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Chipped Ice

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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January 2, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Islanders pregame

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Marc-Andre Fleury has recovered from his concussion and is scheduled to start tonight against the New York Islanders.

Now here are some numbers you might not believe. It’s a comparison of Fleury before the concussion this season to Jeff Zatkoff and Matt Murray during his nine-game absence. The stats are almost identical.

Not saying Fleury isn’t valuable. He obviously is. Look at the difference in win-loss record when he’s been out. Just saying Zatkoff and especially Murray performed well when called upon.

 

W-L-OTL GAA SV%
FLEURY 13-10-1 2.29 0.925
ZATKOFF/MURRAY 3-5-1 2.24 0.924

Some fans might be upset that Murray was sent down instead of Zatkoff, but this is an all-time no-brainer when it comes to making sure a young kid keeps playing to keep his development on the right path.

Murray will play two or three times a week in Wilkes-Barre. He’d play two or three times a month behind Fleury. That’s no schedule for a 21-year-old goalie.

— In other lineup news, Ian Cole will play after missing the last two periods of the Detroit game with an undisclosed injury. The morning skate lineup looked like this:

Kunitz-Crosby-Perron
Cullen-Malkin-Kessel
Sheary-Bonino-Hornqvist
Porter-Fehr-Plotnikov

Maatta-Letang
Dumoulin-Lovejoy
Cole-Daley

Extras: Wilson, Warsofsky

— There’s a glaring matchup that could make all the difference in tonight’s game: the Islanders penalty kill against the Penguins power play.

The Islanders have the second-best PK in the league (87.3 percent). The Penguins have been hot lately, going 7 for 19 (36.8 percent) in their last six games.

Here’s what coach Mike Sullivan had to say about it:

“They play well together as a unit and they’re very aggressive. Especially in zone, they’re going to make our guys work for puck possession, be close to one another to support the puck to try to beat their pressure. When you look at some of the better penalty kills in the league, they have that aspect of their game. When they do apply pressure, it’s cooperative pressure as a group and it’s hard to beat sometimes. I think they’ve got some players, like a Frans Nielsen for example, that’s quick, that skates well. He’s got a good stick. Their skill sets lend to being a good penalty killer. For me, the one thing that jumps out watching them is just their aggression. We’ve got to be ready to handle the pressure if we’re going to continue to have success.”

— People have asked me why Kevin Porter is getting playing time over Wilson, Plotnikov or some other potential Wilkes-Barre call-up like Dominik Simon.

The answer is penalty killing and this stat paints that picture. Porter has 32:27 of four-on-five ice time this season. The team hasn’t given up a goal while he’s been on the ice.

Here’s a list of every NHL player this season with at least 20 minutes of four-on-five ice time who has not been on the ice for a power-play goal against.

BRENDEN DILLON SJ 33:51
THOMAS HICKEY NYI 32:30
KEVIN PORTER PIT 32:27
SCOTTIE UPSHALL STL 27:25
JOEL EDMUNDSON STL 24:46
VLADIMIR TARASENKO STL 23:35
NICK FOLIGNO CMB 22:56
ALEX KILLORN TB 22:46
TAYLOR CHORNEY WSH 21:56
DAINIUS ZUBRUS SJ 20:07

More after the game. Bye for now,

jb

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January 1, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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What it means to play smart

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A very optional New Year’s Day practice in Cranberry today. Ian Cole and Scott Wilson shooting on Marc-Andre Fleury under the watchful eye of goalie coach Mike Bales at one end of the ice and Trevor Daley skating with his young son at the other. (In case you were wondering, yes, the younger Daley has his dad’s wheels.)

Coach Mike Sullivan said Olli Maatta was fine after getting banged up late in last night’s 5-2 Penguins win over Detroit. He said he would have to check with trainer Chris Stewart before giving updates on Fleury and Cole.

Cole didn’t provide details about the injury that kept him out of the last two periods of last night’s game, but you can probably read between the lines here.

“There’s some protocols you’ve just got to go through. I’ll leave it at that,” Cole said, adding that he hopes to play against the Islanders tomorrow.

Even though there wasn’t much happening on the ice, it didn’t mean today’s exercise, from a sports writer’s perspective, was a waste of time. Had a good chat with Cole about the Leo Komarov boarding incident with Kris Letang the other night. Talked to Sullivan about his power play, which is 7 for 19 over the last six games. You can read about those topics online or in the paper later.

Also got some good insight from Sullivan about what he means when he says the team didn’t play smart, like he said after the 3-2 shootout loss to Toronto the other night. That phrase means different things to different coaches.

To Sullivan, there are the basics that would apply no matter what team he is coaching.

“Positional stuff. It’s awareness away from the puck. Knowing where the threats are when we don’t have the puck, when we’re defending as a group. That recognition aspect and awareness aspect is an important part of playing smart and playing with more purpose.”

Then there is the nuance of playing smart on a team that has as much world-class skill up front as the Penguins have. Sullivan explains.

“I talk to them about the top half of the offensive zone. We don’t want to play one-on-one hockey there. We want to play two-on-one. If it results in a one-on-one circumstance, that might be an instance where we move the puck and we don’t try to challenge a stick or we don’t try to challenge one-on-one in that area of the rink because it’s a dangerous area. That’s an example, I think, of just some rules of thumb we’ve tried to give our guys, some guidelines just to help them so their antennaes will be up as far as managing the puck. Certainly we have some real skilled players who want to make plays. We want them to. We’re encouraging them to. What we’ve asked them to do is recognize the circumstances where it’s simply not the right play and we’ve got to make a simple play. When we do that, I think our team’s much more difficult to play against.”

Those are two areas you can keep an eye on in upcoming games to see if the Penguins really are playing smarter under Sullivan. Are they calmly aware of where the threats are in the defensive zone or are they scrambling around? Do they use discretion when trying to create high in the offensive zone or are they turning pucks over in that part of the rink?

The answers to those questions can very well separate a win from a loss.

Check back for blog updates tomorrow. I’ve got morning skate and the game against the Islanders covered.

Bye for now,

jb

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December 31, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Toronto postgame

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So, Matt Murray stole the Penguins a point tonight.

He was a little bit upset that he couldn’t steal them two.

Murray made saves on three breakaways — plus the rebound of the last breakaway — in the final 21 minutes of regulation, but was beaten by Peter Holland and P-A Parenteau in the shootout and the Penguins got a point but lost a game 3-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Clink the link. You’ll laugh.)

You’d have to think Murray had all the confidence in the world heading into the shootout, given the one-on-none stops he made on Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak in the previous period and a minute, but he had no success in the tie-breaker.

I wondered what the difference was, in a goalie’s eyes, between a breakaway in the run of play and a shootout attempt.

‘There’s a couple things. In the shootout, you can come in and slow or as fast as you want. In the game, there’s back pressure. It forces guys to make their decisions a bit earlier, make their plays a bit quicker. Really not a whole lot different, though. I just gotta come up with the save there in the shootout.”

Murray has no right being hard on himself, of course. He was outstanding. Neither does Sidney Crosby. He played a strong game, scoring one goal and setting up another as the Penguins answered each time the Leafs took a one-goal lead.

Aside from those two performances, there’s not a lot for the Penguins to like about this one, however.

I know I wrote a whole story the other day about how they need to collect loser points, but this wasn’t the night for it.

The Leafs were coming off a 6-3 loss to the Islanders at home the night before and were starting the same goalie that got lit up for six goals on 15 shots in that game.

The Penguins were too sloppy all over the ice and not desperate enough around the net. There’s been great improvement in two and half weeks under Mike Sullivan, but teams that are serious contenders don’t lose games like this at home in late December. More improvement, obviously, is necessary.

Some other notes:

— Kris Letang, back in the lineup after missing a game following a shoulder to the chin from Minnesota’s Jarret Stoll on Saturday, got clobbered again. Driven more or less head-first into the boards by Leo Komarov late in the first period. Letang was ordered to the locker room for medical evaluation, but returned after just a few minutes.

You would assume, given the combination of pending litigation, a Will Smith movie in theaters near you and common human decency, that the NHL wants to get hits like the ones Letang received out of the game. Handing out major penalties for direct shots to the head might be a good place to start. I mean, seriously. Stoll and Komarov both got minor penalties.

— I thought Phil Kessel had a good game. It seemed like he generated a ton of scoring chances and only was held off the scoresheet by a couple of ridiculous Jonathan Bernier saves. But then I looked at the numbers, and the line of Kessel (-6 Corsi) with Nick Bonino (-4) and Scott Wilson (-7) had the worst possession numbers for Penguins forwards at even strength. Maybe a case of my eyes deceiving me.

— Those same numbers portrayed a rough night for the pair of Olli Maatta (-8) and Letang (-9). My eyes agree with those numbers.

— Ben Lovejoy, who skated in practice with a full shield after taking a skate to the face Sunday, played with his regular half-shield. Without incident, as far as I could tell.

— Looking ahead to tomorrow, there’s an interesting New Year’s Eve matchup at Detroit. The Red Wings owned the Penguins in the preseason, but they’ve lost 3 of 4 at home and 6 of 8 overall.

Interesting goaltending decision for Sullivan for that one. I think I’d go with Jeff Zatkoff, even though Murray was so good tonight. Detroit is Zatkoff’s hometown, and he was great there the one start he made at Joe Louis Arena in 2013. I’d try to recapture some of that.

Bye for now,

jb

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December 29, 2015
by Bill West


3 comments so far - add yours!

Ben Lovejoy and Major Facepain

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Several of the ailing Penguins at practice on Tuesday looked sharp and close to lineup-ready.

  • Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury faced shots for the first time since he went to coaches and disclosed concussion symptoms on Dec. 14. He spoke after practice and seemed quite chipper. 
  • Defenseman Kris Letang, who took a shoulder to the face Saturday and, because of his history with concussions, sat out of Sunday’s loss as a precautionary measure, coach Mike Sullivan said. (Letang was in and out of the locker room before media arrived.)
  • Defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who left Sunday’s game in Winnipeg after a skate slice his face open, skated with a full protective face shield at practice to guard the stiched-up gash on his right cheek.

Timetables for Fleury and Letang’s returns don’t exist yet. Letang paired with Olli Maatta, but what Sullivan will do if Letang does not play Wednesday was not discussed. The coach also shed no light on what he’ll do with Matt Murray and Jeff Zatkoff once Fleury returns, so save those questions for later.

Lovejoy, however, will play Wednesday. With a full face shield.

Penguins fans, at least those on Twitter, feel some type of way about Lovejoy. Much of their criticism, at least when expressed articulately, is fair. But this much is clear: Lovejoy will speak to the media and expand on thoughts at a time when few of the stars want to regularly answer questions and even fewer will explain vague answers.

Even when talking about his history with face injuries, Lovejoy provides insight.

“Unlucky that I got hit in the face with a skate,” he said, “but I was very lucky with how things turned out. Not much pain. A little bit of discomfort. I guess my visor had a huge scratch in it from the skate hitting the visor, and if that’s not there, then that’s my eye. I got about an hour’s worth of stitches after the game.”

A reporter asked Lovejoy which injury was worse, Sunday’s skate slash or 2011’s swollen face incident. Watch the video for a refresher…

Lovejoy said the swollen face still tops his list of injuries.

“That hurt so much more. I couldn’t play anymore with that because I had no peripheral vision. I couldn’t see down. This doesn’t affect my vision at all. This will probably leave a much bigger mark, but I’m OK.”

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