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.