Some quick hits on a typically dreary January Monday in Pittsburgh:
= The Penguins were to practice, but coach Dan Bylsma’s reward for a tough-earned extra point at Ottawa on Sunday was an unscheduled off-day. Penguins play four times this week, so rest will be welcome – especially from defensemen who played heavy minutes at Ottawa because of an early injury to Matt Niskanen.
= Niskanen is being re-evaluated by club personnel after his hard slide into the boards at Ottawa. There was no update on his status as of noon Monday.
= While hosting “Penguins Live” on 105.9 HD-2 Monday morning, the topic of “Penguins Most Consistent Player Through Five Games” came up on Twitter. The winners were RW James Neal and D Paul Martin, but a few folks suggested D Brooks Orpik, and that would be my pick.
This, of course, is to say nothing of the superb performances from Neal (four goals) and Martin (less his production by the return of his smooth mix of aggressive-patient play, highlighted by that silky skating).
Orpik has been outstanding; though let’s agree to trust the old Eye Test rather than stats, which tend to be all over the place unless they relate to scoring.
Physicality? Yep. Sharp decision-making? Indeed. A calming presence for Martin? Absolutely. Solid own-zone positioning? Sure. Leadership? Always.
This Orpik is a lot like the player who was not bothered by abdominal issues each of the last two seasons. He is too proud to ever use those injuries as an excuse, but Orpik was never fully himself the last two years.
He is back to being an imposing force for the Penguins, and the result may be his best stretch of hockey since the Stanley Cup run of 2009.
= Another topic on the radio was a perceived spat between C Evgeni Malkin and Neal, one caught by Root Sports Pittsburgh cameras during the Ottawa game.
Probably unfair to comment, given I was not there and have not talked to either player as of this blog.
That said; know a couple of things about Malkin and Neal:
* Both players have said that a secret to their success it neither guys holds back, verbally, on the ice. Also, it is something Neal has discussed with the roving players that have worked in on the left-wing slot – basically, Malkin is direct and to-the-point when it comes to on-ice chatter. LW Eric Tangradi confirmed during training camp that Neal warned him Malkin wouldn’t be shy about pointing out perceived problems. Being able to handle Malkin, who is as demanding of himself as any player I’ve covered, is part of the territory that comes with occupying space with him on the ice. Neal is not a shy player when it comes to speaking his mind either. Hence, he and Malkin can be engaged in a normal conversation, but one that may appear animated. It probably was less animated and more just two guys making sure they were on the same page. I’ve seen that before from Malkin and Neal. Many times.
* Malkin is not pleased with his own play right now. He has confessed feeling a huge responsibility to produce on almost every shift early during this season because he, unlike teammates, is not playing off the rust. That does not excuse his poor decisions with the puck, but it does explain his push to try doing more than necessary – a hallmark of his past struggles. If there are signs, visibly, that Malkin is anguished, you can be sure it is because he is disgusted with himself. I’ve covered the guy for seven years and know him fairly well (by reporter-player standards), and I can say with confidence he is not happy with his own play right now – and he believes he is not doing enough to help the Penguins win. That has always been the only concern he has expressed, publicly or in private. He feels like he has to be “on” to help the Penguins win right now. His anguish stems from that, and should be viewed with that perspective in mind.
–D Simon Despres has not dressed for two straight games, and the Penguins have let inquiring clubs know he is available for the right price. The Penguins are targeting a young winger, much like Neal, who can be part of the long-term future. They want a player whose rights they control and one who can grow into a prime role in Pittsburgh. It will take that type of player to get Despres.
There are players who have been linked to the Penguins in exchange for Despres, but none of those players meet the requirements the Penguins believe are necessary to move their first-round pick from the 2009 NHL entry draft.