Category Archives: COLUMN

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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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.

COLUMN: Enjoy The Ride

I’m a Twitter guy. I enjoy the friendly debates, the live tweeting during games, the breaking news; I enjoy it all. Even the people’s opinions that are…questionable. Hot takes, if you will.

I came across one this past week that just floored me. It wasn’t from some random faceless person. It came from someone that actually has a job in Pittsburgh sports media.

Now, I’m not going to name this guy. This isn’t a column to stoop and slam garbage takes, but it made me realize something. It made me realize something that will help all Penguins fans and make this season much more enjoyable.

This tweet said that the same people that criticize the Pirates, and that it’s getting old, fault to criticize the Penguins’ “playoff failures” in the Crosby/Malkin era. Another tweet from this guy shortly after said that one could argue that the Penguins are boring.

If back to back Stanley Cups are boring, then I’ll gladly be bored out of my mind every year if they can pull it off.

Now, I thought about it for a while. I can see how people could get a little stale with the Penguins. I mean, how much better can it be to win back to back Cups? Sure, a three-peat would be amazing, but nothing beats the first time you win the Cup. The gap between the 2009 and 2016 Cups made everyone in Pittsburgh thirsty for another Cup. It solidified Sidney Crosby‘s legacy and finally gave Pittsburgh the multiple Cups that this talented core of players should’ve won. But now that they’ve won back to back, three total, what more is there to be excited about?

The chance for another Cup is exciting, for sure. No denying that. People should also know that the chances of that happening are getting slimmer and slimmer every year. This year the Penguins’ biggest foes are fatigue, scheduling, and backup goaltending. If the Penguins don’t win it this year, it won’t be a big surprise.

And that’s ok.

As a matter of fact, I’m going to recommend something to every Pens’ fan that I did in the 2015-2016 season. Yes, the Penguins won the Cup that year, but early on, it didn’t look like it. Remember when Mike Johnston was the coach? Remember when Crosby looked like a player that would never look like an MVP again? Or when the Penguins couldn’t score? Yeah, it was a bleak time.

Then, my realization. It hit me. I love this team. Them winning or not winning will not change that. So, I let go of all expectations to win. I was just going to support this team, win or lose. When you take away expectations to win, you get to enjoy the game more. You see how beautiful the game is and how great the players are on this team.

So this year, let go of the expectation. If they win, awesome. And they very well could. They have a good enough team to do it. If they don’t, it’s not a failure. It sure isn’t boring. Let’s just enjoy this team for who they are. All of these characters that we love. Enjoy the ride.

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.

COLUMN: Separating Hall of Fame Goalies

Too often, we use the term “great” loosely. There is a certain class of players who deserve the term “great”. Many of those players were enshrined into their sport’s respective Hall of Fames. Something I hear often is a saying, “he was good, never great,” and I wish it was used more often.

I look at the goaltending position in hockey and how it has evolved over the years. The 35 netminders enshrined into the Hall of Fame, they are great. It will soon be 36 when Martin Brodeur is eligible to be voted in. Here is something to consider that will blow your mind but is already painfully obvious.

With the addition of the Vegas Golden Knights this season, there are 31 starting goaltenders in the NHL; some are deserving of the highest praise, and some probably don’t even deserve a starting job. Most fall somewhere in between. There are 35 goalies total in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Yet, so often, we put about 5-10 goalies into the elite category amongst current active goaltenders. Some agree that the majority of those guys are Hall of Famers. The stats would agree with that argument. But, 25 of the 50 goalies who lead in career save percentage are active goalies. Some of these names include Antti Niemi, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jonathan Bernier, and James Reimer. Good to above average names? Yes. Not anywhere close to Hall of Famers.

The game has been shifted into a more goalie driven league as it’s harder to score. Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, the two unquestioned best players in hockey, struggled to put up 90 points last year. McDavid got his 100th point in the last regular season game. In this era, no one will touch the stats Wayne Gretzky used to put up.

A lot of the goaltenders in this era will be judged based on the eye test more than stats due to the increase in goalie save percentages and decrease in goals against average. Below, I name six goaltenders from the current era who I believe have the best shot at being Hall of Famers at the end of their career, but there is a good chance that realistically only one or two make it as I previously mentioned how hard it is to make it in.

Tuukka Rask

The Boston Bruins low key have one of the best goalies in the NHL. With Boston’s lack of success over the past few years, it has caused Rask’s name to be taken out of the elite goalie conversation overall. Younger goalies are coming into the league and making a name for themselves and it’s forcing a former Stanley Cup champion in Rask out of the question. To be fair, Rask was actually supplanted by a rejuvenated Tim Thomas when the Bruins won the Cup in 2011. It was actually Rask’s worst NHL season. He has since taken the lead in both save percentage and goals against average among goalies all-time. While he is in a tie in both categories, Rask is still amongst the greats’ numbers. As I stated before, the change in scoring must be accounted for, nonetheless, Rask has the numbers to be in. If the Bruins are to win another Cup with Rask as the starter, he is a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

Corey Crawford

The Blackhawks are a dynasty after winning three Stanley Cups in six seasons. Crawford was the starting goalie for two of those Cups and has posted solid numbers in the process. While I believe too much emphasis is put on winning to get into the Hall of Fame, Crawford’s two Stanley Cups as a starter, and being a part of three, is hard to ignore in the long term. He always has been put behind an above average shot suppressing defense which you could argue contributed to those numbers largely. As the goalie of a team who won three Cups in six years and posting good enough career numbers to be considered be part of the winner and not despite them, you’ve got to at least think Crawford will receive votes if he doesn’t get in.

Henrik Lundqvist

“Hank” has seen his fair share of dramatics over his career that he has spent in New York with the Rangers. But the Hall of Fame doesn’t look into antics. Lundqvist has flat out carried his team at times through playoff runs. He hasn’t really ever had a team that could score at will much like the two goalies listed above have played with. As a result, he has never won a Stanley Cup. He is the perfect Dan Marino for the Hall of Fame. A guy who’s never won a Stanley Cup. He lost his only appearance that he ever made in the Finals. But he has so many individual awards, both in the NHL and in national play, that he deserves a look nonetheless.

Braden Holtby

Here is a name that largely may be criticized, but Holtby has been nothing but a rock in his short career as the Washington Capitals’ starter. He owns a .922 career save percentage with a 2.31 goals against average. He won a Vezina Trophy in 2015-16 and posted even better numbers last season falling victim to Sergei Bobrovsky. Holtby has been bounced in two consecutive seasons by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have proven to be his kryptonite over the course of his young career. Holtby is bound to win a Stanley Cup eventually, especially with Alex Ovechkin on his roster. At 28 years old, Holtby should be a lock to be a Hall of Famer with or without a Cup if he can sustain these numbers over the rest of his career.

Corey Schneider

Schneider is a great goalie and there isn’t a reason to hide it. He plays on an almost irrelevant team in New Jersey that may be back on the rise with a young infusion of talent. Poor Schneider might not have been saved by Wayne Gretzky last season posting a .908 save percentage and a 2.82 goals against average. Both were by far his career worsts. In any season that he has played at least 25 games, he has never posted a save percentage lower than .921 and a goals against average higher than 2.26 outside of last season. Schneider is 31 and in the prime of his career. He will be playing with a much improved New Jersey Devils squad. This could lead to some hardware in the near future. Keep his name in mind.

Carey Price

A lot of people see Price as the best goalie of his generation. He won a Vezina Trophy in 2014-15 and became the seventh goalie in NHL history to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. He did that in the same season. His statistics say he only had a few truly elite seasons, but he was the main reason for his team’s success when he dealt with some very lackluster defense in Montreal for a few seasons. Price alone can’t carry the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup championship which is why he may never win. He backstopped the 2014 Canadian National team to a gold medal after shutting out both Sweden and the United States at the end of tournament play. That’s impressive. If he doesn’t ever win a Cup, he has enough individual awards to make it in.

There are some goalies that don’t appear in my countdown like Jonathan Quick, Roberto Luongo, and Pekka Rinne who you might ask why they aren’t in it. Again, this is a hard position to have your name etched in hockey lore. People remember you if you’re good, but it is much more special to be remembered as “Hall of Famer Patrick Roy” than just “Patrick Roy”.

COLUMN: Earth To Malkin, Kessel

It’s been fun to watch a couple guys for various reasons so far this season.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed how good Bryan Rust has been through the first five games. He is absolutely flying out there. Carl Hagelin is doing much of the same except a little less success on the score sheet.

I have liked the play of all the guys who got extensions in the offseason. Brain Dumoulin has been good. Conor Sheary and Justin Schultz much of the same.

I’ve marveled seeing Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel return this season with the same magic they had last season. You can add Patric Hornqvist‘s return from hand surgery to an inspired group of hockey players.

Kris Letang finally returning. Greg McKegg earning a roster spot out of camp. Matt Murray returning for his “sophomore” season, technically. There have been lots of encouraging stories to come from the Penguins’ early 2-2-1 start to the season.

As all these awesome stories play out, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have been nothing but bystanders to it all.

There is a lot of money and expectations tied up between these two Pittsburgh folk legends for them to be making a very minimal, if not opaque, impact on what the team has done in the first five games.

Between the two of them, they have seven points on the season. Rust alone has seven point and leads the team. Captain Crosby, who’s been everything you’d want from your captain in the early going, has six points by himself.

But, hockey isn’t just about the score sheet and getting points. Yes, you don’t win without them, but you can make an impact away from the puck as well. Kessel and Malkin both have not had a game yet where they stood out amongst everybody on either team.

To Kessel’s credit, he was one of the better players in the Nashville game which the Penguins inevitably won in shutout fashion. That same game, I can’t recall hearing much of Malkin’s name being called.

I’m not one to call out someone’s work ethic. I am not, by any means, calling Malkin lazy because he is far from it. He is one of the most driven hockey players in the league and Penguins fans have seen first hand what happens when Malkin gets locked in. Perhaps, you’re a “I’d rather him exert himself in April and beyond, not now” person, which is understandable. But I have yet to even notice Malkin make an impact in any of the Penguins five games so far. I’m not worried about him. I’m just wondering if he knows the season started.

Kessel is a different story.

I predicted a 30 goal, 80 point season for Kessel. It really just had a feel that was right. Two Stanley Cups later, maybe that would drive Kessel to have his best season yet and help drive the Penguins to something historic. This is what Kessel is and does. He plays when he wants to. He is a guy who will fill the back of the net with goals, but they come in spurts. He can score in six straight games. He’ll then counter that with a 10-game goal drought.

I am not worried about either of them. They will turn it up eventually and I will shut my mouth. But to make $9.5 million (Malkin) and $6.8 million (Kessel); I don’t think they should escape criticism just because of their star status.

The Penguins are already short at center depth. If there was ever a time for Malkin to play up to the standards he is capable of, it is now until they find a better third-line center than McKegg. For Kessel, just be more consistent. Don’t be so sporadic in scoring goals. Do it with more consistency and I promise you, this team won’t have anything to worry about.