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May 11, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Maatta excused from morning practice

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NEW YORK – Rookie defenseman Olli Maatta did not skate with the Penguins at a morning practice at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, and his status is not known for a potential clinching Game 6 against the Rangers.

Maatta was sent back to the Penguins’ Manhattan hotel upon arriving at the Garden on Sunday morning. Several Penguins teammates implied he was not feeling well.

Coach Dan Bylsma did not provide an update on Maatta, who has played in all 11 of the Penguins’ playoff games. Team policy is not to divulge details of players’ medical conditions during the playoffs.

The Penguins are already without defenseman Brooks Orpik, who did not play in Game 5 after not finishing Game 4. Orpik also did not practice on Sunday.

Orpik’s latest injury is different from one that forced him out for five previous games before his Game 4 return. The Penguins do not project Orpik will play in a Game 7 (if necessary) against the Rangers or perhaps at the start of a potential Eastern Conference final.

Deryk Engelland, who has not played since April 12 in the penultimate game of the regular season, skated as one of the Penguins’ top six defensemen at practice on Sunday.

The Penguins lead a best-of-seven series with the Rangers, 3-2. Game 6 is at 7 p.m. on Sunday night. A win would  return the Penguins to the Eastern Conference final for a second consecutive season and the fourth time since 2008.

 

>> Game 6 is the chance for the Penguins to prove they are different: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6082939-74/penguins-game-games#axzz31PXOA4St

 

>> With the “Insider,” Josh Yohe examines the Penguins’ lacking killer instinct in clinching spots: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6092834-74/penguins-yohe-game#axzz31PXOA4St

 

>> Led by Derick Brassard, Rangers’ line owning playoffs, writes Jason Mackey: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6092768-74/brassard-pouliot-rangers#axzz31PXOA4St

 

>> Contributor Denis Gorman on the anticipated next emotional game for the Rangers: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6092914-74/rangers-game-louis

 

>> A missed opportunity leads the notes from Saturday provided by Mackey: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6082949-74/scuderi-game-penguins#axzz31PXOA4St

 

If you are lucky enough to do it today, hug your mother – a lot. Do it tomorrow, too. Make that a habit, actually.

Oh, and as always, be EXCELLENT to each other

Rossi

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May 9, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Latest on St. Louis and Orpik

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It’s a hockey night in Pittsburgh (credit: Mike Lange), but a thought on this Friday for Rangers winger Martin St. Louis.

His mother, France, died unexpectedly on Thursday – casting doubt as to if he will play in a possible elimination Game 5 against the Penguins.

Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News has the story: http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/hockey/rangers/blueshirts-thin-ice-entering-game-5-article-1.1785426

Thoughts and prayers with the St. Louis family; a loss like this is never easy, that it happened a few days before Mother’s Day cannot make it any easier.

Life – specifically, the families we are born into then build – is bigger than hockey, work, everything. Everybody, myself included, loses sight of that far too often.

 

>> Defenseman Brooks Orpik did NOT participate in the morning-skate practice on Friday. He did not finish Game 4 on Wednesday night after returning from a five-game absence.

 

>> The Rangers are not practicing at Consol Energy Center on Friday morning.

 

>> Josh Yohe reports on the Best Year Ever for Jussi Jokinen: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6078169-74/jokinen-game-goal#axzz31EFtiGqC

 

>> The Insider examines why the Penguins now look like a club establishing an identity: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6063756-74/penguins-rossi-rob#axzz31EFtiGqC

 

>> The Penguins want to wrap this series now, as Jason Mackey reports in his notes from Thursday: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6078177-74/game-bylsma-penguins#axzz31EFtiGqC

 

>> Contributor Denis Gorman looks at the struggles of Rick Nash that personify those of the Rangers: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6078268-74/nash-rangers-team#axzz31EFtiGqC

 

>> A special treat from one of the Trib’s most gifted scribes, Chris Togneri, on a local tailor to the stars (hockey players included): http://triblive.com/news/allegheny/6073734-74/jersey-pro-feeney#axzz31EFtiGqC

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other – (and call your parents, if you can),

Rossi

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May 7, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Marshall: Metrics make Fleury’s case as Pens’ big difference maker.

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Note from Rossi: Jesse Marshall, a local hockey blogger, has agreed to share his unique brand of analytical insight on this blog. His contributions will appear on an as-we-think-of-it basis. Enjoy.

>> FACTORING FLOWER’S BLOOM

The New York Rangers have faced a lot of problems over the last 120 minutes of hockey in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs:

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby appears at the beginning of resurgence after a slow start. Also, the series’ schedule – six games in nine days, perhaps the most oft-discussed issue – hasn’t helped in the fatigue department.

But the largest looming issue the Rangers haven’t been able to address lies in the Penguins goal. When the final whistle sounded on Game 3, Marc-Andre Fleury was able to accomplish something that no other goaltender in Penguins history has: consecutive playoff shutouts.

With so much negativity surrounding the Penguins goaltending situation at the start of the regular season, Fleury has found himself in the middle of addressing any and all questions about his ability to play well in big games.

The numbers back up that he looks to be back to a long-ago playoff form.

Let’s start the evaluation of Fleury’s play by looking at even-strength save percentage. Fleury currently sits at a .950 save percentage at 5-on-5 play, a number that’s .009 behind Boston’s Tuukka Rask for tops in the playoffs, and .006 ahead of the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist.

Fleury also currently sits at fifth with an overall goals-against average of 2.22. When you consider the Penguins are averaging 3.11 goals per game these playoffs, that’s a pretty large disparity between goals-against and goals-for.

But, to take the metrical analysis a step further, let’s quantify what Fleury’s performances this postseason mean in a tangible goals-against manner by looking at Goal Differential.

Goal Differential is a statistic that measures how many goals a goalie has prevented above the league-average at the position. In this calculation, we look at the average save percentage among all starters in the postseason with at least five games played. This comes out to .916 percent.

Through a short calculation, we can surmise how many goals Fleury has allowed above the league average goaltender.

Through his first nine games, Fleury’s Goal Differential at even-strength is 6.2 – meaning he has allowed 6.2 less goals at even-strength than the league average.

Think back on the Penguins first nine games. Add in six extra goals scored by the opposition. That’s enough to perhaps prevent the Penguins from being in Round 2, let alone carrying a 2-1 series lead.

One thing is for certain: Fleury is seeing the puck as well as he has all season. If the Penguins continue to play solid defense in front of him, the Rangers will continue to have their work cut out for them.

Jesse Marshall is co-founder of Faceoff-Factor, a site that breaks down the Penguins by using nontraditional methods such as the study of advanced statistics. Read his work at www.faceoff-factor.com. Follow him on Twitter @jmarshfof

 

 

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May 6, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: A year later, Fleury firmly ‘The Man’ for Pens

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It’s a weird part of the job, really.

Even while covering a Stanley Cup playoff series, somebody in this position – that of beat reporter – views what is happening with an eye toward how it might impact the approaching offseason. Early Tuesday morning, for example, a thought occurred:

Marc-Andre Fleury is about to get paid, again.

What a difference one year makes.

Fleury, the Penguins’ franchise goalie, was not a factor this time last season. His erratic play in Round 1 had contributed to the Penguins’ then 2-2 series tie in Round 1 against the New York Islanders, and veteran Tomas Vokoun had replaced him as the starter.

Until Game 5 of that series last May, Fleury had literally been the only Penguins goalie to start a playoff game during the Sidney Crosby era. After the Penguins were eliminated from the East final, there were some people within the organization who doubted if Fleury would be the go-to goalie for the second half of Crosby’s era.

By now, everybody knows he worked – at the Penguins’ mandate – with a sports psychologist in the offseason. Everybody knows that he was assigned a new goaltending coach, Mike Bales.

What not a lot of people know is that Fleury remained in weekly contact with his old goaltending coach, Gilles Meloche. The traded texts and phone calls throughout the season, but Meloche said they rarely talked about the position each played in the NHL.

“With Marc, I care about him a lot,” Meloche said. “We are very close. We talked a couple of times a week, but it was just two friends talking about our lives like any friends would.

“I think the only time we talked about hockey was when I’d say, ‘You’re looking great out there.’ I’m so happy for him.”

There is a long way to go in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the Penguins, who lead their best-of-seven Round 2 series, 2-1. They do not even have half the required wins to become champions.

However, Fleury is at a 2.22 goals-against average and .925 save percentage through nine games – and with back-to-back shutouts, and his play to finish off Game 6 in Round 1 when the Penguins appeared to stop playing after taking a 4-0 lead at Columbus, there is mounting evidence that he is recapturing that long-ago “Big Game Goalie” form.

A year ago, there was a question – not from within the organization – about whether Fleury was a candidate for one of two compliance buyouts that every NHL club was granted after the lockout.

Now, after a sixth straight regular season with at least 35 wins, and because of his strong start in the playoffs, extending the contract of their franchise goalie will be a top priority for GM Ray Shero this summer.

 

>> Speaking of those compliance buyouts, something to keep in mind: The Penguins have each of their two remaining, but both must be used before next season or they no longer exists. Also, ONLY contracts signed under the previous labor agreement are eligible for compliance buyouts. Players signed as free agents or to extensions last summer can be bought out, but not at full cap relief.

 

>> It’s hard not to believe Alain Vigneault is the right man to lead the Rangers going forward. His squad lacks the weapons to wage postseason combat with the Penguins, and the Rangers are dealing with one of the most disadvantageous schedules in recent playoff history. Still, Vigneault had never made that schedule an issue publicly, and his players are leaving everything they have on the ice. The Rangers still need some scorers – ones whose best seasons were not with other clubs – but they have the right coach.

 

>> So do the Penguins, by the way. Yeah, nobody wants to hear that; but people that do not think Dan Bylsma can coach never will at this point. Look at what he did with a team that lost 529 man-games to injury during the regular season? Look at what he’s doing this postseason, which is presiding over a team that is transforming into one mentally tough enough to overcome franchise centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin scoring a goal in only three of the opening nine playoff games.

 

 

AND NOW, THE TUESDAY #TRIBHKY LINKS…

>> Criticized externally from Day 1 of the season, the Penguins were their own worst critics after Game 3 of Round 2. Thing is, they won: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6061698-74/vigneault-louis-nash#axzz30u9hbo5w

>> A Flower flourished under the Garden’s bright light, by Josh Yohe: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6061689-74/fleury-penguins-rangers#axzz30u9hbo5w

>> The Rangers need their stars, and their coach knows it, write contributor Denis Gorman: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6061698-74/vigneault-louis-nash#axzz30u9hbo5w

>> A local product faced his hometown team in the playoffs, which leads the Game 3 notes: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6061695-74/game-penguins-nhl#axzz30u9hbo5w

>> Columnist Dejan Kovacevic hated what he witnessed from Marc Staal in Game 3. So should the folks running the NHL, he opines: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6061679-74/crosby-staal-nhl#axzz30u9hbo5w

>> THIS photo from our Chaz Palla shows what Dejan is getting at:

ptr-pens-rangers01-050614

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

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May 4, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Is series – and Pens’ future – on the line in Game 2?

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For the second time in three playoff home games, the Penguins face a pivotal point in their series – and, probably, their future.

They trail the New York Rangers, 1-0, in a best-of-seven affair. Game 2 is at Consol Energy Center on Sunday night, with Game 3 at Madison Square Garden on Monday night. So, in a span of about 48 hours, Round 2 could swing wildly.

Avoiding a 0-2 hole is more important than it might seem to the Penguins, who are led by several players that twice overcame such series deficits during the Stanley Cup run in 2009. Each of those 0-2 holes came with Games 3 and 4 set for Pittsburgh – Mellon Arena, where the Penguins were a lot more dominant on the 2008 and 2009 Cup Final runs.

The Penguins went 18-3 at home at the Igloos over those postseasons. They are just 9-10 at home in the playoffs at Consol Energy Center, and have dropped Games 1 and 2 of series at home each of the last two postseasons – to the Flyers (2012) and Bruins (2013).

Since twice rallying from 0-2 holes in 2009, the Penguins have not exactly handled that specific adversity well. They went just 2-4 in series games after those deficits to Philadelphia and Boston, falling behind 3-0 in each circumstance.

So, indeed, Sunday is big for the Penguins.

Lose, and all that external pressure that players acknowledged was internalized negatively during Round 1 – yeah, all of it becomes a real factor again. Coaches, players, maybe even members of the front office, will be wondering about their jobs if this series against the Rangers goes to a bad place quickly.

The Penguins cannot lose in by an unceremonious trouncing for a third consecutive postseason. That just will not sit well with a couple of successful people that happen to be the majority co-owners.

 

>> Our #TribHKY Sunday cover story looks at the leadership of franchise centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6044885-74/malkin-penguins-crosby#axzz30cWB7C7J

 

>> With the “Insider,” Josh Yohe examines the home overtime woe that has befallen the Penguins: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6043898-74/overtime-penguins-game#axzz30cWB7C7J

 

>> Jason Mackey examines the impact a Staal – Marc, not Jordan – can have on a playoff series: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6044903-74/staal-rangers-game#axzz30cWB7C7J

 

>> Yohe with some newsy notes, led by the readiness of Brian Gibbons: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6044895-74/gibbons-penguins-game#axzz30cWB7C7J

 

>> Columnist Joe Starkey suggests playing with James Neal might spark the slumping Crosby: http://triblive.com/sports/joestarkey/6044872-74/sid-stempniak-game

 

Good luck, Marathoners. What a great day for Pittsburgh with the big race, a Pirates home matinee and an evening Penguins playoff tilt.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

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May 2, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Marshall: Metrical look at Penguins-Rangers

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Note from Rossi: Jesse Marshall, a local hockey blogger, has agreed to share his unique brand of analytical insight on this blog. His contributions will appear on an as-we-think-of-it basis. Enjoy.

>> Not the Same Old Rangers

Previewing this series with advanced metrics tells us one thing about the New York Rangers – they aren’t the John Tortorella-version of seasons passed.

The Rangers can still play defense, but they’ve been doing it by keeping the puck in the offensive zone. The Rangers had a Corsi-For percentage – Corsi-For is the sum of all on ice shooting attempts – of 51.1 percent.

Driven by their top line of Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, and Derek Stepan, a trio which averaged 60 percent Corsi-For percentage and accounted for four of the Rangers 15 even-strength goals in Round 1, the Rangers are keeping the puck out of their net by playing in the opponents offensive zone.

The Penguins ended their series against Columbus with 12 goals scored at even-strength and a 54.2-percent Corsi-For. The Penguins were second in that possession-based metric behind the Minnesota Wild at 58.8 percent.

The Penguins were paced in the possession department by Sidney Crosby (61 percent) and Evgeni Malkin (57 percent). Expect one of these two centers to face the Rangers shutdown pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonough.

It was a rough first series for those two defensemen, with Corsi percentages below 50 percent and a few goals against at even-strength to boot. If McDonough is not healthy, as many reporters are suggesting, Crosby and Malkin may be able to exploit that.

The Rangers only allowed six goals at even-strength against Philadelphia, a number that was topped only by the Boston Bruins at four. However, both goaltenders for the Penguins and Rangers sport some of the best even-strength numbers in the playoffs.

Marc-Andre Fleury is third in even-strength save percentage with a .948 through the first six games. Henrik Lundqvist is directly ahead of him with a .957.

These are two teams that won their first round series via distinct puck possession advantages and extended periods of keeping the puck out of their offensive zone. For the first time in a long time, it will be the Penguins-Rangers series that is predicated on speed, skill, and the ability to extend the play offensively.

Jesse Marshall is co-founder of Faceoff-Factor, a site that breaks down the Penguins by using nontraditional methods such as the study of advanced statistics. Read his work at www.faceoff-factor.com. Follow him on Twitter @jmarshfof

 

 

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April 30, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Marshall: Martin’s mastery of playoffs continues

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Note from Rossi: Jesse Marshall, a local hockey blogger, has agreed to share his unique brand of analytical insight on this blog. His contributions will appear on an as-we-think-of-it basis. Enjoy.

 

 >> Positively Paul Martin Magic

If there’s been one constant in the last two playoff runs for the Penguins, it’s been defenseman Paul Martin.

Martin’s mobility and hockey sense have put him at the top of nearly every statistical metric for the Penguins in the last two postseasons. He has 19 points in his last 21 playoff games. Also, Martin found continued success against the Blue Jackets, registering three of his eight assists at even strength and leading the Penguins defensemen in possession metrics.

Sixty-one percent of all shots taken that were not blocked when Martin was on the ice were shots attempted at the Columbus net. That number paced the Penguins by 5 percent over rookie defenseman Olli Maatta.

To get a gauge of how good of a percentage that is, it currently puts Paul Martin fourth in the NHL among playoff defensemen – 6 percent behind the Minnesota Wild’s Marco Scandella.

Martin has also been staunch on the defensive side of the puck. The Penguins allowed eight even-strength goals this series. With 106 minutes of even-strength ice time, a number that was again tops for the Penguins, Martin was only one the ice for one goal against at five-on-five hockey in the first round.

In fact, 83.3 percent of all the goals scored when Martin was on the ice in the first round were by the Penguins – another number that is good for the team lead. It isn’t just a recent trend. Martin finished ninth in the NHL for the 2013 playoffs with 62 percent in that regard.

With a repeat of his series against Columbus, Martin has the chance to sneak into the top 20 all-time in playoff scoring for the Penguins. He currently sits tied for 26th spot with former winger Troy Loney at 22 points, one point behind former center Petr Nedved’s 23.

With Brooks Orpik potentially out to open Round 2, the likelihood is that Martin continues to see big minutes for the Penguins moving forward. With all the action created when he’s on the ice, Penguins fans should be very comfortable with that.

 

Jesse Marshall is co-founder of Faceoff-Factor, a site that breaks down the Penguins by using nontraditional methods such as the study of advanced statistics. Read his work at www.faceoff-factor.com. Follow him on Twitter @jmarshfof

 

 

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April 28, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Orpik likely unable to play in Game 6

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – Brooks Orpik is likely to miss a second consecutive Stanley Cup playoff game for the Penguins on Monday night.

Orpik, a defenseman, did not participate in a morning practice at Nationwide Arena. Instead, he spent time riding a stationary bike outside the visitors’ dressing room. Orpik was not wearing any braces on either his knees or ankles, and did not have any part of his mid- to lower-body areas wrapped in ice or heat.

Orpik did not play in the Penguins’ home Game 5 victory on Saturday night. Team policy is not to provide specifics regarding injury during the playoffs, but Orpik walked gingerly after the contest.

Whatever the injury, it is limiting Orpik’s ability to skate confidently.

With Orpik out, defenseman Robert Bortuzzo would make his second consecutive appearance for the Penguins, who can advance to Round 2 with a win  over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night.

Coach Dan Bylsma said Marc-Andre Fleury will start for the Penguins. He also promised to “feel out” opportunities to play centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin together at even strength.

Crosby and Malkin have not scored a goal against Columbus. Neither has scored a playoff goal since Round 2 last postseason.

Bylsma played Crosby and Malkin together on the top line throughout Game 5 on Saturday night.

 

>> Columbus will play without defenseman Nikita Nikitin and winger RJ Umberger, coach Todd Richards said. Both players are out with injuries. Nick Schultz will play for Nikitin and Jared Boll will replace Umberger.

 

>> The #TribHKY Insider looks at Marcel Goc’s impact on how the Penguins can use Crosby and Malkin: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6015770-74/malkin-dupuis-crosby#axzz2zlpPLkMm

 

>> Josh Yohe examines the defense without its leader, Orpik: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5983372-74/game-penguins-defenseman#axzz2zlpPLkMm

 

>> Jason Mackey reports on the readiness of the Blue Jackets: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6015712-74/game-jackets-blue

 

>> Chris Adamski notes Bylsma’s plan to use more of his franchise centers on one line: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6008380-74/bylsma-penguins-game#axzz2zlpPLkMm

 

>> Contributor Craig Merz on the Blue Jackets’ Boone Jenner: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6008395-74/jenner-columbus-game

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

 

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April 26, 2014
by Josh Yohe


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Yohe: The truth about Crosby and leadership

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Good afternoon,

 

During the past 72 hours, I have literally received dozens of emails and Tweets about one specific topic: Sidney Crosby’s poor leadership skills.

It seems that, in this era, if you go four straight playoff games without scoring a goal – and going back to last postseason, it’s actually been nine straight for Crosby – you’re a poor leader.

Crosby does deserve a heavy dose of criticism regarding his recent play. There is no question about this. His leadership, however, isn’t really an issue. In fact, suggesting that Crosby is a poor leader is merely a lazy excuse for his recent play.

I’m one of few people who cover Crosby daily, so I think I’m pretty well equipped to analyze his leadership skills. Here’s what I see.

= Crosby is always one of the first players on the ice at practice, and is always one of the last players off the ice. His work ethic is rarely exceeded by fourth liners in practice, let alone star players. He consistently sets a good example. Many young players – Olli Maatta in particularly – have told me stories this season about Crosby taking them aside to make sure they understand the system and their respective roles in certain situations.

= Crosby isn’t especially vocal by nature. Neither was Mario Lemieux. And like Lemieux, Crosby isn’t a phony. He doesn’t run his mouth daily to the press or speak to teammates so regularly that it becomes a bore. However, a number of players have commented to me this season that Crosby has spoken up at appropriate times, more than in other seasons. Crosby, in response to a question from my colleague, Rob Rossi, while we were in Columbus, said he will speak when something needs to be said in regards to the Penguins’ troubles with the Blue Jackets.

= Crosby, unlike many of his teammates, has never backed down from dealing with the media following difficult losses. A handful of Penguins typically speak following losses. Only a handful. Crosby is always in that handful. Yes, he’s the captain, but trust me when I tell you that all captains don’t speak after games. Or even before games. Crosby never backs down from the heat.

= It is commonly believed that true “leaders” in hockey score big goals in big games. I don’t really buy this theory, but in case you do, let’s look at this objectively. Who scored the gold medal game-winning goal in Vancouver? Who scored on a breakaway in the gold medal game-winning goal in Sochi? Who pumped life into the 2008 Stanley Cup Final against Detroit by scoring twice in his first home Stanley Cup Final game? Who scored the game-winner and set up another in Game 4 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, the game that told the Penguins they were better than the Red Wings? The game-winner in a shootout in the first ever Winter Classic? Or, how about the opening goal in Game 7 in Washington in 2009?

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Yeah, almost all of those moments were five years ago.” This might be true. But the clutch gene – call it leadership if you must – doesn’t arrive in waves at age 21 and then suddenly disappear.

= Back in March, on during the trade deadline period, I was with the Penguins in San Jose. On the morning following the trades, most of the Penguins were on their way back to the team hotel. Word had spread that Lee Stempniak and Marcel Goc were mere minutes away from arriving at HP Pavilion. Most players, creatures of habit on game days, went about their business of leaving for the team hotel. Crosby, however, still needing to shower and head back to the hotel, waited patiently outside of the locker room until the new players arrived. He wanted to make sure they were immediately welcomed by the team’s captain upon arriving.

But, you know, Crosby hasn’t scored this series. So, he’s a bad leader. Right.

Here’s what I think … I think Crosby is dealing with confidence issues now. It’s rare for a 26-year-old, future Hall-of-Famer to stop believing in himself, but maybe we’re seeing some of that right now. And there might be a reason. Crosby has never been the same player since sustaining a life-altering concussion in 2011. You all know the story. Crosby is finally healthy again, but his style is a little different now. He’s still great, still the world’s finest player. No one is disputing that. But his game is a little different now, a little less reliable.

Crosby was once a bulldog who would charge to the net numerous times a game. We don’t see that so much anymore. He’s still great on the boards, but he hasn’t “Spezza’d” anyone in a while, has he? No, he hasn’t. He’s more of a perimeter player now. He prefers to stay at the top of the right circle on the power play now where, frankly, he isn’t as good as his natural habitat, down by the goal line. Why has he turned the puck over so much on the power play lately? Because playing that perimeter game doesn’t come as naturally to him, and because it’s more high-risk by nature.  He’s not terrible at this style of game, obviously. He easily won a scoring title playing this way. His reinvented game is still wonderful. But in the playoffs, pretty goals don’t really exist. Crosby the bulldog scored so many of his goals in those dirty areas, and while he doesn’t dodge the dirty areas, he doesn’t seem to dominate them the way he once did.

So, if you choose to be critical of Crosby the hockey player, go right ahead. It might be deserved. But criticizing his leadership skills is more ignorant than anything.

Jonathan Toews is a great leader because he scored that overtime goal against St. Louis last night, right? Well, how do you explain Toews scoring exactly one goal in Chicago’s first 20 postseason games last season? Does this mean Toews was being a bad leader last season? What if Detroit would have beaten the Blackhawks in overtime of Game 7 last season, with Toews finishing with one goal in 13 playoff games that spring? How would the hockey world have judged him then?

Crosby’s legacy is on the line beginning tonight. He’s a Hall of Fame lock, and clearly the best player of his generation. If he wants to someday be in a class with Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Jaromir Jagr, Rocket Richard – you know, the best players who ever lived – then he needs more championships, and need to start scoring against teams like the Columbus Blue Jackets. We all know this. Crosby knows this. Calling him out is completely fair.

But let’s call it like it is. This isn’t about leadership. In fact, leadership in sports is such of a stupid concept. It barely exists. Teams on the same page, teams with talent, teams willing to work hard, are the teams that usually win. Leadership? It’s just a made-up word, especially in hockey. Broadcasters always talk about “great leadership” after someone scores a goal. Really? Maybe great players just score goals sometimes, and the idea of leadership doesn’t really factor into the equation. Is blocking a shot a sign of leadership? Is sacrificing your stats for the betterment of the team a sign of leadership? That’s more like it, if you want to make an argument. But Crosby is paid to score and set up goals. And he’s not doing that right now, so he’s a bad leader?

Sorry, I don’t buy it. Rather, this is a great player who has temporarily and slightly – check out his number since December – lost his way. I suspect he will find his way, maybe even tonight. Great players always do. And if he does score tonight and lead the Penguins past the Blue Jackets, will that make him a great leader again?

-          Yohe

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April 26, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Crosby on pressure: “It’s there, let’s be honest.”

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The Penguins exposed an elephant on Saturday morning.

Hours from a feels-like-it pivotal home Game 5 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, veteran players acknowledged that pressure – the worst kind, as in that from the outside – has been internalized during Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“It’s there, let’s be honest,” captain Sidney Crosby said.

“It’s something we’ve talked about,” winger James Neal said.

“Sometimes,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said, “I think we’re just held back by the fear of losing.”

A first-round series is tied, 2-2. Game 5 is at Consol Energy Center on Saturday night.

A season that began with external Cup-or-best expectations is down to a best-of-three series, and the favored club (the Penguins) is openly acknowledging, as Scuderi phrased it, “a burden of expectations.”

Words do not win playoff games.

Great players, can.

Crosby and fellow franchise co-center Evgeni Malkin can change everything with slump-busting performances in Game 5 and 6 or (if necessary) 7.

However, for a group of players that has rarely been known for its candidness – heck, that is why “Team Conscience” defenseman Brooks Orpik’s words resonate – the acknowledgement on Saturday morning that pressure is being felt, well, it felt significant.

This feels like more than just another home playoff game for the Penguins – especially for Crosby, Malkin, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and coach Dan Bylsma. Three first-round exits in four years will bring change, as defenseman Paul Martin noted Saturday.

This feels like a defining moment.

Maybe with the elephant out of their room, the Penguins will have some more space to breathe.

 

>> The best way to ease tension is often with a joke, so Bylsma opened with one before his media availability on Saturday morning.

“Brooks Orpik and David Backes skated earlier at an undisclosed location,” Bylsma said.

Orpik, who left practice early on Friday, did not take the morning-skate practice on Saturday. He is a game-time decision for Game 5.

Also, winger Brian Gibbons (upper body) did not practice. He skated before the session.

 

>> On Friday, as Chris Adamski reported, the Penguins vowed to give more: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5983659-74/penguins-bylsma-game#axzz2zlpPLkMm

 

>> Malkin knows he needs to score, writes Jason Mackey: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/6008020-74/malkin-game-goals#axzz2zlpPLkMm

 

>> The notes cover Marcel Goc’s impending return: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5983688-74/goc-puck-game

 

>> Contributor Craig Merz reports that Jack Johnson changed a lot for the Columbus franchise: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5983691-74/johnson-jackets-team#axzz2zlpPLkMm

 

>> Also, the #TribHKY info graphic is back. Have a look (designed by Melanie Wass):

PensPlayoff-042514

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

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