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.

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