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Chipped Ice

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


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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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December 28, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Winnipeg postgame

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When a hockey player talks about his team failing to get the bounces they need, it’s almost always a lame loser’s lament.

But look closely at this Sidney Crosby comment after a Penguins 1-0 loss to Winnipeg on a Bryan Little penalty shot.

“It’s one of those games where maybe the big difference maker is getting one on the PP or getting a better start. Who knows? But I think we still need to play more of a complete game to earn those bounces.”

There’s a nuance there that makes it more of a poignant thought.

Yeah, the Penguins could have used a goal on one of their two mostly ineffective power plays that accrued a total of two shots on net, but they needed to earn it.

Yeah, the Penguins could have used a bounce on one of the several good scoring chances they had on promising young goalie Connor Hellebuyck in the second and third periods, but they probably needed to start building to that in the first period, not after the Jets had already dominated the first 20 minutes and took a 1-0 lead.

Through the first three months of the season, the Penguins put themselves in a position where it looks like every point is going to count in the Eastern Conference playoff race. They didn’t get a point tonight because they didn’t earn one. Remember this one. It could hurt the Penguins in April.

Some other notes from tonight’s game:

— A good bounceback game from Jeff Zatkoff after a bad loss to Boston in his last start. He made 27 saves and became the third goalie in NHL history to lose a game 1-0 in regulation while giving up only one goal on a penalty shot.

— Not to be the guy who complains about refs on a blog, but I really thought it was a bit of a stretch to give Bryan Little a penalty shot in the first place. He was definitely hooked by Ben Lovejoy, but not enough to prevent him from getting a good shot off that Zatkoff stopped. In most cases, if a guy gets a good shot off, the ref awards a penalty, not a penalty shot.

— You know how sometimes you watch the Pirates and they make a spot starter look like Cy Young and you get frustrated? This wasn’t one of those nights for the Penguins. Hellebuyck is legit. He’s 6-4 and athletic and would have been the AHL’s top rookie goalie last year if it wasn’t for a meddling kid named Matt Murray foiling his plans. He made a stop with an outstretched right pad on Crosby in the second period that was world class.

— If you missed the news earlier today. Kris Letang did not play as a precaution after taking a shoulder to the chin last night. I think his absence was noticeable, especially as it relates to Olli Maatta. Partnered with Letang last night, Maatta had a team-best plus-19 Corsi rating. Tonight, partnered with Trevor Daley, he had a team-worst minus-6 Corsi.

— Not to be the guy who questions every last lineup decision on a blog, but I think Scott Wilson needs to be a regular right now. His energy on the forecheck is a spark. He sat tonight in favor of Sergei Plotnikov. I know you don’t want Plotnikov to waste away in the press box. He’s only 25 and he’s shown some promise down low in his young NHL career. But Wilson is a better player right now.

Tomorrow’s a travel day, so check back Tuesday for the next update here on the blog.

Bye for now,

jb

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December 27, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Minnesota postgame

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The headline tonight is about Sidney Crosby, for obvious reasons.

After six days off – two due to a lower-body injury and four due to Christmas break – his jump was obvious. He had a goal and an assist and led the Penguins to a 3-1 victory.

The subhead is about Kris Letang.

He had a pair of assists in his return after missing six games with an undisclosed injury. His possession numbers were sensational. A Corsi plus-minus of plus-18 for him and plus-19 for his D partner Olli Maatta.

He also took a shoulder to the chin from Jarret Stoll in the third period and left the ice for medical attention, but he returned after a few minutes and coach Mike Sullivan said he believes he’s fine.

You could throw in a plug for rookie goalie Matt Murray too.

He’s 2-1 in his first NHL call-up, stopping 70-of-75 shots and holding the fort down in Marc-Andre Fleury’s absence. It was a funky game for him tonight too, because the Wild had only six shots at the game’s midpoint, so he had to work hard to make sure he stayed sharp. Later, though, he was tested when Minnesota got four power plays, and he passed.

That’s what we do a lot of times in sports writing – identify the stars of the game and write about them. That’s cool. It’s worked for hundreds of years. But I think this is just as important.

After this game, Sullivan gave a glimpse into the kind of psychology he’s trying to use to motivate his team.

“When Sid’s in the lineup and we have Sid and Geno back to back, I think they’re dangerous. I thought we had some balance throughout our lineup tonight. Everyone contributed. The penalty killers were really good. The role players did a nice job down the stretch for us. That’s the type of identity we want to create here. It’s about the group. The last couple of games here, we’re starting to understand the importance of it and that we need one another to get to where we’re going to go.”

In that one comment, Sullivan gave himself a pat on the back for splitting Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel onto three different lines. As he should. It’s worked well. The Penguins held an edge tonight in shots attempted (52-27), scoring chances (30-21) and high-danger scoring chances (15-7) according to war-on-ice.com. It was a pretty dominant performance.

He also described the buttons he’s pushing. Make the players accountable not to the coach, but to each other. It’s not a new strategy, but it seems to be working in this case.

One other Sullivan quote before I go. I include this one because I think it’s a perfect summary of what happened in the first two periods tonight.

“They’re a very structured team through the neutral zone. They’re a very good counter-attack team. And so, by forcing them to have to expend energy defending against us in the offensive zone, I think it helps us control momentum and it helps us control territory because now they don’t have the juice to go onto the offense. A lot of times, they’re dumping the puck and they’re changing. The cumulative effect of hanging onto the puck in the offensive zone and making good decisions in that area of the rink allowed us to control momentum and control territory.”

The Penguins beat Minnesota’s defensive posture by chipping the puck into soft areas and chasing it with speed, or, in the absence of that, just going old-school dump and chase to earn offensive zone-time. They even worked the cycle a bit. It’s a formula that can work if it can be replicated.

More tomorrow from Winnipeg. Bye for now,

jb

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December 26, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Minnesota pregame

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Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang are expected back in the lineup when the Penguins end a four-day Christmas break with a game against the Minnesota Wild at 8 p.m. Eastern tonight.

Crosby skated with Chris Kunitz on his left and David Perron on his right. That sounds like a reasonable combination, especially since Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel both scored twice last Monday against Columbus, so it makes sense to leave their lines alone (Sheary-Malkin-Hornqvist, Wilson-Bonino-Kessel).

It also makes sense if you look at the possession numbers. Here’s a look at Crosby’s Corsi For Percentage since the start of last season with the 13 forwards currently on the roster.

SCOTT WILSON 100
CONOR SHEARY 71.4
EVGENI MALKIN 60.1
DAVID PERRON 57.4
CHRIS KUNITZ 56.3
SERGEI PLOTNIKOV 55.0
PATRIC HORNQVIST 52.8
BEAU BENNETT 52.8
PHIL KESSEL 48.4
MATT CULLEN 47.1
ERIC FEHR 39.3
KEVIN PORTER 20.0
NICK BONINO 11.1

Settle down on the Scott Wilson there. He and Crosby played together for 21 seconds. You could make a case for Conor Sheary playing with Crosby. Those gaudy Corsi numbers came in about 23 minutes together. That’s at least a somewhat larger sample size.

But forget all that. Among the wingers that have routinely played with Crosby over the last season and a half, Kunitz and Perron produce the best possession stats.

— Coach Mike Sullivan said there are no injury concerns with Malkin and Sergei Plotnikov after they got banged up in the Columbus game on Monday. I wouldn’t bet my car payment that Malkin is 100 percent after the knee-on-knee hit from Boone Jenner, but he said he’s good to go tonight.

— I have seen some complaints on Twitter about Kevin Porter being in the lineup while Plotnikov looks to be the healthy scratch tonight. I think it’s a simple matter of penalty killing. With Pascal Dupuis out, the Penguins only have three bona fide PK guys in Bonino, Fehr and Cullen. I think Sullivan is much more comfortable with Porter in that fourth spot than he would be with Plotnikov or Wilson or one of his top-six forwards.

— Letang looks to be paired with Olli Maatta tonight. The Dumoulin-Lovejoy pair remains intact. Trevor Daley and Ian Cole are a new pair. The Penguins really want Cole to get it going. They want to see what they saw out of him at the end of last season. But with David Warsofsky having played reasonably well, Cole’s leash is not that long.

— Finally, the Penguins have a strange game day schedule today, flying into Minneapolis this morning, then having a morning skate at 12:30 Eastern time before the game.

This type of schedule only pops up when Dec. 26 falls on a Saturday. Normally, the 26th is one of the Christmas break days off mandated by the CBA.

Here’s the rule 16.5b, if you’re into such minutiae.

“December 24, Christmas Day, and December 26 shall be off-days for all purposes, including travel, and no Club may request a Player’s consent to practice on such days for any reason, provided, however, if December 26 falls on a Saturday and the League has scheduled NHL Games on such date, December 23 may be substituted as an off-day for all purposes, including travel, instead of December 26.”

More after the game,

jb

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December 22, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Columbus postgame

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You know how the Penguins have been talking lately about puck luck and believing in the process and good things will happen and all that stuff?

One win over a poor Columbus team shouldn’t be enough to convince you that they’re right, but one play from tonight’s 5-2 Penguins victory sort of paints a picture of what they’re talking about.

With the score tied 1-1 early in the second period, Columbus defenseman Justin Falk took a shot from the left faceoff circle. Matt Murray made a nice stop, but the puck sat out in front of the crease for a moment, and Ryan Johansen had it in his sights.

Just before he got there, Olli Maatta reached in and knocked the puck away. It bounced high in the air out toward the high slot where Scott Wilson took a baseball swing at it. It turned into a perfect head-man pass to spring Kessel for a successful breakaway.

Just look at all the things that could have and would have gone wrong for the Penguins on that play in their previous five games.

Maybe Falk’s shot goes in. Maybe Johansen gets to the rebound. Maybe Maatta’s clear bounces back toward the net. Maybe Wilson’s whack doesn’t connect. Maybe the decision to fly the zone as soon as Murray made the initial save backfires on Kessel.

Instead, everything fell into place and it ended up being the goal that gave the Penguins the lead for good.

Some more notes from the game tonight:

— Evgeni Malkin went to the locker room for a few minutes in the second period after taking a knee-on-knee hit from Boone Jenner. I can’t read Jenner’s mind, so I don’t know what his intent was on the play. At the very least, he made it look accidental enough to have plausible deniability.

Columbus coach John Tortorella had a completely different take on things.

“He got up, didn’t he?” Tortorella said. “It was like he was dead, then he was out there the next shift.”

— Here’s a topic you can weigh in on in the comments or on Twitter if you’d like. I firmly believe, after watching hockey games for a living for 16 years, that a fight can absolutely change the momentum of a game. I know there are many out there not as keen on fighting as I am. So do you think it can change a game?

With the Penguins losing 1-0 in the second period, Eric Fehr fought Brandon Dubinsky. It was the first NHL fight for Fehr in 477 career games. His teammates knew that. This wasn’t a casual thing. It was a veteran making a statement about the way Dubinsky plays against the Penguins.

The Penguins scored twice in the next five minutes.

After the hit on Malkin, Scott Wilson stepped in and fought Jenner. The Penguins scored twice before the period ended.

I’m sorry. I can’t see that as a coincidence.

— Here’s some comments from Dubinsky, while we’re on the topic.

— Finally, I think the contributions of the Wilkes-Barre call-ups probably deserve a mention here, and I’m not just saying that because of my own personal biases.

Matt Murray got his first NHL win tonight, making 22 saves. He didn’t have to be great, but he had to be good, and he was. Wilson was an impact player with the pass to Kessel and the fight, among other contributions. David Warsofsky scored a goal. Conor Sheary was a little less noticeable tonight, but he’s been good in recent games.

Here’s Sullivan’s take on those guys:

“I think it’s a healthy situation when you have a push from within, when you have young guys challenging for positions on the team and creating that internal push among the group. I think that’s a healthy environment. I think it’s good for everyone. It’s good for the guys that are established here because it’s going to push them to be at their best. And quite honestly, there are some guys down in Wilkes-Barre who have had pretty good years to this point and are probably deserving of an opportunity. The guys who have come up here have given us energy. They’ve brought us enthusiasm. Every guy that’s come up here has had a positive impact, in my opinion.”

The Penguins are off for the next four days for a Christmas break, so make sure to check back for the next scheduled blog update Dec. 26 from Minnesota. I’ll be making that trip.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas to all.

Bye for now,

jb

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December 21, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Columbus pregame

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Mike Sullivan has a bit of a snarl. I think it’s his default facial expression. With that in mind, it’s interesting to hear what Sullivan thinks his players should do if they get targeted for physical play like Brandon Dubinsky targeted Sidney Crosby in the last meeting between the Penguins and Blue Jackets.

Does Sullivan expect snarl from his players?

“The best response from our standpoint is to make sure we don’t lose our focus and we continue to play the way we need to play to win games,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to play hard. We’re going to play between the whistles. We are not going to get deterred from playing the type of game that we have to play in order to give our team the best chance to win. I think that’s the most important message. We’re certainly going to play with emotion. We’re going to play with energy. We’re going to push back, but we’re going to do it the right way.”

Sidenote from Bill West: Kevin Porter, called up from the Baby Pens last week, seems like a guy who might see this game as an opportune time to drop the gloves and earn himself a little extra credit among teammates. According to hockeyfights.com, Porter has seven fights in his pro career, including one in the NHL. He understands where his skill set fits in the Penguins’ mix. “I definitely want to show I can stick here,” he said.

When asked about the Blue Jackets possibly targeting fellow Baby Pens call-up, Conor Sheary, Porter showed faith in the undersized first-line winger.

“He’s a little bit smaller, but he’s a smart player,” Porter said. “He keeps his head up. He’s quick, too, and shifty.

“If someone catches him with his head down, we’re going to have to go from there and take care of it, but that goes for anybody.”

Some other notes from morning skate:

— Sullivan said Sidney Crosby will not play tonight. He said he does not believe Crosby’s absence, due to a lower-body injury, will be long term in nature.

–So who gets the start in goal tonight?

Jeff Zatkoff has been excellent in two career starts against Columbus (2-0, 1.51 GAA, .936 save percentage) but he is coming off a bad night against Boston on Friday.

For whatever this is worth, Matt Murray owned Columbus’ AHL affiliate in Springfield last year to the tune of a 4-0 record with three shutouts. He stopped 109-of-110 shots. He was pretty good in his NHL debut Saturday night against Carolina, but suffered a 2-1 loss.

Sullivan is going with Murray.

“I thought he really settled into the game the other night. I really liked what I saw,” Sullivan said.

— I’m curious to see one thing about the team’s line combinations tonight. On the first and third line, there’s a possibility that both wingers will be playing on their off wings (righties Hornqvist and Perron on the left side and lefties Sheary and Wilson on the right). That would indicate to me a desire by Sullivan to make those players more dangerous threats in the offensive zone, even at the expense of having to make some plays coming out of the defensive zone on their backhand. It’s an aggressive posture, in my opinion.

— The Penguins have four WBS call-ups on the roster up front in Sheary, Wilson, Rust and Porter, but this isn’t one of those situations where a coach could play a whole line intact. The way I understand it, when Wilson and Sheary were on the same line, Kael Mouillierat was their center. When Porter played center, Dominik Simon was one of his wings.

Bye for now,

jb

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December 20, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


8 comments so far - add yours!

Change of plans

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Remember when this game tomorrow was going to be the big grudge rematch — Sidney Crosby and the Penguins vs. Brandon Dubinsky and the Blue Jackets?

So many things have happened since the last meeting between the teams on Black Friday that the Dubinsky angle has been shuffled way down the list of things to watch.

First and foremost, Crosby is not expected to play. Coach Mike Sullivan said he’s day to day with a lower-body injury. Not playing Crosby tomorrow would give him six full days off over the Christmas break, so that seems to be a no-brainer of a decision.

In Crosby’s absence, the lines looked something like this:

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

Secondly, the Penguins have bigger fish to fry than worrying about Dubinsky. Like snapping a five-game losing streak for instance.

I thought Nick Bonino’s take on the funk the team’s in was interesting.

“I think every team goes through this. We talked yesterday about how Montreal and New York and San Jose, all these teams have losses and have gone through little bumps in the road. It’s our turn for that. We had a 10-game win streak (9 wins in 10 games) where I don’t think we were playing the right way. Now we’re playing the right way and we’re not getting the results. At some point, you expect it to turn around.”

They were winning when they didn’t deserve to earlier in the season and now, thanks in part to the law of averages, they’re losing when they don’t deserve to. I think that’s an interesting way to look at it.

Third, there’s the coaching matchup. At the beginning of the year, it was Minnesota Nice Todd Richards against Professor Mike Johnston. (I’m exaggerating there on the Richards side because he wasn’t always nice, but he is from Minnesota and just go with me here. It makes for a better angle.) Now it’s irascible John Tortorella against stern Mike Sullivan. And Sullivan was Tortorella’s assistant for six years. A juicy storyline to be sure.

Finally, there’s the Dubinsky business. Should the Penguins seek revenge for his Black Friday crosscheck on Crosby? How, given their roster, would they even do that?

I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a dust-up or two surrounding Dubsinky tomorrow night. Hockey players have long memories. But I really doubt it will be the No. 1 headline coming out of the game. And less than a month ago, that would have been hard to believe.

Bye for now,

jb

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