Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Flower Replanted

Through 30 games, the defending Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins stand at 16-10-4, just a few points behind the Rangers for first place in the Atlantic Division and in fairly solid playoff position with about two-thirds of the schedule remaining.

Yet the question on the minds of many who cover and follow the team persists: Why haven’t the Pens separated themselves from their East brethren?

The possible answers—or excuses, if you are head coach Michel “Iron Mike” Therrien—are readily available.

A) There hasn’t been enough offensive contribution from forwards not named Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.
B) A plague of injuries has crippled their defensive corps, whether referring to the long-term absences of elite puck-moving D-men Sergei Gonchar (out for several more weeks) and Ryan Whitney (hoping for a pre-Christmas return), or the recent loss of the rangy, rugged Hal Gill.
C) The club remains one of the youngest in the National Hockey League, and as conventional wisdom suggests, youthful players tend to be inconsistent.

One potential tipping point left relatively unexplored is goaltending, and more specifically, the month-long convalescence of Marc-Andre Fleury from what the Penguins have deemed a “lower body injury.” Unconfirmed media reports have pinpointed the ailment as a groin strain, although it’s anyone’s guess which leg it affects (thank you, NHL general managers, for voting to institute the maddening new injury revelation policy that keeps us in the dark).

Lest we forget, Fleury’s performance in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs was a key factor in the Penguins’ unforeseeable blitz through the Senators, Rangers and Flyers en route to a six-game defeat at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings, the modern version of the Red Army.

Statistically, the man known to his teammates as “Flower” put together one of the better two months between the pipes in recent history. How does a 14-6 record, 1.97 goals-against average, .933 save percentage and three shutouts sound? With apologies to Crosby and Marian Hossa, it sounds a lot like a Conn Smythe winner if the Penguins had claimed the chalice.

Prior to the injury incurred near the end of a 5-2 home win against Buffalo Nov. 15, the numbers that were so kind to Fleury in the spring screamed autumnal mediocrity. Sure, his 8-3-2 record thus far this campaign looks solid, but a .907 SV% and a 2.86 GAA rank him 23rd and 26th in the NHL, respectively.

By comparison, Fleury’s backups match up favorably. Dany Sabourin, last year’s third-stringer behind current Red Wing Ty Conklin, has played 15 games, surrendering only 2.47 goals per 60 minutes (13th in the NHL) and stopping just over 91 percent of the shots fired his way, good for 21st among his peers. Rookie John Curry has also acquitted himself well, earning his first two NHL victories in three appearances.

However, despite seemingly better goaltending, the Penguins have fallen from a season-high five games over .500 at 11-4-2 (overtime losses counted) on the morning of Nov. 16 to their current position on the merits of a lackluster 5-6-2 run. In order to explain this lull, we must venture from concrete stats into the realm of the intangible.

First, let’s step back and explore the scope of Fleury’s NHL career. The No. 1 overall selection in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft played 21 games as a 19- and 20-year-old for the Pens during the 2003-04 season, the squad that finished last in the league. He was hung out to dry nightly by one of the worst Pittsburgh teams in franchise history and sent back to his junior team to spare him further bombardment.

After benefiting from a year with Wilkes-Barre of the American Hockey League during the lockout, Fleury has shown consistent improvement that has eerily mirrored the evolution of the Penguins from league laughingstock to current holders of the Prince of Wales Trophy.

As one of the three longest-tenured members of the Black and Gold (defensemen Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi also played in the pre-lockout days), Fleury has the respect of the locker room, and more importantly, he has earned the team’s confidence.

He was in net for the Penguins’ unquestioned biggest triumph of the young season, a 7-6 comeback victory over Detroit at Joe Louis Arena Nov. 11. Down 5-2 and 6-4 in the third period against the team that demoralized and frustrated them in the Cup final, the Pens played with a freedom that has been elusive ever since Fleury hit the trainer’s table.

With Sabourin or Curry in net, the Penguins have often had the look of a team consciously trying to protect its goalie, rather than a self-assured squad playing instinctively. The numbers bear out this difference: Pittsburgh has allowed about four fewer shots per game with the backups on the ice. While it’s great that the team has locked down defensively, offensive talent is more potent with an unfettered mentality.

In a recent interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, none other than the captain and face of the franchise gave Fleury an endorsement just as substantial as the one described above.

“It’s big,” Sidney Crosby said when asked about Fleury’s return to the lineup. “Obviously, it would be nice to get him back. He’s our starting goalie.”

Slated to get the start in Atlanta Thursday night, Marc-Andre Fleury can be expected to play a large role in pushing the Penguins back onto the perch they claimed last spring.

Monday, December 15, 2008

NHL Standings Revised

Although I may not have enumerated it prior to this, I'm a proponent of making every game a three-point game in the NHL. Since the league began awarding a single point to a team that loses in overtime - a change that took effect in the fall of 1999 - some games have resulted in two total points being handed out while other tilts have distributed three. When the shootout was instituted for the 2005-06 season, all the games that would have resulted in ties (and a point given to each participating club) suddenly became three-pointers as well.

Naturally, this two-step evolution in the way the NHL awards standings points has led to inflated points totals over the past eight-plus seasons, thus rendering any comparisons to the pre-1999 team records irrelevant. This point was underscored in my mind anew this past weekend, when the San Jose Sharks tied the alltime record for the quickest march to 50 points from the start of an NHL season; they have reached the mark in just 29 games, matching the 1929-30 Boston Bruins.

Not to discount the Sharks' incredible start, but what makes the Bruins' accomplishment even more impressive is that they pulled it off without the benefit of any ties. The B's went 25-4-0 back in the era when even a five-minute overtime was a distant dream; if you wanted a win, you had to get it done in 60 minutes.

If you think about it, the NHL's seemingly progressive decision to give each team a point for being tied after 60 was actually a throwback to the days when the third-period buzzer meant the end of the game, no matter what the score. The score-for-the-extra-point OT effectively restored the sanctity of the three-period regular season contest, since a team could no longer skate away empty handed after playing an even game for 64 minutes and 59 seconds.

This season, the Sharks have benefited from both overtime (2-2 in OT for six points) and that newfangled tiebreaker, the shootout (2-0 for four additional points). We've already established above that the Bruins of roughly 70 years ago can boast to having accrued their 50 points all by virtue of regulation wins; however, returning to the present, what would the standing look like if every game yielded three points?

Looking at overseas leagues that have adopted a three-point standings system like the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, we can experiment with the NHL standings through Sunday's games to reflect the KHL's format - three points for a regulation victory, two for an overtime/shootout win, one for an OT/SO loss and none, of course, for a regulation loss. The goal is to determine a truer assessment of a team's play. Since I'm a Penguins fan and it's a tight race so far, we'll apply the KHL's formula to the Atlantic Division.

CURRENT ATLANTIC DIVISION
RK. TEAM: W-L-OTL=Points
1. RANGERS: 20-11-2=42
2. FLYERS: 16-7-6=38
3. PENGUINS: 16-10-4=36
4. DEVILS: 16-9-2=34
5. ISLANDERS: 10-18-2=22

REVISED ATLANTIC DIVISION
RK. TEAM: W-OTW-OTL-L=Points
1. RANGERS: 11-9-2-11=53
2. FLYERS: 10-6-7-6=49
3. PENGUINS: 10-6-4-10=46
4. DEVILS: 9-7-2-9=43
5. ISLANDERS: 6-4-2-9=28

On first glance, it doesn't seem that much has changed, but upon closer examination, changing to the 3-2-1-0 point distribution actually made the division tighter. To wit, since a three-point gap can be overcome with one 60-minute win. The Flyers are three points back of the Rangers in both versions of the standings, but in the revised scenario Philadelphia is only one game back, as opposed to two games behind in actuality. Right now the difference seems insignificant, but as the season wears on, a team that relies on overtime/shootout wins would not achieve the separation in the standings that is possible under the current system.

I was secretly hoping this experiment would expose the Rangers a little more. After all, they are 9-2 in games that go beyond three periods. As the system stands currently, we might have to wait until the playoffs to see if New York's overtime and shootout successes artificially enhanced their status in the league.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday Potpourri

Thoughts while desperately trying to ignore mindless T.O.-Romo coverage/lovefest...

-I suppose I should be grateful that the Penguins' 9-2 romp over the visiting Islanders last night got a quick mention on SportsCenter this morning. After all, there was a football game last night and plenty of Brokeback Cowboy talk to breathlessly indulge in. No matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise, getting hockey a legitimate seat at the ESPN table is important, because like it or not, ESPN is probably still the primary agenda setter in the media world. Until the coverage balance tilts further toward the NHL once football season comes to a merciful end, I can ponder how things would be different if hockey was still being broadcast on the four-letter network.

-Speaking of the Pens, boy, was last night's annihilation of NYI ever needed to release some mounting pressure. It was liberating for once just to sit back and enjoy the second half of a game without worrying about either protecting a tenuous lead or frantically trying to come back from an early hole. The club had played well Wednesday night in New Jersey, but came up on the short side of Lady Luck's coinflip seemingly every time in a 4-1 loss. Although after a few games this season that felt like fortuitous escapes (hello, Detroit!), maybe a game like that was due. After Miro Satan scored his 5-on-3 goal in the first period, it seemed that the team played with freedom and fun in front of the home crowd.

-I was chanting along with the Mellon Arena throng who were screaming "WE WANT TEN" in the waning moments of the third. Alas, it was not to be, so we'll have to settle for the biggest Pittsburgh offensive outburst since February 2001 and the first dual hat tricks recorded since this night in 1993:

Joe Mullen had the other HT on that historic night, as the Pens blitzed the Rangers to set the alltime NHL record for consecutive wins with 17.

-On to college football for a moment, and specifically the Heisman Trophy ceremony this weekend at the Downtown Athletic Club in NYC. Of course, I won't be watching because Texas Tech's Graham Harrell hasn't been invited to attend, despite the fact his performance this season is just as good as the three official finalists - Florida's Tim Tebow, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Texas' Colt McCoy. I seem to recall a couple occasions in which four players were asked to be on hand for the trophy presentation (Randy Moss' big year in 1997 stands out in my mind, right or wrong). If any year called for the DAC to bend its rules a little bit, it was this one as Harrell, McCoy and Bradford each put his team in position to play for the national title. Chalk it up to just another way in which college football gets it wrong.

-Pens at Flyers on Saturday afternoon, then four days off. Games against Philly are always important, and check it out, the Flyers have recovered from a bumbling start to the season and are tied with the Penguins for second place in the tightening Atlantic Division. The Rangers are four points ahead of both Pennsylvania teams, but one gets the sense that they are primed to be overtaken in the coming weeks. The team that wins Saturday gets an early leg up in the effort to push past New York.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Recession = Progression?

I've enjoyed this whole "the economy is in the gutter" storyline as much as anyone. After all, it helped get my presidential candidate elected and has caused a delicious amount of bellyaching, whining and strife on the part of the CNBC set. Plus, I'm the guy that secretly rejoices when a huge snowstorm is on the way; I just love to see powerful natural forces get the best of people who think they have everything figured out. Call me morbid, call me what you will.

Considering my fatalistic mindset, it's probably not surprising that I find myself thinking the current economic downturn could ultimately be beneficial for the sports league most near to my heart - the National Hockey League. It's no relevation that the NHL overzealously overstepped its bounds by expanding into cities that arguably weren't suitable to support an AHL team. So in this period of financial uncertainty, now is the ideal time to clear out some of the deadwood franchises that are dragging the league down.

This isn't to say that Gary Bettman and his boys should be actively contracting the league; rather, I'm calling for a hands-off strategy that would allow failing franchises to drop off the map, with either a dispersal draft or relocation as the next step. In other words, you get all the benefits of declaring bankruptcy (restructuring/streamlining) without all the messy PR.

Which clubs would I like to see bite the dust?

1. Florida Panthers - The definition of lame duck. If someone could tell me exactly what this franchise has contributed to the NHL, besides making the New Jersey trap palatable for the masses while breaking up a dream Stanley Cup final of Colorado vs. Pittsburgh in 1996, I'd appreciate it. Oh yeah, toy rats on the ice. Thanks.


2. Phoenix Coyotes - They should be in Winnipeg and that's all there is to it. Although without the Coyotes, Sidney Crosby couldn't have done this:


3. Atlanta Thrashers - The final two on this list are tough calls. If the Thrashers don't get their financial house in order soon (members of the ownership group are currently battling it out in the courtroom), it would be the second hockey experiment to tank in the ATL. Who can forget the Atlanta Flames? Actually, as it turns out, almost no one remembers the Flames before they were moved to Calgary. As it stands, the Thrash's only playoff appearance was defined by none other than Sean Avery - with a little help from a rogue Phillips Arena glass partition.


4. Nashville Predators - Lord knows that when Jim Balsillie is stiffing up your tree, you might be in trouble. As a Pens fan, I know this better than most. (It's easy to forget how close the Penguins came to being property of Mr. Blackberry in the fall/winter of 2006.) But beyond Balsillie and the legal misadventures of investor Boots Del Biaggio - another would-be financier with Penguins connections - the Predators actually have been successful on the ice and have a sizable group of loyal fans. Those two things going for them separate the Preds from the first three teams on this list, but it might not be enough to keep them from being the Hamilton Predators in a couple of years. Sadly, this is the team that least deserves to get the axe, yet if I had to put $100 on an NHL team to be dissolved/relocated, it would be Nashville. Just for fun, here's the Preds shocking the Red Wings in last spring's playoffs.


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Pens host the Isles tonight and I'll get to actually watch it for the first time this week. Look for a recap and crack analysis tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Time Is On His Side

While listening to the Penguins Hotline podcast from last night's 4-3 home loss to the Buffalo Sabres, I couldn't believe my ears. On the recording of the Penguins Radio Network's postgame call-in show, provided through the Pittsburgh Penguins' official Web site (penguins.nhl.com), host Bob Grove was lamenting the fact that Sidney Crosby had just set a career high for ice time in a regular season game with 27 minutes and 34 seconds.

First of all, more than 10 of those minutes came on the power play, a fact that Grove eventually mentioned. The Pens were given eight chances with the man advantage, including three separate 5-on-3s, and if I'm Michel Therrien, I want my best player on the ice for just about all of my team's time with a two-man advantage. Even though the Pens were only able to generate one goal on the power play, I find no fault with how MT allocated his players' ice time. (Hidden in all this discussion is that Evgeni Malkin was on the ice for 25:54, 11:17 of which was on the PP.)

Secondly, and most importantly, my main gripe with Therrien's coaching of Sid during his first three years in the league was that he wasn't getting enough playing time. There was many a game in Crosby's career in which I found myself wondering why a strong young man in obviously fantastic cardiovascular condition was skating for fewer than 20 minutes a game. Now that MT has finally decided to take the shackles off of 87 (and Geno as well), I find it ironic that I'm hearing complaints about the best talent in the National Hockey League playing "excessive" minutes.

Crosby is 21 and Malkin is 22. Both still have a few years to go before they reach their respective physical peaks as males. Trust me, they can handle a couple more minutes a game, especially while fellows like Miroslav Satan and Petr Sykora continue to have trouble finding the back of the net. After a nine-win November, the Penguins are now 1-2-1 this month. Certainly, improvements and changes can and will be made. Just don't nitpick about supposedly too much ice time for two of the best players in the world.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

In Enemy Territory

As I mentioned in the previous post, I now reside in the state of Michigan. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Michigan is an incredibly multifaceted state; to put it simply, most of it isn't at all like Detroit and it's surrounding areas.

Living on the opposite side of the state in Grand Rapids, I don't feel the need to carry a loaded handgun in my glove compartment. (Sure, there are some areas in town in which I would prefer not to break down at 3 a.m., but every city of a certain size has rough areas.) While I may be just a few minutes from 8 Mile Road, the atmosphere is far from "8 Mile." In fact, Grand Rapids is a growing, vibrant community that unfortunately is a very well-kept secret outside the immediate area. Growing up in the Pittsburgh/Tri-State region, I had no clue that Grand Rapids was the second-largest city in Michigan, outpacing more exposed places like Lansing, Flint, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor and Saginaw.

Just a half-hour drive from the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, Grand Rapids is also nearly equidistant from Chicago and Detroit. Thus, one might expect some crossover between the fan bases of Windy City and Motor City professional sports teams. As I've discovered in the past two years, that assumption is not on target. Make no mistake, GR is a Tigers, Lions (sadly), Pistons and, especially, Red Wings town.

Probably the most prominant reason for the Winged Wheel affection is the Grand Rapids Griffins, Detroit's American Hockey League affiliate that plays at the new-ish Van Andel Arena in a popular district downtown. Considering the depth of the Wings' organization, it's not surprising that the Griffins have consistently been near the top of the AHL's standing for the better part of a decade. Winning, as always, cures most everything in pro sports, but beyond that, key contributors to Detroit's Cup run last year spent (or are still spending) considerable time in GR. Jiri Hudler, Darren Helm and Valtteri Filppula, the current understudies to Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, et al, are just some of the Wings that have passed through West Michigan on their respective ways to the Show. The sign that hangs from Van Andel's upper deck says it best: "Hockeytown West."

Another factor that boosts the Red Wings fervor on Michigan's Golden Coast (I swear I'm not making that up) is the nature of the Lions, Tigers and Pistons fanbases in the region. While the Tigers' recent success, 2007 notwithstanding, has helped them win back previously-dormant baseball lovers, there is still a noticable faction of Chicago hardball fans around, enough that the local newspaper renders both "Cubs" and "White Sox" in boldface when listing the standings. As far as the Lions go, I shouldn't have to tell you that morale is low. And the Pistons are overshadowed on the left half of the state by the traditionally outstanding Michigan State Spartans men's basketball program.

That leaves the Wings without any competition or hindrance on the route to dominance of hearts and minds. Recently, local columnist Bill Simonson suggested Grand Rapids could be in a good position take in the Wings if Detroit suffers some kind of economic apocalypse, which isn't outside the realm of credulity in this fiscal climate. It says something that when I read Simonson's proclamation, I didn't laugh or shrug it off.

Not that it really matters to an embedded Penguins fan. I doubt I'd get any less grief about my Pens paraphrenalia if I actually lived within a short distance of Joe Louis Arena. Speaking of the Joe, I was forturnate enough to acquire free tickets to a Red Wings game there on the evening of November 11. You remember what happened, don't you?



Could it be that the whole reason I wrote this post was to relive the moment?

Probably. Pens at Canes tonight from Raleigh, N.C.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I'm Back...For A Look Back

Now that I finally have access to a high-speed Internet connection, I believe it's time to rev this blog up once again. Much has changed since I last posted here - most notably, I've gotten married and moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., in search of a hockey broadcasting career. Currently I'm a PR intern for the Kalamazoo Wings of the International Hockey League. Now that the business of reacquainting myself is out of the way, let's get on with the content.

During my inaugural Web surf using this Comcast cable modem (which took almost two weeks to arrive after I ordered it, but that's a shameless digression), I visited the Pensblog for the usual dose of Pittsburgh Penguins-related merriment. Today's post on the recent Dark Ages of the Pens (2001-2006) took me back to a time when being a 'Guins fan meant you were a fan for life, or you were a sporting sadist, or both.

While the first three seasons in that stretch were newsworthy, if only because they followed a streak of 11 straight years in the playoffs for the Penguins, the 2005-06 season arguably was the most interesting out of the four consecutive losers that preceded the team's current run of success.

Allow me to count the reasons why:
1. Hockey was back, and presumably new and improved after the first full season to be cancelled in the history of major North American pro sports.
2. The Pens had improbably came out on top in the only draft lottery in the history of the NHL in which every team had at least a nominal chance to win. The prize, of course, was Sir Sidney Crosby.
3. Craig Patrick, in what proved to be his final season as the Pens' general manager, had signed a group of free agents that looked awfully impressive on paper - former Pen Mark Recchi, power forward John LeClair, erstwhile sniper Zigmund Palffy, and the talented and enigmatic (at least for the first half of 05-06) defenseman Sergei Gonchar. As it turned out, this awfully impressive group produced simply awful results on the ice.
4. Oh yeah, Mario was back after a full year of rest, which seemed to be just the remedy for a man who was having trouble staying on the ice at the end of his breathtaking career.

Of course, Penguins fans know that the squad was a collosal disappointment, going winless in its first nine contests (0-4-5) en route to getting head coach Eddie Olczyk fired in December and a 22-46-14 final record. That last-in-the-Atlantic finish earned the Pens the right to draft Jordan Staal, so it wasn't all terrible, just like the previous three basement-dwelling teams helped the Pens reel in Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Crosby.

And now, courtesy of NHL.com's game highlights archive (which conveniently begins with the season in question), the Polish Prodigy presents your 2005-2006 Pittsburgh Penguins, likely the last black and gold-clad squad to miss the playoffs in a long time.

October 7, 2005: The Pens drop their first ever shootout at what will end up being a Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes squad. Crosby shows his first real spark of greatness on the set-up to tie the score late in the third.



October 8: The next night, Pittsburgh held its home opener and dropped a wild 7-6 overtime decision to the Bruins. Crosby drilled home his first goal in the NHL, and Mario had a big night, scoring a pair. Mysteriously, this video is missing the OT game-winner by Glen Murray, which is just as well considering I was there to see the Pens blow two separate two-goal leads. At this point, we suspected something might be amiss.



October 27: Finally! I still have the Post-Gazette news clipping somewhere for this game, as the Penguins came back from 4-0 down less than 10 minutes into the first period to pick up their first victory of the season, 7-5 over the Atlanta Thrashers. We'll see more of them later.



November 10: A 3-2 shootout win over Montreal is notable for two reasons. 1) Mario scores the final goal of his NHL life and 2) Sid wins it in memorable fashion.



November 22: Once again, I was there. (Sensing a theme?) Sid and fellow super rookie Alex Ovechkin get together for the first time, and Crosby's squad comes out on top. Watch for a highlight reel goal and spinning assist from No. 87.



December 8: The game that probably broke Eddie O's back. Just a terrible effort at home against the Minnesota Wild. Watch and puke.



December 16: Mario's last game and Michel Therrien's first as Penguins head coach. Michel Ouellet scored his first goal as well, if you care. Pens fall to Buffalo 4-3 in overtime.



December 31: Back to some uplifting stuff. Crosby beats the Rangers in OT on New Year's Eve. Could the Pens be turning it around?



January 5, 2006: Ilya Kovalchuk nets a hat trick for the homestanding Thrashers, taunting Crosby after the Kid took a penalty that lead to Kovalchuk's second tally. Easy to forget how reckless Sid could be in his rookie season; he's matured so much since then.



January 10: In response to my previous question about the Pens getting things together, the answer is no. This sorry performance against the Oilers led to Therrien's famous rant on the ineptitude of his team's defense.


BONUS - The postgame press conference:



February 10: After dropping 15 of 16 leading up the Olympic break, the Penguins finally break through and improbably beat the surging Hurricanes in Raleigh.



March 24: Ryan Malone scores on "an impossible play" (credit: Mike Lange) to get the Penguins off and running against the Islanders at the Igloo, then Sid finishes yet again in the extra frame. I swear this is the last time I'll write this: I was there for this one!



April 17: And to wrap it up, Crosby picks up three assists in the final home game of the 05-06 slate to reach the 100-point milestone. Lange absolutely nails the call on the 100th point: "Let it be said: One hundred!" Just another reason why he's in the Hockey Hall of Fame.


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There you have it. I hope you enjoyed the trip back in time as much as I did. For a last-place team, there were a good amount of highlights, but of course the lows were as bad as anything I've seen in 10+ years of following the Flightless Fowl. Nonetheless, it's worthwhile if only to appreciate how far the team has come in three short years.