COLUMN: Resiliency Begins With You, Coach

“Let me tell you ’bout my head coach.” šŸŽ¤

We are almost exactly one year to the day where Mike Sullivan was hired as Penguins head coach and I think it’s safe to say he is no second coming of his predecessors Dan Bylsma or Mike Johnston. No regression is in sight with this team like it was with Bylsma. Now, of course, their rosters were made up of entirely different players. They each had different general managers, but both coaches were blessed with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Watching the Penguins after a loss with the former two coaches, they were lackluster at best with no sense of urgency. Watching the Penguins play under Mike Sullivanā€¦that’s a whole different story.

Monday night was more proof of that.

For the 49th time in a regular season game with Mike Sullivan at the helm, the Penguins came away victorious. Thirteen of those victories have seen them come back from at least a two-goal deficit. Just so you don’t have to pull your calculator out, that’s 26.5 percent of the Penguins’ regular season wins that they’ve erased a two-goal difference. Wow.

It obviously has a lot to do with the players on the ice, but it starts with Mike Sullivan.

Sullivan has cemented himself among consistent Jack Adams Award caliber coaches. He won a Stanley Cup in his first season as the head coach, much like the three coaches to win one in Pittsburgh before him had done. There is a difference with this coach though.

I won’t sit here and say I know enough about Badger Bob Johnson and Scotty Bowman because I was not born when these legendary head coaches graced the Penguins’ bench. Although, I can tell you one thing: They didn’t need to be resilient. When Mario Lemieux was dominating and carrying the team the way he was with the help of guys like Jaromir Jagr, Paul Coffey, etc., it never mattered because all they did was win.

In the modern day NHL where it’s virtually impossible to be as dominant as it was in those days, you need to be able to retain a short memory. Don’t get too high on wins. Don’t beat yourself up too badly over losses. Bylsma couldn’t retain that mentality.

He consistently gave off the impression that he didn’t press his players hard enough to be successful. He had the heated argument with Crosby during his final playoff run as the team’s bench boss. He wasn’t the guy.

The other Mike, who’s last name won’t be mentioned out of respect to Sullivan, was about the only person who found a way to shut down Sidney Crosby on a nightly basis. He relegated his most gifted defenseman to be nothing more than a mere train wreck on both sides of the puck. The other Mike found a way to be better than Drew Doughty without ever lacing up his skates for a single game with the Penguins.

General Manager Jim Rutherford has a lot to do with why players respect Sullivan enough to buy into his program and make the group a resilient bunch. He gives Sullivan a lot of free reign with lineup decisions and keeps his nose out of the coaching aspect of things. He simply sits back and gives Sullivan the weapons to deploy on the roster and Sullivan then finds a way to put each player in the best position to be successful.

Countless times do players come out and voice their support of Sullivan. This was something you couldn’t find with the other Mike. I remember Ben Lovejoy, the obvious nice guy and saving grace of the team last season, came out only a few days before the firing of the other Mike and voiced that the players hadn’t given up on him despite their losing ways to begin the year. It had become blatantly obvious that he was covering up something that was widely known.

Clearly, Sullivan has an advantage because he coached all of the young guns that have gotten the call up due to his short tenure with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before taking over behind the Penguins’ bench. He already had an idea how guys like Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Matt Murray, and Tom Kuhnhackl (amongst others) could thrive and knew who’s game would best suit theirs. These mixed line combinations and 16 playoff wins later saw Mike Sullivan doing something he won’t soon forget:


I am willing to bet a hefty monetary amount that it won’t be long before we see Sullivan do that again. It may not be this season because hockey is the toughest sport to repeat in and I don’t think there is a doubt in anyone’s mind that that statement is true. Although, the Penguins didn’t lose any key guys from last season so anything is possible.

Regardless of what happens, I know that this will be no repeat of Michel Therrien or Dan Bylsma or the other Mike. This man’s accountability for his players is phenomenal. The mutual respect from coach to player and vice versa can hardly be ignored. This team is resilient. They get up when it’s time to get up. That all starts with your coach.

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Recap: Penguins 6, Stars 2


Don’t let the final score deceive you. The Penguins scored three dagger goals in the final five minutes to turn a close game into a blowout.

Perhaps the story going into the game was the homecoming of Stars defenseman Stephen Johns. Born in Wampum, PA, 250 people from his hometown came to the game wearing Dallas’ bright green to support their friend and family member. Years ago, Johns told Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury that he might score a goal on him. Johns was going to try to make this a reality.

The two teams traded goals through the first and second periods of the game. Ian Cole went upstairs on Antti Niemi to put the Penguins up by a goal. Not three minutes later Johns shot a puck that found its way into the net behind Fleury. It was almost the perfect story, almost. The puck had deflected off of two Stars’ players in front of the net before finding the net. The goal would be credited to Devin shore. Patric Hornqvist scored his team leading fifth power play goal to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead seven minutes into the second. After a few tries on the power play, Seguin netted a power play goal that tied the game.

In the dying seconds of the second period, Sidney Crosby took matters into his own hands. As Conor Sheary entered the zone, he got the puck to Hornqvist Who took a shot on net. Sheary got the puck and slid it behind the net to Crosby. Crosby took a shot from behind the net with the intentions on banking it off of Niemi and into the net. The puck did ricochet off of Niemi, but didn’t go in. Crosby decided to take another try this time out of midair. It bounced off of Niemi and into the net, and gave the Penguins a 3-2 lead heading into the third.

The Penguins struggled to stay disciplined throughout the entire game. They gave a lethal Dallas power play three opportunities, but were lucky to only give up one goal.

The final three goals were scored by Sheary, Eric Fehr, and Nick Bonino all within two minutes of each other. Fehr’s was probably the most special. Fehr used his strength the fight to the empty net to score his 100th career goal. That is an amazing milestone considering the percentages of how many players reach that totals. The final score of the game showed a 6-2 blowout for the Penguins.

Something to take away from the game was the performance by Fleury. He was in regular season form, bailing out the Penguins’ defense multiple times. Fleury was a brick wall on odd man rushes. His performance was enough to earn himself first star of the game, edging out Crosby who had a spectacular three point performance. A bounce back game from Fleury is a huge boost to the team who feel like they have been letting him down. 

Recap: Islanders 5, Penguins 3

The score says a lot. It just wasn’t the Penguins’ game Wednesday night from puck drop to their furious third period comeback.

This game featured the same Penguins team I’ve come to see a lot this year: an inconsistent one.

After a late first period goal by the Islanders and two more in possibly the worst second period this team has played this year, the Penguins capatlized on Thomas Greiss’ third period struggles and tied the game at three. With 26 seconds left, Anders Lee tipped a shot home standing right infront of Matt Murray for the game winning goal. Nikolai Kulemin added the empty net dagger.

Three Impressions:

  • Matt Murray was a bit off. He made the incredible save on John Tavares and a couple other scrambling saves but let in soft goals including the third goal. It wasn’t his fault that Justin Schultz kicked it towards Murray who unconsciously knocked it inā€¦but Murray gave up a soft rebound, albeit something he hasn’t done much. Murray was as up and down as this Penguins team was.
  • Sidney Crosby is the most dominant player in the NHL right now and it’s not even close. His play to drive the tying Evgeni Malkin goal was something that not many can do. It was an effort and skill defensive play from his knees and he somehow found defenseman Brian Dumoulin who gave it to Geno for the goal. There is no one that I’d take over Sid right now. He’s not even the highest paid player in the NHL currently.
  • Poor John Tavares. This man is a top five NHL talent playing on a horrible team. You could see it in his body language that he’s frustrated. At times, he’s called himself out even though he’s got 17 points in 22 games. What is the captain supposed to do? Pin blame on the rest of his teammates? No, he’ll say the right things about himself needing to “step up” to an even more elite level. Tavares is going to find himself a nice free agent contract waiting for him in two years.

Next Game: Thursday vs. Detroit

Jake Guentzel vs. Daniel Sprong

This picture is from last season’s AHL playoff series between the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the Providence Bruins. What that means to you is probably very little.

I’m taking more notice of two specific players from this snapshot. One is Daniel Sprong (the goal scorer tapping teammates gloves), second round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. The other is Jake Guentzel (No. 44), the Penguins third rounder in 2013.

They’ve taken different paths to get to where they are, or in Sprong’s case, should be.

Sprong surprisingly fell in his draft all the way into the Penguins laps in the second round. They didn’t have a first round pick so they were very happy to get him in round two. He got a chance to crack the opening night roster last season under former head coach Mike Johnston who gave him limited playing time to the point where he was scratched. After scoring 2 goals in 18 games, he eventually was sent back to juniors and wasted a year of his Entry Level Contract because the Penguins chose to send him down so late into the season.

Sprong fared pretty well for WBS in the playoffs when he returned from the Charlottetown Islanders of the QMJHL. He had 7 points in 10 playoff games.

Guentzel took his path a little differently. After being drafted by the Penguins out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha in 2013, Guentzel stayed in college and finished out last season where he scored a combined 119 points in 108 career college games.

When he finally finished out his college career and burst onto the scene in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he played 11 regular season games. While participating in the 10 postseason games the Baby Penguins played in, he led the team with 14 points.

Now they’re in two different situations.

Sprong is currently rehabbing a shoulder that required surgery after being injured as a ‘black ace’ during the Penguins’ Stanley Cup Playoff run last season. Jake Guentzel is enjoying his first taste of NHL action to the tune of 4 points in 4 games.

I tell you all of this because I am part of a 10-12 person Penguins group chat on twitter. I had asked the people of the chat to feed me some ideas on some articles to write and one anonymous person had suggested I do a Sprong vs. Guentzel article. Here it is.

Both guys have their strengths and flaws to their game. At this stage of their careers, it’s obviously impossible to say option A will be better than option B. With that being said, if I was forced to choose one in a re-draft (assuming they entered the draft in the same year) I’d have to choose Guentzel.

Guentzel probably seems like the cheesy answer here mainly because he’s played more recently than Sprong.

As of this moment, Guentzel is the more complete player. Current head coach Mike Sullivan had the confidence to put him on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel in his NHL debut, two guys who aren’t exactly known for their defense. What does that tell you about having enough of a two-way game to play with them?

He was one of 18 Penguins in franchise history to score in their NHL debut. He joined Rick Kessell, Mario Lemieux, Kevin Stevens, and Luca Caputi as the only ones to do it on their first shift. It was also the quickest NHL debut goal in franchise history, only 1:02 into the game.

Here’s the clip incase you hadn’t seen it already:

Pretty sweet, huh?

I’m not knocking Daniel Sprong, but a main reason Mike Johnston struggled to give him more than 5:00 of ice time per night was because they didn’t trust his defensive ability. That number didn’t change much under Mike Sullivan, though. That’s why he was sent back to the QMJHL to get some actual playing time. Tom Sestito was receiving the same amount of ice time in the NHL this season. I suspect Sprong will be a bit better than him.

While Guentzel is known more for his two-way game that still leads to him scoring a very sufficient amount of points, Sprong is a bit more recognized for his insanely quick release.

I’m sure you’ve seen this as well. But if you didn’t get to see Sprong’s first NHL goal last season, please watch how quickly the puck leaves his stick and rockets past Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson:

Yeah, that release is up there with some NHL greats. Not that I’m putting him in the same breath as guys like Pavel Bure and Alexander Ovechkin. He can still shoot the puck and very quickly.

With only 22 games of NHL experience combined under their belts, neither guys is the clearly better player. Guentzel seems to have a solidified spot on the roster for the foreseeable future while Sprong will need to work his way back into the lineup after injury. Let’s hope Sprong turns out to be a piece the Penguins have wanted for a while. The potential to be a 25-30 goal scorer is there. In the meantime, let’s enjoy Guentzel dominance since his promotion to the Pittsburgh (not-so-baby) Penguins.

Recap: Penguins Top Devils

pens-beat-devsThe Penguins entered tonight’s game without suffering 2 straight regulation losses under Mike Sullivan since the 4 in a row that they lost in his first 4 games behind the bench.  The Penguins continued the trend tonight, topping the Devils 4-3 in a shootout.

It didn’t come easy.

Just 3:33 into the game, Mike Cammalleri shot a bouncing knuckling puck on net.  The puck was on the ice the entire way, but took a nasty hop right before reaching goaltender Matt Murray.  Murray expected the shot to hit his pad, but rather the puck bounced over his pad and into the net.

1-0 Devils

Early in the 2nd period, the Penguins were applying pressure in the Devils’ zone.  Daley threw a shot on net, and there was a scramble in front.  Malkin jabbed at the puck, but it was Guentzel who got the last piece of it, putting the rebound past Devils netminder Kinkaid to tie the game at 1.  It was Guentzel’s 3rd goal in as many games in the NHL.

1-1

It only took the Penguins a few more minutes to score another goal and take their first lead of the night, as Tom Kuhnhackl scored his first of the season.  Kuhnhackl battled for a loose puck and found himself on a breakaway and made no mistake.  Kuhnhackl made an absolute gorgeous move for a guy that isn’t in the NHL for his hands.  Oleksy, who replaced Dumoulin for tonight’s game, registered his first assist for the Penguins on the goal.

2-1 Pens

The Penguins, shortly after the goal by Kuhnhackl, got another power play chance and had a huge opportunity to extend their lead to 3-1.  Rather, Vernon Fiddler of the Devils scored shorthanded, as he drove in 1 on 1 with Letang and put a backhand shot on Murray that deflected off of Letang’s stick and into the net.

2-2

About halfway through the 2nd period, the Devils would receive a powerplay of their own, but they would capitalize, and Cammalleri once again one-timed a knuckling puck past Murray, who could not read the shot.  He must have watched some Russ Tyler highlights from D2 Mighty Ducks.

3-2 Devils

With less than 1 minute remaining, the Penguins pulled Murray in a last ditch effort to score.  With just 14 seconds remaining on the clock, a scrum ensued in front of the net, and who else but Sidney Crosby finds the puck and roofs it past Kinkaid to tie the game and send it into overtime

3-3

There was only 1 goal in the shootout, and that was by Kris Letang, who beat Kinkaid like a rented mule.  Murray stopped all 3 shots, and the Penguins escaped with a win.

4-3 Pens (SO)

Impressions

  • Abysmal powerplay – The Penguins powerplay was 0 for 5 tonight, allowed a shorthanded goal, and still has not scored since Hornqvist was benched with a concussion.  I do not believe that this is a coincidence.  Hornqvist is such a valuable asset to this team, and even a more valuable asset to the powerplay.  It will turn around when #72 gets back to doing his thing in front of the net, but the Penguins need to figure out how to score on the powerplay without Hornqvist.
  • Captain clutch – with just 13 seconds remaining, Sidney Crosby gets himself open, picks the puck out of a crowd of people in front, and roofs it over Kinkaid.  He’s the best in the world, and still leads the NHL in goals at 15.
  • Line mashup – Entering the game, the Penguins put Cullen with Crosby, Rust with Malkin, reunited HBK, but Fehr at center on the 4th line, and scratched Dumoulin for Oleksy.  I don’t believe these will all stay in tact, but very interesting mashup of lines deployed by Sullivan…
  • The Penguins, once again, fail to lose 2 straight in regulation under Sullivan.  That being said, they still need to find their consistency.

The next game is Wednesday, as the Penguins will play the Islanders in Brooklyn on NBC as part of Wednesday Night Rivalry.

 

COLUMN: Give Me A Break

I will say it now and won’t back down from my point: The Pittsburgh Penguins play no differently in front of longtime starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury than they do the young phenom Matt Murray.

You all know my stance on Flower and how much I love him. It’s well documented in my writing and throughout my Twitter as well. I’m sorry, but don’t feed into the dog crap about this team playing better in front of one goaltender and not the other.

The Penguins are in a bittersweet situation right now. Fleury is used to handling the majority of the starts. He’s able to keep his rhythm, find his groove, have the same mentality at practice and before games. Neither Fleury or Murray can get in that groove right now. You’re not going to get the best out of Murray until he’s the absolute number one goaltender who gets the majority of the starts. Fleury isn’t going to get any better playing one game out of every four.

It takes a toll psychologically. We all know the psyche problems MAF has had throughout his career and I know that what’s been transpiring with the competition has probably borderline eaten him alive.

Back to the main point, though. Fleury has been the bonadife starter for more than a decade. The Penguins are consummate professionals at the game of hockey. No team is going to purposely play differently because of the goaltender in the net and risk losing the hockey game. It takes a moronic, non-hockey minded person to come up with such a statement.

Go ahead. Make the argument that the Penguins give up more shots when Fleury is in net, which seems to be true but doesn’t necessarily mean they play and different. Check out my stance.

The below graph describes the correlation between shot volume and save percentage. This graph proves the point that even if the Penguins give up 45 shots with Fleury in net and 25-30 with Murray in, the save percentage does not change. Facing a higher volume of shots does not mean you will automatically give up more goals. Fleury has got to make some of these saves. He is the goalie after all.

(This graph is from @GunnerWilson on Twitter)

This point isn’t being formed after a one game rough patch. The numbers speak for themselves. Fleury donned a 6-4-3 record heading into the game. His 3.19 GAA and .907 SV% are atrociously bad. He’s letting in goals lately that just shouldn’t be going in. This isn’t the MAF we’ve come to know and love.

Think about it, Fleury had been playing incredibly well and stretched his record as far as 6-0-0 to begin the season. Then Matt Murray showed up. The competition began and Fleury was no longer the starter.

The same, confident young goaltender that took the NHL by storm and dominantly defeated some of the league’s premier stars on his way to winning 15 Stanley Cup playoff games last season has sharply seized the job from the fragile, broken Flower.

Give Fleury the opportunity to start on a team with no immediate competition again and he’ll begin playing like the Flower that Penguins fan have seen him be and know he can be.

I greatly appreciate having two starting goaltenders on one roster but the team has put their hands in the Matt Murray cookie jar. They signed him to an extension, full-knowing that a decision had to be made on who their goalie would be going forward and that answered it.

I respect your opinion, but facts are facts. This team plays truthfully no different with Fleury in net than they do with Murray. It’s just a preconceived notion that Fleury worshippers have come to believe to heavily. I again am one of the biggest Flower fans but come on, give me a break.

Ranger Danger


I’m just going to get right into it. I’ve had three thoughts confirmed since last night and here they are:

1)Ryan McDonagh is either quietly predatory (which I highly doubt) or just plain oblivious to the game around him and it seems to have rubbed off on his fans. I’m going with option B and it all stems from the Simmonds sucker punch incident last season. Simmonds went to lay a clean hit on him and McDonagh cross checked him clean in the head. Even though Simmonds came over to have a chat with him about it he kept his hands down by his side like he was in a bubble and seemed genuinely surprised and confused when he got clocked. A confirmed concussion and a couple of scares later, he then dangerously tagged Conor Sheary as a board advertisement. Yet for some reason, all Rangers supporters can talk about is how if McDonagh got 5 minutes for boarding, why can Crosby drop the mitts, pummel him to near death and only get two minutes?

For the definition of Boarding I’ll refer you to page 67 of this document, the NHL Rulebook. Of course, he could have gotten a cross checking penalty instead but here’s the oblivious thing coming into play. First of all, he has a personal history of injury from dangerous hits. Even if that doesn’t matter, there’s been at least three similar hits under scrutiny in the past week or so alone (Dekeyser on Wilson, Dumoulin on Foligno, and Emelin on JVR. I cover them all here). Maybe you might want to not put yourself under that microscope? Ok, the blame is on NHL Player Safety a little for not doing anything meaningful about those hits, but the officials made things pretty clear. Emelin and Dumoulin both got two minutes for cross checking. Dekeyser got a 5 minute major for boarding. The important difference? Emelin and Dumo both used their sticks at waist level allowing the opponent to keep his head up when hitting the boards. Dekeyser hit up in the numbers/shoulder blades, forcing the head and neck down and leading into the boards. I’ll give you one guess what McDonagh did.

Video: SAP’s Highlights

The 5 was easily avoidable. The 5 precedent was recently set by NHL officials. He should have expected the 5. He got the 5. He deserved the 5.

2)The bias people think the NHL has for Sidney Crosby as the Golden Boy has gone from a half-hearted bubbling to volcanic eruption, and it’s completely baseless.  Remember, the second part of the question is how did Crosby only get 2 minutes for fighting?? I’m going to ask anyone to watch the video above and send me the freeze frames or GIFs or whatever you can find of Crosby actually throwing punches. That would be swell. Plus, even one or two token punches wouldn’t be considered a fight. Instead of being upset that it was Sidney Crosby and accusing the league of inaction, how about thanking your lucky stars it was Sidney Crosby and not someone who doesn’t respect concussions. McDonagh – concussion plus scares, makes reckless decision to hit when he shouldn’t. Crosby – multiple concussions, has an actual offender dead to rights at his mercy, doesn’t lay a hand to his head. That’s what you need to take away from this. Really step back and appreciate this, Rangers fan or not.

3)If the media itself is actually biased it doesn’t help its cause at all. In order to find a video of Sheary being hit by McDonagh I had to search for “Crosby fights McDonagh” or “McDonagh rag dolled by Crosby”.  If you don’t want the label, don’t feed the fire.

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