Pens vs Bolts: Conference Final Preview

By Sidney Mahan (@PuckSniper_3)

Well, it took some really, really, really hard work, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are headed to their first Eastern Conference Final since 2013. And this time, the team standing between them and the Prince of Wales trophy (awarded to the Eastern Conference Champions) is the Tampa Bay Lightning. The last time these two teams played each other, in the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Bolts took the series in seven games. This year, though, we have two very different teams facing off.

The Penguins did not do well against the Lightning this regular season – losing all three of their games against Tampa Bay – but then again, those games took place on January 5, February 5, and February 20 (two of which Jeff Zatkoff played in, and the first of which was an OT loss). That, however, was before the Penguins absolutely caught fire and began going on a winning rampage that saw them stomp into the playoffs and establish themselves as a legitimate and deadly contender to hoist the Stanley Cup this year. Still, though, the Lightning are meeting them in the Conference Final for a reason. Here’s a breakdown of where each team is coming into this series and some key things to watch for when they prepare for Round 3:

PENGUINS

Two rivalry series to start off their playoff run, but the Penguins have survived through and have earned half as many wins as are needed to win the Cup.

Round 1 saw the Penguins play quite a solid series to finally overcome their playoff troubles against the New York Rangers – I won’t go too far into that series. This last series against the Capitals, though? I’m surprised I survived it with a fully functioning heart.

All but one game of the Pens-Caps series was decided by one goal, and three of them – Games 1, 4, and 6 – were decided by overtime goals, including Nick Bonino’s series-winning tap-in in Game 6. Every game was a nail-biter, and let’s just say hockey fans were not disappointed by a series that would always be looked forward to. To be honest, though, it would be a lot more fun to watch and follow the series as a neutral fan than a Penguins or Capitals fan – because let me tell you, I was not able to relax until Bonino ended the series. Every single game saw both teams come hard at each other, and just because the Capitals were sent home does not mean they didn’t play well. They put some severe pressure on the Penguins every game, and went down fighting. Yes, they are hated rivals without a doubt, but as a hockey enthusiast I tip my hat to Washington for a hard fought series. But in the end, the Penguins won, and for a few reasons.

Three of those reasons – which I hope to see continue next series as well – were huge secondary scoring, overwhelming speed, and solid defense (including that brick wall named Matt Murray).  Against the Capitals, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were pretty quiet, combining for only four points in six games – but their teammates stepped up. The line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel was huge for the Penguins, especially in Game 6, when Kessel scored twice, Hagelin scored once, and Bonino scored the overtime goal. Meanwhile, speed helped the Penguins quickly break out of their zone and be able to efficiently set themselves up in the offensive zone – when you outpace the other team, you’re more likely to get the better chances. Finally, for the most part I was extremely impressed with the Penguins defense, which gave us some pretty memorable moments, such as their step-up performance when Kris Letang sat out on a one-game suspension. I also liked their ability to repel a lot of the Capitals’ best chances. Rookie goalie Matt Murray has continued to crash through people’s expectations. Murray managed to play as impressively as Vezina candidate Braden Holtby, his opponent in the crease at the other end of the ice. Murray managed to frustrate some of the Capitals’ best scorers, and had more than his fair share of clutch saves in every single game.

What do the Penguins’ need to improve? There are a few things I’d like to see them clean up in this series. First of all, cut down on the sloppy turnovers. Some games are better than others, but overall the Penguins cannot afford to make bad decisions or executions when they have the puck. They can’t allow Tampa Bay to easily pick off pucks, and I’d definitely like Pittsburgh to avoid getting stuck in long stretches where they are unable to properly clear the puck from their defensive zone. A lot of times through these playoffs, opposing teams have either scored or gotten really close to scoring because even though the Penguins got the puck in their zone a few times, they failed to get the puck out at all and were trapped until either the other team scored, the puck finally came out, or Murray was able to control a shot and prevent a rebound. I’d expect Tampa Bay to be very opportunistic, so the Penguins need to make sure they don’t give the Lightning anything easy. Secondly – and relating quite strongly to the stressful third period of Game 6 – the Penguins have to stay out of the box. Sure, Game 6’s three delay-of-game penalties and that whole deal were largely bad luck, but the Penguins made it worse. Shortly after  John Carlson had capitalized on the resulting 5-on-3 power play for the Capitals and tied the game, completing a three goal rally form Washington, Kris Letang took an interference minor for an unnecessary hit on T.J. Oshie. The problem wasn’t the hit, which in itself was clean, it was the fact that it was definitely not needed and was a reckless thing to do, especially when the Penguins had just barely fully given up their three-goal-lead as a result of a series of penalties. For a defenseman as elite as Letang, you’d expect better judgment. Also, Game 5 – where the Capitals delayed their elimination – was a game where I saw way too much retaliation from the Penguins. They cannot afford to lose control of their emotions at any point, and they have to be the more disciplined team at all times. It doesn’t matter how good the Penguins’ penalty kill is, or how bad or good the opposing power play is, the Penguins are much better off staying out of the sin bin than giving up time to go on offense by killing penalties – especially stupid, reckless penalties. And speaking of special teams, the Penguins power-play, which had an impressive little stint last game that built their 3-0 lead, can become a big factor in this series. It is definitely in Pittsburgh’s best interests to take advantage as many times as they can when the Lightning end up in the box.

Injury updates: There is speculation to see if the Penguins will give their normal starting goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, a chance to start his first game of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Fleury last played on March 31st, and was out until about midway through the Pens-Caps series with his second concussion of the 2015-16 season. Since Game 3, he has been cleared to play, but has been sitting on the bench serving as Murray’s backup. It will be interesting to see if the Penguins decide to stick with Murray, who has been overall solid for them in these playoffs, or if they will go with Fleury. It is important to note that in the last two games of the previous series, Murray appeared to be going through a shaky stretch, allowing six goals on 55 shots and posting a combined .891 save percentage in Games 5 and 6. It will be very interesting to see if Mike Sullivan gives Murray a full chance to advance to the final and become immortalized in history after beating three fantastic goalies: Henrik Lundqvist, Braden Holtby, and Ben Bishop, or if he feels Fleury’s veteran position and extensive playoff experience should be defending the Penguins crease. Keep an eye out on who the Pens choose to guard their net…

LIGHTNING

The Tampa Bay Lightning have advanced to the Eastern Conference Final, and they’ve done it without some of their best players, most notably Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman.

Admittedly, the Lightning have taken statistically easier matchups than the Penguins – playing the Detroit Red Wings in the first round and the New York Islanders in the second – but it’s still been an impressive effort from Tampa Bay. They won both series in five games, too. This is also a team that is going to its third conference final since 2011, and the team that advanced to the Stanley Cup Final just last year.

There were a lot of admirable areas of Tampa Bay’s series against New York that helped them advance. Some of the best news for the Lightning and their fans has been the rise of the “triplets”: Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov’s chemistry worked well, and plus, Alex Killorn’s move to Jonathan Drouin and Valtteri Filppula’s line also resulted in solid production. Many doubted that the Lightning offense could do much of anything without a guy like Stamkos, but Tampa’s secondary scoring has really taken them places.  Kucherov has established himself as an offensive leader, and is currently leading the NHL in playoff goals with nine in 10 games. Four of those goals came against the Islanders. The team defense has also been spectacular. The Islanders’ best offensive line, with Brock Nelson, John Tavares, and Kyle Okposo, was held back well by the Lightning. Tavares, undeniably one of the best clutch performers in the League, was pointless in the final four games of the series. The defensive effort was led by Victor Hedman, and valiantly continued despite the several d-men injuries by younger and very inexperienced defensemen, Luke Witkowski, Matt Taormina, and Slater Koekkoek. Another important aspect of Tampa Bay’s game: coming up big late in games. The Bolts established themselves as a true third-period team against the Islanders, outscoring New York 9-3 in third period and overtime goals. Games 3 and 4 both saw the Lightning behind in the third period, but in both those games, Kucherov scored to tie the game and the Lightning took both in overtime. Although the series outcome makes it look like the Lightning completely dominated the Islanders, the games were actually much closer, with the difference for the Lightning coming in the way they responded in the third period and in sudden death.

So playing against the Penguins, two key factors for the Lightning would in fact be the two strengths they had against New York: defense and late-game heroics. Seeing how effectively the Bolts shut down a player like John Tavares, it will be interesting to see if they can do the same in shutting down Pittsburgh’s stars, most notably Crosby and Malkin. Whether or not Pittsburgh can get scoring from other sources, it can only help to keep 87 and 71 quiet; they are both players capable of leading their team to victory. Meanwhile, the Lightning could strive to do what the Washington Capitals actually did against the Penguins in Round 2; try to win games late. The Capitals also were a third-period team in their second round series; in most of the games, the Capitals’ best hockey came in the third period. That’s how they managed to almost catch up with the Penguins even when the Pens were leading by multiple goals by second intermission. It’s obviously not a good strategy for Tampa Bay to rely on being able to go down in the first two periods and come back in the third, but expect them to have a lot of confidence if the situation ever arises where they need to do so. It’s possible they can be as successful or maybe even more successful than Washington in this respect. One of the biggest things I would definitely work on if I were Tampa Bay would be the power play. The Penguins’ penalty kill has so far been pretty solid, but the Lightning power play went 3-for-19, hardly at a standard where it can be a benefical factor for the Bolts.

Oh, and not to mention, it’s possible they may get some key players back during this series… (see below)

Injury updates: Steven Stamkos hasn’t played since March 31st after needing surgery to treat a blood clot in his collarbone, and Anton Stralman hasn’t played since March 25th after a fracture occurred in his left fibula. Both have returned to skating, but neither made it into the lineup against the Islanders. However, the possibility has been left open for both of them to return against the Penguins. The series starts Friday, May 13th in Pittsburgh, and even if Stamkos and Stralman don’t make it to Game 1, it is “plausible” they will return at some point.


“The Lightning and Penguins have a chance to plant the seeds for a formidable rivalry now, in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, where they will put their skill, speed and hopefully their full rosters on the ice for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.” – Wes Crosby, NHL.com Correspondent


I’m quite excited for this series, especially since I don’t consider the 2011 series a “proper” one, with the Penguins having to play without both Crosby (concussion) and Malkin (knee). I mean, let’s get real here, in that series the Pens’ top line was Alex Kovalev, Mark Letestu, and James Neal (playing the wrong wing). Plus, that was a situation where the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead; but Pittsburgh seems to have finally fought off this playoff demon, because in these playoffs so far they have mostly made good on closing out their series. These are also two teams with a lot of Stanley Cup Playoffs experience in recent years, and a few players on both rosters who have even been to the Final, some even lifting the Cup. There are a lot of strengths and weaknesses both teams have which seem to cancel each other out. For example, the Penguins’ defense has so far done a good job of shutting down the better players on the other team, but so have the Lightning’s defensemen; and even if both teams shut down each other’s star players, both Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay have gotten some phenomenal secondary scoring from their other players. I expect a pretty close series; I don’t think either team will go down quietly and without a fight. Also expect to see some real passion and motivation; both these teams are 4 wins away from the Cup final, and eight wins away from the Cup itself. So now that you’ve got a preview for this series, buckle up and get ready for Game 1, Friday night in Pittsburgh – puck drop is scheduled for 8:00 PM ET. It’s going to be a good one.

RECAP: Pens vs. Caps Round 2

The Pittsburgh Penguins are headed to the Eastern Conference Finals to face the Tampa Bay Lightning. What seemed so improbable a short five months ago has become a seemingly unbelievable reality.

The Penguins overcame the Capitals in probably one of the most highly entertaining playoff series’ the Penguins have played in recent memory.

This article will entail many different observations, good and bad, that I took away from the round 2 series against the Capitals.

– For years, if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were struggling to put points on the board, it meant desperate trouble for the Penguins. Not anymore. The depth on this team is unreal. The Penguins are finally a four line hockey team once again. Each line has it’s own components that make it special. But that doesn’t give either Crosby nor Malkin a pass. They both know they will need to step it up and produce some more on the scoresheet.

– Nick Bonino has been incredible this postseason. With his overtime goal last night, Bonino has more playoff points (10) in 11 playoffs games than Brandon Sutter had regular season points (9) in 20 regular season games. Despite his slow start, Bonino with Kessel and Hagelin has been something no one can seem to stop.

– I personally think that Conor Sheary needs to be removed from playing top line minutes with Sid. He was almost invisible in the Washington series. The only problem is there isn’t much of a replacement. Chris Kunitz deserves nothing more than fourth line minutes. The only other replacement I can see actually is Tom Kuhnhackl and I’m still not a huge fan of him playing with Sid.

– Something the Pens absolutely can’t do against Tampa Bay is take frequent penalties. The Pens did a great job staying out of the box for the first 35 minutes of game six. Kunitz took a late tripping penalty and capitalized to give the Capitals a momentum swing going into the third. They scored again in the third. Tampa has only converted 7 goals on 43 power plays for a 16.3% which is next to last among remaining playoff teams. They’ve got the talent to turn that around though if the Penguins give them too many opportunities.

– It’s a blessing to have the D corps that the Penguins currently do. Brian Dumoulin was an animal aside from his terrible turnover in game five. Kris Letang was a critical part of the offense’s flow. Trevor Daley had a very good series. He shined in game four’s absence of Letang. Olli Maatta was pretty meh. Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole played their solid, reliable shutdown styles on the third pair. Justin Schultz and Derrick Pouliot were just as good as you’d expect rusty defenseman in the playoffs to be, and it worked for their time that they were granted.

– The goaltending situation isn’t a question. Right now, Matt Murray is the go-to-guy. But will that stop head coach Mike Sullivan from going to his starter Marc-Andre Fleury? I can make a valid argument for both, but Murray has gotten you this far so why jump off the train now?

– TJ Oshie is a great hockey player. Despite his poor attitude and diving attempts, he buried five goal in the series against the Penguins. He was the driving force in game one and scored a critical goal in game six to keep momentum on the Capitals side. I don’t like Oshie, but his talent was seemingly rotting away in St. Louis. He’s found a nice home in Washington.

– Chris Kunitz still sucks.

– I’m actually convinced Matt Murray may become the best goalie in the NHL in a few years. He ousted “King Henrik” in round 1, a team that despite how lack luster their roster has been, beat the Penguins two seasons in a row. He then outdueled Braden Holtby, the likely Vezina winner this season. If he’s able to mind the crease better than Vezina candidate Ben Bishop, the Penguins might be on to something.

– Mike Milbury actually might be realizing it’s nearly impossible to be anti-Penguins right now. He surprisingly hasn’t said a bad thing about them nearly all series long. It’s cute to see Milbury sucking up to Crosby’s team.

– This is absolutely Crosby’s team. Here is the quote from the locker room before the third period. Pretty much says it all:

“Guys, we still got a game here. We’re still in a decent spot. Obviously we want to finish it out, everyone knows that, but we can’t stop playing, we can’t just fold. One more goal and this game is over. The past is the past. Can’t do anything about it now. Got to play. Got to be moving forward.” -Sidney Crosby

So now that the President’s Trophy winning Capitals are eliminated, the Penguins have eight more wins to a Stanley Cup Championship.

When Is A Dive A Dive?

Embellishment has become a hot topic in hockey circles over the last two games between the Washington Captials and our Pittsburgh Penguins.

The argument over who has the biggest divers and whiners revved up after Wednesday’s game 4, during which Sidney Crosby took an obvious cross check to the mouth and slowly crumbled to the ice in reaction.

Not to be outdone, in game 5 Saturday night T.J. Oshie was hit with a not so obvious high stick to the chin, swung his head back, and down he went as well.

While diving and embellishment is looked at as an embarrassment to the game, I think it’s important to look at why it sometimes happens.

Not everyone who embellishes is faking. Sure some are, but that’s just one reason. There are at least two more.

The first is to let the official know something happened, and in some cases to say it was enough to stop you from making your intended play. I’m from the school where unless you keep your feet moving and fight through it, you don’t deserve the call. But sometimes what you want to do isn’t so predictable, like if you were about to change direction, or about to make a blind pass. If your intentions aren’t obvious, it might not be obvious to an official that you were prevented from doing anything. That’s when you might pull up and take a glance at the ref, throw your hands out a little bit in a silent plea. As long as you don’t make too much of a show and embarrass anyone, you might get the call.

The problem with this theory is it’s largely based on the trust between player and official. If the ref makes that call, he’s giving you the benefit of the doubt that you’re being honest with him, that you truly were prevented from making a play.

This explains why star players get the types of “softer” calls lesser players don’t. What looks like a soft call to us that didn’t appear to affect the play may only look that way because we as casual fans don’t see the game the same way as the stars and don’t really understand what the play was they were trying to do. So they might pull their arm back a little farther than necessary or some other signal. Stars have generally been in the league longest and have developed a rapport. They are also the most likely players to be making creative and unpredictable types of plays that no one else thinks of. This also explains why sometimes on those penalties the ref’s arm goes up a touch late.

Young stars often seem whiny. They’ve had that rapport with junior refs and are used to getting the calls. Suddenly it’s new officials and a new trust has to be formed. That takes time.

Like all situations of good faith, some players abuse it or aren’t as honourable about it. Some star players don’t get the same calls other stars don’t because if you burn a ref once, you probably won’t get a second chance.

Now for reason two. Sometimes players go down or overreact because they’re surprised by a stick or a slash they didn’t see coming, and sometimes it’s because whatever happened to them just plain hurts.

Crosby didn’t embellish. It was a clear stick to the face. That was being called long before he ever went down. He didn’t snap back, but he did go down. I’m pretty sure all you armchair Crosby haters would go down for less.

As for Oshie, most people are even debating whether he was hit. So I would dare say some of that “theatrical” fall was a combination of surprise that he was caught and trying to make sure it got noticed. I don’t fault him for it.

Not all embellishment is the same, and only a small percentage of cases are dishonorable. I credit the NHL for taking the lead on cracking down, and also for not getting too carried away with accusations.

Don’t Fix What Isn’t Broken

Mike Sullivan. You took over this team on December 13, 2015. You replaced the dull, math-teacher-look-alike other Mike. You seemed to have found things that worked and pushed you on two big winning strides. You only helped orchestrate winning 14 of the last 16 regular season games and 7 out of a total of 10 playoff games. But in game 5 on Saturday night in Washington, you left many, including myself, wondering what the hell you were doing.

I am a big believer that Mike Sullivan is the man qualified to coach the Penguins franchise to hopefully another new coach Stanley Cup. But seriously, what the hell was he doing Saturday night?

Obviously Sullivan’s team played a very good Washington Capitals team. You opposed a Jack Adams finalist in Barry Trotz. It makes me terribly mad that you weren’t nominated, although you didn’t show that kind of praise worthy coaching Saturday night.

Let’s start with the big issue here: Why did Patric Hornqvist play all of two shifts in the third period? You read that correctly…TWO.

We watched as Sullivan employed a Sheary-Crosby-Hagelin line to begin the third period. I’m not at all opposed to that one. You get speed in all three with the playmaking ability of Crosby and the chemistry Sheary and Sid have shown is pretty awesome. Add in Hagelin’s seemingly unmatchable speed and that makes for a deadly combination.

Then, next shift, he replaced Hagelin with Tom Kuhnhackl. No disrespect to young Tommy Kuhnhackl, but he is not to be playing with Crosby.

Crosby has a specific type of player he enjoys playing with, the description of which Kuhnhackl doesn’t ideally fit. Patric Hornqvist is that guy that Crosby likes to play with. Sullivan loves Hornqvist. Crosby loves Hornqvist. Everyone and their mother likes Hornqvist. Well on this night, Sullivan didn’t like Hornqvist.

After the game had concluded, this was Sullivan’s response when asked if Hornqvist had been injured at any point.

“No. We just shortened the bench. We went with guys with energy and were going…”

Yikes. I’d like a full explanation on what energy is if Patric Hornqvist isn’t a prime example of it. I thought he was. I wasn’t happy with this decision or explanation at all. It left no net front presence. It lacked that head down, hard nosed grinder that caused havoc for opposing players and got into the minds of opposing goalies.
To me, I was boggled by the fact that Chris Kunitz, the lone goal scorer for the Penguins in Saturday nights contest, was taken off of the powerplay.

As many of you know I’m not a huge Kunitz supporter. He scored the only goal and it came on the power play and was the net front guy on the top power play. Next thing you know, Sullivan and the rest of his staff pulled a magic trick and vanished Kunitz.

Many questionable decisions were made by the coaching staff in Saturday night’s game. For the first time in Sullivan’s tenure, it was clear he was out coached. Does that mean I’m calling for his resignation papers? No. Everyone is going to have bad nights. It’s going to be vital to not mismanage your players in these next two (hopefully only one more) game(s).

I’m a pretty firm believer in that whole “Don’t fix what isn’t broken” persona. It’s a pretty simple formula. If something isn’t broke, why spend the extra unnecessary time and effort on fixing it?

I’ll ask him again, obviously rhetorically: Mr. Sullivan, what the hell were you doing?

P. S. This includes the goalie situation, too. Matt Murray is not broke. Marc-Andre Fleury simply isn’t ready to be thrust into a game 6, even with the home crowd behind him. That decision is simple.

The Case For Jeff Zatkoff

It’s obvious that the Penguins know their goaltender situation going forward. Marc-Andre Fleury is still the starting goalie despite his concussion and his young protege Matt Murray has carried the load in the playoffs covering his absence. Jeff Zatkoff should be shuffled out of that mix…or should he?
I had been one to criticize “Big Z” throughout the season in his limited starts that he received. I had called for Matt Murray like many of us had done.
Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2006 and never receiving even a call up to the NHL level, Zatkoff entered free agency in 2011. The Penguins felt compelled to give him a job the day free agency opened and signed him two a two year deal to be Fleury’s backup.
Making his NHL debut on October 11, 2013, Zatkoff went on that season to post a 12-6-2 record with a 2.61 GAA, and a .912 SV%. He was an impeccable force and the Penguins felt more compelled to allow Fleury to have some games off throughout the season because they had a backup capable of doing his job and winning games while making the necessary saves no matter the situation.
It’s tough for any backup to come in off the bench or get into a starters mentality, but those numbers Zatkoff was able to post in the 2013-2014 season can’t be overlooked. Obviously you could look to his sloppy 4-7-1 record and 2.79 GAA. His SV% rose to a .917 this season however, granted he faced less game time than just two seasons ago.
He had a very nice opening start this season. He was granted the crease against the Buffalo Sabres in Dan Bylsma’s return to Pittsburgh. He stopped 50 of 53 shots after being peppered all night like in what looked like the Jeff Zatkoff of old. However, that was not the case. In the 12 games he entered this season, Zatkoff turned in 4 (or ¼) sub .900 save percentage games. He did have a nice 42 save performance against the Florida Panthers late in the year that cheered him up a little.
The reason this all matters is that his contract will run out this offseason. And with Matt Murray’s emergence, it seems as though Zatkoff is the odd man out.
I honestly feel for Zatkoff. Everyone, myself included, had been tearing Zatkoff apart anytime he let a goal in behind him. No matter who’s fault the goal was, 98% of Pens Twitter was there to bury Zatkoff and put the blame on his shoulders. Then comes game 1 of the first round of the playoffs and Zatkoff is announced the starter with both Fleury and Murray shelved with injuries. He turns in an unbelievable performance and outplays “Queen” Henrik Lundqvist for his first NHL playoff victory. People’s perceptions change and Zatkoff becomes that lovable guy he was just two years ago.
I, for one, thought it unfair that Zatkoff was sent down in favor of Thomas Greiss last season when GM Jim Rutherford came in and decided to take away the job from Zatkoff despite his very solid play the season prior.
Zatkoff spent the entire season in the AHL with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton helping to develop Matt Murray into the goalie that we are seeing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He watched as Murray broke record after record and win the AHL’s version of the Vezina. He mentored Matt Murray and did it all with a smile on his face.
Everyone, including his goaltending partners Fleury and Murray, have commented on how great of a locker room guy he is. They remark about how positive his attitude is despite being shuffled down to the third string goalie on the depth chart. I don’t care what kind of team you are, you need someone like that on your roster.
I’m fully confident that Jeff Zatkoff can be a backup on an NHL team that lacks one going into the free agency period in July. It’s obvious he won’t crack the NHL roster next season with Flower and Muz being the obvious choices. I don’t see him wanting to resign here knowing that he would be assigned to the AHL. But if somewhere in his heart, Jeff Zatkoff wants to stay with the organization that gave him the opportunity to showcase his name and talents in the NHL, he’d be welcomed by me.
Why keep him in that capacity, you ask? Well the answer is simple. Did you see the goalie situation going into round 1? Fleury was concussed a few weeks prior on a James Neal wrister to the helmet. Matt Murray was injured in the final game of the season when Brayden Schenn unintentionally ran him over. Jeff Zatkoff stepped in and won game one. That’s composure. That’s confidence. That’s incredible.
With Tristan Jarry in the AHL and the emergence of Casey DeSmith in the Calder Cup playoffs for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, maybe Zatkoff is really the odd man out.
Going back to Greiss, just look at the success he’s having with the New York Islanders. He backstopped them to their first playoff series victory since 1993 after stepping I’m due to an injury to starter Jaroslav Halak. Things just didn’t work out here and the same could be said for Zatkoff after this season.
As I said before it’s unlikely he has a job in Pittsburgh next season. But please people, realize and appreciate what Jeff Zatkoff did as a Pittsburgh Penguin and wish him luck in his future endeavors. Some NHL team out there will be lucky to have Zatkoff as their full-time backup and hell, who knows? Maybe he outplays someone’s starting goalie and is the second coming of Greiss. Playing behind Marc-Andre Fleury and being coached by Mike Bales can’t hurt anyone.

Penguins Showing Real Resiliency

By Sidney Mahan (@PuckSniper_3)

Screenshot 2016-05-05 at 7.44.59 PM

Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley (left) and captain Sidney Crosby (right) celebrate after Patric Hornqvist’s overtime goal in Game 4 Wednesday night. (Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Times)


 

Coming into their Round 2 playoff series against their hated rivals, the Washington Capitals, the Pittsburgh Penguins were the underdogs. Typical fan and analyst consensus leaned towards the Capitals, the 2016 President’s Trophy winners as top team in the league, winning the two teams’ first playoff meeting since their iconic 7-game showdown in 2009. Some people didn’t even expect to see Pittsburgh get a good look at the Eastern Conference Final, saying the Penguins would crumble under a dominant Washington team in no more than 5 or 6 games.

They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Following a thrilling overtime win in Game 4 at Consol Energy Center that meant back-to-back home arena victories in Pittsburgh to grab and extend a series lead, it is the Penguins, not the Capitals, who are holding their opponents at elimination point. The Penguins currently sit with a 3-1 series lead and a chance to close out the Capitals at Verizon Center in Washington in Game 5 on Saturday. Game 4, especially, saw the Penguins unleash speed, physicality, and intensity upon the Capitals, and although Washington tried hard to fight back, tying the game to send it to overtime, the Penguins eventually took the game of Patric Hornqvist’s OT goal.

Granted, it hasn’t been easy for the Penguins to get in such a good position – far from it, really. Pittsburgh has had its fair share of adversity, and obstacles it had to avoid to get such a big series lead on the Capitals. Injuries, suspensions, and intense pressure from Washington are just a few of the hurdles the Penguins needed to jump to get where they are right now. It hasn’t always been dominance this series by the Penguins in terms of play, either – the Capitals have kept the Penguins busy on defense, each game getting steadily more intense until they fully come down on Pittsburgh in third-period pushes that have been barely fought off by the Penguins. So why have the Pittsburgh Penguins suddenly gained a 3-1 series lead? Because of resiliency – which the team has proven it has in a lot of ways. Here’s my list of some of the bigger obstacles Pittsburgh has survived so far to get a leg up on the Capitals.

Outhit and Outmuscled – The Penguins have definitely gotten a fair share of bumps and bruises this series, with minor to major impacts. The Capitals definitely established most of the physicality in the series, particularly in the first three games. While there have been big hits on both sides, including player suspensions on both teams (more on that in a bit), Games 1, 2, and 3 saw the Capitals outhit Pittsburgh 43-29, 31-21, and 58-25, respectively. Obviously, first glance at those numbers show who the more physical team was through the first three games. Players like Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson, and John Carlson have all gone for big hits in this series and through the first games of the series you could see Washington repeatedly trying to batter and bruise the Penguins as much as possible – which they sometimes took a little too seriously. In Game 1, Wilson delivered a late knee-on-knee hit to Penguins forward Conor Sheary, but was only given a $2,403.67 fine for the incident:


Then in Game 2, Washington defenseman and former Penguin Brooks Orpik delivered a late head shot to Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta. Maatta left the game with an upper-body injury and has yet to return, while Orpik earned himself a three-game suspension for the hit. Maatta was far from playing his strongest game when he got injured, but Coach Mike Sullivan didn’t seem to want to give up on him anytime soon – and besides, if the Penguins want him sitting out, they’d obviously prefer him being a healthy scratch than being out with what appears to be a concussion. Game 5 will be the third of the games Orpik must sit out for because of the suspension for the hit:

Game 3 saw a suspension hit by Kris Letang, but since that game was still seeing the Penguins get severely outhit, I’ll reserve that discussion for later on here. For the most part, the Capitals were outplaying the Penguins with the body the Penguins and using their physicality to force turnovers and aggressively pressure Pittsburgh. Game 4 finally saw the Penguins really start to return the hits on Washington. Not only did the Penguins come out flying, they also came out hitting, with several hard hits occurring all over the ice. The Penguins’ don’t normally have a very physical style, but it seemed to work to try it out last game, as the Penguins’ increased physicality allowed them to shut down, force turnovers, and increase the aggressiveness of their forecheck, which allowed them to have better puck possession and continue attacks at the Capitals’ net. The Penguins finished the game outhitting the Capitals for the first time in the series, 47-41, and if they’re able to keep the Caps from banging them up so much any longer, you can definitely say that they have fully gotten past this hitch in the road.

Suspension – Okay, now’s the time to address the Letang hit. Capitals forward Marcus Johansson was controlling the puck entering the Pittsburgh zone, and as four Penguins, including Letang, closed in on him, Johansson managed to get the puck to teammate Justin Williams. Letang, who had been coming in for a hit, followed through a little too late with the hit, and also was slightly too high with the hit. Letang was suspended after a hearing on the grounds of interference. After the news of the Letang suspension got out, there was instant worry about how the Penguins would be able to manage without arguably one of their most valuable players this series. There was serious concern among Penguins fans that the series would be evened up by the Capitals with the Penguins having to play Game 4 minus Letang. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, Letang’s absence and the challenge his suspension presented to the team led to the Penguins’ defensive corps providing a spectacular effort Wednesday night. Trevor Daley, Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Derrick Pouliot did their part to hold down the fort; the only defenseman I was a little displeased with was Pouliot, whose lack of playoff experience became evident quite a few times during the game, with Pouliot making some questionable decisions on playing the puck or positioning. NBCSN analyst Keith Jones is one of quite a few people expecting Pouliot to be scratched for Game 5 with such inconsistent play. But despite that, give the d-men credit, because they for the most part played great games and by the end of the night proved they could survive at least one game without Letang. Daley in particular stepped up to take on Letang’s role, contributing at both ends of the ice as Letang tends to do as well. Daley had the highest player rating of any player on the ice, +3, as he was on the ice for every single Pittsburgh goal and was on the ice for neither of the two Washington goals. In fact, Daley himself contributed the first Penguins goal of the game 9:16 into the first period, tying the game at one (Capitals forward Jay Beagle had scored almost three minutes into the game). He led the defensive corps to a great night, and overall did the best job possible of replacing Letang. In the end, with the Penguins playing probably their best game of the series in Game 4, and with the defensemen working hard to support their team, Pittsburgh was able to get the win even without their star defenseman, and Letang will get to come back for Game 5 and try to help his team close out the series.

Dangerous opposing offense – No doubt about it, the Washington Capitals have made sure that no win has been even close to easy for the Penguins. Washington’s offense has continuously pressured Pittsburgh all series, and have proven to get especially dangerous and lethal as the game progresses. The third period Capitals offense is where Penguins fans probably get the most stressed out. Only two words can describe the real, biggest reason why Washington’s offense hasn’t gotten the results you’d think they would: Matt Murray. Pittsburgh’s rookie goaltender has looked nothing like a guy who’s playing in his first ever NHL playoffs. Ever since taking over in net for the Penguins in their third game of the first round, Murray has a 6-1 record, and has absolutely been a brick wall in the Pittsburgh net. He has completely frustrated Washington’s top scorers, and that includes scoring sensation Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin has so far only managed to get one shot past Murray this series, despite having thrown 21 pucks on goal so far. That would mean that Murray has held the Great 8 to a shooting percentage of just .05%, which is remarkably low considering the quality looks Ovechkin’s gotten on Murray. The young Penguins goalie has successfully dulled down Ovechkin so much that the Russian star began chirping the goalie last game, always a sign of frustration with the lack of pucks going in the net. Ovie’s accustomed to scoring almost at will, and Murray has not allowed him to get anywhere near that level this series. Despite the continued pressure by the Capitals, who often are able to trap the Penguins in their own zone, Murray has looked completely calm and collected and has been consistently praised for his play and hailed as a hero to his team.  Every single game has seen the Capitals throw every offensive weapon they have at Murray, and the rookie has responded spectacularly, already getting his name in the history books and setting records for his achievements as a rookie goalie in his first NHL playoffs. The Pens’ skaters have also helped out, with good defensive sticks, several shot blocks, and improving their defensive zone clearing and breakout techniques, but no doubt that the #1 reason that the Penguins have so far gotten past the danger presented by the Capitals offense is young Matt Murray.


“I’ve really grown to admire the character in the room, how much they care about winning, and their work ethic.” – Head Coach Mike Sullivan


Now, these aren’t the only forms of adversity the Penguins have met this series. You could also name Sidney Crosby’s slow start to this particular series (although he showed signs of heating up again in Game 4) or some questionable comments from Caps coach Barry Trotz and the Washington players. The point is, the most impressive thing about this Penguins team is that they’ve proven they are a strong group. They’ve been given these challenges and they’ve met them head on. They lost Game 1 to the Capitals, but far from throwing in the trouble, they’ve come right back with three straight victories and can eliminate the league’s best team on Saturday to earn a trip to the conference final. Best of all, the Penguins are getting to this all while motivated by wanting to win for their teammate Pascal Dupuis, who was forced to stop playing hockey this season after complications with blood clots. Dupuis made valiant efforts to play as long as he could, combating many injuries and conditions, and has been named a candidate for the Masterton Trophy for this reason. Dupuis, who for the longest time would not watch his team’s practices because of the pain it caused him to not be out there playing with his boys, has been proud to see the team break through so many barriers. He’s been able to witness a team who many thought at one point had little chance of making the playoffs continue to push through people’s expectations, delivering to the fans and proving the nay-sayers and the doubters wrong. The point is, the Penguins are obviously a team that enjoys skill and speed, but their real strength is the fact that they are a tight group that has continued to show what they’re made of, gladly accepting the obstacles thrown in the path they are fighting to travel along to win the Stanley Cup. And that has made all the difference in the world.

 

 

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