Tag Archives: Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins and the Expansion Draft

The Las Vegas Nighthawks. Black Knights. Dark Knights? Knighty Knights (trademarked by Anna @NHLPittPens)? Whatever they’ll be called, there will be 31 teams in the NHL come Fall 2017, and the with the NHL expanding, the incumbent 30 teams will have to give up a talented player on their roster. The Penguins find themselves in a great situation in terms of a possible repeat of winning the Stanley Cup. They have as deep a roster as any in the league, including a duo at goaltender that any of the other 29 teams would love to have. But the expansion draft is looming and the Penguins can only protect so many players. 

First, teams have one of two options when it comes to protecting players. Either a team can protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, or they can protect eight skaters (regardless of position) and one goalie. Players that have a No-Movement Clause (NMC) in their contract HAVE to be protected by the team. The Penguins have tough decisions to make, and they will sorely miss one player that will be in a Las Vegas [or another team’s] sweater. Let’s take a closer look at the Penguins’ situation:

Guaranteed Protection (NMC’s):

F Sidney Crosby 

F Evgeni Malkin

F Phil Kessel

D Kris Letang

G Marc-Andre Fleury

The first four listed are a given that the Penguins would lock up anyway. All of them are star/superstar level and under contract for multiple years. They aren’t going anywhere. Fleury’s situation is the biggest topic of discussion in Pittsburgh. Fleury is loved by just about everyone inside and outside of the organization, but the Penguins just won a Stanley Cup with 22 year-old Matt Murray carrying the load the last 3 months of the season. Murray showed he’s ready for the NHL level, and then some. He’s a legit goalie who’s only going to get better. Yet, the Penguins can only protect one goalie. The only way the Penguins could retain both Fleury and Murray is if the NHL does not consider AHL time as “professional” time, because players that have less than two years of “pro” experience are exempt from the expansion draft. Now, the good thing is that the Penguins don’t have to submit their list of protected players until June 17th (Las Vegas makes their picks on June 20th), so they could hang on to Fleury for the entire year and have arguably the best goalie duo in the league, regardless of whether Murray is exempt or not. One thing to be cognizant of though is if Murray is not exempt, and the Penguins make another run to the Cup Final, they’d only have days to trade Fleury. Now Fleury’s NMC only refers to not being sent to the minors or being waived, but he also has a no-limited no-trade clause, meaning the Penguins have a short list of teams to deal Fleury to, unless he approves a trade to whomever. I can’t see the Penguins choosing Fleury over Murray if this scenario plays out. Murray is 22 and on the rise. Fleury is 32 and has only 2 or 3 more seasons of really good hockey left before you see some serious regression. If Murray is not exempt and not protected, it’s pretty much a guarantee that Las Vegas picks him. He’s young, talented, and cheap against the cap. I’m afraid the Penguins are going to have to pretty much give Fleury away for almost nothing. It’ll be a seller’s market, and teams will know the Penguins will be desperate to trade him. The only thing that would make this situation better is if the Penguins lift the Cup again next year. That will help ease the pain of whoever gets plucked from the organization. Now, best case scenario, things may work out and the league may not include AHL time as “pro” time and Murray would be exempt from the draft. No moving Fleury or Murray. Everybody wins.

Probable Protected Players:

F Patric Hornqvist 

F Carl Hagelin 

F Nick Bonino

D Olli Maatta

D Brian Dumoulin 

These would be the players I’d protect, going with the first option given earlier in this article. That still leaves one forward to protect, and the league’s decision on AHL time could help decide that. Kunitz, Daley, Schultz, Cullen, and Fehr are all unrestricted free agents after the 2016-2017 season, so you can’t protect them. 

I think the way it plays out is this: this will be Marc-Andre Fleury’s last season in Pittsburgh. It saddens me, but I understand it. Murray is exciting because he’s so young, yet so mature for his age, on and off the ice. Fleury, however, has been a rock in goal for several years. He’s a great teammate, a great goalie, and a great person. That smile of his, well, makes you smile. He made the save of his life in game 7 of the 2009 Final, preserving the Penguins third Stanley Cup. If this is his last season in a black and gold sweater, I hope it’s a great one. He’s the best goalie in team history. Flower has created a special place in all our hearts, and it will be hard to see him go. 

Pittsburgh Penguins 2015-2016 Season Review: We Are The Champions, My Friend

I remember sitting in Dallas in October watching the first game of the season. I remember thinking to myself, “This is going to be a long season if this is who we are.” It was a bad game. We couldn’t establish a forecheck. We couldn’t gain any speed through the neutral zone. And forget about any sustained pressure with speed or a forecheck. Now, this was only one game, but it still scared me. And the next 27 games would prove my concern correct. We didn’t have an identity. We didn’t know who we were. It was going to be a long season. And then, starting December 12th, 2015, it all changed. And in the span of less than a month, we were watching a new team. A team with an identity. The fastest and most resilient team I’ve watched in my lifetime. And now, they’re on top of the hockey world. They’re the Stanley Cup champions.

This could be an exhaustive piece, but for the sake of time, my sanity, and your attention, I’ll be as brief as possible. The first quarter of the season was painful. Our stars weren’t performing. Our offense couldn’t do anything, even though the majority of our payroll was dedicated to those who put the puck in the net. Marc-Andre Fleury was pretty much the only reason we were only a few points shy of a playoff spot in early December. If it weren’t for him, we would’ve been near the bottom. There’s no doubt in my mind of that. Our defense was decent, but not great and our penalty kill was good, but this team was not built to be defensive and conservative. So changes were made. Here are the moments and moves that mattered in the Penguins’ championship season:

Enter Mike Sullivan, Trevor Daley, and Carl Hagelin. All three of these moves were vital to the Penguins success in 2015-2016. Mike Sullivan challenged the player’s heart and challenged them to be better versions of themselves, especially the leaders on this team that have always been under the most scrutiny, like Crosby, Malkin, and Letang. Crosby and Letang especially answered the new coach’s challenge. Crosby went on to lead the NHL in points from the time Sullivan got hired and Letang made more than a mere case for a Norris consideration, which the hockey world refused to give that credit to Tanger. Trevor Daley found a resurgence in a Penguins sweater and gave some life and mobility to the Pens’ defense. Jim Rutherford deserves to win GM of the Year for just that Daley/Scuderi trade. My goodness, what a freakin’ steal. The Penguins really seemed to catch some serious fire when they acquired Carl Hagelin from Anaheim in exchange for David Perron. The trade worked out for both teams. Perron played well in Anaheim and Hagelin was that last piece that made the Penguins a blazing fast team.

Malkin’s injury. At the time when Malkin went down, it seemed that the Penguins’ season was in serious jeopardy. They had just started to play really well over the last couple months, then Malkin goes down for the rest of the regular season and a few playoff games. If this hadn’t happened, the “HBK Line” probably would’ve never been born. Hagelin and Kessel were playing with Geno, and they were playing well, but when Bonino centered the line in Malkin’s absence, it shot to another level. All three guys levels of play went way up. They found perfect chemistry with each other and it was the perfect blend of speed, skill, and hockey smarts on one line. Call it the first, second, or third line. Call it the HBK Line. Call it whatever you want, this was the best line in hockey. And it wasn’t even close.

The Baby Pens grew up. Would the Penguins have won the Stanley Cup without Bryan Rust, Tommy Kuhnhackl, and/or Conor Sheary? Nope. These three guys were amazing. Rust showed he could play on any line. He could grind it out on the 4th line, but still showed skill to play with Crosby or Geno on the 1st and 2nd lines. Rust scored some big goals in the playoffs, probably none bigger than his two in game seven of the ECF against Tampa. Sheary was brilliant in the 1st round against the Rangers. His speed and forecheck was ridiculous. He definitely got tired as the playoffs went along, but after being a healthy scratch, he found some new energy and was a force again in the Stanley Cup Final. He scored a huge OT goal in game two. Kuhnhackl was a little more quiet in terms of the scoresheet, but don’t think that he didn’t have an impact. He was great on the penalty kill and found great chemistry with 39 year-old magician Matt Cullen.

Fleury’s concussions lead Matt Murray into stardom. Matthew F. Murray. And the “F” standing for “Freaking.” What a dude. What a goalie. This guy will be a star for years to come. He’s 22 and plays with the calming presence of a 32 year-old. He’s only going to get better. That’s scary. Some think that Murray deserved the Conn Smythe, and there’s definitely a case for it. He was amazing, and the Penguins wouldn’t have won without him.

The “underachievers”….achieved. Ben Lovejoy. Ian Cole. Justin Schultz. Eric Fehr. Olli Maatta. These guys were vital to the Penguins success this season, especially down the stretch. When Daley went down for the season in the playoffs, the other D-men stood tall and played insanely well. Maatta responded very well to being a healthy scratch after constantly getting beat one-on-one. He played some of the best defensive hockey of his career. Eric Fehr helped stabilize the fourth line with Kuhnhackl and Cullen, and helped out a lot on the penalty kill. And how great were Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, and Justin Schultz? They were more than solid on defense and helped the Penguins move the puck up the ice. They did exactly what Sully needed them to do.

The other defensemen. All eyes go to Letang when he’s on the ice, but what about his partner for most of the playoffs? Brian Dumoulin is a stud. He’s just…so solid. He made maybe two mistakes all postseason. So solid in the defensive zone and has wheels for a “defensive” defenseman.

Moneymakers earned their keep. At the end of the day, Crosby, Geno, Kunitz, Hornqvist, even Fleury can hang their hat and be proud of their performance. A lot of people can scrutinize Kunitz for his decline, but he had some stretches in the playoffs where he was a shade of who he was in his prime. Fleury is the ultimate teammate. He could’ve easily thrown a fit about Murray getting the starts after Flower was good to go, and he might’ve internally. That I don’t know. What I do know is that he supported Murray and helped him along the way. He put the team ahead of himself, which is what great teammates and leaders do. Hornqvist continues to show how great of a deal the James Neal trade was (I’m a Neal advocate by the way). Hornqvist is a better fit for Sully’s system. Neal played great with Geno, but was way too streaky. Hornqvist contributes every night. Not always on the scoresheet, but goalie screens aren’t accounted for there. Horny’s always wreaking havoc. That opens up ice for Sid to do his thing. Even though Geno played really well for only a few games in the playoffs, he was their best player under Mike Johnston. His contributions early in the season can’t go unnoticed, and he stepped up when he had to in the playoffs. And finally, Crosby is the best in the world. He proved it again. Did he lead the NHL in scoring? Did he lead the league in scoring the playoffs? No and no. But, he took over games. He scored when it mattered. He raised his teammates up when it mattered. He was clutch. That’s why he raised his second Cup and a certain rival still has yet to play for one.

Do it for Duper. They sure did, didn’t they? I don’t think anyone tied to the Penguins had a dry eye when Pascal Dupuis raised Lord Stanley’s Cup. This is a guy who fought so hard to come back from injuries and multiple blood clots, and unfortunately, got to the point where retirement was his only option. For him, like it should be, hockey wasn’t as important as his family. But you know it hurt like hell for him to hang his skates up. He was still there in the room with the guys and up in the pressbox during games. He was still tied to this team, and the guys wanted to win for him. Duper got to go out a champion.

If I had three words to describe this team, here’s what they’d be: Fast. Resilient. Special. This team put aside the monstrosity of who they were that night in Dallas and over the marathon of the season, turned into the greatest team in the league. Contributions should be credited all the way from the top with Lemieux and Burkle to Dana Heinze and the guys that get almost no recognition and everyone in between. This was a true team effort. And it made the Penguins great again. Go ahead Pittsburgh. Celebrate this one. Savor it. And get ready for that title defense.


412 Sports is not affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. The views and opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. This site may contain content copyrighted by another person or entity. This site’s author claims no copyright to said content.

Penguins vs. Lightning: Eastern Conference Finals Preview

The Penguins vs. Capitals series was another one that will be remembered for a long time. Especially game 6, which had a heavy dose of drama and heart attacks, but the Pens prevailed. They sent the President’s Trophy winners home in six games. It’s a great memory, to remember beating the rival Capitals on Bonino’s rebound goal, at home in front of arguably the best crowd ever at Consol Energy Center. It’s a night that Penguins fans will remember forever. It’s a night the Penguins themselves will, and should, celebrate. But that’s not what this team is about. They showed their resiliency yet again, and that says a lot about how this team goes forward. While it’s a great memory to send the Capitals home, the Penguins have won 8 games. They need to win 8 more. And you know this team has that in their minds. They’re halfway to their goal. Now the Tampa Bay Lightning stand in their path.

This is an interesting playoff matchup. Now that the Penguins are out of the Metropolitan portion of the bracket, they face the Atlantic survivor, the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s not against a team fans hate. Where is all the angst going to go? It’s also an interesting matchup because they play a very similar style hockey as the Penguins. They attack you with their speed. They had little problems in the first two rounds, beating the Red Wings and Islanders each in five games. And they’ve done it without their captain and highly skilled goal scorer Steven Stamkos. Much like I did for my Pens/Caps preview, I’ll break down this preview with three keys for this series, along with my X-factor for the Penguins, and of course, my prediction for the series. Not to blow smoke or brag, but I nailed both of the Penguins’ series so far with my predictions. I hope to keep that going. First off, here’s a quick recap of how the Penguins get here, along with some noteworthy points for this series:

  • The Penguins ride into this series having won 22 of their last 27 games, including their 8-3 record in the playoffs. They also haven’t lost back to back games since January 15th, ironically enough, against Tampa Bay (5-4 OTL).
  • The team has been as resilient as they come, bouncing back from either bad periods or bad games, and responding immediately. When they have a bad period and fall behind 2-0, they come back and win. Or even if they lose a game, they bounce back the next game and win it. They don’t allow adversity keep them down. They’re also 44-0-0 when leading after two periods.
  • They are as sound of a team as I’ve seen in recent memory. All four lines contribute, all six defensemen fill a role and execute it well. Depth guys like Matt Cullen, Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, and Nick Bonino have raised their game and made this team hard to play against. Teams can’t just prepare to shut down Crosby and Malkin. The depth on this team proves that.
  • The Penguins have home ice for this series thanks to a superior regular season record. Both teams finished second in their respective divisions.
  • The only playoff matchup between these teams in history was in 2011. Pittsburgh had a 3-1 series lead, then Tampa Bay came back and won three in a row, clinching the series with a 1-0 victory in game 7 at Consol Energy Center.
  • The Penguins regular season record against Tampa Bay this season was 0-2-1, two of the games in Tampa Bay. All three games were under Mike Sullivan’s regime. Matt Murray did not play against Tampa Bay. Fleury was 0-1-1 and Zatkoff was 0-1-0.

Three Keys to the Series:
Star Power
The Penguins played well against the Capitals, despite their two main stars producing a combined total of four points in six games. Crosby and Malkin need to find their scoring touch in this series. The depth of the Penguins is amazing. The Penguins’ “third line” has been their best line since it was put together when Malkin went down with an injury in March. But imagine what this team would do when all three lines (Crosby’s, Malkin’s, and the HBK line) are lighting the lamp. They would literally be unstoppable. Ben Bishop is a good goaltender and plays a similar style to Lundqvist, but Sid and Geno need to find a way to put the puck in the net themselves. They’re both at their best when they create shots for themselves. Right now, they are both deferring to the pass way too much. Creating shots for yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you always have to shoot the puck, but if you try to create the shot for yourself. passing lanes open up. If Crosby and Malkin can get it going on the score sheet, there isn’t any reason why the Penguins can’t win this series. Tampa Bay is without their best player. Pittsburgh’s had better outshine Tampa’s stars. This is what they make the big bucks for. Malkin historically has played well against Tampa Bay. Let’s hope we see more of this:

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Need for Speed
The Lightning are a fast team. The Penguins are also fast. Very fast. Lightning fast, if you will (pun intended). It will be a fast-paced series. Neither team bangs the body too much. They can when they want, but it’s not their game. A team like Washington relied on their ability to wear down their opponent with their size and physicality. Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay don’t do that. They attack you with all the speed they have. It is very close, but I believe the Penguins have a slight edge in overall speed. When they are in full attack mode (as they were in game 6 against Washington), they are very hard to slow down. Tampa has speed to keep up with them, but logic might dictate that the Penguins may have a little more ice to work with in this series. Tampa doesn’t try to wear you down like Washington. That’s where you may see the Penguins skill excel. When given open ice, even just a bit of breathing room, the speed mixed with the skill the Penguins have is hard to contain. The Penguins need to emphasize their speed game and create chances in the offensive zone with it. There’s no other way to play Penguin hockey right now. It’s all about that speed.

Goaltender Situation
This will be a hot topic in Pittsburgh for the next few days. Who starts in net? Do you keep going with Murray’s hot hand or do you put Fleury back in the number one role? It’s a tough choice. I understand not going with Fleury in the middle of a series. He hasn’t played in over a month, and Murray is playing out of his mind. But now, it’s the start of a new series. In my opinion, I would continue to go with Murray. He’s earned it. Fleury is still fantastic and I would trust him if Murray’s game were to slip. The goal right now is to win a Stanley Cup. Murray is arguably the team’s MVP through the first two series. He’s stolen a game for you. He’s made the saves needed by a goalie to be successful in the playoffs. There’s no reason to change that now. I think Murray plays the rest of the playoffs until he loses the job, which I don’t think he will. I think he continues the strong play. He’s just a dang good goalie.

My X-factor for this series is Evgeni Malkin. I fully expect the two stars to bounce back from a rough series (at least, in regards to the score sheet) against Washington. But Geno, when he gets going and get on one of his rolls, nobody can stop him. Anyone remember the 2009 Conference Finals? Yeah, that’s what can happen. Don’t get me wrong. Tampa is a much better team than that ’09 Carolina team, but like I said, if Geno takes over like that, he’ll make them look like the ’09 Hurricanes.

malkin-canes-goal-2009

Injury Update:
The Penguins (knock on wood as hard and often as you can) are considerably healthy. Fleury is game ready now. The only player that seems to be affected by any kind of lingering injury is Olli Maatta. He just doesn’t seem himself. For Tampa Bay, they are without two of their keys guys that they would LOVE to have in this series: Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman. There’s a possibility Stralman gets into his series, but I don’t see Stamkos making it in, despite what Stamkos or Tampa Bay might say. He’s still on blood thinners. I don’t see it happening. Tampa has done a great job in filling in for the injuries. Nikita Kucherov leads the league in goals cored in the playoffs. Jonathan Drouin has looked really strong for them as well. But, they’d still be much better with Stamkos. And the Stralman absence really hurts their depth at defense. Victor Hedman is a beast, but that Tampa defense is a lot more scary when Hedman and Stralman are playing.

Prediction:
Tampa Bay is good. They play a style of hockey that is necessary to win in the playoffs. They’re two biggest assets are speed and skill. Unfortunately for them, the Penguins play almost the same exact style. And the Penguins have more speed and more skill. I expect Malkin to have a big series. The HBK line will continue to be the best line in hockey. Murray plays the entire series and continues his great run in the net. This won’t be an easy series. Give credit where credit is due. Tampa Bay is a good team. Eastern Conference Champions last year, and they made it back to the Conference Finals this year without their captain down the stretch, but I just think Pittsburgh is too good at the same game Tampa plays.

Penguins in six. Then on to the Stanley Cup Finals!

CrosbyHeadNod


412 Sports is not affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. The views and opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. This site may contain content copyrighted by another person or entity. This site’s author claims no copyright to said content.

CH Column: Letang Is The Measure Of A Defenseman

This past Saturday, the NHL announced the three finalists for the Norris Trophy for this past season. Kris Letang was not one of them. This came to the dismay of many in Pittsburgh, who have watched Letang blossom into one of the game’s top defensemen over the years. Take everything that is said in this column knowing that this is coming from someone who has been critical of Letang throughout his career (and I’ll get into that in a bit), but this year, I am convinced that Kris Letang is a legit player, a bona fide superstar, and by the end of his career, may be the best Penguins defenseman ever. I believe him being left out of the Norris running is a joke, but I’m sure Letang himself cares more about a Stanley Cup than the Norris Trophy. Still, Letang’s play needs to be recognized by others outside of Pittsburgh.

I remember watching Letang play in the 2009 Cup run, thinking “this guy could be the guy that anchors our defense for years. He’s still young and raw, but man, when he develops in what he could become, he could be scary special.” Ok, those may not have been my EXACT words, but if I had to paraphrase my thoughts from back then, it’d be something similar to that. And after watching him for the last seven years, he’s gone through his ups and downs, both on and off the ice.

I’ll be honest, Letang used to be in my doghouse. And he was in it for quite a while. Call me conservative, but I’d rather one be more responsible and not as aggressive, even knowing that being aggressive pays off every now and then. With Letang, he either made a masterful play or an asinine play. That was what I couldn’t stand. I got sick and tired of him getting caught too deep in the offensive zone, disregarding his teammates, especially his defensive partner, leaving them out to dry. Even for a while, either ex-GM Ray Shero or current GM Jim Rutherford tried to bring in “stay at home” defensemen to prepare themselves for Letang being, well, Letang. Now, one thing that I won’t hold against Letang in regards to being aggressive in the offensive zone is, as a hockey player, when a defensman joins the rush and goes down low, a forward (primarily the winger) needs to recognize that and drop back to the point, just in case the other team gets the puck, so you don’t give up a two-on-one. But in the end, communication is the key there. I don’t know when that would happen if it was a lack of communication or whatever, but that fact is, it happened too often. Letang also tended to get a little sloppy in the defensive zone, either by forcing breakout passes and turning the puck over, especially in the defensive zone, or playing a forechecker too aggressively and leaving his goalie out to dry. And Letang’s biggest flaw over the years has been his temper. It flares up during games. In the past, he’s taken dumb penalties at bad times. And man, that mouth of his. For all those that thought Crosby barked at the refs more than anyone, sorry, but Crosby wasn’t even the worst on his team. It seemed like every time Letang got called for a penalty, he was barking at the refs. No matter how right or wrong refs are (yeah, most of the time they’re wrong), they don’t like it. They remember it. And you (reader), remember this thought about his mouth. I’m going to come back to it later.

Don’t get me wrong, this all sounds harsh. And, I’m no hockey expert, otherwise, I’d be paid for it. And by no means did I think that he was a poor defenseman. From 2009-2013, he was a combined +53. That’s dang good. And maybe I was so hard on him because I expected a little more consistency from him. Some guys get it right away. Some guys don’t get it for a while. And some guys don’t get it at all. But I’ll tell you what, he’s gotten it now. Big time.

In early 2014, Kris Letang suffered a stroke. This dude is in his twenties. He had a stroke. How often does that happen? Seriously? Literally, at his age, .01% of the time. I was starting to really come around on Letang around this time. I liked what I was seeing from him. I saw him maturing, trying to become a more responsible defenseman. And, forget hockey for a minute. This guy has a wife and son. He needs to be there for them. Then he had the stroke. I, along with many others, wondered if he could play hockey again. A stroke, no matter how minor, is nothing to dismiss. I was rooting for him to return, and come back better than ever, but I was totally understanding if he would’ve had to consider retirement. Life and family are way more important than a game or a job. We all witnessed that within the past couple years with Pascal Dupuis’ situation. But doctors assured Letang that hockey wasn’t the cause of the stroke and they cleared him to return. He ended up playing the last three regular season games that year and all thirteen playoff games, playing as much as 28 minutes in a game. Letang trained hard over the offseason and returned, ready to play for a new GM and new coach.

Over the last couple seasons, Letang has matured vastly. He has become a very responsible defensemen, playing with physicality and excellent technique in the defensive zone, while not sacrificing his skills offensively. He’s always been great at moving the puck in all three zones. He’s a great skater. He’s got great speed. And, especially this year, he has matured in just about every facet of the game. He has become the elite defenseman that I saw him becoming. He’s actually exceeded what I thought he could do. He’s logged minutes this year he’s never done before. He’s broken his own career-high in minutes multiple times this season. He plays on the powerplay, he kills penalties, he plays against the opposing teams’ top stars, and he’s had multiple defensive partners over the season. And he’s done all of it without missing a step. And his numbers since Mike Sullivan took over the coaching responsibilites are stupid good. In the 46 games under Sully, he’s recorded 53 points (15 goals, 38 assists), which is 1.15 PPG. He’s flourished in Sully’s system, but Letang is not just a product of the system. As a matter of fact, I don’t think anyone on this team is. Sully puts trust into the 20 guys that take the ice game in and game out. Letang has constantly answered the call and earned the praise of his coach in the process. Letang has done everything he can to become the best player he can be, and he’s done a dang good job at it too. He’s earned my praise, otherwise I wouldn’t take the time to write this. This is the first player profile I’ve done on this site, and he’s well deserving of it.

If I have a theory on why Letang wasn’t considered even as a Finalist for the Norris (or even the Masterton last year after returning from a freaking stroke), it’s his reputation (picking up from my previous thought earlier). Fans don’t like guys who complain, but refs REALLY don’t like guys who complain. And they won’t help out the guys they don’t like. Case and point is game two against Washington in this year’s playoffs. Letang was slashed, punched, and slashed and punched again, and nothing was ever called. Letang makes a clean, defensive play, and gets called for tripping. I mean, seriously:

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What a joke, right? But when the refs don’t like you, they won’t help you out. It’s stupid and it’s not right or fair, but I really think Letang’s reputation could possibly be a reason why he doesn’t get the respect or credit he deserves. Now, Letang has even admitted himself, that he’s getting better about it. He knows barking at officials does absolutely nothing. Sully has helped out in that regard as well. It’s one of the reasons why he’s the coach this team needed. And Letang has reaped all the benefits from it. Now you bet, he was screaming at the refs after that one last night. I was too. I don’t there was a voice wearing black and gold last night that wasn’t. It gift-wrapped a Washington game-tying goal. And I’m not saying he can never plead his case, but he’s got to make strides to earning the officials’ respect back. It’s clear they don’t have any for him, so what does Kris need to do? Shut up and play hockey. And you know what? He’s done it for the majority of the year. Just that. And he’s played at levels that exceed human ability.

Yep, the Penguins have an elite defensemen. His name is Kris Letang. And we wouldn’t trade him for anyone. Not Karlsson, Doughty, or Burns. They’re all great defenseman, but Letang is ours. And he may not get the credit he deserves on the level he deserves, but we know the truth. And he’ll take a Stanley Cup over a Norris Trophy. Every time.

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Just keep doing it, Kris. They’ll have to hand the Norris over to you eventually. And if you keep playing the way you played in game two, they won’t have choice. #LetangForNorris


412 Sports is not affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. The views and opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. This site may contain content copyrighted by another person or entity. This site’s author claims no copyright to said content.

Penguins vs. Capitals: Round 2 Preview

As time ticked down in game five against the Rangers, Consol Energy Center stood on their feet – 20,000 strong – screaming and cheering on their beloved Pens, who were about to wrap up a convincing 6-3 victory over the New York Rangers. As the horn blows and the clock hits 0:00, fans become more ecstatic and the team celebrates a great series, where, except for two periods of hockey, they pretty much dominated. But you know the celebration wouldn’t last long. Nope, not this team. Yeah, they wanted to get the monkey off their back and beat the Rangers in the playoffs, but that’s not their goal. Their goal is to win 12 more games. And the next day, their next opponent would be revealed to be the opponent that is sure to be hyped up: the Washington Capitals.

Now, this would be a great match up to see in the Eastern Conference Finals, but thanks to the seeding in the NHL (a different topic for a different time), it will have to be right now. Nevertheless, whichever team wins this series will be heavily favored in the Conference Finals. The Capitals were the NHL’s best team in the regular season and the Penguins were 2nd in the East in points, 4th in the NHL. As I said before, it will be a series of big hype. It marks the second time we’ll see Crosby vs. Ovechkin in the playoffs, and they have a lot to do to upstage what they did in 2009. The Caps/Pens match-up that year was a classic series, and the two superstars lived up to the hype. Now, there are other things to focus on in this series, and I’m here to point them out to you.

Crosby vs. Ovechkin
I’ll start out with the marquee match-up of this series. Like I said before, they have a lot to do to live up to the 2009 series. In all seven games, Ovechkin recorded 14 points, and Crosby recorded 13 points. They each seemed to carry their teams on their backs and lift them up to another level. The Penguins prevailed in seven games. Since the series, Crosby has won a Stanley Cup and captured other individual achievements, but many in the hockey world believed Crosby would’ve won more Cups by now, but a Penguins dynasty never started. Crosby is motivated to win again. He looks more focused than ever since 2009. Ovechkin on the other hand, has not lifted Lord Stanley’s Cup, much less reached the Finals. He’s proven that he’s the most prolific goal-scorer of this generation and recorded his 500th goal this season. He has every reason to have a chip on his shoulder. At the end of the day, Ovechkin wants a Cup. And this year, he probably has the best chance to win. This is the best team he’s been on in his career. Both superstars want it. It should be fun to watch them go at it again. I believe Crosby has an advantage over Ovechkin. While Ovechkin can change the course of a game with a single shot, Crosby impacts his team in more ways, which gives an advantage when trying to win four out of seven games.

What About the Other Superstars?
Crosby and Ovechkin aren’t the only superstars on these teams. The Penguins have Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel. The Capitals have T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, and Braden Holtby. The roles of these players will be just as vital. Malkin seems to have shaken off the rust of missing several weeks, and Letang and Kessel and been arguably the most consistent Penguins since about February. Oshie is ultra-talented, Backstrom is about as consistent and reliable as they come, and Holtby has had a breakout season. The lone player that stands out of this group is Malkin. When he’s on, nobody in hockey is better. Nobody. And if he heats up in this series, look out.

Size vs. Speed
This is the match-up I believe to be the most crucial. The Capitals size vs. the Penguins speed. Both can be overwhelming for the opponent. It will truly be the most telling factor in this series. For the Penguins to win, winning puck battles is the key in beating Washington. Don’t allow Washington to sustain a forecheck in the offensive zone, or they will wear you down, especially in front of the net. While Matt Murray has been unreal in these playoffs, he will still need help clearing the garbage in front of the net. The best thing to do though is limit Washington’s pressure. Keep the puck out of the zone. The Penguins will need to put the pressure on in the neutral and offensive zones. Washington’s defense lacks speed, so put them on their heels. Attack them at full speed. Win puck battles in the corners when on the forecheck. The Penguins’ third and fourth lines are great at this, and if they can keep it up, they’ll have success.

My X-factor for this series is Conor Sheary. He ended up being a difference maker in the Rangers series. And when he’s skating the way he has been, he can wreak havoc on a team’s ability to make good decisions with the puck. I love watching this kid play. He fits in with this team, because he is special. And putting him on a line with Crosby has only made him step his game up.

Both teams don’t have many injuries. The Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury is still dealing with concussion symptoms, and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that he’ll be ready soon. I’d expect Matt Murray to play this entire series. It’ll be a great test for the 21 year-old goaltender. Washington’s Brooks Orpik doesn’t seem like he’ll play in game one, but we’ll see. He’s still recovering from a big hit in the series against the Flyers. Karl Alzner has had back-to-back maintenance days, which could be a concern for Washington. Pittsburgh’s Conor Sheary also had back-to-back maintenance days, but head coach Mike Sullivan didn’t seem concerned about Sheary missing any game time. He just said it was just bumps and bruises.

Ultimately, I think the Capitals are a great team. They can score, they can beat you up, they can play defense, and they have one of the better goalies in the league. There’s a reason why they won the President’s Trophy. However, I think the Penguins have just as vicious of a forecheck as Washington and the Penguins speed is ridiculous. I think each game will be close. They are both great teams. It’ll be another great series.

Penguins in six. Buckle up baby!

CrosbyHeadNod


412 Sports is not affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. The views and opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. This site may contain content copyrighted by another person or entity. This site’s author claims no copyright to said content.

Penguins vs. Rangers: Round 1 Preview

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, at least for hockey fans. And the fans of the Penguins have every reason to be confident in their team. The Penguins just capped off a great run to end the 2015/2016 season, winning 14 of their last 16 games. In the process, they set themselves up in great playoff position. They finished with 104 points, good enough for 2nd in the division, only behind the Washington Capitals, this year’s President’s Trophy winner. It’s also good enough for the 2nd most points in the conference, giving the Penguins home ice against any Eastern opponent other than Washington.

And to think, in early December, the team was out of the playoff picture. They looked lost, unmotivated, and stoic. The team made a coaching change, and new coach Mike Sullivan has turned this team from the most boring team in hockey into a serious contender for the Stanley Cup. For more details on the coaching change, check out my column.

On Wednesday night, the Penguins begin round one of this year’s playoff against the familiar New York Rangers. Yes, the same Rangers that fought back after being down 3-1 to beat the Penguins in the second round two years ago. And yes, the same Rangers that turned the Penguins away in just five games in last year’s first round. There’s a lot of cliches that can be used here, and one would think maybe “third time’s a charm” for the Penguins. However, it goes way deeper than that. This Penguins team is different. They’re special. And unlike early December, they’re focused, motivated, and alive.

The Penguins have had success under Sullivan because they have done something that they had a hard time doing under Dan Bylsma (at times), and couldn’t come close to doing under Mike Johnston: they have established an identity. And that identity is that they play their game. That game is an aggressive forecheck, aggressive penalty kill, creativity in the offensive zone and the breakout of the defensive zone, and most importantly, speed. That’s what this team has defined “Penguins hockey” to be this year. And they play it no matter what. Whether they’re up 3-0, down 3-0, or tied late in the 3rd period or overtime. They don’t stray away from their game. And the most impressive part is that they’ve done it against the teams that would get inside their heads and rattle them. No more of trying to match numbers in the “hit” column against Flyers by throwing bodies all over the ice or trying to match Boston’s tough defensive game. No more letting Henrik Lundqvist getting in their heads. They aren’t intimidated by him anymore, and his cage can be rattled a little too. I mean, how can we forget this:

LundqvistBabyStuff_zpsthaf3ozd

This Penguins team is not phased by anyone, And if anything, they force their game on their opponent. And if they can do that successfully, they won’t just win this round, but they’ll go deep in the playoffs. And I say that because I have a hard time believing any team in the East can keep up with the Penguins speed.

My X-factor for the series is Carl Hagelin. The Rangers used to be faster than the Penguins, but now the tables have turned. The addition of Hagelin is multiplied when playing the Rangers. The Rangers aren’t as fast without him, and the Penguins are faster with him. New York still has speed (Chris Kreider could give the Pens’ defense fits in this series), but the Penguins have more. And Hagelin playing on a line with Kessel had brought the best out of him, making that line arguably the most dangerous in hockey.

And to think that nobody named Crosby or Malkin is centering that line.

Both teams have injuries. The Rangers will be without their captain Ryan McDonagh for at least game one. The Penguins have a lot of question marks with their injuries. Marc-Andre Fleury has practiced both Monday and Tuesday, as has Olli Maata, but both still aren’t guaranteed for game one. Malkin, Murray, Rust, and Bennett are day-to-day, but I’d say we probably won’t see them until game three. The good thing is there’s a two-day gap between each of the first three games. Even with all the injuries, the Penguins have proven that they have depth. As I said before, they’ve won 14 of their last 16, and they’ve done it without Malkin. That’s scary. And I put to rest any fashion of an idea that Malkin would disrupt the chemistry of this team. That’s absurd. He’ll make the team even better. They won’t win the Stanley Cup without him.

For me, the Penguins speed and depth is too much for the Rangers to handle. The Rangers defense, especially for however long McDonagh is out for, isn’t as good as it used to be. Even if Zatkoff has to start the first two games, I still see the Penguins winning in five. They don’t have to rely on goaltending like they did early this year under Johnston. If the Penguins control the puck and the tempo, they’ll dominate the series. Even so, I think Lundqvist stands on his head and steals a game, but other than that, it will be all Penguins. It won’t be easy (as no playoff series is), but this team has what it takes. Like I said before, this team is special. Now, it’s time for them to play like it in the playoffs. Buckle up baby!

CrosbyHeadNod

Follow me on Twitter @chalicke for more Penguins playoff coverage.


412 Sports is not affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. The views and opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. This site may contain content copyrighted by another person or entity. This site’s author claims no copyright to said content.

CH Column: How Is This Team Different Under Sully?

On December 11th, 2015, the Penguins dropped a shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings, bringing the Penguins to a 15-10-3 record; good enough for 5th in the Metropolitan Division and out of the playoff picture. General Manager Jim Rutherford decided at this  point to end Mike Johnston’s tenure as the head coach of the team. There were a couple names being thrown around as a replacement for Johnston, including assistant coach Jacques Martin. Rutherford instead took a familiar route that the Penguins took in the 2008-2009 Stanley Cup season and hired Mike Sullivan, the head coach of the minor league affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

The move was made with some optimism from the fan base, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the Mike Johnston era had drained some water from the proverbial glass half-full. I’m an optimist when it comes to the outlook of the teams I cheer for and follow, but I had just gotten to the point where I just wanted the Penguins to be fun to watch again. I didn’t care about Stanley Cups, division titles, Hart trophies, or any other accolade. I just wanted games to be fun again. Mike Johnston’s system not only crippled the talent on this team, but it was the most boring style of hockey I’ve watched in my entire life. It made the New Jersey Devil’s neutral zone trap look like a trip to Disney World. Johnston’s system took away one of the team’s strongest assets: speed. Players like Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel are all at their best on the rush, putting the defense on their heels.  Johnston’s system was all about moving through the three zones as a team and supporting each other. While it had its strengths, especially in the defensive zone (the team was allowing 2.39 goals against per game under Johnston this season), it had many weaknesses in the neutral zone and offensive zone. Johnston wanted shot volume, but disregarded shot quality. Most shots were from defensemen on the point or from forwards way outside the slot and because the team couldn’t establish a good forecheck, offensive zone pressure was minimal (the team scored 2.39 goals per game under Johnston). Johnston’s system wasn’t a good fit for this team. I’m not saying it can’t work in the NHL, it just didn’t work with the Penguins. It especially didn’t work with Crosby. Under Johnston, Crosby registered 19 points (6 goals, 13 assists) in 28 games, a whopping 0.68 points per game. Crosby was also a minus-6.

Enter Mike Sullivan. HCMS brought a new attitude to this team. He also implemented an up-tempo style, giving the chance for players to work creatively, especially in the offensive zone. He wanted a hard working team, in all phases of the game. He wanted the team to push past adversity and be resilient. And while it didn’t start out that way when the team went 0-4 in his first four games as head coach, after some time, changes seemed to take place, especially offensively. After the 0-4 start under HCMS, the Penguins are 25-10-5. The team is scoring nearly a goal more per game, and Sidney Crosby has turned into the best player in the world again (of course, he never stopped being the best in the world). Under Sullivan, Crosby has 57 points (25 goals, 32 assists), scoring 1.33 points per game, and is a plus-21. I always believed that Crosby’s dreadful start was more attributed to the Johnston system. Crosby didn’t forget how to play hockey. His performance under Sullivan proves that. Oh, and since the coaching change, Crosby leads the NHL in scoring.

The most impressive thing I’ve taken away from the team under Sullivan is their resilience. They never break or give up when down in a game. There have been several games where they’ve fallen behind 1-0 or 2-0 early, and have ended up coming back, sometimes even winning. The team knows how to score again. The players seem to respect and respond to Sullivan more. Just watching this team each game is the only way to see that something special is going on.

The additions of Trevor Daley and Carl Hagelin (thank you GMJR) have given huge jolts to both the offense and defense. Sure, there’s still work to do. They’re not a perfect team by any means, but they’ve gotten to a point where the fight they put up makes me think they could beat any team in a best-of-seven series.

The playoffs are looming. Ten games remain. The Penguins are finding their stride at the right time. We can hope they continue to trend this way. And they wouldn’t be where they are without Mike Sullivan steering the ship.


 

412 Sports is not affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. The views and opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. This site may contain content copyrighted by another person or entity. This site’s author claims no copyright to said content.