All posts by toughcallblog

Penguins Physicality Not What You Might Think

On October 6, after a 10-1 drubbing at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan asked for more physicality from his players.

Physical play has been a point of contention for years in Pittsburgh as superstar veterans Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and especially Sidney Crosby have been the victims of some “liberties” dished out by opposing players who have little retribution to fear based on the Penguins roster.

Fans haven’t quite been satisfied with the contributions of protection players such as Tom Sestito, and the addition of Ryan Reaves for the 2017-18 season opens the conversation even wider. Although Reaves has been pretty good so far, the Penguins won two Stanley Cups in a row and counting with those types of players contributing minute bit parts on the journey.

So if that isn’t the kind of toughness the Penguins rely on, what kind of physicality is Sullivan asking for? Substituting the word “physicality” with the words “compete” and “body position” might give you the answer.

The game against Chicago really wasn’t that bad as far as the Penguins creating their own chances and having the puck. The Blackhawks just simply weren’t slowed down at all by any sort of physical contact. I don’t mean hitting. I mean body positioning.

Someone like Carl Hagelin seems lost so far. It’s because he’s not engaging. To create separation from an opponent, you first have to come together. That’s why in every foot race as a kid someone would always jokingly push off the person you’re racing against. It’s why basketball and soccer players post up, leaning into the opponent with their back. It helps you control where your opponent can move, and what your opponent can reach with the hands or stick.

It’s why football quarterbacks want their top receivers in one on one coverage so they can battle for position and control the defender. The quarterback always gets the credit for putting the ball “where only the receiver could get it”, but that magic spot the defender can’t reach is only created by the positioning and desire of the receiver to keep that defender away from that spot.

We always think of using your body and being physical on the defensive side of the puck. This tweet I put out a while ago is a great example of an NHL defenseman doing everything right with physicality, not in terms of hitting but just by pure compete and positioning:

But this kind of physicality is just as important on offense. Watch Partic Hornqvist‘s recent goal against the Florida Panthers:

One notable thing about Conor Sheary is how he reminds me of Crosby. It’s not his hands or his moves. It’s his strength. It’s how he keeps low and fends off anyone trying to get in his way. He craves the feeling of someone on him so he can win the battle and explode away. Crosby is famous for fending off players riding his back, using his body positioning and lower body strength to make even the best checkers look like they need to hit the gym. But if he didn’t engage in the physicality with them, he wouldn’t be able to use his strength to his advantage. What’s the point of being the strongest lower body player in the game if you never engage?

To demonstrate the point, here’s a video shot by John Moore of some Nova Scotian NHLers practicing in Halifax during the off season. James Sheppard, Zack Sill, Brad Marchand, and Crosby are all working on puck protection. Notice how little body checking there is. It’s just brute strength and intelligent body placement. The most important detail in this video is this: notice how not one single battle is won until one of these players pushes off the other and explodes away. Spoiler alert: it’s not the guy without the puck that does this in most cases. It’s the guy WITH the puck.

This is the physicality Mike Sullivan needs on both offense and “defense”.


Kicking Their Way In

Well folks. It’s only Game 1 and already there’s some passion in the fans. Brayden Schenn scored a first period goal in Pittsburgh off his skate to move the St. Louis Blues into a questionable 1-1 tie.

My immediate thought before the review even happened was good goal. I tweeted this:

Other fans weren’t being so care free about it.

This might be the most interesting take of all.

It also sparked a fun conversation about the kicking rule in general.

It never ceases to amaze me the intelligence of the “average” hockey fan, and the sheer number of tweets this play ended up drawing shows hockey fandom is alive and well in Pittsburgh. 

The Penguins And The White House

The Pittsburgh Penguins have decided to go to the White House for the traditional visit of a championship team. They issued a public statement on Sunday. The announcement came on the same day players all around the NFL made a point of kneeling during the American national anthem after controversial comments directed at them from the White House and specifically the President. 


The most important part of the statement delivered by the Penguins organization should be that the Pittsburgh Penguins are in fact a championship team. Instead, Penguins nation finds itself almost as divided as it was in the Fleury/Murray debate. 


Like that old telephone game where a message is whispered from one person to the other down a chain and the message gets twisted and misconstrued as it goes down the line, the message being sent by NFL players, in what’s become known as the #TakeAKnee campaign, has been lost.¬†No matter what you or any of us believe the original goals were of those who started the anthem kneel down in the first place, the battle has morphed into taking sides on whether they have a right to kneel at all.¬†


What’s been forgotten is all those exercising their right to stand. How do we interpret that?¬†


Kneeling is a definitive action. When you take a knee during the anthem, regardless of your reasons, you’re definitely noticeably saying something. That’s not true for those who stand.¬†People can stand for many reasons. Bottom line: standing isn’t necessarily the same as intentionally not kneeling.¬†


With their decision to visit the President, the Pittsburgh Penguins are essentially standing.¬†It¬†isn’t fair to immediately interpret that decision as anything other than not taking a side. There’s even¬†a chance the decision has nothing to do with a protest or support of a cause, but simply because they are champions and that’s what championship teams have always done. The statement does reference the protest, but clearly states “any agreement or disagreement with a president’s politics, policies or agenda can be expressed in other ways. However, we very much respect the rights of other individuals and groups to express themselves as they see fit.”


Is there anything¬†absolute about whether they agree or disagree with the President or White House Policies? Or are¬†they¬†just saying if they do or do not have a point to make, they don’t feel¬†boycotting this visit¬†(the equivalent of kneeing)¬†would be¬†the best¬†fit for¬†the organization¬†to get a message across.


Let us know what you think the Penguins organization is trying to say with this statement and why you think it.


Offseason Player Grade: Matt Cullen


GP   G    A    PTS    +/-    PIM
72   13  18     31     +4     30

2016-17 PLAYOFFS:

GP   G    A   PTS   +/-   PIM
25    2     7      9     -1     24


Matt Cullen was on the Penguins for three main reasons: character, faceoffs, and penalty killing. He did all of that and more. He was worth not promoting an AHL prospect for fourth line duties.


Other than mentoring young players, his regular season was meaningless, yet he put up is second straight 30 point season of his forties, and his fifth in seven seasons.

His highlight was probably scoring the game winning goal in the Stadium Series. His first career outdoor game ended in a 4-2 win against the Flyers.

In the playoffs, he was a beast again in the face off circle, finishing 9th in the league at 56.42%. Antoine Vermette was the only other player in the top 10 who made it out of the first round. Having gone the distance while maintaining a top 10 faceoff percentage means he was the most consistent in that stat for the longest stretch out of anyone in the NHL this post season.

He also had two game winning goals and two shorthanded goals, and even chipped in with two power play goals! Not something you would bank on, or even hope for, from Cullen.


Cullen will likely retire this summer, but I could see him as a future video analyst and development coach, hopefully in the Pittsburgh organization. 

Off Season Player Grades: Nick Bonino


GP   G    A   PTS   +/-   PIM
80   18  19    37     -5    16

2016-17 PLAYOFFS:

GP  G    A    PTS   +/-   PIM
21   4     3      7     +4      2


Nick Bonino was a valuable player for the Pens over the regular season, but seemed a little lost at times and wasn’t quite the energy player he presented himself as last season.


Bonino improved nicely in most statistical categories this season, doubling his goal output and coming close to 40 points. He took over 100 shots for just the third time in his career, and he passed 400 career games played.

However, as a third line centre he also ended up as a minus for just the second time in his career. Being on a linemate carousel didn’t help, but there was just something about his energy and compete level that seemed off.

This trend continued into the playoffs. However, Bonino found other ways to contribute such as timely backchecking and shot blocking. It wasn’t the total effort we saw last year, but like most of his mates, he took advantage of the moments given to him.


Bonino signed a lucrative 4-year deal with the Nashville Predators to be their second line center. He will not be with the Penguins next season.

Interference on Crosby?

Two major topics came out of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday. The first was the fact the Penguins went 37 minutes without a shot on goal. The second was, as always, the officiating.

On top of a disallowed Nashville goal from an offside review, there was also a 5 on 3 power play awarded to Pittsburgh when two penalties were assessed to the Predators at the same time.

What irked a lot of people was not what they called, but what they didn’t call. Welcome to another episode of Sidney Crosby got away with one.

On that same five on three power-play, Crosby gave Matthias Ekholm a bump beside the net in an effort to stop him from getting to the puck. Ekholm went down, and cries for an interference penalty went up.

To all you non-Penguins fans, I really do see what you’re saying here. I can see how it looks like interference. Plus you all may want it to be interference even more because it’s Sidney Crosby.

On the flip side, you’ll probably not read this with an open mind because you already think I’m defending it only because it’s Sidney Crosby.

So instead of boring you with the details of the play, I’m going to ask you to answer one question:

Was Sidney Crosby eligible to be hit?

That’s right. I’m referring to Crosby, not Ekholm. Crosby touched the puck, and it was momentarily in his skates. He had “possession” just prior to the contact. If he was still eligible to receive contact, then he was allowed to engage in a puck battle to defend his already established position.

I’m not saying this as a boom! Gotcha! type of point. I’m just trying to get people to look at it from a point of view other than seeing some guy innocently going for a puck and having another guy stick his butt out and knock him over.

To me, that’s not what happened. I saw a guy who just had the puck and was putting himself in the best possible position to win it back again.

The Penguins Are Much Improved

The Pittsburgh Penguins look a lot different now than they did three games ago.

The passion was there, but the energy and control were not. Suddenly, they’re much more involved in this series. They’re doing the little things now.

By little things I don’t mean the traditional cliche things like blocking shots and backchecking. I mean the little things that show a player is in it, I mean really in it.

Here’s a few examples:

The references here are telling. Sens defenceman Dion Phaneuf and Penguin Chris Kunitz were involved in a tussle beside the Senators net and got coincidental penalties. Kunitz went to the box laughing while Phaneuf stood arguing, obviously (and to be honest, rightly) frustrated about why he got a penalty too.

Phaneuf also took Crosby down after he shot a puck, and instead of reacting, Crosby just propped himself up on one knee and gave a fairly condescending smile to Phaneuf.

It’s these specific little things that prove one thing as summed up very well in this next tweet:

The Senators will have to do something pretty special to turn the tables back around. We should be in for some kind of a finish to this series.