Thursday, April 2, 2009

Polish Prodigy Podcast #15

Following a nearly month-long sabbatical, the Polish Prodigy Podcast returns well rested and at full strength.

The Penguins are poised for the playoffs (alliteration...yes!) and the Buccos are set to break camp and head for St. Louis for the season opener. I'm sure you could guess which of the above developments I'm more excited about.

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Mic Check: One Two, One Two

I'm not sure if anyone actually checks this blog on a regular basis, but in case someone does, I'll have a new podcast up early next week. Apologies for an extended hiatus, but life has been busy lately and my other Internet writing duties have taken precedent due to lack of extra time.

I'm probably going to start posting everything I write for Bleacher Report and ProHockeyNews.com right here on this site, so get ready for increased content! So I have that going for me, which is nice...

Friday, March 6, 2009

Dream Revived: Penguins Take Five In A Row

Last Wednesday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins barely squeezed by the National Hockey League's worst team, the New York Islanders, by the score of 1-0. Petr Sykora's rebound goal with 2:28 to play in the third period prevented the Penguins from playing overtime with the depleted Isles for the second time in nine days.

The sketchy victory gave Pittsburgh 66 points, good for 10th in the Eastern Conference and two points arrears of the crucial No. 8 position, the final playoff berth.

The win also improved the Pens to 3-1-1 under the tutelage of interim head coach Dan Bylsma, but the pair of standings points earned was just about the only thing to love about the effort.

The subdued joy wasn't totally due to the game's poor aesthetics, though. Pittsburgh had taken the ice at Mellon Arena without the services of captain Sidney Crosby, who sat out his first of four straight contests with a groin strain, and was about to embark on a five-game road trip, the longest of the season.

Conventional wisdom held that the Pens would have to earn at least half the available points during that span in order to stay within hailing distance of the East's top eight.

Nine days following that greasy triumph over New York, the Penguins most recent loss remains the 5-2 setback Feb. 22 in Washington, the same city they'll have to conquer this Sunday if they wish to complete the franchise's first-ever perfect 5-0 trip.

That's right, the same team left for dead by many when former coach Michel Therrien was shown the door nearly three weeks ago has strung together five consecutive wins, each more impressive than the last.

Thursday night's dismantling of fellow playoff-hopeful Florida by the count of 4-1 was a warning shot over the NHL's bough, serving notice that last season's Stanley Cup runners-up are not about to go quietly into that good night.

This week in Florida, a state in which the Pens have traditionally struggled, the Black and Gold turned two potentially troublesome games into virtual walkovers, thanks to a host of contributors.

Tuesday's tilt featured the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team with 2007-08 Penguins Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi and Adam Hall on its roster. While Roberts and Recchi were scratched due to their purported involvement in imminent trades, the looming deadline for deals provided enough distraction to fill the void.

With ample reason to let their intensity wane, the Penguins received two first-period goals from newcomer Chris Kunitz en route to a routine 3-1 victory.

Center Jordan Staal, rumored to be a prime candidate for a trade, ignored the chatter and turned in one of the best two-way performances of his career, helping stifle a team that has just dropped eight on the Northwest Division-leading Calgary Flames.

The trading deadline passed the next afternoon with minimal roster extraction—only winger Miroslav Satan was missing, demoted to Wilkes-Barre—and a significant injection of grit and experience courtesy of general manager Ray Shero.

Electing to travel a less-spectacular route this spring, the Pens GM added Islanders captain Bill Guerin and fourth-liner Craig Adams via waivers from Chicago. The acquisitions immediately made the Penguins a deeper, grittier team, attributes that showed themselves Thursday night against the Panthers.

The first half of the contest was a waiting game, each side poised to capitalize on an opposition misplay.

With Guerin inserted with the mended Crosby and Kunitz, the third and fourth lines were bolstered with the additions of Pascal Dupuis and Tyler Kennedy, both of whom were tried on the top two lines for the majority of the season.

Along with Staal, Adams, Matt Cooke and Max Talbot, Dupuis and Kennedy were back in their grinding comfort zones, allowing Bylsma to fearlessly roll four lines all night long.

It proved to be a winning strategy for the Penguins, as they appeared to be the fresher team in the third, pumping in the last three goals - including two by Kennedy - to provide the final 4-1 margin.

Pittsburgh is now tied for sixth in the conference with 74 points; Florida and the New York Rangers are alongside.

Suddenly, improbably, making the playoffs isn't the only goal. The fight for home ice in the first round (fifth-place Montreal and No. 4 Philadelphia are only one and four points ahead, respectively) has become winnable because of Pittsburgh's 7-1-1 record under "Disco" Dan.

And to think, the dream might have been reborn with that near-nightmare against the Islanders.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Polish Prodigy Podcast #14

It's (mostly) all about the Penguins and the recent NHL trade deadline this week on the 14th edition of the Polish Prodigy Podcast. Get my take on adding Bill Guerin and the Pens' stretch of hot play.

Also, hey! the Pirates are winning games...albeit just the Grapefruit League variety.

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Onward and Upward: Penguins Make Changes, Climb Standings

I don't have access to Ray Shero's iPod, but if the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager didn't own Sheryl Crow's 1997 hit "A Change Would Do You Good" two weeks ago, he probably does now.

Singer-songwriter wisdom aside, with his team threatening to miss the playoffs a year after rocking the hockey world with its steamrolling of the Eastern Conference bracket, Shero knew something had to be adjusted.

Fifteen days after firing head coach Michel Therrien and replacing him with Dan Bylsma, who had been behind the bench for the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa., the Flightless Fowl have earned 11 of a possible 14 points in the standings and are back in playoff position for the first time since the opening week of 2009.

To what shall we attribute the sudden surge? Considering the Pens have averaged a healthy four goals per game during their current 5-1-1 run, it would be tempting to lump most of the praise on the offense.

Didn't Bylsma mention on his first day in Pittsburgh that he wanted to emphasize attacking and dictating the play? Maybe the increased number of red lights is simply the result of more aggressive hockey.

The refreshingly balanced list of offensive contributors during Bylsma's seven-game reign certainly advances that premise. Led by Evgeni Malkin and his five goals, 11 players have combined to net the 24 scores since the coaching change.

Most notable are the two gentlemen tied for second with three lamp-lighters apiece: grinding center Max Talbot and flighty winger Miroslav Satan. The fact that these two, light-years apart as far as playing styles are concerned, are both enjoying increased producting under Bylsma's revamped system is a testament to the success of said system.

If nothing else, getting goals from Jordan Staal, Sergei Gonchar, Ruslan Fedotenko, Petr Sykora, Kris Letang and newly-acquired Chris Kunitz dulls the impact of Sidney Crosby's groin strain, a stubborn injury that has kept the National Hockey League's No. 3 scorer in the press box for the past three games.

Despite Pittsburgh's climb to eighth in the East, persistent issues have continued to irritate in the past half-month. The penalty-killing unit, in the bottom half of the league since the opening weeks of the season, has continued to surrender more than its share, including six goals against in its past four contests.

In addition, the team's defensive-zone coverage has been spotty as the Pens try to get acclimated to Bylsma's mandate that they apply more pressure to the puck-carrier. That being said, the Pens only allowed five goals in three games last week, so the learning curve is apparently beginning to flatten with repetition.

And even though Gonchar's return has brought a certain poise and stability to the Pittsburgh blueline, the presence of No. 55 has not yet yielded a glut of power-play goals, although it has made the man-advantage effort more fluid and unpredictable.

But despite the weak links in the chain, the Penguins have been earned two points more often than not, and when a team is fighting for a crack at the postseason, winning is the only thing that matters.

There are three games remaining on a pivotal five-game road trip, including a Thursday clash with the Florida Panthers, who lead the Pens by two points for sixth in the conference. An emotional battle at Washington looms Sunday afternoon, and then the schedule turns very favorable, with nine of the next 10 games at Mellon Arena.

On top of the intensity of late season match-ups, the trade deadline falls Wednesday afternoon at 3 p.m., a.k.a. Ray Shero's last chance this season to make a significant impact on the roster.

All of which means his next download is a lot more likely to be from one of the other 29 teams than from iTunes.

Sorry, Sheryl.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Not Done Yet: Penguins GM Shero Likely Has More Up His Sleeve

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero dealt one of his team's more marketable players Thursday afternoon, flipping fourth-year defenseman Ryan Whitney to Anaheim for 29-year-old winger Chris Kunitz and tantalizing junior prospect Eric Tangradi.

The fact that the move was made was no shock for longtime Penguins followers. With Sergei Gonchar finally back in action after rehabbing a dislocated shoulder, Kris Letang gradually getting more ice time and increased responsibility, and Alex Goligoski in reserve at the AHL level eagerly anticipating his eventual recall to Pittsburgh, Whitney became the offensive-minded blueliner most likely to be dealt.

Whitney's departure to the Ducks closed his unsavory final act as a Penguin. After overcoming a subpar season to blossom during a run to the Stanley Cup Final, Whitney underwent major reconstructive surgery on his left foot to correct a chronic alignment issue.

Goligoski took what would have been Whitney's spot on the power play and showed enough skill to get Pens fans thinking about the possibility of dealing Whitney in order to bolster the team's forward depth. By the time Whitney returned to the active roster in late December, he was already on the way out in the minds of many.

Whitney's quality of play since then was below average, dragged down by poor decision-making and spotty coverage in his own zone. Since his top form, as displayed in the 2006-07 season, seemed more distant by the day, Shero took advantage of the widespread perception that Whitney's best is yet to come by tending to a distinct need via the trade market.

But while Whitney may very well develop into a consistent Norris Trophy candidate with Anaheim, Shero made the smart move by discarding of a luxury in order to gain a necessity. Kunitz infuses toughness, physicality, speed and an above-average scoring touch into the Penguins' lineup, all of which are qualities in short supply this season for the Flightless Fowl.

Starting with Friday's tilt in Chicago, Kunitz immediately pushes Pascal Dupuis down to the third line where his combination of quick feet and sluggish hands belongs. Whether he teams with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin (smart money has him with No. 87), Kunitz will play the net-crashing, space-generating role that has been empty since Ryan Malone caught a plane to Tampa.

Oh, by the way, Kunitz' 16 goals and 19 assists rank him fourth on the Penguins, two points up on Miroslav Satan and three ahead of Jordan Staal.

Speaking of Staal - as I make the smooth segue - the 20-year-old third-line center is under contract long-term just like Whitney was, making him a reasonably priced trading piece at $4 million a year for the next four seasons. For whatever reason, Staal hasn't come close to repeating his rookie year goal total of 29 in the nearly two full seasons since.

But even though Staal has yet to demonstrate that he can be counted on for a consistent effort most nights, he is at such an early stage in his development that it's impossible to write off his offensive potential. The conundrum for Shero is that Staal's contributions thus far don't justify the mid-level salary he will be paid for the next four seasons.

Equally as pressing on Shero's mind is that the Penguins, even with the gritty Kunitz on the roster, are still an elite finisher away from being a complete team. At this stage of the club's development, with a Final appearance already in the rearview, the goal can only be the Cup, not the stockpiling of young talent.

I believe Shero understands this. If he didn't, he wouldn't have taken the plunge at last year's trading deadline by adding Marian Hossa to Crosby's wing, a move that temporarily nudged the Penguins into the NHL's most exclusive club: Cup contenders.

Other factors play into the likelihood of additional trades, such as the importance of making the postseason and the guaranteed cash flow that results from it, as well as how highly other teams regard Staal, Shero's most valuable (yet attainable) bargaining chip.

While the players still have a quarter of the season left to decide their fate, Shero and other GMs like him are down to their final week to make a meaningful change.

With a third consecutive playoff berth in the balance, I'd bet on Shero to try all he can to tip the scale in the Penguins' favor.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Polish Prodigy Podcast #13

The Pens take two out of three since the last podcast, and as Meat Loaf tells us, that "ain't bad." Too bad he doesn't lay out a detailed map to the NHL postseason as well. For NHL talk and the latest Pirates news from spring training in Bradenton, this is your place to be.

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Polish Prodigy Podcast #12

Michel Therrien is long gone, Dan Bylsma says hello, and Nate McLouth gets locked up (figuratively speaking, of course). To hear me ramble on about these three people and many more related topics, click the post's title above or follow the instructions below.

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Islanders 3, Penguins 2 (SO): Head Coach Dan Bylsma Liveblog

With the Pittsburgh Penguins playing their first game under interim head coach Dan Bylsma (pictured, with the spectacles), I couldn’t resist liveblogging the heck out of a Presidents Day afternoon tilt against the NHL-worst New York Islanders.

2:00 p.m. – CJ Papa welcomes the viewers on MSG+ to Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum for the Islanders’ traditional Pres Day matinee. I was expecting to have the FSN Pittsburgh feed, but it’ll be interesting to get the opposition point-of-view.

2:02 – Up to the broadcast booth, where Howie Rose (play-by-play) and Billy Jaffe (color) take the reins. They mention that Bylsma was an assistant coach on Long Island a couple of years ago and show a brief interview with the Pens’ new head man. He mentions that he wants the players to play aggressively without installing a whole new system at this point in the season. Faceoff coming up!

2:07 – Papa shows highlights of the Penguins’ three hat tricks against the Isles this season. It’ll be Joey McDonald against Marc-Andre Fleury in the goaltending match-up. The puck is dropped at center ice and we’re under way.

2:10 – Bylsma is shown on the bench holding a “cheat sheet” of sorts. Hey, give him a break, he’s only had this job for 18 hours.

2:13 – New York’s Bruno Gervais enters the Pens’ zone late and whips a shot thru traffic that gets a piece of Fleury and tinks off the goalpost. Good break for Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby then steals a puck behind the Isles’ goal and throws it in front for Ruslan Fedotenko, who can’t get the one-timer on goal. Chances for both sides in the opening five minutes.

2:17 – Sergei Gonchar receives a crossrink feed from Pascal Dupuis and gets his first shot of the game on goal, right into the belly pad of McDonald. Promising sight for Penguins fans to see Sarge jump up into the play smoothly. Jordan Staal tries to stuff a puck by McDonald on the right side but is denied and we head for the “under 14:00” media timeout.

2:21 – Miroslav Satan’s half-speed slapshot is gloved head-high by McDonald. Satan starts the game on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Petr Sykora. This actually means something now that Michel Therrien has been shown the door. He shuffled lines constantly, if you’re not a Pens follower.

2:23 – Sean Bergenheim tries a wraparound on Fleury, who slides to his left and keeps it out despite multiple Isles in his kitchen.

2:25 – A two-on-one led by Tyler Kennedy develops into a three-on-one with Staal trailing. He gets a feed in the low slot with an open net, but his bid for the first goal hits a leg and deflects into the corner. Wow, the Pens really needed that one to go in and erase the memory of Saturday’s loss at Toronto.

2:27 – Defensman Chris Campoli drives the net and redirects a Bergenheim pass into the goal with his skate. It doesn’t look to have been a kicking motion, but the play is under review. Referee Chris Lee addresses the crowd and calls it “a good goal.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s 1-0 New York at 11:34 of the first.

2:31 – Jaffe called the Penguins “this Pitt team.” I wasn’t aware this was the University of Pittsburgh’s hockey team playing today on the Island. Sorry, it’s a pet peeve of mine when I hear out of town broadcasters say “Pitt” when they mean Pittsburgh. No one in the ‘Burgh says “Pitt” unless they’re talking about the college.

2:34 – New York’s Tim Jackman is called for holding Kris Letang with his free hand. Good call and the Pens hit the power play for the first time. Oh God, they’ve failed on nine in a row, says Howie Rose.

2:27 – Make it 10 straight power plays without a goal. Just a couple of decent chances generated.

2:40 – That’s why he’s the NHL’s leading scorer! Malkin takes a neutral-zone turnover up the left wing, drags the puck to the middle and unleashes a sick wrister that flies by McDonald to tie the game. It’s Geno’s 25th of the season and it comes unassisted at 18:05.

2:43 – Fleury corrals a rebound of a Richard Park (former Penguin) shot in the final minute. Sharp save there.

2:45 – Jaffe says there is “no question” that Pens GM Ray Shero wants Colby Armstrong back. Ugh. Nice to hear opposition broadcasters talking like they have access to this information. Just call the game and enjoy your last-place team. Rant over. First period over: New York 1, Pittsburgh 1.

3:02 – We are shown a stat that says the last time the Islanders surrendered three hat tricks in a season to the Penguins was 1992, the last Stanley Cup season. I can dream, can’t I? That team was in danger of missing the playoffs in February as well, so don’t laugh too hard.

3:06 – Staal one-times a Kennedy pass that McDonald kicks out nicely. That was probably his best save of the game thus far.

3:08 – Malkin leads a three-on-two rush and just misses setting up Dupuis on the doorstep. The crowd hushed as Geno pushed the puck up ice in open space. Just after that, NY’s Jeff Tambellini gets a quick backhander away that sails wide of the right post. TV timeout.

3:15 – Crosby gets free behind the Isles’ goal and sweeps a shot right on that McDonald smothers. First real scoring chance of the period for the Pens as we’ve hit a lull. No surprise during a midafternoon game, though.

3:19 – Pittsburgh’s Bill Thomas has a two-on-one and tries a pass that’s broken up. He’s better off shooting there. New York’s Kyle Okposo then leads a three-on-one and he does the exact same thing. Those young players, or any players for that matter, should try to keep it simple and at least guarantee a shot on goal.

3:21 – Crosby sets up Dupuis streaking down the left side. His hard wrister hits the outside of the left post, as he tried to go short side. Marian Hossa buries that. Just sayin.’

3:25 – Andy Hilbert gets open for a wrist shot from center point that bounces off of Fleury and into the crease. Frans Nielsen is right there to swat it in on his second attempt to push the Islanders back in front 2-1. It’s Nielsen’s third goal of the year and it comes at 13:26.

3:29 – Fleury fights off a Bill Guerin curl-and-drag wrister from in tight, then Sykora finds Satan for a shot that goes just wide at the other end of the rink. Penalty on the way against the Islanders, which will set up the second Pittsburgh man advantage of the game.

3:32 – This power play does not expire harmlessly! Crosby takes the puck from the right side, closes in and shovels a backhand pass to a charging Ryan Whitney, who buries it into the left side of the cage. 2-2 game on Whitney’s second of the season from Crosby and Gonchar at 17:07. It’s Sarge’s first point of the season in his second game back from a shoulder separation that had kept him inactive since late September.

3:35 – Okposo turns around Brooks Orpik with his free hand and is penalized for it. Pens hop right back on the power play, and Sykora is quickly denied by McDonald off a Gonchar rebound. Suddenly the power play looks confident, and Gonchar is the obvious catalyst from the point. Just like old times.

3:37 – Another quick flurry of Pittsburgh shots at the end of the period leads to a big scrum after the whistle. Malkin threw a couple of punches and will be going to the box along with New York’s Campoli. Malkin actually received a double minor for roughing, and I’ve got to say it’s well deserved. The Islanders will have an abbreviated power play less than a minute into the third period. For now, though, it’s Pittsburgh 2, New York 2 after two.

3:55 – A one-minute, 34-second power play is under way for the home team as the third period commences.

3:58 – Staal steals a Mike Comrie pass shorthanded and flops a 90-foot shot to the Isles’ goal. McDonald stops it, but doesn’t know where it is and is forced to hold for a whistle. That’ll finish the power play as we return to five-on-five play. The time to attack is now for the Penguins.

4:01 – Jon Sim of New York beats the Pens to a loose puck low in the Pittsburgh zone and rips a blast on goal that Fleury kicks to the corner. Key save there.

4:04 – Kennedy curls out of the left corner and sends a wrister on goal with Staal hunting the rebound. There is no rebound as McDonald looks sharp in grabbing it cleanly.

4:09 – Staal blocks Okposo’s shot attempts twice in the same shift, then steals it from him and headmans the puck. Malkin comes on the ice and turns on the speed, cuts to his right and then tries to toss a pass into the crease. McDonald gets a piece of it as Thomas crashed the net and nothing comes out of it.

4:13 – NY’s Blake Comeau makes an appearance in this afternoon’s drama, chopping a shot from five feet away that Fleury denies and covers for the stoppage in play.

4:19 – Butch Goring delivers a report while sitting in a seat in the lower bowl of Nassau. The former Islanders’ player and coach has good points, but he doesn’t look too professional while on camera. Stand up, Butch!

4:21 – Coach Bylsma puts Crosby and Malkin together on a line, accompanied by Fedetenko. They cycle the puck nicely, put the possession time ends with a Hal Gill wrister that McDonald pins to his chest. We’ve reached the final media timeout as we are inside six minutes remaining in regulation time.

4:25 – New York’s Mark Streit leads a transition rush, pulls up in the high slot and finds Hilbert down low. The former Penguin tries to guide it into the right side of the goal, but Fleury slides over for an important save near the 3:00 mark. Game still tied 2-2 as the proceedings tense up a bit.

4:28 – “Last minute of play in the period,” intones the PA man as Gonchar is offside entering the Isles’ zone.

4:29 – Streit gets bottled up by Fedetenko in his own end, and the New York defenseman elects to skate behind his net and play for overtime. Pittsburgh 2, Islanders 2 after 60 minutes of play.

4:31 – Overtime begins and we skate four-on-four. Whitney is stoned as he shoots during a two-on-one. Tremendous chance to end it but McDonald comes up huge.

4:34 – Campoli’s drive is gloved by Fleury in traffic. 2:48 to go in OT.

4:36 – Great end-to-end play as time ticks under a minute until the shootout. Crosby’s high shot is shouldered by McDonald expertly.

4:38 – Park’s final thrust to the Penguins’ zone is fended off by Letang. The puck slides into the corner harmlessly and we will head to the shootout to break this tie. Fantastic action in overtime. Anyone for playing four-on-four all the time? Just a thought.

4:40 – Islanders will shoot first. Nielsen versus Fleury. He turns it to the backhand and scores from right on top of Fleury. Nice goal.

4:41 – Sykora against McDonald. He comes in wide, hesitates and blasts a slapper top shelf to tie it! That’s a new one from Petr Gun. Good to see him trying new things.

4:42 – Tambellini elects to take a wrister from 25 feet and blows it by Flower. He surprised the Penguins netminder there by shooting a full second before most players do.

4:43 – Malkin gets the call from Dan Bylsma. He loses the puck while stickhandling, recovers briefly, then tosses a backhand flip wide. He had McDonald beat, but he got a little flustered and rushed the shot after mishandling.

4:45 – Okposo now has a chance to end it. He glides in slowly and attempts to pull it with him as he shifts toward the left corner, a la Pavel Datsyuk. He’s scored on this move before, but this time he fumbles it and never gets a shot away. That move will either look great or terrible, depending on the execution. Kudos for trying it, though.

4:47 – Crosby has the game on his stick, as Mike Emrick would say; last chance to extend the shootout. He dekes a few times in the low slot, appears to have McDonald beat, but the goalie keeps his right pad down and turns away Sid’s forehand. Crosby could stand to get more inventive. I’ll cut him some slack because he’s fighting the flu, but I expect a little more in a one-on-one situation. Final score: New York 3, Pittsburgh 2 in the shootout.

Postgame – The Penguins earn a crucial point in the standings and are now four points behind the two clubs tied for seventh place, Florida and Buffalo. The Hurricanes stay one point ahead, with 60, and remain in ninth position. 24 games to play, and the Penguins probably have to win 15 or 16 of them.

All in all, it was a fairly good effort by the Pens in Dan Bylsma’s first game behind the bench. I saw improvement defensively, even though both goals were scored from within ten feet of the goal. It would’ve been classic if Pittsburgh walked away from Nassau with two points, but they’re not about to get too upset over a shootout loss at this point. A few more of those this season and they’d be in playoff position.

Next game: At the Igloo vs. slumping Montreal Thursday night. 7:38 p.m. faceoff. They just get bigger from here.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Polish Prodigy Podcast #11

Fiancee Jillian makes her much-anticipated return to the PPP as Wife Jillian for the first time. Hear what she has to say about my rebirth as a Steelers fan this season, as well as the state of the Pittsbugh Penguins and the approaching spectre of MLB Spring Training.

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Polish Prodigy Podcast #10

Pittsburgh is Six-Burgh! The Steelers are champions of football again, courtesy of their topsy-turvy, thrilling 27-23 Super Bowl victory over the very game Arizona Cardinals.

Also, Rafa and Fed duel Down Under for the year's first Grand Slam and the Penguins head into their final 30 games outside of playoff position. 10 is a perfect number, and so is this podcast...riiiight.

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Polish Prodigy Podcast #9

It's the Polish Prodigy Podcast #9. Unrated. Uncut. Mildly entertaining.

Today the discussion centers around the Penguins' big win Wednesday and their upcoming schedule, the Steelers' kind of important game Sunday, and some crap on the Buccos.

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

National Hatred League: Animosity at All-Time High in NHL

Let me make sure I understand you, Chris Osgood.

You claim that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and by extension the entire league has it in for your Detroit Red Wings because stars Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom were forced to sit out Tuesday's tilt in Columbus, a 3-2 Blue Jackets overtime win, after skipping out on the NHL's All-Star weekend in Montreal.

Fair enough. I'll temporarily ignore that the franchise you're lucky enough to play for is probably the most popular one in America, that your team leads the NHL in road attendance while routinely selling out arenas as the visitor, and that the presence of the Winged Wheel played a large part in the very healthy ratings garnered by last year's Stanley Cup Final.

For now, I'll forget about the fallacious nature of your claims and your apparent paranoia and focus instead on the New York Yankees-caliber hate that you say is raining down upon Joe Louis Arena and its primary tenant.

I narrow in on the hate because there seems to be a tremendous amount of it spewing forth from various sources around the NHL, most of it directed toward other hockey-related entities.

As a public service, I have accumulated a rudimentary list of grievances floating through the National Hate, er, Hockey League in recent memory.

Here we go: Everyone hates the Red Wings because they win. The San Jose Sharks are chokers. Sidney Crosby is a whiner, crier, diver, Bettman sell-out, secondary-assist compiler and might actually be female. Alex Ovechkin is a hot-dogging caveman who shows up the opponent. Florida, Tampa, Atlanta, Nashville, etc. don't deserve an NHL team. Gary Bettman ruined hockey and may in fact be a David Stern-planted demon with designs on expanding the league to 42 teams. Sean Avery is a parasite who should never skate a shift again. Fans of the Blackhawks, Capitals, Penguins or any other team that recently experience a huge positive turnaround are bandwagoners.

Oh, and the All-Star Game stinks.

At the same time, let's not disparage legitimate on-ice rivalries like Detroit-Chicago, Canadiens-Bruins, Flames-Oilers, Sharks-Ducks, Rangers-Devils or any game involving the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Washington trio. These sublime confrontations are the gasoline that propels the NHL's engine.

But with the NHL playing from behind the NFL, MLB and NBA in the United States, does hockey really need to indulge in petty infighting?

Don't get me wrong, anger and animosity always draw attention from media and fans alike; however, all the time and energy wasted tearing each other down can probably be better channeled toward promoting the sport itself.

On the other hand, though, maybe the fact that puckheads everywhere are at each other's throats is a promising sign for the NHL. After all, you never hear anyone talk about "promoting the game" in the NFL because the players, coaches, GMs and owners are too concerned about beating each other's heads in to care about much else.

I'll let you folks decide for yourselves whether too much internal bickering is good or bad for the sport of hockey's general health.

For now, it's just jarring to see the sheer amount of hatred pulsing through the NHL's veins. In a passionate sport such as hockey, perhaps having some vitriol spill over the dasher boards is simply inevitable.

Although for this writer/fan, an honest on-ice battle beats an off-ice slam every time.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Polish Prodigy Podcast #8

The Polish Prodigy Podcast makes its heavily anticipated return, and this time it's recorded from the Great Lakes State, Michigan. Listen in to the discussion, which includes the Steelers' upcoming effort in Super Bowl XLIII and the Penguins' second-half push for the playoffs.

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hockey's International Flavor Bodes Well for Future of the Sport

As I watched a trio of Russian dynamos excite and entertain, a towering Slovak flex his shooting muscle (and, by extension, his stick), a young man from Ontario unleash his lightning-quick stride, and a journeyman goaltender from Flint, Mich., steal some of the Sunday evening spotlight by denying a man of Nigerian descent, all in the view of the second-largest Francophonic city in the world, I couldn't help but think one thing.

Hockey is the perfect sport for our modern, interconnected, globalized times.

I'll leave it to Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, and the rest of our worldly scribes to describe exactly how it's happening, but the fact remains that the political, ethnic, and religious boundaries that divide us are steadily fading.

In the country in which I reside, we recently inaugurated our first minority President to great and much-deserved fanfare. Furthermore, in a couple more decades Caucasians are projected to make up less than half of America's population.

This isn't your grandfather's world, it isn't your father's world, and heck, it isn't even your older cousin's world. (You know, the one who still lives with his parents.)

Applying this knowledge to the sporting landscape, it's easy to pick out the sports that appear to be the best equipped to thrive on a planet where "It's a Small World After All" isn't just a song from an old Disney movie—it's the truth.

Of course, soccer is uniquely positioned for expanded growth. Seemingly every nation cares about it, and it's extremely cheap to play, which is a part of basketball's appeal. Soccer is also the only major team sport in which international competition and regular league play share the marquee, giving it a two-pronged interest-generating attack.

Tennis is a sport played and followed worldwide as well. The four Grand Slam tournaments are competed on three continents, and at least five continents have produced significant characters in the sport's collective history.

Make no mistake though, hockey is third on the list of globalized athletics. While it has yet to create a meaningful foothold in Africa, South America, and Australia, the game inspires great passion across Europe and northern Asia in addition to the obvious Canadian hotbed.

Due largely to the presence of the sport's premier league, the NHL, many cities, states, and regions in America have contracted puck fever. Places like Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and the entirety of New England can rival any foreign counterpart in affection for the game.

Contrast hockey's international presence to basketball, baseball, and especially football. Hard to argue against hockey as the most prepared in that group of four for the incredible shrinking world.

Sure, baseball has Latin America and Japan, and basketball enjoys an increasing presence in Eurasia, but the composition of the Major Leagues and the NBA looks downright xenophobic compared with the cultural cornucopia that is the National Hockey League.

So enjoy the continuing exploits of Alex Ovechkin and Alex Kovalev, of Evgeni Malkin and Zdeno Chara, of Andrew Cogliano, Tim Thomas, and Jarome Iginla.

We as sports fans can either deny the globalization of our games or embrace it.

Meanwhile, we as hockey fans can be grateful our sport is so ahead of the times.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Alex the Grating: Ovechkin Needs To Act Like the Superstar He Is

Alex Ovechkin crafted a dominant performance in a pivotal game last Wednesday at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, helping his Washington Capitals to a slump-breaking 6-3 decision over the Penguins. His energy, physicality and irrepressible talent were on display, showing why many around the sport of hockey are deeming him the Best Player in the World.

Ovechkin's raw human magnetism is strong enough to draw in the elusive casual fan, plus his unique combination of skills is intriguing to hockey fans of any tenure.

Essentially, the man has everything going for him.

Everything, it seems, except a modicum of self-control.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I am an avid follower of the Penguins for more than a decade. Thus, I have an interest in Sidney Crosby proving that the Calder Trophy voters of 2006 got it wrong when they handed Ovechkin the prize for the NHL's top first-year player.

I am also emotionally invested in the Penguins staying on the top of the Eastern Conference food chain for the next decade, and from my perspective, the Capitals are the biggest threat to that outcome.

On the other hand, I am also a fan of the great game of hockey first and foremost. I have a true weakness for pure goal-scorers like Ovechkin, probably because that's the type of player I'd want to be if I were fortunate enough to play in the Show.

In all of sports, nothing compares to the moment when puck hits twine, and the gentlemen who have the ability to make that magic happen will always be held in high personal regard.

Keeping all this in mind, it still bothers me when a player of Ovechkin's statue resorts to the kind of disrespectful behavior that he engaged in early in last Wednesday's third period.

Upon pumping home the goal that gave Washington its first lead of the game, the 23-year-old Muscovite launched into his usual explosive goal celebration, something that I have no qualms with. I'm all for the expression of joy; that's what scoring is all about.

But when Alex skated by the Penguins bench and taunted the opposition at a decibel level high enough for FSN Pittsburgh's on-ice mics to pick up, my feeling of respect for the superstar wing faded to a blip.

Hockey boasts an honorable tradition of great players who compete hard, yet exude class and dignity. Especially when the cameras are on, sportsmanship should be a priority.

I'm not advocating for the elimination of personality from the sport. On the contrary, I think the outward and inward diversity of NHLers should be emphasized more than ever in this era of media-ready cliches and bulky padding and helmets that make the players look more like robots than human beings.

At the same time, the principles that built the game shouldn't be tossed aside for the sake of shameless attention-seeking. Ovechkin does a lot of things right, but his appearing to have a lack of respect for his opponents has the potential to undermine his undeniable talents. And that wouldn't be good for Alex or the NHL.

Once again, Ovechkin is a tremendous competitor, the epitome of a modern hockey player. He is leading the Capitals to places the franchise has never been while boosting the Q-rating of a league that desperately needs it.

I'll leave it up to public opinion whether he has passed Crosby and teammate Evgeni Malkin for the title of the NHL's most outstanding player, but it is still quite certain that Alex Ovechkin still has much to learn about how to conduct himself.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Plight of the Penguins: A Tough Month for the Defending East Champs

Approximately halfway through the National Hockey League's regular season, the expected contenders in the Eastern Conference have begun to ensconce themselves in playoff position.

Montreal, Washington, Philadelphia, and the New York Rangers are all in sixth place or better in the East, to no one's surprise. All four of those squads played postseason hockey last spring, and most around the game thought their prospects were just as good—or better—for the 2009 playoffs.

But wait, where are the defending East champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who were threatening to move into the conference's top spot after finishing November with a 14-6-3 record?

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, and company sit in ninth place (42 points) leading up to Monday's divisional dance with the Rangers in New York.

It is strangely coincidental that Pittsburgh takes the Madison Square Garden ice tonight to try to put an end to an extended stretch of poor play that arguably began during the team's previous visit to the World's Most Famous Arena.

The Penguins played their first game of December on the third day of the month and held a 2-0 lead halfway through the contest on Broadway. With Pittsburgh holding a 2-1 edge in the waning moments of the third period, Petr Prucha nailed the equalizer, helping transform the game into a 3-2 shootout win for the Rangers.

Including that squandered Dec. 3 standings point, Pittsburgh has posted a 5-10-1 record in the past month, collecting only 11 of a possible 32 points during that span. After racing out to the franchise's best start in more than a decade, the Penguins are now faced with the prospect of repeating the torrid second-half surge they've relied upon the last two seasons.

What appeared to be a short slide in the middle of December has turned into a legitimate season-threatening slump in recent weeks, tracing back to an embarrassing 7-3 home defeat at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada on Dec. 20. Leading into that pivotal night, the Penguins were looking like a return to form was imminent, with franchise goaltender Fleury back in the crease after a prolonged groin injury; spurred on by a superior effort from its goalie, Pittsburgh had blitzed Atlanta 6-3 just two nights before.

The trouncing administered by the Leafs effectively revealed just about all that has plagued the Penguins of late: spotty goaltending (Fleury let in a pair of soft goals early), impotent special teams (Pittsburgh surrendered three PPGs and scored one meaningless late goal in five man-advantage chances) and a lack of production from 21-year-old captain Crosby (zero points and just one shot).

That putrid formula has repeated itself more often than not since then, producing three more sobering losses at Mellon Arena and more moral victories—close losses to Montreal and Boston—than actual ones.

What has made this standings freefall even more vexing is the team's inability to put forth a strong effort in more than one category. For example, Fleury played quite well during the week of Christmas, surrendering eight goals in four games, only to watch his powerful offense produce just seven as the team went 2-2.

It is difficult to be consistently successful in the NHL without either a dangerous power play or a stifling penalty kill, and a large part of performing well in specialty situations is winning faceoffs. The Penguins lost crack draw man Mike Zigomanis to an undisclosed upper-body injury during the Dec. 3 loss (coincidence?), leaving a below-average faceoff squad without its clutch puck-possession catalyst.

Less easily explainable is Crosby's scoring swoon. The club's superstar centerman has looked no better than average over the last 16 games, curiously occuring on the heels of his spectacular hat trick against the Devils on Nov. 29. Is he hiding an injury? The NHL's king of making no excuses will likely never say publicly if a physical ailment is holding him back.

On a positive note, Crosby still ranks third in the league in scoring with 50 points (15 goals plus 35 assists trails only teammate Malkin and Alex Ovechkin), despite coming up scoreless in five of the Penguins' last eight games, probably the worst stretch of his transcendent four-year career. Make no mistake, though, the Pens need No. 87 to be his usual 1.5-points-per-game self in order to truly be considered a Stanley Cup contender.

Somewhere along the way to the current group's best regular season yet, the Penguins have run into a significant barrier, raising real doubt about the team's credentials for the first time in more than a year. As it stands now, Pittsburgh is only a single point out of the East playoff field, but expectations and early-season success dictate that ninth place is a real disappointment.

Beginning this evening in the Big Apple, the Penguins have a chance to respond to their detractors and pull off a third consecutive second-half rally. What better place to start another surge than the site where the snowball first began to roll downhill?