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November 4, 2015

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Post-practice notes Nov. 3


VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Chris Kunitz may or not play Wednesday against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena.

That was what Penguins coach Mike Johnston said Tuesday after Kunitz missed a second consecutive practice because of what Johnston called “maintenance.”

We saw Kunitz in the dressing room after. He looked fine. Then again, he was in street clothes, not hockey equipment, and didn’t appear to be battling anyone in front of the net.

So, it looks like Wednesday’s morning skate will be rather important.

A few other tidbits:

=A ton has been made of the July 28 trade that sent Brandon Sutter to Vancouver and brought Nick Bonino and Adam Clendening to Pittsburgh.

While Clendening has only played one game and would receive an incomplete were this a high school class, Bonino has passed with flying colors.

Bonino has won 54.1 percent of his draws, has played with a rotating cast of linemates, has killed penalties, has seen power-play time and has two goals. Not bad at all.

“He’s never a player whose performance I’m going to measure by numbers,” Johnston said. “He’s got a great personality. He’s a chemistry guy. He’s a very good penalty killer. We use him on the power play. He’s a good, two-way center. He distributes the puck really well. If you’re playing on the wing with him, you know you’re going to get the puck at the right time. He’s been a good addition to our team.”

=The Penguins did a decent amount of power-play work today, and a big focus was Crosby down low, to the left of the goaltender. He also had the freedom — as they’ve been trying to do; this isn’t a today-only thing — to roam and make plays behind the net. With Phil Kessel on the left half-wall and Evgeni Malkin on the right half-wall, this could be a very dangerous alignment.

If, of course, they would set up like this consistently.

=Mt. Lebanon native Matt Bartkowski, a defenseman who signed as a free agent with the Canucks this offseason, has a really rockin’ mustache.

Why’s this important? I don’t know. But I think it’s cool, and I asked him about it after practice.

“It’s Movember,” Bartkowski said. “The real question is, ‘Where’s yours?’ ”

Fair enough. I told Bartkowski I’d embarrass myself if I even tried.

=I swear I’m not making this up: The Penguins and the Rangers are tied for the best defense in the league at 1.82 goals-against per game.

Meanwhile, Marc-Andre Fleury is a tick behind Henrik Lundqvist when it comes to save percentage (.943 compared to .942). Fleury leads regulars with a 1.71 goals-against average.

Here are a couple different takes on Fleury’s ridiculous start.

First, Johnston, expanding on team defense and offense:

Marc-Andre had a great year last year, and he’s come back with a hot start to the season. We have a strong belief even though the (goal) production hasn’t been there, we have a strong belief that we can score. I’m happy with how we’ve started from a defensive perspective. Certainly I would like more goals, but you can’t force that. If your team has confidence in your ability to defend, you know that on a given night you’re not going to play well at that end of the rink.


Sounds like he’s playing pretty well. When I was there the past couple years, he was solid the last two years. I think he’s just carrying that on. He’s taken a lot of heat in the past for weak goals and all this stuff. When I played with him, I never saw it. I’ve always seen a solid goalie who’s one of the elite guys in the league. Again, he takes a lot of heat for whatever reason. I think people are starting to realize how good he is.

=Something else to pay attention to tomorrow: the third period.

The Canucks have blown four third-period leads this season. The Penguins, meanwhile, are 0-30-6 in their past 36 — since Jan. 5, 2014 — when trailing after two periods.

=Canucks goaltender Ryan Miller offered an interesting assessment of the Penguins.

How many of you would agree with this?

When you break and push, they turn the puck around pretty quick. I find they’re a little bit more patient than other teams. Some nights it’s not really a track meet, but they’re going to go the other way on you a little bit.

All from me for now. Time to explore Vancouver a bit more. Went for a run this morning through Stanley Park. Simply incredible. Beautiful city.

Vancouver 3

Be GRATEFUL to each other,



November 2, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie

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Bottom six numbers


I crunched some numbers to go with the story I wrote yesterday about the Penguins having more skill in their bottom six than in recent years.

Watch the team for 10 minutes and it’s pretty obvious, but I figured some statistical back-up might be worthwhile too, so here it is. I looked at the career points per game of the current bottom six compared to the bottom-six forwards who played at least 300 minutes in each of the previous two seasons.

2015-16 2014-15 2013-14
FEHR 0.39 WINNIK 0.32 PYATT 0.33
BENNETT 0.35 GOC 0.30 MEGNA 0.21
ADAMS 0.17 GLASS 0.13
SILL 0.05

My two takeaways:

— The top five guys this year could probably be top-six guys in a lot of lineups.

— The Penguins played at least three guys in each of the two previous seasons (Lapierre, Adams and Sill; Vitale, Adams and Glass) who were not expected to chip in offensively at all. They have no players like that right now.

Just some numbers to chew on as the Penguins are traveling today. Jason Mackey will have you covered here with the latest from Western Canada starting tomorrow.

Bye for now,



November 1, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie

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Ready to head west


The Penguins stayed an extra day in Toronto to practice before flying out to Western Canada tomorrow morning.

Chris Kunitz didn’t skate, with Daniel Sprong taking his spot on the third line with Nick Bonino and Beau Bennett. Coach Mike Johnston called it a maintenance day.

“When you’re on a trip like this, we wanted to get a good skate in today,” Johnston said. “We have a long travel day tomorrow. If there’s anybody with nagging injuries, I talked to our trainers last night, with three games in four nights, it’s a hard day, so you’ve got to be careful.”

Kunitz’s status is important because, as I wrote in a story I just finished up for tomorrow’s paper, he’s become a cornerstone of the new bottom six. It’s a real strong group right now — Kunitz-Bonino-Bennett, Plotnikov-Cullen-Fehr — and I’m sure the Penguins would prefer not to shake it up.

Some other notes from today’s skate:

— Sidney Crosby felt like last night’s game in Toronto was a step back for him.

It’s easy to see where he’s coming from. He started the year slow, looked like he was building to something with that nine-shot, three-point game against Florida and a two-assist game against Buffalo a few days later, then had a no-shot, no-point game last night against the Leafs.

Crosby went 11-5 in the faceoff circle and was a plus-1, so it’s not like he had a bad game, but as the team’s offense seems to be coming around a bit — they’ve scored four goals in back-to-back games — he wants to get in on the action. He needs to get in on the action.

“You’ve just got to find a way to bury the chances. Ultimately, that’s on me. I’ve got to find a way to bury my chances,” he said.

— Rob Scuderi practiced without incident after taking a hard hit into the boards from Toronto’s Richard Clune. An interesting comment from Johnston about the hit:

“I don’t think it was intentional by any means. He caught Lovejoy earlier though, so it was almost two in a row.”

It’s like Johnston wanted to say it wasn’t a particularly dirty hit but it was a particularly dirty hit all in the same breath.

— Johnston gave an update on the status of Sprong, who is at eight games played. If he plays two more, his entry-level contract kicks in. It’s basically the same thing Jim Rutherford said the other day.

“We haven’t had a lot of discussions about the nine games,” Johnston said. “It’s about, how’s he doing? Is he getting better? Is he improving? That’s been our discussion all the time. It doesn’t seem like there’s a nine-game roadblock by any means.”

— I’m headed home from Toronto. Jason Mackey’s got you covered for the Western Canadian portion of the trip. I’m hoping to do some prospect watching this week, checking out the Baby Pens who have won six a row, so keep an eye out for that.

Bye for now,



November 1, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie

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Toronto postgame


Eric Fehr probably doesn’t think of himself as depth scoring. Matt Cullen probably doesn’t either. They think of themselves as hockey players — good ones, ones that are important to the efforts of the Penguins — and they should.

But when the Penguins signed Fehr and Cullen in the offseason, depth scoring is what they were looking for. Replace the Daniel Winniks and Craig Adamses of the world with guys who have more of an offensive touch.

That’s precisely what they provided tonight. Phil Kessel, making his ballyhooed return to Toronto, had one shot on goal. So did Evgeni Malkin. Sidney Crosby had none. But the Penguins dominated this game anyway and scored four for the second straight outing. That’s gotta be what Jim Rutherford had in mind when he put his bottom six together in the offseason.

More notes from tonight’s game:

— Marc-Andre Fleury wasn’t tested as regularly as he had been in his first nine starts to the season, facing 21 shots, but he was flawless. I thought he made two key stops early. First, about three minutes in, a Kris Letang clearing attempt hit his pad and bounced off the outside of the post. An own goal that early could change the complexion of things. Second, about 12 minutes in, he stopped a point-blank Michael Grabner shorthanded chance. The Penguins went down and scored on a Chris Kunitz goal on the power play a few seconds later. An obvious turning point.

— Fleury’s 40th career shutout ties him with Frank “Mr. Zero” Brimsek and John Vanbiesbrouck on the all-time NHL list. I asked Fleury about hitting 40 and he said he has a long way to go to catch Martin Brodeur and his 125.

— David Perron has no goals through 11 games, but he looks as about to break out as any player I’ve ever seen. Six shots tonight. One that beat Jonathan Bernier and sat on the goal line before Kunitz tapped it home. Another chance in the third that just went wide. He’s been effective the last couple games.

— Fehr said he felt great in his first game off offseason elbow surgery. He said he’d been preparing for this game for so long that he couldn’t help but be ready to go. The addition of Fehr, to me, really gives the Penguins that four-lines-that-can-score look.

— Let’s not forget to address the elephant in the room here at the Air Canada Centre. The Leafs are bad. The top line pair of James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri had a few chances go awry on them tonight. Given the current roster, if those guys don’t score, I’m not sure who else will. And when the Penguins got them on their heels a bit in the second period, they were in trouble.

— I don’t think the Penguins got that full, 60-minute, 20-man effort they’ve been searching for in the first month of the season, but they came close. They got balanced scoring, good special teams, a defensive effort that gave up 21 shots and excellent goaltending. All that was missing was an impact from the high-end scorers.

Bye for now,



October 31, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie

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Toronto pregame


You know how the fact that the Penguins have suddenly won six of their last seven games sort of snuck up on everyone? The same applies to their top scorers.

Sidney Crosby, out of nowhere, has five points in his last five games. Yes, I know those five points came in two of the games and the other three were scoreless, but five points is five points.

Evgeni Malkin, meanwhile, has four goals and 10 points in his last eight games. He’s on the brink of joining the top 20 scoring leaders in the league.

That prompted this assessment of the Penguins from Toronto coach Mike Babcock this morning that I think you’ll find most interesting:

“Their big dogs have scored here of late. I think I read Fehr’s back tonight, so they’ll probably get a little more. Obviously, they have a lot of talent on their team. To me, when you have that much talent, even if it doesn’t get going right away, it’s going to get going over time. When Kunitz plays on your third line, you must be a good hockey club.”

Some more notes from morning skate:

— The lineup looked like this:

Extra: Sprong

Extra: Clendening


— Coach Mike Johnston on the Sprong situation:

“We haven’t determined exactly who is out because we have a couple little nagging injuries we want to check on first. But with Spronger, he may not be in every night. For a young guy, sometimes it’s good to take a look at the game from up top, get a couple days of practice. It’s not like he’s going to be in every game, but I feel like his game is really progressing. That’s what we wanted. We want to keep his game moving in the right direction.”

I know people will take this to mean Sprong’s days are numbered. He’s played eight games. Two more and the first year of his entry-level contract kicks in. Some will even question how he’s being developed.

Nobody asked me, but I don’t really see any red flags here. Sprong’s value isn’t at its peak right now because the Penguins have an essentially full lineup up front with Fehr, Dupuis and Bennett healthy. For now, he waits and learns. Then when one of the team’s oft-injured wingers gets injured, he steps into a more prominent role. That seems OK to me.

— It might look like Fehr is being eased into the lineup because he’s slotted on the fourth line, but don’t expect his minutes to be limited. More Johnston:

“Eric’s been skating for a while. Even though he had the elbow injury and surgery, he’s been skating for two months now on the ice and working out. I anticipate his legs should be pretty good. Just the game timing for him. What he offers our team, he’s a versatile player. He can play wing. He can play center. He’s very good on draws, good penalty killer. He adds some size to our lineup. He was a big addition to our group in the summer. The other thing I like about Eric is he has a great presence in the room. He’s a real energy guy. That’s something we’re looking forward to having in our lineup.”

— The Kessel circus was in full effect as a giant mob of reporters crowded his locker after morning skate. He seemed perfectly comfortable with it. Here’s a sample of his comments:

“I’ve played against the Leafs my first few years in the league. I’ve been in this dressing room before. It’s different because I loved this city. I spent a lot of time here. But again, it’s another game. I’m going to go have fun and try to get a win.”

He said he expects there will probably be some boos for him tonight because that’s the way it usually goes. No bulletin board material. Nothing worth splashing on the front page of a tabloid. Pretty standard stuff.

Bye for now,



October 30, 2015

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Postgame: Penguins 4, Sabres 3


The Penguins won while scoring four goals, including one on the power play.


In 2015-16.

This was more like what we expected out of this group, right? Give up 83 shot attempts, including 37 in the third period. But still get a clutch power-play tally from Evgeni Malkin.

The Penguins also allowed backup Jeff Zatkoff to get pelted with 53 shots — not exactly ideal considering he was seeing his first action of the season.

A few things received short shrift in my game story. Let’s cover them here and now.

1. Malkin and the power play

Malkin has points in six of his past seven games and is tied for the NHL lead with three game-winning goals.

His marker Thursday was especially important because of how it was scored. Phil Kessel shot it. Wicked wrister from the circle, too. Patric Hornqvist created traffic. Malkin worked the back post.

Here’s Mike Johnston postgame:

“Hornqvist was at the net. Geno was also at the net. On the back post. That’s where he got the goal. Making sure that you get the shots to the net but then when it’s at the net, we always talk about the screen guy. The screen guy’s there to create rebound opportunities. We’ve got rebound guys converging on both sides. That’s where Geno was. That’s what we need. We need more guys on those post areas when the shot’s coming through and (Chris) Kunitz and Hornqvist are in front of the net.”

2. Zatkoff’s workload

The plan was for this to be Zatkoff’s second game of the season. I joked with Zatkoff that he tried to cram two games worth of work into one. He laughed.

Zatkoff talked about this being a tough trip. Back-to-back nights, how they got in from Washington late Wednesday and praised those in front of him for coming out “with a lot of jump.”

“They got some goals,” Zatkoff told me. “We did what we needed to do. Maybe we’d like to have had a little better third, but at the end of the day, it’s two points. We’ll take them and move on.”

Expect more of Zatkoff next weekend with back-to-back games in Edmonton and Calgary. He’ll get one of the two. Weird schedule thus far, where this was the Penguins’ first back-to-back set.

Some numbers on the performance:

—Those 50 saves are a career-high for Zatkoff. They’re the most a goalie has made this year and the third-most since the start of last season. They’re the most for a Penguins goalie since Ty Conklin stopped 50 against the Islanders on Feb. 26, 2008.

3. Put it on the board … yes

Pascal Dupuis and Patric Hornqvist registered their first goals of the 2015-16 season. For Dupuis, his represented his first point.

“It’s nice to get the first one out of the way,” Hornqvist said. “You don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

It probably meant a bit more for Dupuis, who scored for the first time since Nov. 14, 2014.

“Been away from the game for so long,” Dupuis said. “You come back. You want to be an impact player. You want to come back to your old ways. At the same time, (it’s) taking a little while to get there. But it’s slowly getting there.”

That line was really good tonight. Will be interesting to see if they can keep it going.

(Sidney Crosby) knows where I’m going,” Dupuis said. “I kind of know where he’s going. If I put it in a 20-foot radius around him, he’ll catch it. It’s one of those things. He knows where I’m going to be. He trusts that I’m going to be there. ‘Horny’ played a great game tonight, too. He’s creating room out there. He’s creating havoc. It clicked tonight.”

4. Elephant in the room

Not to be a downer here, but the Penguins weren’t great in the third. Gave up way too much. A team better than the Sabres probably would have made them pay.

The Sabres outshot the Penguins, 24-4, in the final period. They had 29 more shot attempts and consistently drove possession. Ryan O’Reilly cut the deficit to one, but the Penguins’ penalty kill — and Zatkoff — held strong.

Here’s Johnston:

“They were going to throw everything at the net. They were going to create every spray they could. That’s the way they played. We just have to be better in a fatigue-type situation of making sure that we manage the ice and get it down deep. But also get our forecheck going. We cannot let teams just wind up and wheel through the neutral zone.”

The PK, by the way, has killed off 19 of 20 over the past six games. Against Buffalo, the Penguins have killed 22 straight and 49 of their past 51.

5. Anti-star of the game

So you saw the guy who took the puck from the kid. Kudos to the Penguins for giving him a puck and a jersey. Classy move.

Here’s former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma on that:

“I thought they were cheering for him to get it. The response of the crowd is what made me know he didn’t get it. He got a puck and I think he got a jersey after that. Maybe a good thing the guy stole it from him.”

All from me for now. No practice Friday. Pens Roundtable Show on TribLIVE Radio at 1 p.m.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,



October 29, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie

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Post-game: Penguins 3, Capitals 1


You know that long no-comeback-in-the-third-period streak the Penguins are on? The one where they’ve lost 36 straight games in which they trailed entering the third period? The one that stretches back almost two years?

It’s still intact. Tonight’s game was scoreless entering the third period. But there’s no way the Penguins feel like a team incapable of a third-period comeback after this one.

They fell behind 1-0 early in the third period when an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot hit Olli Maatta’s stick and Rob Scuderi’s skate before slipping between Marc-Andre Fleury’s pads.

It could have easily been a back-breaking goal for the Penguins, but it wasn’t. Beau Bennett scored on the very next shift, after a long diagonal pass from Maatta. Then two minutes later, Evgeni Malkin fed Phil Kessel for a give-and-go play and the Penguins were up 2-1.

The Penguins still have their problems. The power play is terrible. It failed to score on a two-man advantage that lasted 1:45. The team still isn’t playing the kind of hockey it was constructed to play.

But they’re winning. They’ve won five of six, same as the Capitals, who carried a five-game winning streak into this one. They get a couple of fancy goals, some great goaltending from Fleury, and they’re winning.

I’m not sure I understand it. I sure wouldn’t have predicted it. But there it is, in black and white.

Some notes:

— Beau Bennett celebrated his goal without injury.

— Sidney Crosby was held without a point for the eighth time in nine games this season, but he led the team with four shots and won 18 of the 26 draws he took.

— Nick Bonino had a quiet two-point game. He also went 12-9 in the faceoff circle. I thought he and Matt Cullen were excellent on the penalty kill, which held the Caps scoreless on seven attempts. Fleury was a big reason for that, of course, but he wasn’t the only reason.

— A stat: The Penguins have scored 16 goals. That’s the lowest total in franchise history after nine games, one less than the 17 they scored in 1970 and 2003. They’ve allowed 17 goals. That’s also the lowest total in franchise history after nine games, two better than the 19 they gave up in 2009.

Bye for now,



October 28, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie

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Caps pre-game


Now that I’m back from sinking a few 3-pointers on the Wizards practice court, some pre-game notes before the Penguins face the Washington Capitals tonight.

— As of a few minutes ago, Beau Bennett is in the lineup tonight. He still has to step off a few curbs between now and gametime, though, so no guarantees.

I shouldn’t joke. You have to feel bad for the guy. Like, before his returning-from-injury press briefing the other day after practice, he assured the team’s media relations staff that he was perfectly comfortable answering injury-related questions because he’s done the returning-from-injury press briefing so many times before in his career. He’s only 23.

— Marc-Andre Fleury was the first goalie off the ice at the end of morning skate. So expect him to start tonight and Jeff Zatkoff to get the nod tomorrow against Buffalo.

Fleury has very good career numbers against Washington (17-10-2, 2.50, .915). He has very good career numbers against pretty much everyone.

An interesting little tidbit from the Penguins’ game notes: Fleury and Washington’s Braden Holtby have faced off six times, with each goalie winning three. So tonight is kind of like when Magnum T.A. and Nikita Koloff had the final match of their best-of-seven series in Charlotte during the 1986 Great American Bash tour. But I digress.

— The Penguins didn’t do line rushes at morning skate, but they did work on the power play a bit. Patric Hornqvist was back at the net front with the top unit, taking the place of Chris Kunitz. Those two have been rotating in that spot, so I don’t think each change there is particularly noteworthy.

Kunitz, though, tends to play well against the Capitals. In the last three years, he has seven goals and 11 points in 11 games against them, including a four-goal game in February of 2013.

— Perhaps you noticed at the end of the Nashville game Saturday night, coach Mike Johnston scrapped his regular power-play personnel and instead just put his top line and D pair on the ice — Dupuis-Crosby-Hornqvist-Cole-Letang. I asked Johnston if that might be a twist he tries in the future. He didn’t take the bait.

“We weren’t getting a lot the way we were going, so I decided to change it for the third period,” he said.

— Tonight’s game is Rivalry Night (TM), according to NBC Sports Network. Rivalries don’t mean what they used to, with line brawls and all that stuff, but I figured it might be interesting to compare the five players with the most career fighting majors for the Pens and Caps. Maybe I’ll do this for future Rivalry Night (TM) games too.


More later. Bye for now,


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