All posts by Cody Flavell

I am an avid fan of all major and college sports teams throughout the Pittsburgh area.

COLUMN: Things Are Beginning To Click

The Penguins took down the Islanders on Thursday evening and what a big win it was. They gave the Islanders a point, something that doesn’t look good now but will be meaningless in the long run if things continue the way they are.

The guys are clicking right now. Even despite the loss of Justin Schultz to a lower body injury, they were able to scratch out the 4-3 overtime win and pretty much dominated the game statistically.

I’m just going to provide some bullet points and you can stop me when I’m wrong.

-The special teams was a perfect 100% on Thursday. The Penguins were able to eek out two power play goals, Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel being the culprits. The Penalty Kill, on the other hand, was sensational. “I thought our penalty kill was great tonight,” Sullivan said. They truly were. It seemed they had more of a willingness to block shots and Tristan Jarry did a good job stopping the shots that did get through to him.

-Both Guentzel and Kessel are absolutely killing it in terms of scoring. Guentzel scored his 13th tonight ad is on pace for 36 goals. Will he get there? We’ll see. I think he reaches 30 on the year and no one is going to complain about that. Kessel is playing some of the best all-around hockey of his career. I predicted at the beginning of the season that he would have 80 points this year. He’s got 14 goals and 35 points in 30 games. At this pace, he’ll hit 80.

-Did the Penguins really lose their starting goaltender? You wouldn’t know it if you are just tuning into the Penguins season. Jarry has been sensational in the absence of Matt Murray and has done everything you could ask and more. The Penguins were worried about Jarry’s development if he was riding the bench in Pittsburgh but he has been great in injury relief. 5-1-0 with a 2.39 GAA and a .921 SV%? I will sign up for those numbers every time.

Matt Hunwick was the most unlikeliest of heroes in this game. In 3-on-3 overtime, anything can happen. After being stoned by Jaroslav Halak just seconds before potting the game winner, Hunwick had been playing in overtime mainly due to the Schultz injury. He’s never had more than six goals in a season in his career. It’s unlikely he will reach that this season. But Hunwick isn’t as bad as some of the fans portray him. He’s been solid, he just isn’t flashy.

That’s only a few points that can be made. Sidney Crosby is back on top of his game. Patric Hornqvist has been a menace all year long. The list goes on and on.

The team did lose Tom Kuhnhackl for the final period due to injury. They are already thin in the bottom-six and it looks like Greg McKegg will be back in Pittsburgh if Kuhnhackl misses any time. They did give a point to the Islanders which now means that spots 1-5 in the Metropolitan are separated by one point. But if that’s the worst news to come out of the game to, can you be mad?

Jarry shut down one of the youngest and hottest teams in hockey right now for 55 minutes. He had a little blip late in the game but kept it together enough to send it to overtime. That’s the maturity of a veteran goaltender. He’s making huge saves and helping win games before he’s even had 10 at the NHL level.

The Penguins are winners of 5 of their last 6 and have some winnable games coming up on the schedule. While every game is tough, there is no excuse this team can’t win more games and try and break away from the Metropolitan Division pack.

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Jarry Ready To Take The Reigns

The Penguins just have a way with handling their goaltending situation and it’s been a huge reason why they’ve won Stanley Cups in consecutive years. But this time around, it feels a little weird.

The Penguins and Marc-Andre Fleury‘s tenure came to a close last year despite the writing on the wall being etched a year prior. Matt Murray‘s emergence made the decision a bit easier. The always forgotten ring of Tristan Jarry‘s name seemed to get weaker and weaker with every waning moment that Murray spent winning at the NHL level. Now, persistence and patience has paid off and it’s Jarry’s turn to really showcase his talents in a bigger role at the big league level.

After becoming the Penguins second-round pick in the 2012 draft, Jarry was pegged as the eventual heir to Fleury’s crease in the NHL. Murray, drafted in 2013, shattered tons of AHL records on his way to jumping Jarry on the depth chart and derailing aspirations Jarry seemingly had all but locked up before Murray’s unforeseen tear.

Murray sustained a lower body injury, presumably something with his leg, in a 5-4 overtime win against the Flyers Monday night. He is week-to-week. TSN’s Bob McKenzie seems to think that it will only cost Murray 2-4 weeks, which isn’t the gloomiest situation for Penguins fans. Besides, are the Penguins really in that bad of shape with Jarry taking over the goaltending duties over the next couple weeks?

Jarry is 2-0-2 while sporting a 2.83 GAA and a .907 SV%. Yes, these numbers are a bit underwhelming but unless you’ve had the eye-test on Jarry, you wouldn’t know that these numbers are far from what he’s provided the Penguins.

The original plan had been to keep Jarry in the AHL to continue playing and developing as a goalie. Hence why they attempted to throw a league-minimum deal at Antti Niemi and hoped he could backstop Murray. That plan lasted all of three games.

Casey DeSmith was given the next chance. He allowed three goals, albeit in relief of a game that had already slipped away, in a 7-1 loss against Winnipeg. He was sent back down and the Penguins were out of options and had no excuse but to bring up Jarry and see what he can do.

Essentially, you’d figure the crease belongs to Murray until the Penguins don’t want him any longer. This is what made the decision to keep Jarry “developing” in the AHL a bit puzzling. He wasn’t being groomed as the Penguins eventual starter so why not give your two best options the goalie jobs in the wake of losing Fleury?

That time has come and it has even gone a step further as Jarry will be the starter for the next few weeks following the Murray injury. The Penguins have a home-and-home with Buffalo on Friday and Saturday so it’s likely Jarry and DeSmith will split those games in one way or another.

He has already had a 32 and 33-save performance this season while allowing only two goals in each of those games. Monday agaist Philly, Jarry had made tons of big saves despite allowing two goals on ten shots. He was pressed into a very tough spot in that game and responded with a game that he should be very happy with.

“I’m just trying to do my best out there,” Jarry said. “Every day I want to get better and better, and I think that’s something I’m trying to improve this year and trying to do every day.”

He has been on both Stanley Cup squads as a black ace and even got to serve as the backup in a few games over the two postseason runs due to injuries to both Murray and Fleury. He has never gotten into an actual postseason game but has had a birds-eye view of the action unfolding at ice level. That is experience that can’t be taken away.

Head coach Mike Sullivan spoke highly of Jarry saying he can win the Penguins some games while Murray recovers from injury.

“We believe he is a solid goalie,” Sullivan said. “I think the game he played against Tampa is a perfect example of what he’s capable of. Tristan is going to have to make timely saves for us game in and game out. We believe he can do that.”

If nothing else, Jarry will provide much needed stability behind Murray over the course of the season after he recovers, something that was sorely lacked before Jarry began backing up the starting goaltender. It affords the Penguins to keep assets instead of having to trade for an external backup goalie to keep the wheel turning.

COLUMN: You Can’t Stop The Force, You Can Only Contain It

We’ve been blessed to shift from the Mario Lemieux era right into the Sidney Crosby era. Ever since Crosby joined the league, he’s been one of the most dominant players in the game even in an era where it is considerably harder to score.

Despite an 11-game goal-less drought, Crosby looked as determined Tuesday night as he had in weeks. The drive to change his hard luck was evident beyond belief. He ended that slump in a big way.

“I just found the open area, hung out backdoor and he found me.”

That was linemate Conor Sheary after his goal 16 seconds into overtime in Tuesday night’s contest. We watched as Crosby dominated below the goal line in a way only Crosby seems to be able to do. He was followed down low by Sabres forward Evander Kane and, despite Kane’s attempt to pin Crosby to the boards, Crosby squirmed out, cut to his right and did exactly what Sheary expected Crosby would do. If you don’t believe me or want to see it again, here you go:

 

In any other year, that wouldn’t be too significant. Of course, it was an incredible “Vintage Crosby” move we have seen a million times over that we marvel over again and again. This year, it almost seemed like it was destined.

When a tornado comes through a town, you can’t stop it. It’s simple Mother Nature. You can contain the damage, though, by taking necessary precautions. Teams have found a way to keep him contained. Even Crosby himself just hadn’t really been that tornado we’ve seen for his years in Pittsburgh. Last night, he proved you can’t completely stop it.

Early in the game, Phil Kessel threw a nice cross-crease pass that Crosby has buried standing right next to the goalie for years. He whiffed on one last night that he undoubtedly wants back.

“That was a tough one,” Crosby said. You’re trying to pick it up through the guys feet. Most times, you find a way to get your stick on it but sometimes you miss it and it goes off your foot…Yeah it’s tough when they’re not going in but there has been some really good chances the last few games and hopefully now they’ll start to go in.”

Crosby isn’t a dumb hockey player. He knows that when slumps are busted and you’re a star of the magnitude of his, they usually breakout in a huge way. We’ve seen it before and we will surely see it again this season and maybe as soon as Thursday.

Surely enough, it went in later in the game when they needed it the most. Down 3-2 in the second, Crosby found a rebound from a Kessel shot and roofed it with every intention of making sure that puck found the twine:

“You’re happy to see it go in the net,” Crosby said. “There were a few more I probably could have had tonight. As long as they’re there, hopefully they’ll go in a little bit more now.”

Translation: They’re going to go in because I’m Sidney freakin’ Crosby but I’m too humble to admit it.

Hockey is so much more fun when Sidney Crosby is playing like the NHL’s best player. He hasn’t been that so far to this point in the season. Last night, Vintage Crosby came back and so did the Penguins.

Guentzel Getting Close To Breakout

The Penguins are struggling. Name a player and they’re currently struggling or did at an earlier point in the year.

One guy that has seemed particularly snake-bitten in the early going is Jake Guentzel. He’s only a few months removed from leading the playoffs in goal scoring and would’ve garnered a lot of Rookie of the Year consideration had he started the year in Pittsburgh.

Yet, some people are worried he was a one-time fluke. This is to tell you he’s not.

Guentzel has some serious talent and comes from a hockey family that won’t allow for him to be a failure. Guentzel is a young breath of fresh air for Sidney Crosby who has had to deal with a lot of guys who weren’t as offensively gifted over the years as Guentzel is. We all love Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis but they didn’t have anywhere near the lethal shot that Guentzel possesses.

Despite only scoring 4 goals and 9 points in the team’s first 17 games, Guentzel showed some signs on Tuesday night that maybe things were on the upswing.

You could argue that recently Guentzel hadn’t been getting really good looks at the net. This is a problem Crosby has seemingly suffered from early on as well. Guentzel finally got a sweet opportunity but received it on his off hand as it was bouncing and couldn’t pull the trigger in time. He actually put a really solid shot on net regardless but Antti Rantta made a really strong save.

Guentzel also seemed to be more engaged at going to the net on Tuesday, something he hadn’t been doing much of recently. A scorer’s best scoring area is in close to the net and Guentzel needs to push back into that area.

With the training camp and postseason run Crosby, Guentzel, and Conor Sheary enjoyed, it wasn’t expected that they would be separated this early into the season. With only 17 games played, there is no reason that Guentzel won’t find himself and avoid the sophomore slump.

What To Do With Carl Hagelin

Over the past couple of games, I’ve noticed that Carl Hagelin seems to be skating much better than he had in the playoffs last year. Of course, he dealt with an injured foot and couldn’t maximize his skating ability. In turn, this led to a lackluster two points in the playoffs. One of them was the empty netter that gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead late in game six of the Stanley Cup Finals.

This season, he has struggled to get on the score sheet. He’s got two points in 13 games and has played mostly third line minutes. As recently as Sunday night, he played with Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist. Both of those guys are ones who he has played with before. He has also played with Phil Kessel and Riley Sheahan at various points of the season.

The Penguins have obvious issues scoring 5-on-5 goals this season and Hagelin’s career high in goals is 17. That’s not bad for a top-9 forward. The issue is the lack of scoring he showed last season has leaked into this season. It’s not just him, it is a team-wide concern. In fact, it is so bad that the Penguins actually have the league’s worst 5-on-5 differential.

Hagelin is far from the culprit but he could find himself in an interesting situation.

Josh Archibald has been dragged through the team’s first 13 games as the press box king. He compares very well to Hagelin in the sense that he can flat out fly on the ice. Archibald has shown flashes of being able to finish at a rate higher than Hagelin has over the past season and into this one. It’s hard to imagine a situation that sees Hagelin sit for Archibald but it isn’t something I would consider out of the realm of possibility.

Another thing to consider is the $4 million cap hit Hagelin carries and the Penguins need of a third line center. These are indirectly related.

Hagelin likely wouldn’t net the Penguins a legitimate third-line center but if the Penguins could shed his cap they’d be in a better spot. They currently have $2 million to spend after the Sheahan trade. Sheahan isn’t a third line center. The Penguins look even less threatening if Malkin or Sidney Crosby sustain an IR-stint type of injury.

Considering the Penguins have Daniel Sprong in the AHL who can seemingly score at will there, they could afford to trade Hagelin for a draft pick to maximize the cap they could shed. Sprong is a right winger whereas Hagelin prefers the left side. Hornqvist could move over to the left to make room for Sprong but usually would prefer to play the right.

I’m all for the fast paced game the Penguins play. They have plenty of speed that they could afford to move a guy like Hagelin and try and shake up the 5-on-5 play by bringing a prolific scoring prospect in Sprong to the NHL. Hagelin has proven he is a streaky player. He was sent to Anaheim after two career high seasons. He struggled there and was acquired by the Penguins for another struggling player in David Perron. He is expendable.

Looking at a team like Vegas who is having a lot of success currently and has a boatload of draft picks, you could give them a guy like Hagelin and insert more speed into their line up and give them a top-9 winger. He would compete with Perron, Jonathan Marchessault, and Erik Haula for minutes but would be an upgrade for a team that has cap room and said before the season that they’d like to be a contending team this year despite losing three goalies to injured reserve already.

Ask them for a third or fourth round pick. Let Hagelin go. Bring up Sprong or someone else that you’re confident can prodcue. Go get your third line center with the $6 million or so that you have. Jim Rutherford has never been shy when it comes to spending to the cap and with his team’s early struggles scoring, this year is even more of a reason to do that.

COLUMN: So Much Wrong…So What’s Gone Right?

Everyone is so focused on the ugly side of the Penguins 7-5-1 start that they forgot they’ve still done some good things in the early season. Let’s take a look at what has been good early on.

Look At The Metropolitan

The Penguins are only one point out of first place in the Metropolitan as it stands on Halloween. Of course, with most teams only playing between 10 and 13 games so far, there won’t be a ton of parody throughout the standings yet. I went into the year considering only the Rangers and Blue Jackets to be their biggest in-division threat. The Rangers have struggled mightily with only 8 points through their first 12 games. The Blue Jackets are 8-4-0 which is only one point better than the Penguins at this point.

The Blue Jackets are a very loaded team this year and have a great goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky playing some elite hockey through his team’s first 12 contests. The Devils seem like an overachieving young team currently as they are tied with Columbus for the divisions top spot. The Penguins will find a groove. They don’t even need to win the division to be considered a favorite. If the Penguins snuck in as a wild card, much like their Finals opponent last year in Nashville, who can count them out of any series?

Their Roster Is Far From Complete

Behind Matt Murray, the Penguins have had three goalies slot into the back up position. Currently, Tristan Jarry occupies the spot. The Penguins have been adamant they want him to play. Whether it’s him or an experienced veteran not named Antti Niemi in that spot come playoff time remains to be seen.

Daniel Sprong waits in the wings for an opportunity at consistent time at the NHL level. Mike Sullivan knows he can score and will likely get a good look at him starting around Christmas time. He also has Zach-Aston Reese. It remains to be seen if Aston-Reese will give the impact he has been touted to give as he has struggled at the AHL level so far. Both could have an opportunity before April’s playoffs begin.

The third line center situation is not solved yet despite Jim Rutherford acquiring Riley Sheahan from the Red Wings. Sheahan projects very nicely as a fourth line center and will be a nice complement to Tom Kuhnhackl and Ryan Reaves once the actual third line center is acquired. He doesn’t score enough to be a second line center if the two stars would get hurt. Rutherford has cap space and he will use it.

Penguins Defense Isn’t All That Bad

Okay, Kris Letang has been a dumpster fire. He is still a top-10 defenseman in the league so I have a hard time believing he won’t find his game. With Justin Schultz and Matt Hunwick currently missing time with concussions, the Penguins have relied on other guys to step up.

Brian Dumoulin has been very adequate playing with or without his partner Letang. Ian Cole and Olli Maatta have been very consistent in their play and both have scored at least a goal here in the early going. Chad Ruhwedel has been a beneficiary of playing due to injuries and has looked like a top-6 defenseman in the absences of the injured blue liners. Even Zachary Trotman hasn’t looked completely lost.

A healthy Penguins team is the best Penguins team so when everyone is healthy and playing like they have the potential to do, the Penguins will benefit from it.

Many Teams Have It Much Worse

Neither Arizona or Vegas came into the season with playoff hopes as high as the Penguins. Arizona has been through a rough stretch and just got their first win against Philadelphia Monday night. Vegas has an 8-2 record which is all fine and dandy. They have seen Marc-Andre FleuryMalcolm Subban and Oscar Dansk go down due to injury. That is three goalies in the span of ten games. Fleury has yet to skate. Subban is projected to miss 2-4 weeks. Dansk just went on IR Tuesday morning. Yikes.

The Oilers, a Stanley Cup favorite heading into the year, have struggled to score and are a bottom feeder in the West currently. Newly-signed Jack Eichel and his Sabres have been equally as bad. Trust me, the Penguins could be in a much worse spot. Remember, they also have won back-to-back championships. Not all is bad.

Through 13 games, it is ludicrous to say that the Penguins are unable to make noise in the playoffs. It is likely, but there are signs of hope on the way. Don’t even begin to count the Penguins out. That is when they thrive the most.

COLUMN: Murray Is The Key

Through 11 games, Evgeni MalkinSidney Crosby, and Phil Kessel are tied for the team lead with 11 points a piece. Kris Letang is struggling. The Penguins are already down two defensemen. They have allowed 7 or more goals twice. Yet, the true story of this team has been the play of Matt Murray.

Of course those last two sentences don’t mix well. But, through adversity, Murray has been the Penguins’ best player. The three players who led off this column have been inconsistent. They will be the driving force of a win one game and then disappear the next. Outside of Thursday night’s win over Winnipeg, I struggle to think of a game where all three were noticeably themselves in the same contest.

I hate to use Thursday as a main point because this column encapsulates the whole year but the Penguins played their best hockey on Thursday. Starting with line one, all the way down to the third defensive pair, through their franchise goaltender, and ending with their coaching staff. It was all the best they’ve looked this season. Yes, even better than the Edmonton game.

Speaking again of that franchise goaltender, is it too early to already say he’s on the fast track to replacing Marc-Andre Fleury as the franchises best goaltender ever? Obviously, he isn’t close yet. But if he continues on this track, it won’t be long.

Tom Barasso held a lot of Penguins records. Fleury broke them. Records are made to be broken. Fleury was a former first overall pick that struggled in his first few years, albeit, behind a team that rivaled the roster of the 100-loss 2010 Pittsburgh Pirates roster. If you are a baseball fan, I will gladly give you the link to that roster and you’ll see what I am talking about. Murray was a third round pick playing behind the equivalent of Steel Curtain and Murderer’s Row.

Give me all the excuses you want about the “average” goaltender that some people actually believe is an average goaltender. Goalies like him don’t grow on goalie farms. They’re scouted with a great scouting department that finds gems like this outside of the first round. But, once they’re drafted, throw out all the scouting reports. It all becomes about execution. Murray has done nothing but execute whether he is playing behind a top-six rounded out by Trevor Daley or Zachary Trotman.

Let’s take a look at Murray’s stats since that is all anyone ever worries about: 7-0-1, 2.81 GAA, and a .912 SV%. “The goals against is really high!” “That save percentage looks like Fleury’s did every year which is awful!” I usually think a pitcher’s record in baseball is meaningless. That would make an NHL goalies just as irrelevant, right?

Listen, baseball plays 162 games a year. An ace starting pitcher who stays healthy averages about 30-32 starts a season. They pitch every five days. That is exactly 19.8% of the season assuming they make 32 starts. The pitcher has no effect on the offense unless it’s October playoff baseball and your ace is pitching a shut out and your team feeds off of it.

Hockey plays 82 games. Your franchise starting goalie should start between 60-68 games a year. Assuming your starting goalie makes 65 starts, that means 79.2% of your season hinges on your starting goalies performance. The Penguins witnessed first hand what having a mediocre back up can do to you. Goalies have a direct effect on the offense. Often times, a big save or two from your goalie inspires you to take the puck on the next rush and create a great offensive opportunity. Don’t tell me goalie records don’t matter.

Here is one for you: Matt Murray is a career 48-12-6 in the regular season. With Murray playing in the regular season, the Penguins have earned 102 out of a possible 132 points with Murray in net. That is ridiculous. But goalie records don’t matter.

Outside of the fact that he, along with head coach Mike Sullivan, has yet to lose a playoff series, he is 22-9 in the playoffs. If you add that to his overall record, Murray is 70-21-6 in his overall career.

He has managed to avoid losing in regulation yet this season. He will be a huge factor in the season considering the Penguins’ back up goalie situation is as questionable as Donald Trump being America’s president (fake news!). He is backstopping a team that has ONE player who is a + in the +/- category and it is their seventh defenseman. Their best defenseman has been a shell of his former self, although I believe he will get back to form.

Show me his “average” career numbers, I’ll show you his two Stanley Cup rings and his gorgeous girlfriend.

Murray is a winner. He wins at hockey. He wins at life. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to talk to Braden Holtby, Carey Price, and Henrik Lundqvist about how many Stanley Cups they’ve won.