Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hossa to Penguins: Kind of a Big Deal

Happy one-week anniversary to the Polish Prodigy blog. And many more....(lame.)

When 3 p.m. rolled around yesterday, I was hoping against my better judgement that the Penguins would make more of a ripple in the NHL trade deadline pool. As it stood just minutes before the final horn, GM Ray Shero had just moved one chess piece--sending two draft picks to the Leafs for towering defenseman Hal Gill. I'd seen enough of Gill against the Pens over the last decade to know that his presence would deter opponents from skating freely near the goal and stationing themselves there. Solid pickup that could have made a difference in the playoffs on its own.

Then, after my 147th page refresh on TSN.ca's Web site, it dropped.

The Atlanta Thrashers trade F Marian Hossa and F Pascal Dupuis to the Pittsburgh Penguins for F Colby Armstrong, F Erik Christensen, F Angelo Esposito, and a 1st round selection in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

As soon as I regained consciousness, I thought about the message this bold move sent to the rest of the League. Since the new management took over in the spring of 2006, the mantra has always been "stay the course" and "our best years are still ahead of us." Acquiring Hossa, who will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1st, is a sign that the oft-anticipated "bright future" for this club might begin in June. In the Stanley Cup Finals.

Don't say that I'm jumping the gun. No lesser authority on postseason success than Petr Sykora said this trade signaled a prime chance to aim for "the big trophy" (his words). Sykora, who's been to the Finals three times and has his name engraved on Lord Stanley's old bowl, would certainly know more than most when a team has a legitimate opportunity to win its conference and go for it all.

The Penguins are the favorite in the East, make no mistake. With Malkin and Crosby each able to center a serious scoring line, Pittsburgh is now the toughest team to defend this side of the Honda Center in Anaheim.

A word for the departed Penguins: Colby and Erik grew up and became NHLers under the Pittsburgh Penguins umbrella, and their skills, efforts, and personalities will be missed both in the locker room and in the stands. However, at some point on the road to a Cup, difficult personnel decisions must be made. I seem to recall that quality gentlemen like John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski, and Mark Recchi have been dealt away in the past, only to see their old teammates hoist the silver later that season. Army is a rugged, unflappable winger who keeps everybody loose; EC possesses undeniable talent and a wicked shot. They both were commendable contributors on the squad, but in exchange for a weapon like Hossa, they simply weren't valuable enough to remove from the trade block.

Don't fear about the future. Shero didn't give up Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Whitney, Fleury, or Letang in order to make what could be a career-defining deal for him and his staff. Also, who says Hossa won't decide to sign a new deal at a discount rate with the Penguins after he experiences life on Crosby's or Malkin's wing?

Anyone with a brain stem should be able to see that the Pens are a better team today than they were yesterday, and that this team's development just got a serious boost of acceleration.

Who's ready for the stretch run?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Penguins Weekend In Review

Friday night, I thought that with the Penguins facing a pair of home games against a top team from each conference, I would be satisfied with two points, but I would prefer three or four. As it turned out, the Pens dropped a 4-3 overtime decision to Ottawa Saturday and then followed it up Sunday with a 2-1 shootout loss at the hands (fins?) of the San Jose Sharks. Two points gained, two points lost. A weekend that could easily have produced four points ended being a slight disappointment, as the Devils and Senators have respectively moved two and one points ahead of Pittsburgh for first place in the East. Considering the progress of this team, I believe the No. 1 seed in the conference playoff bracket is a worthy, and attainable goal.

Saturday, February 23, 3:05 p.m.
Senators 4, Penguins 3 (OT)
Upon watching the first 30 minutes of this one, I thought Ottawa was trying to throw the game. The Sens were taking penalties in succession while appearing to regard backchecking as a foreign concept; the Pens somewhat took advantage, sprinting out to a 3-0 edge in the middle of the second period. I say "somewhat" because if you watched this game, you know it could have been anywhere from 5-0 to 7-0 at the midway point.

A Ty Conklin stickhandling gaffe and a couple lucky bounces later, Cory Stillman had made it 3-1 with a tap-in. Dany Heatley then decided to own the game for the next 10 minutes, and by the early stages of the third, Heatley had a pair of goals and the game was knotted up. From there the chances evened up, until the OT, which the Pens dominated until the final 10 seconds. Give Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson grudging credit for fighting through the slot to his own rebound and slipping a backhander between ConkBlock's right arm and body for the heartbreaking GWG. I was extremely ready for the shootout; I don't hold Ottawa goalie Ray Emery in very high regard when it comes to one-on-one confrontations. That is, unless he's literally fighting the other guy.

That one hurt, since a win in regulation would have pushed the Pens ahead of the Sens for the first time since before the lockout. The consolation point wasn't consoling many after the game, even though Michel Therrien threw his team a rare bone when he complimented his players' efforts and noted they generated a season-best 30 scoring chances.

Sunday, February 24, 3:05 p.m.
Sharks 2, Penguins 1 (SO)
The second loser's point of the weekend was garnered slightly more honorably than the first. The Sharks got a 1-nil lead early in the third when former Richard Trophy-winner Jonathan Cheechoo powered his way to the goal and dashed one behind Conklin. If anything, it was nice to see that someone was going to score on this afternoon. The Sharks play a brand of hockey that some might call "defensive" or "responsible." I call it dull and uninspiring. It seems like all the top teams in the Western Conference play that way; that's why I'm thankful the Pens get to play games against the likes of Atlanta, Carolina, Ottawa, Montreal, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Washington, and Toronto. Games against those teams are punch-and-counterpunch, up-and-down affairs that keep you standing and shouting, whether you're at the arena or on your couch.

Anyway, my official "boy," Erik Christensen, returned from five games out with a bruised shoulder to score the tying power-play goal in regulation and the first goal for the Pens in the shootout, but even though two out of three shooters scored for the home team, all three Sharks beat Conklin with wrist shots to silence the Mellon. Conklin was visibly upset after not playing to his capabilities in the shootout, but his performance during the game was a large factor in the Penguins getting past regulation with a point, so he shouldn't hang his head for too long. Besides, Marc-Andre Fleury is back on the roster and now Ty will have to play his best, I suspect, to create a goaltending tandem as we head into March.

Trade deadline is tomorrow. Until then.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Penguins at Canadiens Game Preview

In true Nick Bakay style (of ESPN and "Angry Beavers" fame), it's time to play the Tale of the Tape!

Offense: PIT - 2.85 goals/game (10); MTL - 3.08 G/G (4)
The Penguins have been fairly consistent this month when it comes to scoring, tallying at least once in nine February games. However, they also haven't fired home more than four since the memorable 6-5 shootout loss to Washington Jan. 21, the first home game after Crosby's injury. A week ago, head coach Michel Therrien hinted that the Pens needed to get some more offense from role players; since then, Jarkko Ruutu and Brooks Orpik have ended long goal-less droughts (Orpik's was since Oct. 2005!) and Colby Armstrong has added two to his season total.
Also, Ryan Malone came up huge Tuesday night with his 18th and 19th markers of the year; he just needs a few more to establish a new career high. Evgeni Malkin is the current NHL scoring leader and has bested his goal total from last season already (34 now, 33 in '06-;07).

Montreal's offense can be downright frightening, especially at home in the Molson Centre. The Habs, as you may know, put together a five-goal rally to force OT against the visiting Rangers Tuesday night, then rode the stick sorcery of captain Saku Koivu to the SO win. This team is all about speed at the forward position, with the goal of putting the opposition in permanent defense mode. The Canadiens can be streaky, scoring five in two straight after getting no more than two in the previous five. Another example of this is how they hung an eight-spot on the Bruins in late January, three days after getting shut out by the Pens. The big heroes for the Habs Tuesday night were Michael Ryder and Alexei Kovalev, as each collected two goals in the monumental victory. Along with Kovalev and Ryder, it seems like Montreal has stockpiled quite a bit of serious young talent up front: Andrei Kostitsyn, Thomas Plekanec, Mark Streit, Chris Higgins, Guillaume Latendresse. And never sleep on the pride of Finland, Koivu.

Defense: PIT - 2.63 goals against/game (9); MTL - 2.74 GA/G (17)
Since the installation of Ty Conklin as No. 1 starter, the Penguins have played a slightly more conservative game, sticking to the defensive system a little more rigorously in order to protect the unfamiliar netminder. Looking a bit closer, though, the quality of scoring chances in the past week to 10 days has increased. By my count, Conklin has been faced with four breakaways in the last four contests, and luckily for the Pens he has stopped all but one. Perhaps the D-men are tiring a bit after what surely has been an exhausting stretch for Pittsburgh since the new year. Perhaps once Sid gets back the team can produce a little more offensively and take some pressure off the blueliners and backcheckers.

The Habs poor defense in the first half of the Rangers game was understandably swept under the rug, but the team's ranking is more or less a true indicator of its defensive abilities. Outside the constant physical presence of the underappreciate Mike Comisarek, Montreal's defense corps is rather unimpressive. Andrei Markov parlayed his power play pyrotechnics into a starting position in the All-Star Game, but his first instinct, for better or worse, is to move forward. But, hey, this team is certainly scoring enough to make up for a few lapses on the back end. Rookie G Carey Price looked like a first year player after he got yanked Tuesday night, but Cristobal Huet saved the day (trust me, that rhymes) with a staunch effort in the second half of the game.

Special Teams: PIT - PP 20.9% (3)/PK 80.4% (23); MTL - PP 24.1% (1)/PK 81.0% (21)
The figures scream that this one could be a free-for-all for the man-advantage units. The Habs' power play has been consistently at the top of the league since the lockout, succeeding due to old-fashioned talent combined with a great plan of attack that I wrote about yesterday. Montreal head coach Guy Carbonneau recently said his team has a "shooting power play," even though fluid puck and player movement are the ingredients that make it uniquely effective.

Speaking of a "shooting power play," the Penguins have recently found success by simply putting more pucks on goal with the manpower advantage. Although the previous four games have revealed a slight reluctance to shoot, the unit still has had the type of success that Pens' observers were projecting at the beginning of the season. Interestingly, after the departure of Crosby from the lineup, the PP has leapt from around 10th to the top five.

This Season: The Penguins are 1-1-1 this year against the Habs, with the first two of the season series coming at Mellon Arena early on. Carey Price earned his first career win in net Oct. 10 in Pittsburgh as the visitors prevailed 3-2, then returned to the Steel City Oct. 27 and won 4-3 in a shootout. The Pens turned the tables Jan. 19 in French Canada with a 2-0 Dany Sabourin shutout with Malkin playing a step above the rest. Geno has one goal and four assists against the Habs this season to lead the Pens; Ryan Whitney has 2+1 from the blue line. Montreal's Markov has two goals plus a shootout winner in the series.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 5, Montreal 3. Malkin gets his 35th and Gonchar chalks up a couple more helpers on the power play. The Pens tie the Devils for the Atlantic lead and hope against hope for the Blue Jackets to beat Ottawa. If that wish comes true, Pittsburgh is tied for 1st in the Eastern Conference.

GO PENS.

Tiger Feels The Mojo

After all the talk yesterday of Tuesday's come-from-behind wins in the NHL, it was fitting to see Tiger Woods grab the reigns of that sled and ride it to a thrilling comeback against J.B. Holmes in the first round of the Accenture Match Play Championship in Marana, Ariz. El Tigre was down three holes with five to play, but then went on an birdie binge, nailing mid-range putts on Nos. 14, 15, and 16 to square the match. Keeping his foot on the gas, the world's No. 1 player fired a majestic five-wood onto the 17th green to set up a 38-foot eagle try. Holmes left his eagle bid short, and then watched Tiger charge his putt into the center of the hole for his first lead of the day. Holmes had a shot at sending it into extra holes, but he ran his 8-footer for birdie at the last well past the cup. Handshake time.

For the rest of the field, now reduced to 32, this result can't be a promising bellwether. Tiger has already hinted that the 2008 season could very well be his best yet, and now that he has momentum heading into today's square-off with Californian Aaron Oberholser, even money has to be on Woods taking home the title for the third time in his career. The No. 8 seed in the Bobby Jones bracket, Oberholser topped Mike Weir yesterday 3 and 1 to advance. Woods and Oberholser grew up together on the Golden State's junior golf circuit and they actually faced off in the 1996 U.S. Collegiate. San Jose State's Oberholser bested Stanford Tiger by six strokes in the event.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Getting Reaquainted

Hello, my name is Matt Gajtka and with this post I have officially rejoined the Web log universe. I plan on checking in as often as inspiration strikes me, so no guarantees for daily content or reasonable facsimile thereof. Most of my posts will be about sports, in particular the professional teams that reside in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Now that the pleasantries are over with, let's cut the crap and get down to brass tacks.

Comeback Night in the NHL
Last night, after the Penguins surged back from a 2-0 hole through two periods to win 3-2 over the visiting Florida Panthers, I was feeling pretty proud of the boys and thought the comeback might get some attention on SportsCenter this morning. How-EVAH, imagine my surprise when I woke up and the first thing I saw on the tube was Montreal turning a 5-0 second-period deficit into a 6-5 shootout victory over the Rangers. All of a sudden, the Pens' invigorating charge looked a bit unimpressive by comparison. But hey, I thought, at least the Penguins can say that they did all of their comeback-ing in the final 20 minutes, unlike Les Habitantes.

Then I noticed the ESPN Bottom Line's proclamation that the Hurricanes scored two goals in the final 1:06 to avert a looming Tim Thomas shutout and force overtime against the Bruins in Raleigh. Buzzkill city, right? Well, not exactly, since Boston ended up getting the win anyway, grabbing the extra point in the shootout, a point that the B's surely felt was rightfully theirs.

So, upon lengthy consideration, I've determined that the Penguins larceny at Mellon Arena fits somewhere between the Canadiens once-in-a-lifetime outburst and the 'Canes at-least-we-got-a-point comeback OT loss. On the other hand, it could be argued the team that should be pouting the most is Florida. After all, last night was the second time in a week the Cats had blown a two-goal third-period edge (the first time was against Carolina) in a regulation loss.

I suppose the Panthers can take the tiniest bit of solace in the fact that the Pens weren't a divisional opponent, which would have been especially cruel considering the only way into the postseason in the Southeast is via a division crown. Nevertheless, it had to be quite the sober plane ride back to Sunrise, Fla., for tomorrow's dance with the Bruins. A team that, just 10 days ago, saw Richard Zednik almost die on the ice, may have just squandered its opportunity to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000.

Looking at Montreal, the Habs have to be giddy with how well they are playing, and I get the feeling we may well be seeing the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge in the Eastern Conference finals come May. The Habs skate brilliantly as a team, and their power play (No. 1 in the league at 24.2 percent conversion rate) melds passing and player movement into a frightening sight for opposing penalty killers. More on this team tomorrow when I preview the Pens big visit to Montreal...first place in the East could be at stake.

As for the Rangers, who knows where this team will go from here. There sure isn't any precedent as no Blueshirt team has EVER blown a five-goal cushion in the regular season. Oh, and by the way, the Hurricanes padded their Southeast division lead to three points (over Washington and Atlanta) with their improbable rally last night at the RBC Center.

Malkin Out In Front
With his two assists in Pittsburgh, the man known to teammates and fans as "Geno" has put countryman and draft-year mate Alex Ovechkin behind him in the NHL points race. Evgeni Malkin's second helper, the one that set the table for Ryan Malone's tying goal in the final minutes, was a perfect example of the caliber of play he has consistently turned in since Sid's injury. On the play, Malkin threw himself into a 2-on-2 scrum for a loose puck in the right-wing corner; upon prying the disc free, he gave a quick look to the left and saw defenseman Ryan Whitney pinching in toward the top of the circles. He then floated a beauty of a pass with just the right amount of loft and pace to elude two Panthers in the slot and drop on the tape of Whitney, who immediately let loose a firm wrister toward Malone at the top of the crease. The puck caromed off Malone's shinpad and in the net. Tie game with 3:20 to go. Mellon was thrown into bedlam.

After "Bugsy" Malone capped off the night with a power move to the cage for the game-winning power-play goal, my thoughts immediately turned to Malkin and how his play, combined with the goaltending of Ty Conklin, has set up the Penguins perfectly for a run at the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The numbers: Malkin, 34 goals, 45 assists for 79 points; Ovechkin, 48(!) goals, 30 assists for 78.

Take a gander at this:
1. Ottawa - 75 pts (Northeast leader)
2. New Jersey - 73 pts (Atlantic leader)
3. Carolina - 65 pts (Southeast leader)
4. Montreal - 75 pts
5. Pittsburgh - 73 pts

With the Habs tomorrow evening and the Senators paying a visit Saturday, the Pens could be the top team on this side of the continent by Sunday morning. Can't ask for more than the opportunity.