quiet Consol crowd.

Quick strike first period dominance has typified Pittsburgh's start to the season. They have 18 first period goals, against only 6 conceded. They have scored inside the first five minutes of 9 games, including 5 goals scored before the two-minute mark. This is a team built to score, so the quicker they can light the lamp, the better. If they can maintain this trend, opposing teams will be forced out of the trapping schemes that have flummoxed both the Penguins players and the coaching staff over the last few seasons.

The Blueline

I think everyone has been impressed - and a little surprised - with Paul Martin's improved play. He leads the team with 25:37 of ice time per game and trails only Kris Letang for points among Pens' d-men. Martin has 2G-7A to this point, playing mostly alongside Brooks Orpik as a shut-down pair, and has looked masterful in quarterbacking the top power play unit since taking over for an injured Letang. Sure, you'd love to see him with a positive +/-, but hey, that's a stat that doesn't tell you anything of note.

So far, the Pens have used nine different defenseman because of injury or roster wrangling. Martin, Letang, Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Deryk Engelland, Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo, Dylan Reese and the now-in-Anaheim Ben Lovejoy have all appeared on the blueline. Highly touted defensive prospect Joe Morrow was also called up before the February 10th Devils game, but was sent back to Wilkes-Barre the following day.

Each player has contributed something meaningful, either through scoring (Letang, Martin), physicality (Orpik, Engelland), solid two-way play (Despres, Niskanen) or simply stepping in admirably when better players have gone down injured (Bortuzzo, Reese). The Penguins currently rank a respectable 10th in goals against per game. What looked like a weakness down the stretch last season has been a strength this year.

Things I'd Like To See Now

Geno: Score A Goal!

This might seem a little harsh on a reigning Hart Trophy winner who has 18 points in 16 games, but Evgeni Malkin only has 3 of the Penguins 52 goals. He needs more!

I'd like to see Malkin net a couple pretty soon for a few reasons. First, Geno is no small part of James Neal's hot start to the season, but at some point, defenders are going to start keying more on Neal (assuming it's possible to stop his super-quick release!). If Neal's goals dry up for any length of time, Geno's going to have to pick up the slack. The fact that he only has 50 shots so far, only the 23rd highest total in the league, is a little strange.

Second, great centers like...oh I don't know...Sidney Crosby...make the players around them better. Clearly, Malkin has done a great job getting Neal the puck, but guess how many goals Geno's left wingers have so far this year when playing on his line? Precisely zero. None. Alright, none of Eric Tangradi - now departed to Winnipeg for a 7th round pick - Tyler Kennedy, Zach Boychuk, Tanner Glass or Matt Cooke are exactly Zach Parise, but you could be forgiven for expecting a couple of goals from that group. In fact, only Cooke has a point playing with Malkin - a solitary assist. Part of the blame for the position's lack of production has to fall on Geno. Being more of a goal threat himself - or even just shooting the puck more - would surely create opportunities for linemates to bang home rebounds.

And the third reason is best covered below...

Man In The Box

Hopefully, this is a problem that will right itself soon, but too many undisciplined penalties are going to cost the Penguins games sooner or later. One would hope that all the silly, bonehead penalties were got out of the system in the 12 minor debacle against the Devils.

Early in the season, and in some games since, it's been evident that frustration with in-game events or  performance has led to downright stupid penalties. Malkin has been a prime culprit, averaging close to two PIMs a game, with the vast majority being as a result of frustration, either with the opposition, the officials or himself. The sooner he starts scoring goals, the fewer penalties he'll take.

Even in the Buffalo game on Sunday, Crosby took an unnecessary cross checking penalty, followed by Tanner Glass being pinged for delay of game after using his hand to win a face off. Buffalo tied the game on the ensuing 5-on-3. Bad penalties usually come back to bite you. Chris Kunitz was fortunate Buffalo didn't take advantage of his dumb retaliatory slash late in the 3rd.

Only ten teams have been shorthanded more often but, as I saw someone on Twitter say the other day, the penalty kill might be good, but they shouldn't have to keep proving it!

Secondary School

Basically, there's only so long Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Kunitz and Dupuis can carry the rest of the forwards. Brandon Sutter has 6 points, Matt Cooke five. The group consisting of Kennedy, Boychuk, Glass, Joe Vitale, Craig Adams, Dustin Jeffrey and 2010 first round pick Beau Bennett has combined for 3 goals and 7 points in 76 man games.

Some of these guys escape criticism because of their defense-first role, but Ray Shero's patience can only surely last so long for players like Kennedy. See Lovejoy to Anaheim and Tangradi (1 goal in 45 games) to Winnipeg for reference. And it would be nice to see Tanner Glass add to the grit and hits with some scoring soon.

1/3 Season Awards

Hart Trophy

Winner: Chris Kunitz

There are a number of worthy candidates for this, with Neal's 11 goals and Sid's 24 points being the obvious numbers to look at. Martin's play has already been discussed. Joe Vitale continues to hit the ice like a man possessed game in, game out and has been dominant in the face-off circles. And Pascal Dupuis? Well Duper will always be a Duperstar. He just plays the game the right way. And playing alongside Sidney Crosby will always help!

But Kunitz is simply playing at a level above his previous history. Never has he come close to averaging a point per game over a completed season. And yet here he is, tied for second on the team with 7 goals, third in assists with 12 and second in points with 19. He has two game winning goals, three power play goals and is +11.

Kunitz plays a physical, effective game. He finishes checks hard, creates havoc on the forecheck and is a pest in front of the net. He's the sort of player that creates space for others, but also has an eye for goal himself.

Oh yeah, and he also became the first Penguins player since that quite good guy who wore #68 - you know the one, Jagr or something, look it up - to have a four-goal game. Not bad.

Runners Up: James Neal, Joe Vitale, Paul Martin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis

The rest of the awards are a bit silly, given that it's pretty obvious who the Pens' best goaltender, defenseman etc are, but in brief:

Art Ross: Crosby, 24 Points

'Rocket' Richard: Neal, 11 Goals

Norris: Letang. Runner Up: Martin

Vezina: Fleury. Runner Up: Tomas Vokoun

Selke: Dupuis. Runners Up: Brandon Sutter, Vitale, Craig Adams

Calder: Despres. Runner Up: Bortuzzo

So, there you have it. One man's view of 16 games. Make of it what you will and Let's Go Pens!

Comments are welcomed and appreciated!


Sunday, 20 January 2013

Penguins Game Review 1/19/13: Pens 3 @ Flyers 1

So that's what defense looks like? Where as nothing would go right defensively for the Penguins in 'that' series back in April, the team delivered a defensive gem Saturday to defeat the Philadelphia Flyers, 3-1.

Pittsburgh would have been hard pressed to get their campaign off to a better start. Their team speed led to a number of good scoring chances, outshooting Philadelphia heavily early on. Tyler Kennedy tipped a Paul Martin (more on him later) shot past Ilya Bryzgalov at 4:40 of the 1st. The PK units (more on them later) killed off a Philly power play after Dustin Jeffrey was pinged for slashing ten seconds later. Then - in what's sure to become known as 'The Neal Play' when the two hook up throughout the season - Evgeni Malkin won a face-off cleanly back to James Neal, who whipped a shot from the top of the left circle into the far corner to open up a two-goal lead after only 7:20.

Philly got back into the game in the 2nd, after Brooks Orpik got caught pinching. Scott Hartnell was forced wide down the left wing by a resurgent Martin, but delivered a dandy of a saucer pass which barely evaded Chris Kunitz's covering stick and landed squarely on the tape of Claude Giroux. The new Flyers' captain made no mistake, sliding the puck under Marc-Andre Fleury to cut the Pens' lead in half.

The rest of the way, despite Philly holding a shots lead in the final two periods, the Penguins looked pretty comfortable right up until Kunitz shoveled the puck into an empty net with 11.2 seconds left. There were a couple of heart-in-mouth moments - which undoubtedly would have seen the puck in the Pens net last April - but they survived.

5 Key Points

1. Paul Martin plays well? Is that allowed?

If you take a cursory look at the plus/minus column, Martin is on pace to finish with a -48 rating. So, back to last year's turnover-prone horror show then? Well, no. Not even slightly. Despite some people on Twitter trying to blame him for the Flyers goal, he actually defended it as well as possible. Perfectly positioned to cover Orpik's pinch on the left side, he forced Scott Hartnell out wide, allowing Kunitz to get back to at least contest the slot with Giroux. Hartnell made a fabulous play which beat not only Martin, but Kunitz and Fleury as well. No shame in that.

The veteran D-man actually produced one of his best games in a Penguins uniform. He utilized his excellent skating to command the ice more aggressively. He blocked three shots with his active stick - something which will particularly have pleased Dan Bylsma. Add to that his shot that TK redirected for the opening goal, and his interception - by standing strong in the neutral zone - of a Flyers pass to set up Kunitz's empty netter and you have arguably the team's best performer. Long may it continue!

2. Marc-Andre Fleury: Wall-Flower

Fleury was shelled for 26 goals in the playoff loss. He looked tired, and out of his zone, regressing to the overactive style that hindered him early in his career. Saturday, he looked calm, assured and made a number of crucial saves, including some sequences he simply would not have made in April.

The most pleasing thing was how easy he made most of his saves look. Fleury seemed still for most of the night. Sure, he made some trademark side-to-side stops and flung himself on a couple of loose pucks, but gone was the overcompensation; no sliding outside the post and getting beat far side.

What looked like a routine save in the 3rd summed his performance up. Dustin Jeffrey made a brain-dead cross ice pass in the defensive zone, which was picked up and shot wide by a Flyer. The puck came back off the end boards, straight to the stick of Eric Wellwood, who shot the puck hard on net. Straight into an immobile Fleury's chest. A great read and great positioning. Outstanding.

3. (Penalty) Killing the Demons

In April, the Penguins flat-out could not stop the Flyers from scoring with the man advantage. At times it looked like they could score at will.

Last night, the Flyers had five power play chances. The Penguins killed all five. The PK units looked nothing like they did back in April. Indeed, the personnel have changed considerably. Jordan Staal is in Carolina; Zbynek Michalek in Phoenix. So, Bylsma used a plethora of players - including the outstanding Brandon Sutter - to kill penalties, taking advantage of stoppages of play to keep the forward pairs fresh. In fact, Bylsma kept a good rotation of players going all game - key in a compressed season - with only Dustin Jeffrey getting less than 10 minutes of ice time.

Good penalty killing starts in net, and Fleury was perfect, stopping all 11 of Philadelphia's man advantage shots. But the units as a whole seemed to spend less time running around the ice chasing Flyers or the puck, concentrating on protecting and collapsing around the net when necessary.

Most intriguingly, both #87 and #71 saw time with the PK units. This is sure to create huge mismatches against opposing power plays in the future, particularly if Malkin continues to strip the puck from opponents apparently at will.

4. Unsung Heroes

Penguins fans are going to get to like Brandon Sutter very quickly. He looked like he had been part of the team for years last night, adding an outstanding defensive presence. He also dominated the faceoff circle, winning 57% of his draws. Faceoffs have been a problem for Pittsburgh, but with Sutter, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin's increased success in this area, this will soon be eradicated. All Pens centers (Crosby, Malkin, Sutter, Jeffrey) won over half their faceoffs.

And a special mention must go to Craig Adams. Just in case anyone didn't know, NBC's coverage team made sure it was clear he's a Harvard grad. This has nothing to do with his hockey smarts, but he certainly used his head in the 3rd period. A Flyers shot finally snuck past Fleury and was heading straight into the net. Adams, back-checking hard, arrived in the crease just in time to stop the puck crossing the line and cleared it away, preserving the 2-1 scoreline. Awesome.

5. Players Under Scrutiny

It has been noted before that some of the players in Dan Bylsma's lineup have got something to prove. Eric Tangradi is getting another chance to stick in the top-six. Simon Despres - Bylsma's favoured son it would seem - is in the lineup despite concerns over his development; Bryan Strait is now an Islander since he was sent down not Despres. And I think everyone was surprised when Jeffrey got the nod on the fourth line over Joe Vitale.

Jeffrey didn't have a great game outside of the faceoff circle - where he was excellent, winning 5 of 8 - taking an unnecessary penalty and making some errant passes, so we'll see whether Vitale gets a chance against New York tonight.

As for the other two, Despres played alright and wasn't particularly obvious, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, Tangradi was virtually anonymous, which is not. If Tangradi cannot get himself into games playing alongside the reigning MVP and a 40-goal scorer, it can only be a matter of time before Beau Bennett hears his phone ringing in Wilkes-Barre, or Ray Shero pulls the trigger on a trade for a proven scorer. That will be a shame, but Tangradi needs to find the net, and soon. 

Final Thoughts

Two points are important in any season, but in a schedule slashed to 48 games every point is at a premium. Add that every game will be played against Eastern Conference opposition, and winning in regulation, thus keeping the extra point for a regulation tie away from rivals, becomes even more valuable. That the Penguins were able to hold on to a slender lead through more 50 minutes of play speaks volumes to their improved defensive play last night.

And beating the Flyers will always feel great anyway, right?


Comments very welcome.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Hockey Is Back!

A Late, Late Show: Penguins Season Preview 

So, less than two hours to go (hence no links in here today, apologies) to the first puck dropped in anger in the 2012-13 (well, 2013 anyway) NHL season. Excitement is high, at least on this blog. The Penguins kick off a jam-packed slate of action at 3 p.m. ET in, of all places, Philadelphia, against bitter intrastate rivals the Flyers. This gives the Pens an early crack at revenge for the ignominious way the Flyers dumped them out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs all the way back in April 2012. That series gave rise to a number of questions that Dan Bylsma will want the team to answer early and often. With the game fast approaching, there's just about enough time to look at a few key areas in preview of the Pens' season.

1. Forwards

Ray Shero opted to take advantage of a high value on center Jordan Staal, a key member of the club for a number of years, trading him to Carolina in June. In return, Pittsburgh received center Brandon Sutter, prospect defenseman Brian Dumoulin and the 8th overall pick in last year's draft. With the pick, Penguins' management selected another defenseman, Derrick Pouliot, adding to a strong prospect pile at the position.

Staal's departure may have removed a very talented player from the organisation, breaking up the 'Big Three' in the process, but he was always likely to want to be the top-six player his size and ability demanded. This was never likely to be in Pittsburgh with a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin around, so when Staal turned down a 10-year $60m extension, Shero really had to move him to get a good return. The organisation are apparently very high on Sutter, who has a reputation as an excellent two-way player with outstanding defensive smarts. Staal's defensive play had started to waver a little towards the end of his time in Pittsburgh, so Sutter should provide an upgrade to the third line, where Staal was never really suited. He also had a big performance in Wednesday's intra-squad scrimmage, with a goal and two assists and a tally in the shootout as well.

Crosby looks set to be flanked by long term linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis - he of the 25-goal breakout season in 2011-12 - with Malkin a lock to play with 40-goal scorer James Neal and... Well, that's the primary issue. Who sticks as the last top-six forward? 2010 first-round pick Beau Bennett has been sent back down, so it looks likely that Eric Tangradi, who arrived from Anaheim promising much, but has yet to deliver anything of note (40 games, 1 goal), will get the nod. Tangradi still apparently has a lot of upside, but he's going to have to get off to a good start to stay on the second line with Bennett only a phone call away in Wilkes-Barre.

The third line will feature Sutter and stalwarts Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. This line has the potential to be one of the best in the league, with all three players able to score and play with grit. Kennedy could easily see time in the top-six, and Cooke needs to reintroduce at least a little aggression to his game, but this line should be great to watch and combined for four goals in Wednesday's scrimmage. That leaves Joe Vitale, Craig Adams, Dustin Jeffrey and newcomer Tanner Glass to fight it out for a fourth line berth. Vitale's and Adams' value on the penalty kill makes them certainties, and Glass' 246 hits for Winnipeg a year ago will add some much needed sandpaper. Jeffrey will probably be the odd-man-out, but he is a serviceable player to see time on the third or fourth line.

This is a forward group who contributed to a NHL-high 273 goals a season ago. That was without Sidney Crosby for the lion's share of the season. Sure, Shero missed out on signing Zach Parise, but adding a fully fit Sid is like signing the best free-agent on the market. Crosby and Malkin - coming off an MVP 109 point season - together and healthy is the best possible news the Penguins could have had.

2. Defense & Goalies

The single biggest reason the Penguins lost to the Flyers in April? Woeful defense. This was a team wide problem, though it is easier to point the finger at some players more than others. Marc-Andre Fleury looked beyond help in that series, but that was in no small part due to him having appeared in 67 games, itself a result of sub-par play from backup Brent Johnson. In Johnson's defense, it was his play the previous season that allowed the club to shake off a terrible first few weeks from Fleury. Hopefully, Fleury will come back stronger for the humbling experience. But if he struggles, then Shero pulled off, in my view, one of the masterstrokes of his tenure as GM this offseason, signing Tomas Vokoun to a 2-year deal, worth $2m a season. Vokoun has been one of the best goalies in the league during his career, and could easily be a number one for some teams. He has a reputation as a great locker room guy, and should be able to help mentor Fleury.

It is worth pointing out that, despite what some say, Vokoun is not in Pittsburgh to unseat MAF. He is there to take some pressure and some workload off his shoulders. A fresh, fit Fleury is still one of the game's best, though he still has untidy games and makes mental mistakes, but then, who doesn't?

Now, the goaltending was only part of the issue in the run-in and playoffs. The defense in front of the net was downright terrible at times. Kris Letang is emerging into the All-Star caliber player everyone thought he would be, and Brooks Orpik is a defensive force. Those two are the nailed down, top-quality blue liners the Pens possess. It is the others in the corps who have question marks. With Zbynek Michalek's shot-blocking gone back to Phoenix, that leaves Paul Martin, Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy, Simon Despres, Matt Niskanen and Robert Bortuzzo as the six men looking for four spots. Martin had an abysmal year last time around, but because of his $5m salary, he will play until he is traded or bought out (or actually plays like he is capable of, as shown when he was a Devil). Niskanen is quietly turning into the player that makes the trade that sent Alex Goligoski to Dallas for him and James Neal look like the bargain of the century. A solid defender who plays the PK well and can chip in offensively, his play solidifies the top-four caliber players.

The other players are interesting. Engelland played last year when Bylsma wanted grit; Lovejoy when he wanted smooth skating. It appears that Engelland will play, which is great, but despite Despres getting a lot of negative press for his work ethic, fitness and production, he will likely keep Lovejoy out of the lineup. Bortuzzo played well in a limited role last season, and keeping eight defensemen active gives Bylsma and Todd Reirden some flexibility should anyone not perform. Whatever happens, they can't be worse than last April. Can they?

3. Special Teams

In 'that' series, the Penguins killed fewer than half (47.8%) of Philadelphia's power play opportunities, giving up a whopping 12 power play goals in the six games. This was coming off the back of being the top-ranked PK squad during the regular season. A lot of this was due to the Flyers exploiting the Pens' 'tight-box' strategy, with the PK unit leaving too much space on the outside for Flyers forwards to move into. It sounds as if the unit have still been playing the same formation, so this is a point of concern. However, Dan Bylsma has indicated that Crosby might see some time on the kill, which would at least back opposing blueliners off in the closing seconds of a kill, as well as creating shorthanded chances. This is a wait and see proposition.

The power play was the reason the Pens lost in the previous series, in 2011, to Tampa Bay. It went 1-for-35. Pittsburgh also got burned for three shorties by Philly last year. A lot of the defensive frailties of the unit should be shored up by having Letang on the back end, not Steve Sullivan. But there will still be four forwards on the ice, with James Neal apparently being asked to play the point. He will be roving, as I understand it, trying to get 'lost in the mix' so to speak. Kunitz will be in front of the net, and I imagine Crosby will be down low at the goal line and behind the net, where he is undoubtedly the best at what he does, with Malkin working the half-wall. This unit tallied twice in the scrimmage on Wednesday, which is very encouraging.

4. Line Combinations

Here are my predictions for the Pens' lines to open the season:

Kunitz   -   Crosby   -   Dupuis
Tangradi   -   Malkin   -   Neal
Cooke   -   Sutter   -   Kennedy
Glass   -   Vitale   -   Adams

Orpik   -   Martin
Letang   -   Despres
Niskanen   -   Engelland


5. Final Thoughts

The Pens had 108 points last year, with Crosby only playing a small number of games. Yes, Jordan Staal has gone and Paul Martin hasn't. But Sutter arguably makes the team more balanced, and having the best player in the world in Sidney Crosby and perhaps the second-best in Evgeni Malkin, will make them a scary proposition for any opponent.

If Marc-Andre Fleury can play like he did for most of 2011-12, the penalty kill plays like it did for most of 2011-12 and Ray Shero's additions work out - which I have no doubt they will, I really like both Sutter and Glass and Vokoun's a no-brainer - this Pens team should (must?) compete for the Stanley Cup in 2013.


Comments are very welcome, and I will have a full report on tonight's game up by Sunday at the latest.

Let's go Pens!