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February 20, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Postgame: Blue Jackets 2, Penguins 1

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Sidney Crosby hardly ever fights.

Seven times in his career. Six in the regular season, once in the playoffs. Three times since Nov. 3, 2010.

Yet there was Crosby, dropping the gloves Thursday in the second period of a 2-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at Consol Energy Center, taking on Brandon Dubinsky.

I asked Crosby what triggered the fight, and he didn’t offer much.

“Nothing really,” Crosby said. “It wasn’t much of a fight anyway.”

Dubinsky was a bit more expansive, telling our Josh Yohe:

“I hit him in the corner. He tried to pulled me down. I was holding on to him. We both got up. He dropped his gloves. I obliged and dropped mine. He’s a competitor. Any chance you get a chance to trade off and take one of the best in the world to the box for five minutes, I’ll take it.”

Coach Mike Johnston said it was an “emotional” fight, the kind that happens between star players, not goons.

He also sounded less than interested in having one of his two franchise centers do such a thing.

“On occasion,” Johnston answered when Josh asked him if he was OK having his captain fight. “Those types of fights, they’re emotional fights. When top players go at each other in the game or the top player drops his gloves, it’s an emotional fight. Sometimes the other ones are a little bit more, where two guys bang together, they’re pretty tough guys, and they go at it.

“Sid showing that type of emotion, I think that’s positive. I wasn’t here for it, but I know what happened in the playoff series (in 2013-14). They had a long battle in that playoff series, Dubinsky and Sid. I think that was part of the carryover (Thursday).”

I wrote for Friday’s print product about the Penguins’ failure to elevate their game following Crosby’s fight and a key, five-on-three penalty kill late — things that should have theoretically given them some momentum. Enough to finally score on the power play, you would figure.

But that didn’t happen.

The Penguins continue to be maddeningly inconsistent. Let’s look at their past 10 games.

2/19 vs. Blue Jackets, 2-1 L (shots even)
2/17 vs. Capitals, 3-1 L (shots even)
2/15 at Blackhawks, 2-1 L (SO) (plus-5 shots)
2/12 at Senators, 5-4 W (SO) (minus-4 shots)
2/11 vs. Red Wings, 4-1 W (minus-3 shots)
2/7 at Canucks, 5-0 L (plus-4 shots)
2/6 at Flames, 4-0 W (plus-9 shots)
2/4 at Oilers, 2-0 W (plus-4 shots)
2/1 vs. Predators, 4-0 L (minus-3 shots)
1/30 at Devils, 2-1 W (OT) (plus-29 shots)

Grading simply pass or fail, here’s what my report card would like, starting with the Devils game and working forward: pass, fail, pass, pass, fail, pass, fail, pass, fail, fail.

Dead even, of course.

Chris Kunitz had three assists in Calgary and the game-tying goal late against New Jersey. In the other eight games? One assist.

Evgeni Malkin has three goals but no assists in the eight games since he returned from a groin injury. Crosby has seven points in those games and four goals, but the goals have been confined to two games.

The Penguins have been outscored 9-4 in their past 10 third periods.

“I think you have to look inside yourself and find a different level,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said. “There are certain things, whether they are mental or physical mistakes, that you just can’t make late in games. It takes each guy in here figuring that out.”

Some other nuggets from Thursday:

=Beau Bennett struggled. He was demoted to the fourth line for a stretch in the first period and played just 9:53.

=Kris Letang played 28:09. In a game that ended in regulation, mind you. That’s the 12th consecutive game Letang has led the Penguins in ice time, and this one wasn’t even close. Paul Martin was second at 21:10.

=Malkin scored the Penguins’ lone goal, his 22nd of the season. He has never NOT scored against Columbus. In nine games, he has 4-7–11.

Club practices at Southpointe on Friday. at 11:30 a.m. Talk you from there.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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February 19, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Pregame: Penguins vs. Blue Jackets, 7 p.m.

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Don’t be fooled by the Blue Jackets’ record or their place in the standings. Columbus is a solid hockey team, one the Penguins know well and one they’ll try to get right against tonight at 7 at Consol Energy Center.

“They’re a tough team to play against,” Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said. “They’re fast. They work really hard. They have some skill, and their defensemen are active. Their record does not indicate the way they play. It’s going to be a tough battle again.”

The Blue Jackets are 25-27-3 and have 53 points — 20 shy the Penguins (32-16-9). They’re tied for sixth place in the Metropolitan Division and are not exactly planning for the third playoff appearance in franchise history.

But they do have two quality scorers in Ryan Johansen (21-31–52) and Nick Foligno (22-30–52), and the Blue Jackets have found an offensive groove of late, scoring 26 goals over their past six games for an average of 4.3 per contest.

“Columbus is a hard-working team, very disciplined in their structure,” Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. “They play a gritty game, much like they did against the Penguins last year in the playoffs.”

Johnston also praised the Blue Jackets’ forwards. He didn’t name names, but it’s likely he was talking about the trio of Brandon Dubinsky (3-2–5), Matt Calvert (2-1–3) and Cam Atkinson (2-1–3), who have combined for 7-4–11 since being put together as a line three games ago.

“As they’re getting healthy now, they have some pretty good balance in their forward lines,” Johnston said. “They’ve got some grit. They’ve got some skill. I like their balance in their group of forwards.”

Why aren’t the Blue Jackets better?

The beginning of the season — and injuries — did them in. They’ve lost an NHL-high 353 man-games to injury. And, after opening with wins in four of six, the Blue Jackets endured a 2-13-2 funk from Oct. 24-Nov. 29.

They rebounded by going 12-2-1 from Dec. 1-Jan. 6, but the damage was done.

Other stuff to watch out for tonight:

=The Penguins’ power play is 0 for 18 over its past eight games. Without a goal tonight, they will officially be in the worst power-play funk of Sidney Crosby’s career.

=The penalty kill has hit the skids. The Penguins are tied for fifth in the league at 85.1 percent, but they’ve allowed a power-play goal in 10 of their past 15 games, killing just 35 of 47 penalties (74.5 percent) during that stretch.

=Crosby has a 10-game point streak against Columbus, during which he has 5-7–12. Evgeni Malkin has played eight games against the Blue Jackets and has scored in all of them, total of 3-7–10. Marc-Andre Fleury has won three straight starts against Columbus.

Team-wise, the Penguins are 10-1-2 against the Blue Jackets since Oct. 21, 2006, and they wouldn’t mind falling back on history given their recent struggles against Metropolitan Division teams.

“We’ve talked about that a lot,” Crosby said of the Penguins’ record (7-10-4) against division foes. “It’s an area we need to improve upon. For whatever reason, we haven’t found a way to be successful.

“Consistency in our game is important. We’ve had a few games where we didn’t give ourselves a chance against division opponents. I think lately we’ve been playing a little bit better, so hopefully that translates into more wins.”

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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February 18, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Postgame: Capitals 3, Penguins 1

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The numbers don’t lie.

And they’re not good.

Power play, penalty kill, record in the division, you name it.

Coach Mike Johnston praised the Penguins’ penalty kill following a 3-1 loss to the Capitals at Consol Energy Center on Tuesday.

“I thought our penalty kill was great tonight, to be honest,” Johnston said.

Fair enough.

The man’s entitled to his opinion.

But the PK allowed two goals on five chances. Yes, I know a bad change on the first, a fluke goal. A five-on-three on the second. But it’s the 10th time in 15 games they’ve been scored upon. The Penguins are 34 for 47 on the PK (72.3 percent) during that span.

“Other than a five-on-three goal, we limited their chances, and they (scored) from the corner backdoor,” Johnston said. “That’s a broken play. (Alex) Ovechkin’s dangerous on that backside circle. I thought our adjustments on our penalty kill were really good tonight to take that away.

“I liked how (Nick) Spaling blocked a couple shots. I have a lot of confidence in our penalty kill throughout the year, and I think they’re fine.”

Again, his words. Which obviously mean a heck of a lot more than mine.

The power play hasn’t been much better. Goose egg for three Tuesday. Goose egg for 18 over the past eight games.

The split power plays showed a new wrinkle Tuesday.

Sidney Crosby started with Blake Comeau and Patric Hornqvist on the first, then regular linemates Chris Kunitz and David Perron on the second.

Seven shots. Some of them even quality chances. No goals.

“We had some decent chances,” Crosby said. “I think we’ve moved the puck around fairly well. Besides capitalizing, I think we’ve done a better job here the last couple games.”

Defenseman Derrick Pouliot was a little bit more honest when talking about the power play.

“I think we got a couple good chances,” Pouliot said. “We still need to execute a little better, I think. I know one time myself, I lost it up top there when I probably shouldn’t have. We have to start converting a little bit, but we got some good looks.”

The third ugly number has to do with how the Penguins have fared against the Metropolitan Division, where one point separates second and fourth.

The Penguins are 7-10-4 against division opponents but 2-7-2 against the Rangers, Capitals and Islanders — the teams they will see soonest in the playoffs.

They’re 25-6-5 against non-Metropolitan Division teams.

“That’s our opponent generally for the playoffs,” coach Mike Johnston said. “Yeah, we’ve got to play better against Metropolitan opponents.”

Club practices Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. Talk to you then.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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February 17, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Pregame: Penguins vs. Capitals, 7 p.m.

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The Penguins don’t want to be stuck in neutral Tuesday night against the Washington Capitals.

Chances are, it won’t result in good things.

After two frustrating losses to the Capitals, neutral-zone play will be a focal point tonight at 7 at Consol Energy Center.

“They played a tight-checking game,” forward Nick Spaling said of a 4-0 loss at Washington on Jan. 28. “They didn’t give us a lot of space.

“We have to make sure we’re getting pucks in behind them. We don’t want to turn it over. They have a good transition game. The last two games we fed that a little too much. We gave them pucks back and let them make plays off it.”

The next goal the Penguins (32-15-9) score against the Capitals (30-17-10) will be their first of the season.

They’ve fired 58 shots off of Washington goaltender Braden Holtby, and not one of them has gone in.
Meanwhile, they’ve committed 17 giveaways. Washington has been credited with 11 takeaways in the two games so far this season. Much of the damage has been done in the neutral zone.

“The neutral zone is an area where they play really well,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “They make us turn the puck over, and they counterattack and score big goals. We have to manage the puck through the neutral zone.”

The Capitals have a dominant third line of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward. They’re also one of the bigger, tougher teams in the league. But the Penguins will be doomed Tuesday if they don’t have better neutral-zone play.

They felt they were pushed to the outside during the teams’ last meeting, the one Spaling referenced. That resulted in too many easy stops for Holtby.

“The faster we can move it in transition through the neutral zone, the less other teams are set up,” coach Mike Johnston said. “I thought we did a good job (Sunday) against Chicago. We were very good in the neutral zone.

“How we play as a team against Washington has to be better than how we played in the previous two games.”

Watch tonight. The Capitals play a 1-1-3. They’ll confront the puck-carrier in his own zone and force him to make a decision. The Penguins hope they’re able to make the right ones — and quickly.

This will mean zipping the puck ahead to forwards quickly and smartly and essentially bypassing this whole thing.

If they’re able to, as they like to say, get the Capitals’ defensemen turned out, things should work out well for the local club.

“They play that 1-1-3,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “We’ve had a couple teams play that against us. For us, it’s just managing the puck better through the neutral zone and making sure we get it in deep. Spend some time in their end.”

Notes: The Penguins have won five of eight and have points in nine of 12 (6-3-3). … They have a 2.43 goals-against average that would rank third all-time in franchise history (2.29 in 1997-98, 2.39 in 2010-11). … The third line of Spaling, Brandon Sutter and Beau Bennett has six points in three games together. … Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals (36), and Nicklas Backstrom leads in assists (43). … Washington is third in the NHL in points by defenseman with (126). They finished 22nd in that category last season.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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February 16, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Mackey: Do they always do this?

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CHICAGO – They couldn’t believe it.

Sitting in a bar/restaurant at the top corner of Johnny’s IceHouse West in Downtown Chicago, the legendary Mike Lange to my left and a couple of Blackhawks writers to my right, the local guys were astonished at how the Penguins were practicing, how intense.

Do they always do this?

Always this physical?

Don’t the players hate Mike Johnston?

Does anyone get hurt?

Well, yes, yes, I don’t think so and yes.

I hadn’t thought about this for awhile: the look of the Penguins’ practices. Was a nice reminder. Lange and I agreed that this was one of their best practices of the year, but, yeah, they were going at it hard.

Odd-man rushes. Battles in the corner. Five-on-five work. A lot of intensity. The kind of stuff you expect when you cough up four goals in the third period two nights prior.

But it’s a shame what happens when you see something all the time: You take it for granted. The Blackhawks guys were impressed because they had seen nothing like this.

Given Chicago’s success, is there something to taking it easy at practice? I don’t know. Maybe. Two Stanley Cups within the past half-decade sure says it might be.

But this is also a new Penguins regime, a new practice style, and we don’t know yet whether this way of doing things works or stinks.

Lange calmly explained that the Penguins had the day off Thursday, that they had to get the legs moving – stuff that someone with 40 years of experience and in the Hockey Hall of Fame would think to say, not my silly explanations.

Still, the crowd kept at it.

“If (coach Joel Quenneville) did this, that would be the headline of every Chicago newspaper the next day,” one writer said, “ ‘Q puts Hawks through their paces.’ ”

Johnston was simply holding a practice, in a different city, on a Friday afternoon. They would eat Jimmy John’s later, go back to their hotel and relax.

Following a certain drill – one based on tipping pucks in front – I said to the Blackhawks writers: Watch, bet the losing team skates sprints. Sure enough, they did. The writers couldn’t believe it.

Told them, too, about Johnston’s end-of-practice sprints that started during training camp and have continued through the regular season, the same ones my colleague Josh Yohe loves capturing with his iPhone camera.

More disbelief.

Again, does this mean anything? I don’t know. But Johnston, in 56 games as head coach of the Penguins, has proven to have a different way of doing things.

Whether it works come playoff time will tell whether it was truly innovative or just plain stupid.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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February 14, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Pens Roundtable podcast

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CHICAGO — What to make of the Penguins’ third-period collapse Thursday?

What’s up with Beau Bennett?

How big of an impact does Blake Comeau have on this hockey club?

Solid questions, all of them. And ones that Josh Yohe, Ken Laird and I tackled on this week’s Pens Roundtable Show on TribLIVE Radio.

If you missed it, you can listen here.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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February 12, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Postgame: Bennett plays against Red Wings

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Forward Beau Bennett made a surprise return to the Penguins’ lineup during Wednesday’s 4-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings at Consol Energy Center.

A healthy scratch in four of the team’s previous five games, Bennett didn’t take line rushes at the gameday skate but played right wing on a third line with center Brandon Sutter and left wing Nick Spaling.

“I was told after the pregame skate,” Bennett said. “I had a feeling after we lost last (Saturday), 5-0, (at Vancouver). There’s always usually a shakeup after something like that. It was great to get back there and get back in the win column as well.”

Bennett finished with a relatively quiet stat line: a blocked shot attempt and one giveaway, and he was a plus-1 in 14:38.

He did, however, go to the front of the net on Spaling’s second-period tip-in of a Rob Scuderi shot.

Coach Mike Johnston noticed.

“I actually thought that Beau did some good things,” Johnston said. “The Spaling goal, Beau’s at the net. Beau’s right there in front of the net. Those are some of the things that he’s got to add to his game. I thought in the compete areas he was good.”

The Bennett saga has been strange to me.

Why have him not take rushes, then all of a sudden start him?

Well, there’s more to it. One, Detroit is a skating team, Johnston said.

“After the morning skate, I really thought about … I wanted to get him in this next sequence of games,” Johnston said. “I thought tonight, Detroit is a skating team, they’re a skill team. I thought it would be a good game for him to get back in to. It’s at home. We can get our matchups, if there’s any concern about a matchup.”

First, management is in no hurry to force Bennett back in for a couple of reasons.

One, he hasn’t even played 82 NHL games yet — 68, to be specific. He’s not exactly an NHL regular or owed a specific set of minutes, the thinking goes.

Second, they wanted to see how he responded to the benching. (The verdict was good; they loved his hour-plus workout in Calgary.)

Third, they don’t want to force Bennett back and not have him work on specific areas of his game such as net-front play, thus setting this process back to zero.

Although he admitted this is tough to take, Bennett seems to be on board.

“I think it’s more mental than anything,” Bennett said. “Just getting over the stuff I’ve gone through in the past with injuries, you have to put that behind you and know that you can battle and not have to worry about tweaking something here or there.”

In fact, Bennett understood Johnston’s decision … or at least said he did.

“I knew I wasn’t going to play in Edmonton,” Bennett said. “We shut them out. Then in Calgary, we shut them out. If I was the coach, I wouldn’t change anything up, either.

“I kind of knew what to expect and was glad to get back out there tonight.”

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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February 11, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Pregame: Penguins vs. Red Wings, 8 p.m.

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The Penguins will look to bounce back from a 5-0 shutout loss at Vancouver on Saturday against a familiar foe Wednesday at Consol Energy Center when they face the Detroit Red Wings at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Network.

“We had a good day off yesterday to kind of get refreshed again,” center Brandon Sutter said. “Everyone should be feeling pretty good for tonight. First game after a road trip; should be excited. We just need a good start, to come out with some jump, and we should be all right.”

Forward Blake Comeau (broken wrist) took the morning skate and will be a game-time decision. That said, many of the quotes circulating around the dressing room today would indicate Comeau is playing.

Comeau has missed the past 20 games – since Dec. 22 at Florida. He ranks fourth among wingers and sixth overall with 11 goals.

“It was kind of a freak accident,” Comeau said. “Being out that long wasn’t easy. I’m excited to be back. Hopefully I can pick up where I left off.”

“I like what he’s done so far this year, his body of work,” coach Mike Johnston said. “He’s a big, physical guy. He can skate. Tonight is going to be a skating game. It’s great to have him back … and available for a game like tonight because we’re going to need that speed.”

“He’s a great person,” forward Patric Hornqvist added. “He’s always smiling and laughing. He brings good energy in the room. It will be good to have him back.”

The Penguins (30-15-8) face a tough task in the Red Wings (31-12-9).

Not only does Detroit boast the league’s best power play at 25.5 percent, but it also has won nine of its past 10, three in a row, and occupies third place in the Atlantic Division with 71 points – three more than the Penguins.

Center Henrik Zetterberg leads the way with 47 points, while left wing Tomas Tatar has a team-high 23 goals.

“They’re really good in the neutral zone,” Hornqvist said of the Red Wings, who rank fifth in goals for (2.94) and sixth in goals against (2.36). “If we turn the puck over, it’s going to be dangerous. We need to be strong on the puck in the neutral zone and get their defense turned every single time they’re on the ice.”

The Detroit power play has been hot, too. The Red Wings are 4 for 12 over their past three games. Gustav Nyquist leads with 12 power-play goals and 20 power-play points.

“Guys like Zetterberg, they want the puck,” Sutter said. “They’re going to make plays. Just try to limit how good of a scoring chance they have.”

Petr Mrazek will get the start in goal. He’s 8-1 with a 2.54 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage while filling in for Jimmy Howard, who was placed on injured reserve with a groin injury Jan. 11.

Howard is healthy, but coach Mike Babcock doesn’t want to disrupt a hot Mrazek.

It will be Marc-Andre Fleury for the Penguins, with Thomas Greiss expected to start Thursday in Ottawa.

The Penguins have earned points in four straight (2-0-2) against Detroit. They’ve won three of the past four at home. Their last, and only, loss to the Red Wings at Consol Energy Center was Dec. 13, 2011.

Fleury has a shutout streak of 131:40 and is 10-1-2 against the Atlantic Division.

Other goodies from this morning: Arizona claimed forward Mark Arcobello off waivers. He becomes the third NHL history in history to play for four teams in one season. … Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff skated on his own early, but Johnston doesn’t expect him on the upcoming road trip to Ottawa and Chicago.

Quotable: “I was on the bench watching. Maybe I closed my eyes. I don’t remember,” Kris Letang, Penguins defenseman on the final sequence of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.

Zetterberg on the sequence: “If you want to have one player with a chance in the end, it’s probably Nicklas Lidstrom. We gave it a shot. You want a different outcome, but that’s sports.”

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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February 6, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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More Agnew on Letang

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CALGARY, Alberta — Penguins defenseman Kris Letang is having a Norris Trophy-type season.

What, didn’t notice?

Neither have others, seemingly.

I wrote about that for Friday’s print edition: simply how spectacular Letang has been and how, for whatever crazy reason, he’s not being put in the same conversation at Kevin Shattenkirk of the St. Louis Blues or Calgary’s Mark Giordano, who the Penguins will see Friday.

For the story, I talked to assistant coach Gary Agnew, who’s easily one of the friendliest and most helpful folks around the team. Smart man, too.

I asked Agnew what’s different about Letang to explain his January explosion and general fine year — two injuries notwithstanding.

“He’s picking his spots and not getting caught up in as much traffic as he had been earlier,” Agnew said. “Part of his vision on the ice is finding the seams and the holes. Then the timing that goes with that, getting into those seams and holes opposed to rushing and getting himself caught up in it.”

You can check out the numbers in the print story. Don’t want to waste time here on them. Quick spoiler: They’re good. They put Letang perfectly in line with the past five Norris Trophy winners and at or near the top of this year’s class.

Not that you’ll hear his name regularly mentioned among the NHL’s elite defensemen, or at least among those who have won the award in the past.

Agnew brought up an interesting point when he said things like this tend to get legs when the player is hot heading into Canada, especially Western Canada. No lie, I laughed at first. Hear Agnew out, though.

“When you get to Canada, a lot of times that heats up a bit,” Agnew said. “You get a couple calls of, ‘What’s going on with Letang?’ I think people are taking notice.”

I asked Agnew whether anyone had called him. He said he’s fielded numerous phone calls from friends and fellow coaches — people in the business — about his stud defenseman.

I also asked Agnew who Letang reminded him of the most. Paul Coffey was the first name out of his mouth. Then Shattenkirk and Montreal’s P.K. Subban.

“His ability to get in and out of the play and still play the other side of the puck, for me, that was Coffey as I remember him,” Agnew said. “A more modern-day guy, I’d have to think about it. He’s in that realm of the Shattenkirks and the Subbans.

“For me, that top four or five guys in the league.”

Flames tomorrow. Cool building, cool city from what I’m see.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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February 4, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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How valuable is Evgeni Malkin?

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EDMONTON, Alberta — The Penguins will welcome center Evgeni Malkin back to their lineup tonight at Rexall Place.

Perhaps with a police escort. Or maybe a rolled-out red carpet.

Yeah, he’s that important.

“Definitely someone who’s tough to replace,” Sidney Crosby said. “It’s nice to see him coming back.”

Is it ever if you’re a Penguins fan.

Let’s look at some numbers:

=Malkin has tallied at least a point in 34 of 45 games. That’s roughly 76 percent. To compare, Crosby has points in 27 of 46 games or 59 percent.

=In those 34 games, the Penguins are 24-7-8 for a winning percentage of .824. In the 11 games where Malkin has not scored, the Penguins are 4-7 (.364).

=The Penguins have scored just nine goals in the five games Malkin has missed because of a groin injury, an average of 1.8. For the season, they average 2.5.

=In the 11 games where Malkin has not recorded a point, the Penguins are a combined 1 for 34 on the power play.

OK. So why the dramatic shift?

Well, for one, opposing teams can dictate matchups … and smother Crosby’s line. If the Penguins are on the road, the opposing coach can use exactly how he wants to defend Crosby’s line without having to worry about a second wave coming. Or, to be fair, vice-versa with Crosby if the coach chooses to match Malkin’s line.

“We have to be sharp on the bench and try to get the best matchup we can,” Oilers coach Todd Nelson said. “Sometimes it doesn’t always work out that way.

“When you have a team like Pittsburgh coming in that has a lot of different options that they can go to for offense, we just have to be playing a very strong team game.”

Malkin’s absence has also forced Brandon Sutter to center the second line with Patric Hornqvist to his right.

It’s oil and water.

Sutter is a straight-line center and responsible defensively. He does a lot of things but creating offense is not one of his strengths. Hornqvist relies on someone creating for him, allowing him to work around the net. You get a diluted version of Hornqvist without Malkin.

The numbers, albeit a small sample size, bear it out.

Since returning from an 11-game absence because of a foot injury on Jan. 27 against Winnipeg, Hornqvist has 10 shots (2.5 per game average), one goal (an empty-netter) and is a minus-3 in four games playing on Sutter’s line.

The other 33 games Hornqvist has played? He’s a plus-12. He’s averaged 3.6 shots per game. He’s scored 13 goals.

OK, all I got for now. Pens/Oilers tonight at 6 my time, 8 o’clock yours.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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