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March 2, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Penguins are not what they were.

CHICAGO – The Penguins are up against it right now.

Players, probably correctly, talked Saturday night about not reading too much into a one-side loss to the Blackhawks because, as Craig Adams said, “that wasn’t a regular hockey game.”

Indeed, that should be the last time this season the Penguins play a road game in a snowstorm.

Still, as March begins, it is clearly these are not the Penguins of early January, when a healthier group appeared to be handling the loss of right winger Pascal Dupuis.

A lot will be made going forward – though, why more has not been made lately is puzzling – of the Penguins being without their two top defensemen in Kris Letang and Paul Martin.

That makes sense, because the Penguins are so incredibly reliant on those players.

The Penguins are at their best, even with the adoption of a left-wing lock defensive system, when their skilled forwards receive quick, sharp passes from defensemen. That action is what fuels the puck possession the Penguins need to have to win games – especially against top teams such as Chicago or, later this week, Anaheim and San Jose.

Letang and Martin are two of the better puck-moving defensemen in the NHL, certainly the best for the Penguins. They anchor separate defense pairings because coach Dan Bylsma wants one of them on the ice when centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are out.

If Crosby and Malkin – and their respective wingers – spend most of a game chasing the puck, the Penguins are doomed.

That is what is happening right now without Letang and Martin.

The Penguins did win a lot earlier this season when hockey gods attempted to devastate this club by forcing as many as five AHL players into the lineup annually over the course of a month.

That was never going to last, though.

This season was absolutely the one the Penguins could ill afford an injury run like the one they’re having because the lower salary cap has destroyed their depth. They arrived at camp with questions about the third line.

Well, those questions remain, and the injuries to Dupuis and Letang and Martin have negatively impacted the top line and the entire defense corps.

The Penguins, admirably, raced to the top of the Eastern Conference before the Olympics because of a combination of dependably sound goaltending, high-end offensive talent coming up big and the coaching staff masterfully getting the most out of intriguing AHL prospects that management knew were not ready for consistent NHL production.

It is completely unrealistic to think that combination can work all season.

Reality is smacking the Penguins right now.

 

 

>> While walking back to our hotel from the Windy City, fellow Trib Total Media reporter Chris Adamski and I marveled that the Penguins-Blackhawks game at Solider Field was pulled off. The snow under our feet was wet, heavy and slippery, and the wind left our faces feeling raw.

Conditions were brutal for playing a hockey game on Saturday night.

Still, several NHL officials said that the conditions were much worse at Michigan Stadium for the Winter Classic between Detroit and Toronto.

That Classic and this final Stadium Series game went off mostly without a hitch, which is as close to amazing as you will see in hockey.

I’ve covered three outdoor games. Two were played in cold, windy and snowy conditions, the other during a constant rain at night.

Last month, I along with others, watched on TV as an outdoor game was staged in Los Angeles.

Think about that.

An outdoor ice hockey game in Los Angeles!

It appears we are completely taking for granted how unheard of the outdoor game concept was only six years ago.

Now, they’re being staged in blizzard conditions and near beaches.

Outdoor hockey isn’t just one of the best ideas the NHL has ever had; it is also the one of the league’s most impressive accomplishments because the games outside have all actually happened.

Back in 2007, a few months before the original Winter Classic, there was doubt within the hockey community that an outdoor game could even be played.

 

 

>> LINKS N’AT

 

The Penguins did not find their game as the Windy City lived up to its moniker: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5655854-74/penguins-blackhawks-game#axzz2ud8U59IJ

 

Ray Shero wants Ryan Kesler: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5686336-74/penguins-kesler-sources#axzz2ud8U59IJ

 

Gary Bettman took time to speak with Trib Total Media on a variety of subjects: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5684472-74/game-bettman-cap#axzz2ud8U59IJ

 

Chris Adamski braved Chicago’s weather to find Penguins fans ready for some frozen fun: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5684455-74/penguins-game-fans

 

Also from Adamski, the Penguins notes: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5655856-74/penguins-saturday-game#axzz2ud8U59IJ

 

Jonathan Bombulie’s weekly AHL report: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5655293-74/payerl-games-goals#axzz2ud8U59IJ

 

Pens-Hawks photos from our Chaz Palla: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/

 

>> Josh Yohe is set to have himself a big Sunday. Join me in welcoming, hopefully at some point on this day, a healthy addition to his family.

 

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

February 28, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Chicago weather and trade winds.

CHICAGO – Oh yeah, and a storm is threatening…

A quick hit from this Windy City, with another to follow later Friday after the Penguins practice at Solider Field in advance of their outdoor game against the Blackhawks on Saturday night.

It promises to be quite cold in Chicago this weekend, so the 15,000 or so who are traveling for this game should bring layers. WPXI Sever Weather is calling for the zero degrees-feeling temperatures (wind chill); but snow – and it’s coming – will just miss the event.

That said, if you are going home Sunday – leave early, or make plans to stay in Chicago; because it sounds as though the drive back will be quite unpleasant and perhaps extremely dangerous.

A look at the weather: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5674760-74/game-harbaugh-chicago

= The trade deadline is 3 p.m. on Wednesday, and there are already a lot of my colleagues talking about who the Penguins are targeting.

Unlike last year, when it was clear what the Penguins wanted to and could do, this trade-deadline season look a bit cloudy so many days out.

A bit of information that could signal what the Penguins are thinking short- and long-term, though: They inquired with Vancouver about center Ryan Kesler before the Olympics.

Read into that what you want. Just passing along the information.

 

= The details of Kris Letang’s stroke experience are harrowing, as Josh Yohe reports: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5668844-74/letang-stroke-doctors

= Also from Yohe, who wrote the entire Trib print section Thursday, this gem about Blackhawks’ second-season stud Brandon Saad: http://triblive.com/sports/nhl/5673439-74/saad-game-blackhawks

= From the game (a sloppy loss) to the latest on Pascal Dupuis (injured, but vowing to lead), there was a lot to cover from Pittsburgh on Thursday. Read all of Yohe’s hard work at our Penguins page on the site: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/

Be EXCELLENT to each other,
Rossi

February 27, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Latest “NHL Revealed” to shed light on Crosby’s Olympics

John Collins has a slight problem on his hands.

The NHL’s high-energy chief operating officer, Collins is the man behind turning the league onto an events-driven methodology. Under his watch, outdoor hockey became an annual Winter Classic that is now a Stadium Series, and the once two-day Entry Draft has taken to stretching over almost a half-week.

Collins’ problem isn’t that things are becoming too big. He, as does his boss, commissioner Gary Bettman, want all things NHL to become bigger.

Specifically, Collins is working towards a day when the NHL has produced enough original programming that its fans, who he concedes are generally tribal and territorial, have interest in watching TV shows that aren’t built specifically around their favorite teams.

That happened with the HBO “24/7 Winter Classic” series that bowed to rave reviews in 2010.

The “NHL Revealed” series has looked a lot like “24/7” – no coincidence since its executive producer, Ross Greenburg, who was president of HBO Sports when it first partnered with the NHL.

“NHL Revealed,” which resumes Thursday night with two hour-long episodes starting at 10 p.m. on NBC Sports Network, is a seven-part series build around behind-the-scenes footage of players for teams participating in the Stadium Series.

One of those players, by no coincidence, is the NHL’s top draw – Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

Crosby’s popularity has helped to create Collins’ slight problem.

During the Winter Olympics men’s ice hockey tournament, Collins’ young soon took a serious rooting interest. His support was for Canada, because Crosby – his favorite player – was a member of that national team.

Young hockey fans around Pittsburgh also had their allegiances tested during the Olympics.

Fans of Crosby – and maybe more so, those in the hockey audience that cannot stand him – will enjoy the Thursday night episodes of “NHL Revealed,” because they are centered around the NHL players’ Olympic experiences.

“It’s almost like a Hollywood ensemble film where every character is a star.,” Collins said. “There’s a piece of footage where Teemu Selanne is talking about how it was really important for his young (Finland) team to play the Canadians in the preliminary round – and to actually play with them, and how it might help them down the road. Knowing what we know now, it was foreshadowing.

“But as he’s doing that interview, the ‘NHL Revealed’ cameras catch Sidney Crosby, who just happens to be walking behind him on his way to Canada’s dressing room. You get to see Crosby kind of take a quick, knowing glance at Selanne. It was a pretty cool moment.”

If anybody knows something about being the hockey faces of their respective nations and the importance of saying the right things even after difficult losses, those anybodies are Crosby and Selanne, respectively.

Moments away from the arena are what excite Greenburg about “NHL Revealed.” He said viewers should really pay attention to sequences when players are walking around the Olympic Village in Sochi, Russia.

Crosby’s interaction with Olympic athletes from Canada and other nations struck Greenburg as he reviewed raw video for the latest “NHL Revealed episodes.”

“There are some wonderful exchanges between him and (Team Canada defenseman Drew) Doughty when they are walking to practices,” Greenburg said. “People were coming up asking for pictures. Sidney was there smiling – at first giving them a nod, but then it became some fun dialogue between him and those people.

“We’re just getting to know these guys, specifically Sidney.”
Crosby, Greenburg said, “has taken to the camera crews” that has been with the Penguins for a couple of months.

So, too, has his fellow Penguins center Evgeni Malkin.

A few weeks before the Olympics, Malkin started making grand post-practice entrances into the Penguins’ dressing room. He was playing to the cameras.

Greenburg said one of the aims for “NHL Revealed” – specifically when it comes to Crosby – is to “humanize NHL players, instead of putting them on pedestals.”

Collins’ aim is to continue pushing with programming such as “NHL Revealed.” Clubs, he said, are becoming more open to granting behind-the-scenes access because of the response to shows like “24/7” and “Revealed.”

A behind-the-scenes look at the Stanley Cup playoffs is not on the horizon, Collins said; but gaining exclusive access to the big-buzz Olympic tournament was something for which the NHL could shoot that North America’s other major pro leagues could not.

No other sporting league in North America shuts down for the Olympics. Collins and Greenburg figured “NHL Revealed” could use the Olympics to help promote the NHL product after the Games.

That is what viewers will see with Episodes Four and Five of “NHL Revealed,” which can also be streamed online.

In all, Greenburg said a crew of about 50 people worked an average of 17-hour days for nearly three weeks, cutting across three countries and two continents, to put together the next two episodes.

Episode Four, in fact, promises to live up to the program’s name.

“There’s plenty from the Russian team in the first hour,” Greenburg said, adding that cameras tracked Alex Ovechkin – Russia’s version of Crosby in terms of mass appeal – for the entire tournament.

“He stayed around after Russia lost, so we were able to get the feeling of the Russian people in Sochi. The disappointment is pretty vivid on the screen.”

Normally, Penguins fans might not have a lot of interest in a behind-the-scenes look at Ovechkin – Crosby’s historic rival.

However, given what is now known about how Ovechkin and Malkin, never close friends, were on the same side of feeling mostly ostracized during their home country Olympics, Episode Four of “NHL Revealed” is probably worthwhile for its unique look at Team Russia’s dynamic.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,
Rossi

February 22, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: I am a terrible fan.

In a few days, the Penguins personnel who were in Sochi, Russia, for the Winter Olympic Games will have returned – and I’ll be riding comfortably again.

The NHL beaks for the Olympics, at least it has since 1998, so that an international hockey tournament on a grand stage can include the world’s finest players. This break is for about three weeks, and most of what happens at any Games is often a fast fading memory by the midway through Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

What happened for me during the Winter Olympic Games was something that seemed neat at first only to feel regrettable by the end.

I became a fan.

Not a very good one, either.

 

***

 

I was raised in suburban Pittsburgh – Crafton and Green Tree, represent! – and there was a time, though it has been almost two decades, when I cared deeply about the local professional sports franchises’ success and failures.

At its height, my boyhood fandom was irrational. Some examples:

>>God cost the Pirates at Atlanta in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. Of that I was sure. Also, I was 14.

>>I was the reason the Steelers lost Super Bowl XXX about four years later. Had I not spoken so brazenly that Neil O’Donnell was going to drive the field and score the touchdown that lassoed the Cowboys, surely – in front of my eyes at Sun Devil Stadium – O’Donnell would not have thrown that killer interception.

I was 17. I could handle the blame. I would be back someday to see the Steelers win a Super Bowl.

Around a decade later I was, but as a reporter – and my only interest on a cold night in Detroit in February 2006 was that Hines Ward actually win the MVP, because I had kind of committed to writing about him doing that anyway and deadlines were tight.

>>The first time I ever lost it as a childhood fan of a Pittsburgh club was during the third period of the Penguins’ Game 7 home loss to Philadelphia in the 1989 Patrick Division final. It had never crossed my mind that Mario Lemieux would lose that game.

I was 11, and I knew that Lemieux won or lost games by himself. That’s what happened in hockey.

I cried while half-watching the final minutes of that Game 7 on a TV at my parents’ house. Dad, as I recall, told me to stop. Mom, as I remember, promised things would be OK.

I did stop… eventually. Things were OK… eventually.

 

***

 

That specific memory came back to me Friday, the tail end of two weeks over which I pushed myself to invest emotionally in the United States men’s ice hockey team at the Winter Olympic Games.

It was probably better for me, financially, if Evgeni Malkin’s Russia squad won the tournament. Gold, seemingly, could help sell a biography.

It was probably easier for me, professionally, if Sidney Crosby’s Canada squad won the tournament. He isn’t going anywhere, and neither am I on this Penguins beat for the Tribune-Review.

I knew seven players, two coaches, and a handful of management personnel headed to the Winter Olympic Games; but I cared not to think of any of them during the hockey tournament, instead I focused on being a fan of my country’s hockey program.

My front was strong, too.

To me – at least from what I remembered – being a fan of Team USA also meant digging in to wish for the demise of my squad’s archrival. In this case that was Team Canada.

My “Know Thy Enemy” movement on Twitter started there.

From the minute the NHL’s Olympic break began, I decided that if the United States and Canada met after the preliminary round, I would take it in as a fan and a fan only.

I tried.

I could not.

While watching my team battle its enemy with several friends on Friday afternoon, my mind was elsewhere.

Being a fan again, actually, was easier said than done.

 

***

 

Paul Martin deserved better than to exit the Olympics with an injured right hand. A Minneapolis native, he grew up a fan of the American hockey that Minnesota-legend Herb Brooks helped shape.

Upon initially awaking Friday morning, I had only one thing on my mind:

Know Thy Enemy.

That thought was fleeting.

Dejan Kovacevic, the Tribune-Review columnist in Sochi for coverage, had filed a breaking news story that Martin was out of the USA-Canada semifinal game. His story cited reports by other outlets that Martin was sick, but also that he had been spotted with a wrapped hand.

Thy Enemy was now this limited information about Martin’s state of being.

Eight years into covering the Penguins, I know by now the quickest way to figure out how to track down information – or, at least, figure out if that information can be tracked down. (Sometimes, for various reasons, it cannot.)

Within about an hour of first seeing Dejan’s story on my email In Box, I had learned – thanks to multiple sources – that Martin was indeed injured, not sick.

Thy Enemy was in trouble from there.

So was my fan plan.

 

***

 

Chasing a story, especially one of interest to the audience, is pretty much the closest beat reporters come to feeling like we are competing like the athletes we cover. The pursuit, not the result, is the fun part; but it is not without challenges, obstacles, adversity and second-guessing.

Still, chasing a story becomes all that a reporter knows.

For me, chasing the story is the only thing that really makes sense in life, and I live for it. I become irrationally passionate, often to a fault, and usually to the point that others prefer not to be around me because I am demanding and caffeinated and rambling and edgy and all over the place, and generally unpleasant.

I was all of those on Friday morning while chasing the story about Martin’s injury.

A letdown loomed, and it came during the USA-Canada game.

My letdown had nothing to do with the score.

Martin’s injury was a terrible break for a really cooperative player who I have enjoyed covering for parts of four Penguins seasons.

It kind of helped me deal with Friday, though.

Instead of caring about a game that was out of my control, I was able to focus on finding out information and controlling how I presented it to an audience that thirsted for it.

That made sense to me. That felt right.

The sitting then standing then pacing then yelling about something that was happening on a television screen – that did not make sense, did not feel right.

A thought occurred to me on Friday night:

I probably went into sports reporting, on some subconscious level, because I never liked being a sports fan. I never liked giving strangers control over my happiness or believing in logos and color schemes.

Still, everybody else was doing it…

 

***

 

My greatest fear as a beat reporter is losing The Spark.

I am told it happens without warning, that one day I will finish with a practice or game, call my editor and say, “I’m done.”

Foolishly, I figured the Winter Olympic Games would provide me a chance to stoke my fires as a beat reporter by being a fan of Team USA. I was not covering the Games in Sochi, so there was neither harm nor foul.

Parts of fandom felt good, really good. The rooting against Team Canada – yeah, I dug that. It had been a long time since I rooted against anything other than third-period comebacks off 7:30 p.m. faceoffs.

Mostly, though, I spent my return to fandom during the Winter Olympic Games feeling like a fraud.

I never felt as invested as the fans I knew who were all in.

I slept through the first period of USA-Russia in the preliminary round. I barely paid attention to the epic shootout, too.

I had lunch with a colleague during the USA-Czech Republic elimination game. There was a TV on the wall in our booth at the restaurant, and I did not change the channel from a talk show.

USA-Canada would shake my true fandom from its slumber, or so I figured. However, by the time it started on Friday afternoon, I was already too deep into my chase of the Martin story to really care.

Watching the game with friends, I acted the way I thought I should as a fan – nervous, fidgety, angry, tense, whatever.

It was all an act, though.

I keep peeking at my cell phone, looking for something I may have missed about Martin and trying to see if anybody else had reported what I had.

My heart was never into USA-Canada.

I was being a really bad fan.

 

***

 

During the first week of the Winter Olympic Games, I went on vacation to a resort in Mexico. One day there, I tried to take a bicycle tour of the facilities.

I lasted one stop on the tour.

My twice surgically repaired right knee flared, so there was that. Also, though, I could never get comfortable on the bike. It wobbled and I felt unsettled. Something seemed amiss.

Nobody forgets how to ride a bicycle, right?

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

February 22, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: NHL, Olympics should divorce.

I am not at these Winter Olympic Games. Full disclosure: I have never been at an Olympic Winter Games.

This is noteworthy only because it feels important to acknowledge that being at an Olympic Winter Games seemingly could change my mind, but I suspect not.

I hope the NHL is done with the Olympic Games.

Admittedly, this is a totally territorial view. The NHL is home to the finest hockey players, and these athletes have wanted, will want, and probably should receive the opportunity to represent their respective countries at probably the world’s most magnificent sporting event.

However, John Tavares’ season-long skate toward Elite Player status was halted by a season-ending left knee injury to at the Olympics ­– and that is not fair to New York Islanders ownership, management, coaches, players or especially their fans.

Injuries are part of hockey.

Tavares may have been injured in an NHL game.

He was not, though.

Neither was Paul Martin, who looks to be out a month – the Penguins will not know for sure until he is evaluated by team medial personnel in Pittsburgh – with an injured right hand.

Tavares and Martin are not the only players that will leave the Olympics and not return to NHL hockey clubs that are paying them.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is now on the record about no committing to sending NHL players to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games:

“There are mixed views among the owners,” Bettman said to NBC Sports.

“There are lots of quotes going in both directions. It’s a real balancing act. Coming to the Olympics is a lot of fun when we are here, and the hockey’s fun. … But it requires us to shut the season down in the middle. It’s a break in momentum. It’s at a point in time when the NFL has stopped and it’s really our time. And our teams come back in different shape. We’ve had five players who are pretty banged up already from this tournament. Some NHL teams have sent 10 players and some have sent two and some teams are going to come back more well-rested than others.”

Players, and thus union leadership, feel strongly that the NHL should be involved with future Winter Olympic Games. Any push by the NHL to make the Sochi Games the last to feature NHL players will be met with a stern labor battle.

I suspect there are a lot of hockey fans that want to see NHL players at Winter Olympic Games. To them, I offer this dose of reality: Winter Olympic Games are absolutely not about the fans.

They are about the athletes.

Also, they are about the wow-gosh advertising fees that broadcasters in many countries pay to show the Olympics.

Those big fees were being paid before the NHL first sent its players to the Winter Olympic Games in 1998.

The men’s ice hockey tournament being staged in Sochi has sparked buzz on Twitter and Watch Parties at bars. If only any of that translated to anything substantial for the NHL.

It does not, and will not.

NHL players at the Olympics do not spark ticket sales in non-traditional markets such as Florida, Nashville, Dallas or Phoenix. NHL players at the Olympics do not benefit local broadcasters, such as Root Sports Pittsburgh, for whom the Penguins are a big money maker with advertisers.

Heck, NHL players at the Olympics was not even enough to get the league’s national broadcast partner, NBC, to broadcast arguably the most anticipated hockey game in four years for a casual North American sporting audience. That thrilling USA-Canada semifinal was not broadcast live on the network that will air the Stanley Cup Final in June.

Local NBC affiliates like WPXI pay good money to carry NBC’s Olympic programming. WPXI not only could not broadcast the USA-Canada semifinal, but it, like others, could not even show highlights.

Over the last two weeks, the NHL players at the Winter Olympic Games have been not easily found on cable while NBC prime-time programming has focused on ice skating, skiing and X-Games sports.

How is any of that good for the NHL?

February, the one month the NHL basically owns in America, has mostly passed without weekend games that are important for probable sellout-revenue and big local TV numbers.

How is that good for the NHL?

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin – the two signature NHL stars – have spent the past two weeks absorbing daggers to their respective professional reputations.

How is that good for the NHL?

The men’s hockey in Sochi, save for a few games involving Team USA, has mostly been a brand of plodding wall-play dominated by defensive schemes that, on the bigger international ice surface, lends itself to low-scoring snooze fests.

How is that good for the NHL?

The Winter Olympic Games are not good for the NHL.

The Winter Olympic Games are gripping and great and usually once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for participants.

Crosby has participated twice now. He will be 30 when the next Winter Olympic Games come around, and the hope here is he watches them on off-nights from Penguins games.

NHL players have gone to five Winter Olympic Games, including ones in the United States, Canada and Russia. The NHL has sent its players to Winter Olympic Games in all three zones, so to speak.

Basically, the second best NHL tournament played every four years has been covered.

The Winter Olympic Games does not feel special anymore. It feels forced. It looks unnecessary.

What seemed like a winning proposal – NHL players on the Olympics stage – has become a marriage that has run its course.

There were some good times, but an amicable split is best. The NHL, at least, needs to be on its own for a while – and that will still be true four years from now.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

February 17, 2014
by Josh Yohe


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Yohe: Understanding what drives Crosby

Three games. No goals. Two assists.
What’s wrong with Sidney Crosby, you ask?
I’ll be the first to admit that Crosby hasn’t been his dominant self in these Olympics, that the lightning bolt speed, precision passes and otherworldly work along the boards haven’t been especially evident in Sochi.
But really, we’re all missing the point here.
Partially because of this era, and also because of the way Crosby is wired, we can’t measure him on statistics. Legends of hockey’s past are measured on statistics, but they played in a different time.
Follow me here.
Historically speaking, we’ll only be able to compare Crosby to Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. He’s fourth behind those two (and Mike Bossy) in NHL all-time points per game. Crosby is also arguably the most hyped and publicized player of all time.
He’s the player of his era, much like Gretzky and Lemieux were. All three are much different, but how we must judge Crosby is radically different.
When you think of Gretzky and Lemieux and their respective greatest international moments, you think of the 1987 Canada Cup, right?
You think of Gretzky leading the tournament in points, and of Lemieux scoring and astounding 11 goals, including four in the final two games against Russia. Great stuff, with Gretzky nearing the end of his prime and Lemieux entering his.
Now, let’s take a look at the final score of the three games involving Russia and Canada at the 1987 Canada Cup.
6-5, 6-5, 6-5.
That’s right, 33 goals in three games.
Fast-forward 27 years. Can you imagine any game the remainder of these Olympics being played at a 6-5 clip? Did you watch Canada play Finland today? Both teams were trying to win 2-1. Only one managed to pull it off.
Perhaps a better example is when the United States played Russia on Saturday. The U.S. team is blessed with speed and does nothing but attack. Russia offers Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk.
And we got four goals out of that game until the shootout.
But, you see, we still remember Wayne and Mario putting up points whether their team was winning or not. They were savants that way, really. Honestly, Lemieux probably would have put up seven points against Norway if he felt like it. Maybe more. That’s how he was. He craved producing points, and Gretzky did also.
This brings us back to Crosby, who is entirely different. Those early round blowouts feel like all-star games. Mario and Wayne put on shows in all-star games. They loved it. Crosby stinks in all-star games. It’s not what makes him tick. It’s not real. Now, the games start to matter.
Has he been great? No, certainly not. But what exactly do you expect him to do? What has Jonathan Toews done in this tournament? How about Patrick Kane? What have Ovechkin and Malkin done since that first period of their first game?
Zero points, that’s what.
The game is different now. Defense rules. Allowing infractions to go uncalled rules. Goaltenders have never been better. Scouting reports have never been better.
Hockey, in essence, has minimized star power. Take the NHL’s current season, if you will. One man (Ovechkin) is on pace to surpass 50 goals. One man (Crosby) is on pace to surpass 100 points.
Think about that.
Listen, I could recommend some strategies that will ignite Crosby. And, in fact, I will.
= He played 10 minutes through the first two periods. What is Mike Babcock thinking? Either he’s trying to keep everyone happy, or he’s displaying the height of arrogance, letting the world know that Canada is so deep that it can roll four lines with no drawback. Either way, it’s insane. Great players need lots of ice time. Ryan Getzlaf is terrific. He isn’t Crosby.
= Crosby is at his very best when he receives the puck with speed in the neutral zone. It’s during these times that he draws penalties, creates opportunities for his wingers, and scorers many of his goals. The defense that Finland played today – calling it passive wouldn’t be a stretch – never allowed Crosby time to maneuver with speed. Also, the Canadian defenseman, none of whom have played considerable time with Crosby, don’t know when to give him the puck. I counted three times today when Crosby skated with passion through the neutral zone, clearly wanting the puck, and did not receive it. That will come with time, though there is only so much time in such a tournament.
= Leave him with Kunitz. Seriously. He’s the creature of habit in a world of people who are creatures of habits. Canada put Jamie Benn on Crosby’s left wing. The only time I noticed Benn all game was when he crosschecked a Finnish defenseman from behind late in the third period. Nothing was called on this play, which is typical. The officiating was very NHL-like today, as in, stars were being restricted throughout with no penalties being called. That doesn’t help Crosby either.
Aside from these thoughts, my ultimate suggestion for the restless Canadian faction of people expecting more from Crosby is to be patient.
Maybe he won’t lead the tournament in scoring. Maybe he isn’t producing points the way legends before him did.
But remember this about Sidney Crosby: He isn’t a man of statistics. He’s a man of moments.
His highest career goal total isn’t etched in our minds. But that shootout goal in Buffalo is.
His highest career point total isn’t something that every Canadian kid remembers. But they sure remember the Golden Goal.
I couldn’t tell you, off the top of my head, how many goals he has scored in personal matchups with Ovechkin. But we all remember that breakaway in Game 7 in Washington, when Crosby stripped Ovechkin, buried a shot and announced that the hockey world was his.
How many power play points has he produced in his career? I don’t know. But I still remember everything about that night when he returned from a concussion against the Islanders. You do, too.
Crosby is a man of moments. We can’t measure him any other way.
Will he have his moment in this tournament? It’s tough to say. Tournaments like these aren’t really made for stars to shine. His own country, more than any other, likes it that way. It’s all about the team, eh?
But the coach of the team has to ride Crosby, and I expect him to sooner rather than later.
I’ll never forget an answer from Mike Babcock to a question I asked about Crosby one month following the 2010 Olympics.
“The thing about Sid,” Babcock said, “is that he seems to have a magic about him.”
That’s just it. And you never know when magic will appear.
The Russians feel it’s their birth right to win this tournament, and make no mistake, the Americans have clearly been the best team in Sochi.
Meanwhile, the Canadians have looked lifeless and a tad slow. They don’t look like champions right now, and their captain doesn’t, either.
But before we dismiss mighty Canada, and before we dismiss its captain, we must realize that moments remain in this tournament, and he hasn’t had his yet.
Crosby, you see, does not dream of points or pretty goals. He dreams of the moment. We better not sleep on that.

- Yohe

February 14, 2014
by Josh Yohe


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Yohe: Bylsma, Miller and the conversation

Jonathan Quick is the winner. Ryan Miller is the backup.

How did this happen? Well, I guess I should have known last week. Allow me to tell a quick story.

The Penguins played in Buffalo last Wednesday. Before the game, a large number of Buffalo reporters circled around Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who is the man in charge of Team USA. It immediately became evident that the Buffalo reporters were convinced that Miller was the clear choice to start for Team USA. Question after question followed about Miller’s brilliance four years earlier in Vancouver. It was as though Quick didn’t exist. Some reporters even mentioned the fact that Bylsma’s Penguins chased Quick in the first period against the Kings a week earlier.

Surely, it was Miller’s job.

No, it wasn’t. And I should have known then, for two reasons.

I had the opportunity to speak with Bylsma after the Buffalo reporters had touted Miller the clear starter. To put it lightly, Bylsma appeared completely miffed that reporters would be so dismissive of Quick, a former Stanley Cup winner and widely considered one of hockey’s finest goalies. I joked that I should show up at that evening’s game wearing a Quick jersey. Bylsma seemed to be amused by this. At that moment, it was pretty clear that Bylsma, at the very least, wasn’t sold on Miller being his starter. I strongly believe Quick was the choice when the NHL season began, though Miller’s outstanding play and Quick’s trouble with injuries may have evened things.

Later that night, I witnessed more compelling evidence that Miller wasn’t going to be the guy. I just didn’t realize it at the time, but now, it makes sense.

After the Penguins handled Miller and the Sabres, 5-1, I wrote my game story from the media lounge, which happens to be located near the Sabres and Penguins locker rooms. After writing my article, I left the lounge in an attempt to visit the bathroom. However, as I opened the door to walk across the hallway, I ran into Bylsma and Miller. The two were have a conversation, and it looked serious. Very serious. I didn’t want to eavesdrop – OK, actually I did want to, but I didn’t want to be a jerk – so, instead of walking past them, I simply executed a U-turn and sat in the media lounge for around five minutes. Two of the most important figures in American hockey were having a serious conversation, and I didn’t feel like my intrusion was appropriate.

After a good five minutes, I figured the conversation was over. It’s not like they wouldn’t be seeing each other in Sochi in a couple of days anyway, and the Penguins team bus had already been prepared to depart. Assuming the coast was clear, I again departed the media lounge. And again, as I walked around the corner, I encountered Bylsma and Miller, deep in conversation.

At the time, I may have misinterpreted what was going on. I’m a big fan of Miller’s work, and sensed for weeks that perhaps he would be the American starter. But seeing Bylsma so miffed by the assumption that Miller was the clear choice over Quick made me wonder. Looking back, I suspect Bylsma may have delivered some news to Miller that he didn’t want to hear. I could be wrong, of course. Maybe Miller wasn’t informed that Quick would be the starter until he arrived in Sochi. But I’m starting to begin otherwise.

It gives you an appreciation for how difficult the Olympics are for players, coaches and general managers. I assure you Bylsma possesses enormous respect for Miller. But Quick is clearly his choice.

I wish I knew what was said in that conversation. I suspect it was pretty compelling stuff. Next time, I’ll eavesdrop.

Hope you’re all enjoying the Olympic hockey so far. Great stuff.

- Yohe

February 12, 2014
by Josh Yohe


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Yohe: Olympic men’s hockey predictions

Good day, hockey fans.

The way I see things, there are five teams – Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the United States – that legitimately can win the gold medal in the Men’s Olympic hockey tournament. Finland is probably the weakest of those five teams, though I wouldn’t completely count them out.
And then there are the other four.
Let’s be honest, here. Any of these teams could win it all. Canada has overwhelming talent; the Russians can score like no other team in this event and will be playing as though their lives depend on it; the Swedes are deceptively good and display no apparent weakness; and the American team is better than you think, fast and equipped with strong goaltending.
So, who does one pick?
There’s no right or wrong answer. Picking these tournaments is so difficult. It’s basically where hunches, logic and luck intersect.
So, here’s what I like and don’t like about the big boys. Predictions at the end.

CANADA – Most consider them the favorite, and for good reason. John Tavares is their fourth center, for God’s sake. That’s pretty scary. They’ve done it before, they showcase the world’s greatest hockey player, and their depth is unquestionable.
But there are problems. Would you trust Carey Price in a big game? How about Robert Luongo? OK, Luongo won the gold four years ago. True. But was he great that game? Did he look comfortable? Could you see him doing it again? Goaltending is a huge problem for the Canadians, in my view. I don’t trust either of these guys, and Mike Smith doesn’t figure to get a chance.
Plus, like the U.S., Canada doesn’t have a good history of winning on bigger ice surfaces.
Given the big ice surface, and how important special teams figure to be in such an even tournament, Canada should be utilizing P.K. Subban. Instead, Drew Doughty will run the power play along with Shea Weber. I have no problem with those two – both are terrific – but Subban is a better power play artist and would be more dynamic on the big ice. It’s a mistake if he doesn’t play.
On paper, an awesome team. But there are questions.

RUSSIA – No matter who you’re cheering for, you’ll surely agree that no team will be more interesting to watch than Russia.
This team is blessed with talent, conflicted by its personalities and perhaps united – or divided – but the extraordinary pressure it is under. In 2010, their Olympic performance was embarrassing. No one knows what to expect this time.
Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin are Russia’s best players. They’ll play together. Will they thrive? No one knows. I suspect Malkin may defer too much to Ovechkin at times, which isn’t a good thing. Malkin is at his best when he is clearly the best player on the ice, so I’m not sure that I like this duo together as much as everyone else. But maybe I’ll be proven wrong. The fact that Ovechkin and Malkin possess a really complex relationship doesn’t help the matter. Or maybe it does. I just don’t know about this team.
I don’t particularly like Russia’s defensive group, though Sergei Bobrovski between the pipes is intriguing.
Could they win it all? Oh yeah. Could they implode? Oh yeah.

FINLAND – I include Finland in the list of contenders because of the great Tuukka Rask. In case you missed last season’s Eastern Conference final between the Penguins and Bruins, I’ll let you know that Rask played some of the most magnificent goal that any of us have ever witnessed. It was a remarkable performance, and while there may have been some luck involved, let’s take nothing away from Rask. He is among the greatest goalies in hockey and has proven capable of entering “the zone.” And when he does, you don’t beat him.
That said, I don’t love Finland’s chances. They always play good team defense and will again, I’m sure, but there isn’t a ton of talent up front. I just don’t see them matching the offensive work of the other four teams mentioned in this space.
Still, Finland is the team nobody really wants to play. The Fins possess a strong international history and a seriously strong goaltender.
A factor? Sure. A dark horse? Yeah. Winning a medal? I’m thinking it’s unlikely.

SWEDEN – Good luck finding a weakness here. Seriously.
Sweden hasn’t received a significant amount of buzz entering this tournament, and that might be a mistake. This team is so skilled, so steady, so impressive on paper. Henrik Lundqvist will be Sweden’s goalie, which is a pretty good place to start. He isn’t having his best NHL season, but the guy is terrific and has plenty of international experience.
Do the Swedes have some issues to contend with?
Well, sure.
Nick Lidstrom is retired, and that takes away a historical edge. I like their blue line, but it’s not without possible problems. As great as Erik Karlsson is – and I truly do love watching him play – could he be a defensive liability in a tournament where one mistake could cost you a medal? Absolutely.
Sweden isn’t the youngest team, either. Many of its important players – Daniel Sedin, Lundqvist, Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson – are on the wrong side of 30.
The Swedes aren’t an old team, but they won’t win because of young legs.
I really, really like this team. Definitely a worthy medal contender. Will losing Henrik Sedin have a negative impact on his twin brother? Could be a big deal.

UNITED STATES – What an intriguing team Dan Bylsma has at his disposal.
One must assume the goaltending for the United States will be excellent, no matter if Ryan Miller or Jonathan Quick is between the pipes. I’d be comfortable with either one, though I believe Miller will ultimately be the guy chosen. He was great four years ago in Vancouver, has been great behind an awful Sabres team this season and probably has earned the opportunity to fight for the gold medal once again.
I love a lot of things about this team. The Americans don’t possess the best centers or blue line, but they do showcase the finest wingers in the tournament. Consider this list: Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Zach Parise, Ryan Callahan, Max Pacioretty, Dustin Brown, T.J. Oshie, JVR, Blake Wheeler…holy crap, that’s a great group. Speed, grit, scoring – it’s all there.
I like the blue line, too. Ryan Suter was made for this tournament. Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, John Carlson, and Paul Martin? See any weaknesses there? Neither do I.
America’s problem is at center. There’s not a ton of offense there. Either Ryan Kesler or David Backes need to score. They can, but defense is what they do best.
It’s a very well rounded team.

OK, enough is enough. You want predictions? They aren’t confident once, by any stretch. But here they are.

GOLD MEDAL – United States

Am I being a homer? Maybe a little. But in all honestly, I love this team. It’s an exceptionally fast team, built for big ice, and the goaltending will be spectacular. It’s also a hungry team. What happened four years ago still hurts a lot of these guys. There is something to be said for that kind of motivation. When all looks so even, pick your home country. Right?

SILVER MEDAL – Canada

I think Canada will be undefeated headed into the Gold Medal game. They’ve found themselves in a very comfortable group, and the talent is pretty overwhelming.
I do believe, however, that the United States matches up well with Canada. Sidney Crosby doesn’t like playing against Backes. Look it up. Kesler could drive him nuts, too. Sid’s the best player in the world, but it will be tough for him to dominate against the Americans given how they are built.
And I’ll take Miller over Luongo/Price any day.

BRONZE MEDAL – Sweden

A really strong team that could beat anyone. But I don’t think they’ll pull it off. Still, a team very much worthy of a medal.

FOURTH PLACE – Russia

If they get to the gold medal game, they’re not losing. But I don’t think they’ll make it that far. I know how talented they are. I also know they don’t have much depth and that playing under the kind of pressure they’ll feel is nearly impossible.

FIFTH PLACE – Finland

I say Finland makes it to the quarterfinals but simply doesn’t have the firepower to beat the big boys.

I fear many will disagree. Hey, it’s not easy. But those are my picks. Let’s enjoy the tournament. It should be something very, very special, no matter who you’re rooting for and no matter who wins.

- Yohe

February 5, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Marshall FACTORS in Sutter’s shutdown defense.

(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.)

>> THE FACEOFF FACTOR: Sutter on the Shut Down

Brandon Sutter was tasked with the job of filling some very large skates when Jordan Staal was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

However, a quick comparison of the numbers show that Sutter hasn’t just filled the role of third-line center for the Penguins; he’s putting up defensive numbers that place him among the NHL’s elite – players that might find their names mixed among Selke Trophy nominations this season.

With 663 minutes of even-strength hockey played this season, Sutter has only been on the ice for 16 of the Penguins 104 even strength goals-against. That number ranks second among players that have played at least 40 games for the Penguins this season. Joe Vitale leads at 13.

This number also puts Sutter among some of the league’s elite defensive centers. He is 16th overall and one better than Anze Kopitar (Los Angeles) and Logan Couture (San Jose), both of whom are among the projected contenders for the Selke that is annually awarded to the top defensive forward.

Some perspective on these numbers: Sutter is allowing 1.56 goals-against for every 60 minutes of even strength ice time he records. Staal was allowing 2.83 goals-against per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time his final season for the Penguins, 2011-12.

Sutter’s also been just as valuable on the penalty kill. In fact, 44 percent of the team’s even-strength ice time belongs to him, trumped only by checking forward Craig Adams and shutdown-pairing defenseman Brooks Orpik, just over 50 percent each.

Coach Dan Bylsma has used Sutter in a multitude of scenarios this season with a wide variety of partners along the way. (The Trib has reported him playing with 13 different wingers.)

With other teams consistently lining up their big guns against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Sutter has seen less of a workload against top line units than other third-line centers. In fact, according to some advanced quality of competition numbers that are based on possession statistics, Sutter is facing opponents that aren’t half as staunch as what Crosby and Malkin see on a regular basis.

The Crosby/Malkin lines are seeing time against the top units of other teams, whereas the Sutter unit has been paired against the oppositions’ third lines in most scenarios. So, while more goals might be expected of Sutter in these instances, he’s only scored two less goals than Jordan Staal has this season, with approximately 100 less minutes played at even-strength and virtually no time on the power-play for the Penguins.

That being said, the Penguins have an in-house defensive specialist on their third line, and when the playoffs roll around that’s goes quite a long way. Remember, Staal – though he scored some big goals along the way – was primarily playing a defensive, shutdown role for the Penguins on their run to the Cup Final in 2008 and their Cup win the next season.

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

 

LINKS N’AT

>> Chris Adamski delves into the unlikely speedster in arguably hockey’s biggest spot: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5524450-74/gibbons-crosby-nhl#axzz2sTev6XPf

>> Adamski also notes that Sidney Crosby is not worried about where he’s staying in Sochi: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5524451-74/games-penguins-bylsma#axzz2sTev6XPf

 

Josh Yohe in is snowy Buffalo, and will have all your information on this icy Wednesday.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

February 2, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Michalek never asked for trade from Pens.

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The other team plays too.

Indeed, that is not a popular view among the masses after a Penguins’ loss; but there are two clubs on the ice for most NHL games.

Most applies because their two other losses since New Year’s Day – at home to Florida and at Dallas, both last week – the Penguins appeared to no-show.

They showed against the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday. The Coyotes were just better.

Players knew it, too.

That is, perhaps, why their postgame comments were a lot more about what Phoenix did – “They played a pretty tight game,” said Sidney Crosby – than what the Penguins didn’t do.

“Just because we’re ahead of them in the standings, even if we play well doesn’t mean we’re going to win,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “I thought our energy level and compete (level) was pretty high. It was good.”

It was, and Niskanen is among the Penguins’ most publicly vocal critics when he senses lapses in energy and competitive spirit and execution.

The Coyotes have struggled of late, but they were a top-10 team through December.

A good team that hits a bumpy stretch – wait, that happens in a salary-capped NHL?

The Coyotes lost eight games in regulation in January.

The Penguins lost two.

This was their third regulation loss of the New Year.

Chill, folks.

Watch the Super Bowl, follow our Alan Robinson on Twitter, and take a day from presuming the Penguins will lose their first four playoff games because they aren’t winning 9 out of every 10 games.

Here ends the preaching.

 

>> That said, Sidney Crosby looked a bit off-put as he sat on a bench in the visitors’ dressing room on Saturday night. He generated five attempted shots against the Coyotes – as many as the combined total of wingers Chris Kunitz and Brian Gibbons.

Crosby is human.

No, it’s true.

Anyway, Crosby is human – dude was even spotted sipping a milkshake on this trip ­– and no human dominates this defensive NHL every night.

He has two goals in the last nine games.

He also has eight points over that slump.

That, dear readers, is how one wins a scoring title. Average nearly a point per game when things are going poorly.

He’ll be fine.

 

>> Goodness, Rossi, do you have anything nasty to say?

Yep.

Colds are lousy.

Colds that last about four weeks – colds that probably aren’t just colds – are really lousy.

Thanks to the Coyotes team doc for a last-minute examination before the game Saturday. Oddly, that has been required twice in my 12 years at the Trib. The other time was at the start of a baseball series in Phoenix.

 

>> Good for you, Zbynek Michalek.

He never wanted to leave the Penguins. His decision, in July 2010, to uproot his family and move from the Phoenix area to Pittsburgh was not without careful consideration.

Even after a rough second season with the Penguins, Michalek wanted to see his four-year contract through.

The Penguins, though, had come off an embarrassing loss to Philadelphia in Round 1, one that made their overall defense look suspect (at best), and GM Ray Shero approached Michalek for a list of teams to which he would accept a trade.

Michalek’s response was that he wanted to remain with the Penguins.

Still, Shero began talking trade with interested clubs, and took two to Michalek at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. One of those clubs was Phoenix, where Michalek had previously found a home as a shutdown defenseman.

Michalek, again insisting he would prefer to stay with the Penguins, told Shero that between the two teams he would prefer Phoenix.

The deal was struck, and Michalek again became a Coyote.

So, indeed, good for him for that goal on Saturday night – it had to be bittersweet.

Michalek was always pleasant and thoughtful during our interactions over two seasons. That probably wasn’t always easy for him, because during that second season he became a popular punch bag on the local talk-show circuit.

Free agency is a gambler’s paradise, but only a fool counts on it to build a championship contender.

Shero knows that. It is why most of his roster-shaping moves come at the NHL trade deadline.

That is March 5, by the way.

All is really quiet regarding the Penguins.

 

LINKS N’AT

>> You probably watched, but read anyway. The GAMER: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5499282-74/penguins-games-crosby#axzz2s8S39lpA

>> Jonathan Bombulie’s Never-to-be-Missed weekly repot on the AHL Penguins: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5499226-74/skate-baby-blade#axzz2s8S39lpA

>> Evgeni Malkin’s next trip to Russia will be unlike any he’s taken before or will take after, and Sochi could be where he cements his place in hockey history: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5499269-74/malkin-penguins-olympics#axzz2s8S39lpA

>> Finally, columnist Dejan Kovacevic is headed to Sochi for another round of Olympics coverage. He’s your local guy with Games experience and he’ll be burning up Twitter soon enough. Starbucks, though, he might not easily find. His column of what to look for from the Games: http://triblive.com/sports/olympics/moreolympics/5410625-74/sochi-olympics-games#axzz2s8S39lpA

 

(Seahawks 26, Broncos 24. Defense wins championships even in this NFL).

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other.

Rossi

 

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