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January 15, 2016
by Bill West


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TribLIVE Penguins podcast: Winger woes

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Jonathan Bombulie, Ken Laird and I spent the better part of an hour on Friday afternoon trying to make sense of the Penguins’ plans for David Perron and Sergei Plotnikov. The latter is fading out of the lineup picture a little more each week. Perron can’t find his scoring touch, no matter who skates on his line. Is a trade necessary to liven up the Penguins’ left wing options, or will one of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-ups — Conor Sheary rejoined the NHL club Friday, and Tom Kuhnhackl continues to receive praise from coach Mike Sullivan — give the Penguins a little more production on that wing?

JB has everything covered tonight in Tampa. Click this to listen to us banter about Perron, Plotnikov and more during this week’s TribLIVE Radio Penguins podcast.

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January 13, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Replacing Bonino

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Nick Bonino didn’t practice with the Penguins this afternoon in Tampa after suffering an upper-body injury the night before in Raleigh. Coach Mike Sullivan said Bonino had flown back to Pittsburgh for further evaluation. Nothing official on this, and it’s obviously a good idea to wait to hear what the doctors say before speculating, but I get the sense we’re probably looking at an absence of weeks rather than days for Bonino.

Bonino has three goals and 10 points in 40 games, so replacing his even-strength production isn’t a major concern.

First, the Penguins will shift Eric Fehr to third-line center with wingers Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust. Fehr thrived at the 3C role with the Capitals last season.

Then, they’ll probably play Sergei Plotnikov on the fourth line with Kevin Porter and Matt Cullen. Plotnikov hasn’t produced offensively, but he’s a good possession guy down low, and that’s usually good enough for someone in a fourth-line winger role.

The real problem for the Penguins is replacing Bonino in two other areas — in the faceoff circle and on the penalty kill.

Bonino is second on the team and 29th in the league with a 53.3 percent winning percentage on faceoffs. Fehr is at 43.3 percent in limited duty this season, though he was at 52.0 percent last season.

On the penalty kill, Bonino is second to Matt Cullen among the team’s forwards in shorthanded ice time, and frankly, there’s a lack of viable options to replace those minutes.

Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust are probably going to get the first crack at it. Kuhnhackl is a good shot blocker and Rust is fast, so they have some of the skills required to do the job, but they’re green as grass. It’s not a lock to work.

The other options already on the roster aren’t great ones. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can kill penalties. They’ve done so in small doses throughout their careers. But let’s face it. You really would like to avoid having your top two centers out there blocking shots if at all possible. Chris Kunitz has performed well on the PK in a small sample this season, but I’m not sure putting more minutes on a 36-year-old winger’s plate is a great plan.

You’d love to see 21-year-old Oskar Sundqvist get the call to maybe center the fourth line and kill some penalties. He’s 6-4 with a great wingspan and he’s been used in a checking role in Wilkes-Barre this season. Two problems with that: First, Sundqvist has missed the last three games with an illness. Second, I get the impression the organization wants to bring him along slowly this year.

Bottom line: Depending on how long Bonino is out and how well his replacements fare, I think it’s possible Jim Rutherford might have to add a penalty killing forward to his wish list at some point.

Before I go, let me leave you with a chart. It’s the Penguins’ leaders in goals allowed per 60 minutes of shorthanded ice time this season. I think three things will jump out at you.

SH TOI GA GA/60
KEVIN PORTER 40:36 0 0.00
IAN COLE 91:59 3 1.96
CHRIS KUNITZ 20:38 1 2.91
OLLI MAATTA 50:57 3 3.53
EVGENI MALKIN 13:27 1 4.46
NICK BONINO 95:07 8 5.05
KRIS LETANG 83:07 8 5.78
BEN LOVEJOY 103:04 10 5.82
PASCAL DUPUIS 41:16 4 5.82
SIDNEY CROSBY 20:11 2 5.95
MATT CULLEN 111:00 11 5.95
ERIC FEHR 81:05 11 8.14
BRIAN DUMOULIN 39:09 6 9.20

First, Kevin Porter remains perfect on the PK.

Second, I think the prevailing sentiment is that Ian Cole is having an off year. These shorthanded numbers say otherwise. He’s been excellent on the PK.

Third, look how important Bonino has been. Slightly better than Cullen and significantly ahead of Fehr. Like I said, replacing him shorthanded won’t be easy.

Bye for now,

jb

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January 13, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Carolina postgame

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The Penguins fell to Carolina 3-2 on a Jeff Skinner goal in overtime tonight, but I think they lost the game in the first period.

They were on the power play for almost four of the first 10 minutes of the game, including nine seconds of five-on-three time, and barely threatened goalie Cam Ward.

He was threatened in a different way a few minutes later when a Phil Kessel wrister hit him between the eyes and knocked his mask off …

… but not threatened in a might-give-up-a-goal kind of way.

Anyway, Carolina had five shots on goal and, per war-on-ice.com. nine attempted shots, four scoring chances and one high-danger scoring chance. In other words, the Hurricanes did next to nothing in the first period and the Penguins didn’t make them pay.

So yeah, the Canes were the recipients of some very good luck on their second goal …

… and yeah, Evgeni Malkin shouldn’t have taken a hooking penalty in the offensive zone in overtime, but to me, the Penguins lost a point because they started poorly.

Sidney Crosby, evidently, agrees with that theory. Here’s what he said about the comeback he fueled with a pair of assists later on in the game.

“It’s just desperation. We saw the position we were in and got a little bit more desperate. That’s how we need to play from the puck drop.”

Mike Sullivan, it’s worth noting, didn’t agree with the first-period theory, not wholeheartedly anyway.

“I don’t think it was a great period as far as momentum was concerned, but I don’t think we gave up anything and I don’t think we were outplayed. We would have liked to come out with more energy and grab the momentum off the bat like we could have. I don’t think it was a case where we got totally outplayed.”

From a big-picture perspective, the Penguins got a point. They need those. But I think it’s safe to say this one goes in the Columbus/Toronto got-a-point file, not the Los Angeles/Chicago got-a-point column.

More from Tampa tomorrow. Bye for now,

jb

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January 12, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Carolina pregame

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At the halfway point of the season, only two teams — Washington and Florida — have managed to lift themselves up out of the cluster fighting for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Right now, there are 11 teams within eight points of the final six playoff spots in the East.

The Penguins and Hurricanes, who play tonight in Raleigh and then again on Sunday in Pittsburgh in the Game Whose Start Time Could Not Be Changed, are two of the 11.

The Penguins have been disappointing at times in the first half of the season and are probably not happy to be in that pack. The Hurricanes, who have probably been a little better than expected, are likely OK with being one of the 11.

However they got there, both teams are there, which makes these two games important ones in the standings.

Taking a little longer view, the Penguins play eight games between now and the all-star break. Five of them are against teams in that pack in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings. It’s an important stretch, therefore, which is a fact not lost on coach Mike Sullivan.

“We talked a little bit with our guys about the stretch of games before the all-star break and the opportunity that presents itself with that stretch of games,” he said after morning skate. “We’ve got to maximize that by playing the right way. It starts with tonight’s game. The focus has to be on the task at hand. Not looking head and not looking behind and making sure that we’re locked in.”

Some other pregame notes:

— The Penguins gave up power-play goals to Jordan Staal and John-Michael Liles and lost 2-1 to Carolina in the previous meeting between the teams Dec. 19. The Penguins haven’t allowed a power-play goal since, successfully killing 24 penalties over the last nine games.

“I didn’t even know that. Thanks for jinxing us, Potash,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said this morning. “No, I’m kidding, but guys are really working well together. It seems like guys are on the same page, when to pressure and when not to. Blocking shots has been key. Our goaltending has been great. It’s been a good stretch. Our PK has given us momentum.”

— Didn’t look like there will be any lineup changes tonight.

Kunitz-Crosby-Perron
Hornqvist-Malkin-Kessel
Kuhnhackl-Bonino-Rust
Porter-Cullen-Fehr

Maatta-Letang
Dumoulin-Lovejoy
Cole-Daley

Fleury-Zatkoff

Extras: Plotnikov, Warsofsky, Clendening

— On the Carolina side of the ledger, Jordan Staal is heating up. He has a goal and an assist in each of his last three games. He’s been streaky all year long. A little chart to illustrate:

FIRST 9 GAMES 0-0-0
NEXT 6 3-3-6
NEXT 7 0-0-0
NEXT 12 3-4-7
NEXT 7 0-1-1
LAST 3 3-3-6

Anyway, more on Staal online and in the paper tomorrow. And, as always, more after the game. Bye for now,

jb

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January 9, 2016
by Bill West


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Canadiens pregame

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Greetings from Montreal, where it’s raining and not nearly as cold as one might assume for early January.

The Penguins, a few days removed from a 3-1 loss to Chicago that actually looked worse than the score suggested, meet Montreal for the third time this season. The Canadiens won, 3-2, on Oct. 13 at Consol Energy Center to keep the Penguins winless to start the season. A 4-3 shootout home win over Montreal on Nov. 11 moved the season series to one win apiece.

Below are the Corsi event charts from hockeystats.ca. The Penguins, the dark blue line, encountered problematic lulls in each game. (The Nov. 11 chart reads 5-3 because it included the shootout goals, by the way.)

Mtl vs Pens Oct 13 CorsiMtl vs Pens Nov 11 Corsi

Much has changed since these teams last crossed paths. Gone are Mike Johnston, Pascal Dupuis and Beau Bennett (at least for a while longer). Coach Mike Sullivan and his cast of former Baby Pens (currently Kevin Porter, Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust and David Warsofsky) are new faces for the Habs.

What does the personnel turnover mean for the Penguins? For one thing, the new guys must find where they fit in the Penguins’ system, to say nothing of where they stand against NHL-quality competition.

Kuhnhackl, set to make his NHL debut, skated on a line with Nick Bonino and Bryan Rust at Saturday’s morning skate.

“Rusty is a guy that brings a ton of speed,” Sullivan said. “He can really skate. He brings a lot of energy. He’s a great puck pursuit guy. He can control the puck down low. Both him and Tommy are very responsible players at both ends of the rink. Tommy is a guy that goes to the net really well in the offensive zone. He’s got a real good ability to get his stick on pucks. He’s great at deflecting pucks, so any shots taken from the point, he’s good in that area of the rink. He can help in the offense that way. He’s strong on the puck, so he can play down low, underneath the hash marks. And he’s good on the wall. He’s good in our end zone. He’s s a terrific shotblocker. He’s a courageous guy and has a great ability to get in front of shots and deny them from getting to our net, so I think those guys have the ability to help a line at both ends of the rink, no matter which line they play on.”

Bennett, injured during Dec. 14’s game against Washington, is recovering from an upper-body injury, albeit at an unclear pace. Sullivan offered a murky assessment of Bennett, whose diagnosis called for him to miss four to six weeks.

“From my understanding, he’s on time with that process,” Sullivan said. “He’s making progress. … I don’t think he’s far off, but he’s not to the point yet where he’s a day-to-day decision. … I’ve never been a big believer in time frames, because I think you set yourself up for disappointment, because everybody reacts differently to injuries.”

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January 8, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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A meeting with Mike, Porter’s stats and lineup notes

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Associated Press

Associated Press

I wonder what Mike Sullivan’s video meeting with the Penguins was like before today’s practice in Cranberry. You know, the one where they reviewed the tape of Wednesday night’s brutal beating at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Judging by the above photo from earlier this season, you sort of suspect it wasn’t a pleasant room to be in.

But after practice, Sullivan said there was discussion of both good and bad.

“I just approach it matter-of-factly. We watched film this morning. I believe in seeing things for what they are. It’s the only way we can make progress and get better. We point out areas of our game where we played well and we have to continue to do to win, and we point out aspects of our game where if we don’t play the right way, it’s hard for us to win. The question I always pose to the players is, ‘Can we win if we play this way?’ I try to reinforce with them the areas of the game when we do play the right way, that we’re a pretty good hockey team. It always starts with an attitude. It starts with a work ethic and a certain energy level and a passion that you bring to the table. That has to be the foundation of our team and our team identity and then it builds from there.”

Some other notes:

— Make sure to check out the Penguins Roundtable podcast from today. Ken Laird and I talked about all sorts of things. I mentioned that I don’t think a top-four defenseman is actually the biggest weakness on the Penguins roster right now.

— Lineup today at practice looked like this:

Kunitz-Crosby-Perron
Hornqvist-Malkin-Kessel
Kuhnhackl-Bonino-Rust
Porter-Cullen-Fehr

Maatta-Letang
Dumoulin-Lovejoy
Cole-Daley

Plotnikov was rotating in with the Bonino line, so it’s not set in stone or anything, but it looks like the new kids — Kuhnhackl and Rust, just called up yesterday — will be his linemates. I’m not sold on Hornqvist as a left-winger, but it’s worth a try. He probably needs to play a few more even-strength minutes than he has been lately.

— Remember that list from the other day about the NHL forwards with the most shorthanded ice time this season without being on the ice for a power-play goal against? Good news for Kevin Porter. He’s now at the top. San Jose’s Brenden Dillon hasn’t been seeing as many shorthanded minutes lately, apparently.

KEVIN PORTER PIT 36:51
BRENDEN DILLON SJ 35:16
SCOTTIE UPSHALL STL 27:25
JOEL EDMUNDSON STL 24:46
VLADIMIR TARASENKO STL 24:49
NICK FOLIGNO CMB 24:05
ALEX KILLORN TB 23:19
DAINIUS ZUBRUS SJ 21:26

— Bill West is in Montreal. He’ll have you covered for tomorrow night’s game. If you’re not following him on Twitter at @BWest_Trib, what are you waiting for?

Bye for now,

jb

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January 7, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Chicago postgame

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Here’s how I think this season has gone so far for the Penguins:

1. Playing lackluster hockey but winning a good bit
2. Playing lackluster hockey and losing a good bit
3. Firing their coach
4. Adapting to a new coach
5. Playing a more dynamic game under the new coach and starting to pile up some points
6. This home-and-home with Chicago

They showed last night that they have the tools to compete at the same level as a team like the Blackhawks, even after falling behind 2-0. They showed tonight that they still have some things to iron out if they want to compete with those teams every night.

This was a 3-1 game that was nowhere near that close. I could quote the stats from war-on-ice.com that I like to quote after games — a 51-30 Corsi advantage for Chicago, a 27-15 advantage in scoring chances and an 11-5 edge in high-danger scoring chances — but you don’t need a calculator to see how dominant the Blackhawks were tonight.

I would blame the Penguins defense for not being able to get out of their own zone for much of the first period, but it’s not like the forwards did anything to possess the puck in the offensive zone either. Just a thorough beating by the Blackhawks.

I asked coach Mike Sullivan what he thought the series against Chicago proved about where his team is. He wasn’t interested in that question at all.

“I don’t really have any interest in trying to measure this team. I’m trying to get better every day,” he said.

That’s fine, a totally understandable coach’s mentality, but it doesn’t answer the question of what No. 7 is going to be. If it’s, “7. Looks good against everyone but the truly elite teams in the NHL,” there better be a No. 8 before the playoffs.

Some other notes from tonight:

— Marc-Andre Fleury was absolutely brilliant. It could have been 6-1 or so without him. He made a save on a Trevor van Riemsdyk shot from the slot with the knob of his stick that was almost impossible.

— Man, did Artemi Panarin look great in the last two games or what? Fleury said he’s got a great release. Two things about Panarin. First, he’s a 24-year-old with two 20-goal seasons in the KHL to his credit, so he’s not exactly an overnight success. Second, there are a lot of teams in the NHL — the Penguins included, I’m sure — who wish they’d have signed him last summer when they had the chance.

— Sidney Crosby on not making the all-star team: “There’s a lot of good players going there and deserve to go there. It’s just one of those things. Other guys have had great years.”

— Kris Letang on Crosby not making the all-star team: “It’s not because you don’t score the first 10 games, you don’t expect to be there. I think he’s a tremendous player in this league. He should have his name there too.”

Bye for now,

jb

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January 5, 2016
by Bill West


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Blackhawks pregame (kind of)

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No big news from today’s morning skate, which was optional, and therefore lacked most of the Penguins’  top forwards. Coach Mike Sullivan said the team had a very good practice Monday, so he didn’t see a need to make everyone show up for more work this morning, especially in light of the upcoming game schedule.

Games against Chicago on consecutive nights should illuminate whether the Penguins, responsible for 10 goals in their last two games, figured some great offensive secret right before New Years Eve, or if they’re simply seeing the results that their possession metrics (Corsi, Fenwick, xG…take your pick) suggested would come — but didn’t — during a good portion of December.

Here’s the fun thing about advanced metrics: They’re usually closer to the truth than skeptics care to admit. Sure, outliers exist, and sometimes trends that start out resembling flukes will become sustained reality. But often times, especially with a healthy sample size, extremes like the Penguins’ once-dreadful shooting percentage slide closer to the league average. At 5.51 percent, the Penguins, on the whole, still are below the league average (a little more than 7). But they’ve moved up in the past few days, and they’ve consequently turned close losses into decisive wins.

The point of this rambling is to direct your attention to the tweets embedded at the top and bottom of this post. These data-crunchers are much smarter than me when it comes to hockey metrics. And their research indicates there’s more good to come for the Penguins — potentially even a playoff berth, depending on who you ask. So for the folks who considered giving up on the Penguins as the losing streak dragged on last month: Chill for a bit longer, and trust the math.

 

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January 4, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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NHL Jam

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Not a lot of news coming out of Penguins practice today. Same line combinations as last game. No injury updates or call-ups or any of that. So I’ll tell you what you can watch for online and in the paper tonight and tomorrow, then we’ll do something fun.

First, I talked to Sidney Crosby, Trevor Daley and Ben Lovejoy about the challenges of an old-school home-and-home with the Chicago Blackhawks. NBC has Wednesday’s game as part of its Rivalry Night series, so I asked Crosby about whether a Crosby/Malkin vs. Kane/Toews rivalry is a real thing. He said he can see where that’s coming from.

Second, I talked to Mike Sullivan about line matching. I don’t think he does it as often as Mike Johnston did, but he has an interesting philosophy about it that you’ll want to read.

OK, now to the fun stuff. This talk about Crosby/Malkin vs. Kane/Toews got me thinking about NHL duos, which got me thinking about NBA duos, which got me thinking about NBA Jam. I picked two-man NBA Jam-style teams from all 30 current NHL rosters and ranked them. If you think I screwed any of them up, feel free to comment.

1. DALLAS — Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn
The cream of the crop. Like Charles Barkley and Thunder Dan Majerle.

2.PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin
Everybody’s on such high alert looking for a decline in these two, Crosby especially, but tell me you wouldn’t spend a buck to play as these two. Plus, they both have 10 points in their last seven games, so they’re on fire.

3. CHICAGO — Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews
A great scorer and a great two-way player. Maybe like Dominique Wilkins and Stacy Augmon, but better.

4. WASHINGTON — Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom
The Stockton and Malone of this exercise. Complement each other so well.

5. EDMONTON — Connor McDavid and Taylor Hall
There are no broken collarbones in NBA Jam, so drop in a few quarters and have a blast with these two.

6. ST. LOUIS — Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Steen
I could see a lot of quarters being spent on this duo. Young and exciting. Lots of Boom-Shaka-Laka.

7. COLORADO — Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene
An awesome duo from a less-than-awesome 23-man team. Maybe like Derrick Coleman and Drazen Petrovic from the Nets?

8. PHILADELPHIA — Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek
Another great two-man unit from a not-so-great 23-man team. Sort of reminds me of Larry Johnston and Kendall Gill from Charlotte.

9. DETROIT — Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk
Yeah, they’re old, but nobody’s going to spend four quarters to play as Dylan Larkin or Tomas Tatar.

10. MONTREAL — Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban
This is NBA Jam-style competition, so I’m not picking a defenseman unless he can create some offense. This is an underrated duo. Could win the whole tournament, if there actually were a tournament to win.

11. LOS ANGELES — Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty
This duo would be better at actual hockey than NBA Jam-style antics. Sort of like Mark Price and Brad Daugherty.

12. ANAHEIM — Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf
Guys you would have been more excited to spend some quarters on a few years ago. Maybe like James Worthy and Vlade Divac.

13. VANCOUVER — Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin
Remind me of Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley, for reasons I can’t quite explain. They’re kindred spirits who play the same style of game.

14. FLORIDA — Jaromir Jagr and Alexander Barkov
I think this is the team I would drop in four quarters and play as. Jagr’s a legend and Barkov an exciting youngster. Sort of like Kevin McHale and Reggie Lewis.

15. MINNESOTA — Zach Parise and Ryan Suter
All due respect to Mikko Koivu and Thomas Vanek and company, but these two are the faces of the franchise.

16. ISLANDERS — John Tavares and Kyle Okposo
Different styles. They remind me of Isaiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer for some reason.

17. BOSTON — Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci
Kind of a boring duo. Very good players, but not much sex appeal. Maybe you throw Zdeno Chara in there for some Dikembe Mutombo-style blocked shots.

18. ARIZONA — Max Domi and Oliver Ekman-Larsson
A couple of other exciting possibilities in Mikkel Boedker and Anthony Duclair or even crusty vet Shane Doan. A fun group to pick from.

19. TAMPA BAY — Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov
Hard to pick a second one for the Bolts. I went with Kucherov as a representative of the triplets. You might prefer Tyler Johnston or maybe Victor Hedman. Either way, I feel like this is similar to the Trail Blazers. You want to play with Clyde Drexler (Stamkos) but you also get stuck with Terry Porter.

20. RANGERS — Mats Zuccarello and Rick Nash
It’s a team built on defense and goaltending, so not a lot of great choices here.

21. CAROLINA — Eric Staal and Jordan Staal
It might have made sense to include Justin Falk or Jeff Skinner here, but I thought the brother gimmick would sell better.

22. OTTAWA — Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone
Not a lot of excitement here. I considered Kyle Turris, Mike Hoffman and Bobby Ryan too, but Stone’s run at the end of last season at least provides a little bit of juice.

23. NASHVILLE — Shea Weber and Filip Forsberg
The only team I considered going with two defensemen for. Sorry, Roman Josi.

24. CALGARY — Johnny Gaudreau and Mark Girodano
Exactly like Seattle in NBA Jam. You love nothing more than to play with Shawn Kemp (Gaudreau), but you have to live with Benoit Benjamin too (Giordano).

25. SAN JOSE — Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns
A difficult choice. Do you go with the old guys, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, instead? I thought the other two were more exciting.

26. COLUMBUS — Brandon Saad and Ryan Johansen
Maybe the hardest duo to pick. Nick Foligno? Brandon Dubinsky? Scott Hartnell? Cam Atkinson? Maybe that’s why they’re struggling. Who drives this bus?

27. NEW JERSEY — Mike Cammalleri and Adam Henrique
Took all of my willpower not to include Bobby Farnham.

28. BUFFALO — Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly
Could be a sleeper fun team to play as. Sort of like Wayman Tisdale and Spud Webb for Sacramento.

29. WINNIPEG — Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien
Not a lot of star power here. The Tom Gugliotta and Harvey Grant of this exercise.

30. TORONTO — Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk
Maybe you throw Dion Phaneuf in there. I don’t know. Not a lot to choose from here. Getting a Derek Harper and Mike Iuzzolino vibe.

Bye for now,

jb

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January 3, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Islanders postgame

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I think taking a look at war-on-ice.com’s advanced stats for tonight’s 5-2 Penguins win over the Islanders is very illuminating.

You can look here, but I’ll summarize.

The Islanders held a huge 68-48 Corsi advantage in five-on-five situations. The only Penguins player with a positive Corst plus-minus was Sidney Crosby, and he was only plus-1. The Islanders held a 36-28 advantage in even-strength scoring chances and the high-danger scoring chances were tied 12-12.

Make no mistake, though. This was a laugher. The Penguins were up 5-0 in the first 35 minutes of the game and were never really tested. So what gives? How did the Penguins win so convincingly if the five-on-five possession numbers went against them? Four things.

One is somewhat pedestrian. The score effect was almost certainly in play after the Penguins took such a big lead.

The other three are big factors in the outcome of the game.

1. SPECIAL TEAMS

In a strength-on-strength matchup, the Penguins’ suddenly scorching power play victimized the normally airtight Islanders penalty kill two of the first three times it stepped on the ice. Crosby finished both times, on the rebound of an Evgeni Malkin shot in the first period and by coming off the wall and wiring a shot in under the crossbar in the second. The Penguins are now 9 of 23 on the power play in their last seven games.

Also, the one time the Islanders went on the power play, Matt Cullen scored shorthanded. He also assisted on Phil Kessel’s goal in the first period and had an all-around strong performance.

2. GOALTENDING

Marc-Andre Fleury was actually quite sharp in his return after missing nine games with a concussion. It wasn’t his most high-pressure game, since the Penguins held a multiple-goal lead throughout much of it, but a 38-save showing after being out three weeks is nothing to overlook.

Thomas Greiss, meanwhile, did what he could for the Islanders, but he was overmatched in this one.

3. BLOCKED SHOTS

The Penguins blocked 17 shots in the game, including three each for Ian Cole and Olli Maatta. The Islanders blocked eight. Blocked shots can sometimes be used as a statistical indicator of commitment and hard work. I think that was true in this case.

Some other notes from tonight:

— The Penguins are 4-1-1 in their last six and have moved within two points of a playoff position. There are still a jumble of teams in the mix, so it’s not like they’re one win away from the finish line, but it’s something.

— Crosby and Malkin each have 10 points in their last seven games.

— First-line forwards Crosby, David Perron and Chris Kunitz combined for 10 shots on goal in the first period. That’s a lot.

— In my pregame blog post today, I had a list of the NHL players with the most shorthanded minutes this season without being on the ice for a goal against. You can scratch Thomas Hickey. He was on for Crosby’s second power-play goal. And you can add 43 seconds to Kevin Porter’s total.

The Penguins have tomorrow off, so check back for the next blog post after Monday’s practice.

Bye for now,

jb

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