Category Archives: COLUMN

COLUMN: Nothing Could’ve Ruined Fleury’s Night

On one of the most emotional night’s in team history, the Penguins potted five goals behind Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Wow, what a weird sentence that has become. Fleury’s team lost 5-4 in his return to Pittsburgh for the first time since being taken in the expansion draft last summer.

Despite losing, Fleury’s night will be one he forever remembers.

Fleury returned to PPG Paints Arena and was given a thunderous ovation on every opportunity they had. Pregame, after big saves, and most notably before, during, and after his video tribute. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, here it is:

Man, it was moving. It was powerful. It was everything it should’ve been and more. Nothing stands out like the reaction Fleury had.

The AT&T SportsNet feed caught Fleury wiping way tears while he received a gratifying ovation and thunderous “Fleury! Fleury!” chants. It was such a cool moment to watch. Not one dry eye was in the arena.

“It was just amazing,” Fleury said following the game. “The support I’ve gotten over the years is just incredible. I thank everybody for all these years and once again showing up tonight with such great support.”

One of the most genuine human beings I never had the opportunity to meet, Fleury loves playing in Vegas. He loves being a huge reason why they’re the second best team in the league. But there is no question Pittsburgh is his home. There is no question he has forever endeared himself to the franchise’s lure and fans.

Fleury genuinely enjoyed the warmups when he was loudly and largely welcomed onto the ice.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Fleury said. “In warmups, I had goosebumps. Before the game, people with signs and kind words. It’s a night I won’t forget, except maybe the score.”

No one ever wants to lose, but losing to the team that selected you 1st overall in 2003 with a ton of friends on that team after the fans gave you the warmest “welcome back” possibly in team history, you probably don’t beat yourself up as much.

The Penguins have always done an exceptional job when it comes to the video tributes and fans always receive guys well. It was also good on AT&T SportsNet for sticking with the video and showing it to those of us unfortunate fans who didn’t want to pay upwards of $150 to see the game and the moment in person.

Some of Fleury’s best friends, Sidney Crosby and Ian Cole, weighed in on seeing Fleury again and what it was like to see him receive the welcome he got.

Said Crosby: “It was just an incredible ovation. You don’t ever want to say you expect that, you don’t see it very often. But that being said, you knew it was going to be a warm welcome and happy for Flower. I knew it was one he circled on his calendar.”

Said Cole: “Seeing Flower is huge. You saw how emotional he was when he got the cheers he did and saw the admiration the Pittsburgh fans had for him. I think every bit of it he has earned and deserved.”

The Penguins didn’t do him any favors, though. Vegas is in a good spot, leading the Western Conference in fact, and didn’t need to win this game as much as they wanted to. The Penguins, however, are fighting for the playoff lives and likely will be for the vast majority of their remaining games.

Fleury had a 2-0 lead before Ryan Reaves, of all people, scored to open the scoring.

“He knows how everyone shoots,” Reaves said. “I guess he doesn’t know my change-up with the eyes closed. I guess that worked.”

The flood gates opened from their as Cole, Malkin, Kessel, and Guentzel all added tallies. Fleury saw first-hand how talented and scary the Penguins can be.

“They’re very talented, very fast,” Fleury said. “They’re able to create some time and space for themselves to get some goals.”

Everyone went home pretty happy Tuesday night as The Penguins won, Fleury was honored, and the franchise’s winningest goaltender can now focus on what it will take to make a run at the Stanley Cup with his most emotional game behind him.

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COLUMN: We Could Learn A Lot From Matt Murray

The NHL’s Expansion Draft is now a distant memory. The moment Marc-Andre Fleury was taken by the Vegas Golden Knights, it assured in the era of Matt Murray. It has been a hard pill to swallow for some fans. It’s been really hard for some others. It’s definitely been an adjustment getting used to seeing someone taking their place between the pipes that’s not wearing a 29 sweater.

It’s not a secret that this season has been somewhat of a roller coaster for the Penguins. It’s not been until the last month or so that the team has found any kind of consistency. Murray is not exempt from that.

It’s been an up and down year for the 23 year-old netminder. On the ice for sure, but even more so off the ice. Several days ago, Murray took an indefinite leave of absence from the team to mourn the death of his father James Murray. Twenty-three is far too young to lose a parent. No one should expect Murray to be the same goaltender for a while as he processes this.

That’s not Matt Murray though. Murray’s maturity is staggering. We’ve seen it ever since he came to Pittsburgh. Through the whole goaltending controversy that went on when Fleury was here, he handled it like a true professional. And it did not affect his on-ice performance.

Murray made his return to the lineup on Tuesday night. He made 40 saves and only allowed two goals, which were both on the penalty kill. It was an emotional night for him, but when Murray is on the ice, expect a mature man to handle his business. He’s shown it time and time again that through adversity, he can stand tall. He’s a two-time Stanley Cup winner.

Few can imagine what he is going through right now. The best thing fans of the Penguins can do right now is support Murray. Fans should not be continuing to yearn for Fleury, or crying to ride with the “hot hand.” It’s Murray’s net. It will continue to be his net. The Penguins have invested in Murray. Using nostalgia to argue against Murray while he is trying to continue on after the death of this father is sickening.

Matt Murray is a mature young man; way beyond his years. Let’s try to follow in his footsteps and be mature as well. Let’s enjoy watching him be the Penguins’ franchise goaltender. Let’s cheer him when he stands on his head, and give him the same kind of support Fleury got from fans when he struggles. Cheers to you, Matt Murray. We could learn a lot from you.

COLUMN: My Salute to Jagr

Sunday afternoon the Calgary Flames placed forward Jaromir Jagr on waivers. Jagr cleared waivers and will finish out the season playing in Kladno in the Czech league. This season, he was limited to only 22 games, scoring only one goal, and adding six assists. It appears this will be the last of Jagr we see in the NHL, instead of dwelling on the way it ended, let’s take a look back into the 26-year career that was Jaromir Jagr.

Career Achievements:

Points- 2nd All time (1921)

Goals- 3rd All time (766)

Assists- 5th All time (1155)

Games played- 2nd All time (1733)

Power Play Goals- T – 11th All time

2X Stanley Cup Champion

1X Gold Medalist

2X World Champion

Career Awards:

Art Ross- 1995, 1998, 2000, 2001

Hart Memorial- 1999

Lester B. Pearson Award- 1999, 2000, 2006

Stanley Cup Champion- 1991, 1992

Here are my top 3 favorite Jaromir Jagr goals from his career

3)

2)

1)

The pure strength and size of Jagr was no match for any team through the 90’s where he completly dominated the NHL. His size matched with the NASTY hands, and amazing skating was just unheard of in this era of hockey. And to think that he was doing this at such a young age and played in the NHL until the age of 45 is truly jaw dropping.

It is sad to see such an amazing career come to an end in such an unfortunate fashion, but the legend that is Jaromir Jagr will forever live on. What Jagr was able to bring to the city of Pittsburgh and to the game of hockey is something no other player in history will be able to do. To be able to play at such a high level for over two decades is nearly impossible, but yet Jagr did just that. From the city of Pittsburgh and the hockey community I salute Jagr to an amazing career.

COLUMN: Stay Thirsty, My Friends

“I definitely owe Murray a six pack of waters or something.”

That was Jamie Oleksiak following the game when he slashed Bruins forward Brad Marchand as he closed in on a breakaway with 1:01 left in the final period.

“He made a nice move. I thought he had me on the glove side so I opened up and he tried to go five-hole. I think I got my back leg on it.”

That was Matt Murray following a save on the first penalty shot he’s faced in his career.

The Penguins came back on Sunday night to win a 6-5 overtime game in which they owned a 3-1 lead, allowed four unanswered goals, and then won it in overtime with a sick Phil KesselEvgeni Malkin connection. The win was the first time the Penguins have won consecutive games since December 1st-2nd.

With the consecutive wins comes the Penguins bye week, five days of game-less nights and a chance to unplug from a season that has been as crazy as a late night ride on the Sky Rocket. This break could be one of the best things ever for the team or it could be crippling.

The hope is that the Penguins use the next five days to getaway and clear their heads knowing that they won consecutive games and have a bit of a confidence and a swagger when they arrive back to their job. Or, the break ruins momentum and the Penguins go back to the roller coaster ride of a season they have had and this becomes a moot point.

Let’s take a look at some of the really positive things heading into the NHL mandated bye week.

Sidney Crosby, Daniel Sprong, and Dominik Simon have proven to have found some chemistry. Crosby now has seven points in his last two games. Sprong is aggressively shooting the puck and was rewarded twice in the game against the Islanders. Simon isn’t the most fleet-of-foot skater but has certainly shown flashes of talent and can hold down that spot until the Penguins find an actual third-line center so that Jake Guentzel can move back into the left wing spot on line one.

-Murray made a big statement Sunday by replacing Tristan Jarry, who allowed five goals before being pulled late in the second. and shutting the door the rest of the way. Murray seemed to have been given a blow by the coaching staff but has been huge in two relief appearances over the past five days. Murray can now sit for the next five days knowing he has firmly regained the starter’s crease if there was any question.

-Another reclamation defensive project, another success for Jim Rutherford. Of course, Oleksiak has only been in the lineup for a few weeks now but he has been fairly noticeable in a good way for the Penguins. He has two goals since putting on a black and gold sweater and was part of the first period entourage of goals on Sunday. He’s been a real stabilizer to a crowded defense corps and provides pivotal depth for any trade that would send a defenseman to a new team.

-Boy, has Riley Sheahan been good or what? He isn’t the locker room presence that Matt Cullen was. He may not have the clutch gene in the playoffs that Nick Bonino provided. But right now, Sheahan is driving play and making Ryan Reaves and Tom Kuhnhackl legitimate NHL players on a nightly basis. Both Reaves and Kuhnhackl have been NHL players for some time now but they have formed what could become one of the better fourth lines in hockey. This is a big development.

There are a lot of things slowly looking better for the Penguins. Kris Letang, the team’s most talented defenseman, noticed that the team’s play is overall just more solid over the past two games than it’s been in a while.

“I think we’ve played tighter,” Letang said. “It’s more of a unit of 5 on the ice instead of having the D playing in one area and forwards in another. We’re a lot tighter and it explains our success.”

Letang was able to bury a goal in behind Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask for his first even strength goal of the season assisted by the captain Crosby. Crosby had his take on winning back-to-back games heading into the break.

“We’ve taken some good steps the last week or so,” Crosby said. “We’re finding our game a little bit and have to build off of these.”

Probably the most important aspect of the team this year has been their lethal powerplay. With their five-on-five shortcomings being so prudent in the early parts of the season, the Penguins have needed their man advantage to be as lethal as it has been.

It’s great to see Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang and Patric Hornqvist gel as one unit with countless other names being deployed on the second. Good teams play with structure on the powerplay. Great teams can ad lib and keep opposing teams guessing with their unpredictability.

“They have a scheme,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “There is a framework. But what separates them from other powerplays is their movement and their instinctive play when they go off the grid a little bit.”

Don’t forget, while this team has struggled, the core has also been through a lot together over the past few years and this is nothing different. With five days off, maybe Rutherford pulls off that deal for the third-line center. Regardless, the Penguins want nothing more than confidence and swagger coming out of the break.

Stay thirsty, my friends.

COLUMN: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Here we are beating the proverbial dead horse, but there’s a major issue with the Penguins right now. You can blame it on several things, but there is one major thing that has changed from the time the Penguins lifted Lord Stanley in Nashville to the beginning of the 2017-2018 season: scoring depth.

Unfortunately for the Penguins, a lack of scoring depth has the largest ripple effect on a team, especially in today’s NHL, where it’s already hard enough to score goals. Pittsburgh had more subtractions than additions in the offseason, and on top of that, the subtractions were vital pieces while the additions were no more than role-player pieces.

The Penguins’ biggest acquisition of the offseason was Ryan Reaves, and sure, we had a lot of fun in those first couple of games when he was playing the part of goon that he’s known for. That breath of fresh air however, has turned into a foul stench that won’t go away.

There isn’t much argument against how much of an anchor Reaves has been. And no, that isn’t a good anchor. It’s the type that weighs you down and restricts you from moving forward. He has three points in 35 games played and a whopping 75 penalty minutes. The second-highest on the team is Sidney Crosby with 32.

It’s unclear still why Jim Rutherford traded for the enforcer when the Penguins had won back-to-back Stanley Cups without one in the lineup. This leads to my point:

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The Penguins were rolling out four lines in the past two seasons capable of putting the puck in the net. Now granted, it was going to be impossible to keep the 2016-2017 team intact like the Penguins did the previous year. Contracts expired for guys like Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen, two very important pieces to the puzzle, and it was going to be too expensive to bring them back.

Now, it’s unclear what it would have cost, but the goal of the offseason should have been to bring in a third line center. Rutherford did bring in Riley Sheahan after the season started once Detroit’s asking price went down. However, there’s no denying that the duo of Sheahan and Carter Rowney as the third and fourth line centers doesn’t compare to Bonino and Cullen.

Does this mean Rutherford should’ve just pulled the trigger for Matt Duchene? Not necessarily, but the drop off of scoring ability on the bottom two lines has shown so far in 2017. It’s hard to question Rutherford after back to back Stanley Cups, but the identity of this team is different from the past two seasons and it’s showing on the ice and in the standings.

Now, the lack of scoring depth isn’t the only issue with the Penguins this season, but as stated before, the ripple effect of it is huge. It affects the top two lines’ ability to produce and puts more pressure on the defense.

We will probably see Ian Cole get traded by the deadline, and maybe the return will bring more scoring depth on the bottom two lines. The season sure isn’t over yet. It’s only December, and we’ve seen the Penguins come back from much worse in previous seasons. We’ll see what Rutherford can do to give this team a boost as they prepare for the calendar to turn.

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.

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.