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March 29, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie

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Three quick pregame notes


Three quick pregame notes before faceoff:

1. Since March 1, the Penguins are 7-2 against teams in the playoff hunt (Capitals, Rangers, Islanders, Flyers, Red Wings) and 3-2 against teams not in the playoff hunt (Flames, Blue Jackets, Devils, Hurricanes).

Makes you wonder if some of that “trap game” business is true.

“Hopefully we can learn a good lesson from some of the previous games and make sure we’re committed to playing the right way no matter who we’re playing and what the situation is,” Sidney Crosby said this morning.

2. A quick look at the Pens power play units from this morning. Letang, Schultz, Bennett, Crosby, Hornqvist on the first and Daley, Pouliot, Bonino, Kessel and Kunitz on the second.

My thought: I like the idea of a unit anchored by Kessel and Bonino because of how well they’ve played together lately. I wonder if you could get Carl Hagelin in there somewhere, though.

3. With Evander Kane out with an injury, Buffalo is loading up its top line with its top three scorers — Jack Eichel centering Ryan O’Reilly and Sam Reinhart.

I wonder if Mike Sullivan is going to use the Kuhnhackl-Cullen-Rust line against them or go strength on strength with Kunitz-Crosby-Hornqvist.

More after the game,



March 29, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie

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Ethan Prow


Elliotte Friedman reports the Penguins will sign highly touted college free agent Ethan Prow, a defenseman from St. Cloud State.

Prow is a 5-foot-11, 185-pound right-handed puck moving defenseman, which checks a few of the boxes that often make a college free agent sought after. He led the country in defenseman scoring with 38 points in 37 games (8 goals-30 assists) to become a Hobey Baker Award finalist. He’s St. Cloud’s captain and everyone says good things about his character. At age 23 with four college seasons under his belt, he’s probably closer to NHL-ready than the majority of prospects entering the organization.

There are a few question marks. He didn’t really start putting up big numbers until his senior year and 20 of his 38 points this season came on the power play. He doesn’t shoot the puck a ton (56 shots this year). But all that said, this is precisely the kind of signing a team that has traded away draft picks in recent seasons needs to make.

It’s also an area of desperate need in the prospect pool. The Penguins’ best young defensemen — Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta — are already in the NHL. The D men in Wilkes-Barre are largely older free agents. In the prospect pool, there’s maybe Jeff Taylor coming off a down junior year at Union and Ryan Segalla coming off a nondescript junior year at UConn.

In other words, Prow steps in and immediately becomes the team’s best defense prospect not in the NHL.

More after morning skate tomorrow,



March 27, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie

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Rangers pregame


With Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin going down in the last three days, the Penguins D pairings are in a state of flux. Pretty serious flux, actually. They’re downright fluxy.

I thought that makes this a good time to look at the pairs the Penguins have used this season.

They’ve used 26 of them for at least 20 even-strength minutes. Here’s a chart. They’re ranked by their Corsi For percentage. I bolded the pairs that are likely to play tonight. All stats from

(Apologies to mobile users for whom this doesn’t format properly. It’s my fault. The only way I know to have a chart publish on the blog with proper tabs is by pasting from my Excel document and in many cases, that doesn’t translate to mobile. I’m 40 now and there are a lot of technological things I don’t know how to do. /frownfaceemoji)

COLE-DALEY 116 49.5
COLE-LETANG 265 46.5

Some notes from this chart:

— A lot of Pouliot and Warsofsky at the top and Scuderi and Maatta at the bottom. Kind of weird.

— This makes you appreciate how important Dumoulin is to this team. If you just look at the long-term pairs, say the ones with 200-plus minutes, Maatta-Letang drives possession the best, but Dumoulin-Daley and Dumoulin-Lovejoy aren’t far behind.

— Corsi For percentage makes a strong case for Pouliot-Cole over Cole-Schultz, but if you’re the type of fan who values Corsi For percentage, you probably already knew that.

— Using the stats on this chart (i.e. the mostly favorable numbers for his pairings with Dumoulin and Pouliot) plus some others, I could make a case that Lovejoy is better than a lot of fans think. If you look at opponents’ Corsi For percentage, Lovejoy has played the toughest minutes on the team.

DALEY 49.9
COLE 49.7

Lovejoy has also received the highest percentage of defensive-zone starts (36.2) and lowest percentage of offensive-zone starts (27.6).

I’m not telling you to go out and buy a No. 12 jersey. I’m just saying this is food for thought before you take to Twitter and bury the guy.

Meanwhile, coach Mike Sullivan will meet with reporters about two hours before faceoff. We’ll ask him about the status of injured players and he’ll say as little as possible. So stay tuned for that sure-to-be-fascinating update.

Bye for now,



March 26, 2016
by Bill West

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Detroit pregame


Some quick hits from Penguins coach Mike Sullivan’s pre-game press availability

  • Marc-Andre Fleury will start today. We didn’t ask what that means for tomorrow’s starter, seeing as Sullivan probably wouldn’t tell us. That’ll be a post-game question, though.
  • Nick Bonino, who suffered an upper-body injury at practice on Friday, is a game-time decision. So apparently his ailment is not something as clear-cut as a broken bone. Or maybe it is. The NHL’s lack of an injury disclosure policy stinks.
  • Ben Lovejoy is in the lineup, presumably as Brian Dumoulin’s partner. Sullivan said yesterday’s pairings at practice (Letang-Daley, Lovejoy-Dumoulin, Schultz-Cole) likely will be what he uses today.

Joe Louis Arena served as the setting of the Penguins’ first eye-opening win under coach Mike Sullivan. The team had already shown an ability to generate shots and dictate possession through tempo by the time it arrived in Detroit on Dec. 31, but until it rallied from a two-goal deficit to win, 5-2, against the Red Wings, it lacked an outcome worth touting as season defining.

Then #ResilientPenguins became a thing. And the Penguins’ shooting percentage normalized. And win streaks replaced losing streaks — the Penguins still haven’t lost in regulation in consecutive games since the four-game skid in December that opened Sullivan’s tenure.

As much as the media wants to cite the New Year’s Eve rally the game that changed everything, the players aren’t going that far. “Every game kind of takes on its own kind of story,” Sidney Crosby said, “but there’s no doubt that one kind of helped us get over the hump a bit.”

The arena again can serve as a site for narrative-building on Saturday. With the announcement of defenseman Olli Maatta being “week to week” with a lower-body injury and center Nick Bonino suffering an upper-body injury at Friday’s practice, the Penguins again face questions of their organizational depth.

Oskar Sundqvist is all that stands in the way of yet another new face from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton taking draws at center. I don’t think anyone misses Kevin Porter yet, but maybe that changes if injuries continue to plague the Penguins’ men in the middle.

Based on Friday’s practice, Ben Lovejoy looks to be the defenseman who returns to the lineup with Maatta out. This no doubt frustrates the fans, particularly the ones with appreciations for analytics, who want Derrick Pouliot back on the ice. But the Penguins’ faithful must come to terms with what looks like a pretty settled-upon system for the depth chart: If one of the puck-moving blue liners (Kris Letang, Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz) goes down, Pouliot probably goes in, and if one of the “defensively responsible” halves of the pairings (Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole) gets injured, Lovejoy gets the nod.

Letang thrived once he and Maatta became a regular pair. In a very small sample size, Trevor Daley also worked out well with Letang, based on five-on-five metrics. And if you look at Letang’s last three seasons (see chart below), it’s apparent he plays better with guys who aren’t strictly “stay-at-home”, crease-clearing types.

Letang WOWY


March 25, 2016
by Bill West

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New Jersey postgame


Pens vs Dev finalPens vs Dev locations

No soul-searching team meeting followed the Penguins’ latest shutout loss to New Jersey. As poorly as they played, they identified positives in Thursday’s 3-0 setback that didn’t exist in the 4-0 loss to the Devils on Nov. 14, otherwise known as the day the Penguins’ front office lost its faith in Mike Johnston as coach.

Trust that coach Mike Sullivan will take his players to task about their many failings, though.

One aspect Sullivan mentioned in his post-game presser hadn’t come up as a topic in a while: net-front play. The lack of it allowed rookie Scott Wedgewood, in just his second NHL game, turn away 39 pucks and generally look comfortable in goal.

“It was one of those types of games where it was a struggle for us to put any sort of collective effort at the net,” he said. “I think we ended up with 39 shots, but I think we could’ve done a better job as far as just getting more people to the area and make it more difficult for the saves.”

The Penguins found themselves increasingly frustrated by an inability to get to the net front via rush opportunities. Their speed never solved the troubles created by New Jersey’s back-tracking tactics.

“We’re usually used to having two, three guys there maybe (defending at the offensive blue line),” winger Bryan Rust said. “All five guys are there (for New Jersey). They’re all tracking back hard. We maybe tried to get a little bit too cute for the whole game. We maybe should have gotten pucks behind them and tried to grind them down a little bit.”

A little film study sufficed for New Jersey as they deliberated how to defend the Penguins.

“We saw a lot of clips (of the Penguins on the rush) earlier on today,” winger Bobby Farnham said. ” You’ve got to track back. You’ve got to get back and at least eliminate that rush and let your D have good gaps. If you have guys back, you can have better gaps. That’s crucial against those guys.”



March 24, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie

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New Jersey pregame


A little late with the pregame blog post today, but hey, if you like hot takes, it’s worth the wait.

This afternoon, I did a local sports talk radio show that will remain nameless (it rhymes with Snarky and Cruller). The hosts suggested that maybe it’s not a good idea to get Beau Bennett back in the lineup tonight. The argument was that perhaps he won’t fit with the style of play the Penguins are cultivating in their bottom six. He’s not fast and hungry like those kids are.

Also, the argument about not changing your lineup while on a winning streak was raised.

I’ve also read some comments on Twitter about how Oskar Sundqvist has been playing well and it would be a shame for him to leave the lineup.

To all this I say: Get out of town.

Beau Bennett gets hurt all the time. I realize this. He realizes this. Everyone realizes this. But when he’s healthy, he’s a really good hockey player.

Aside from a few shifts in a game in January, he hasn’t played since early December, so it’s easy to forget how good.

With the possible exception of Phil Kessel, he’s the most skilled winger on the team. Great puckhandler. Great vision. At the time of his injury, Kessel was the only winger on the team with more goals.

On top of that, he’s plenty young and hungry. Bennett is less than a year older than Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson.

He’s not a speed skater, sure, but he skates well enough. He’s faster than Oskar Sundqvist, for instance, the man he will replace in the lineup.

My colleague Bill West was working on a story about Bennett at the time he was injured in December. It was about how he was skating on the team’s top line with Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby and looking faster than ever. Here, check out some of the quotes that were going to go in that story before the injury:


“I think in years past, when I was a little slower, I’d always try to get the puck up to (Crosby), just because he was moving at such a fast pace. I feel a lot more comfortable out there now, being a little bit faster and trying to keep up with him. I think the big thing is just taking what’s given. He understands that. He’ll say ‘Good job’ if the shot is there and you shoot it. He wants you to make the right play.”


“He does everything. He’s maybe a little physical. He can play that style of getting in there and leaning on somebody. He’s not going to overpower you. But he’s got the skill set with the puck that not very many guys have. … I think those things are something we need, somebody who has that puck presence and can hold onto that puck to make plays. … I think he’s more confident. Looks a little bigger, but I think that’s just size and speed and maturity in the NHL.”

“He has been injured so much that I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Beau Bennett. We’re starting to see it now. The key things for him, he handles the puck really well. He distributes the puck well. So a puck possession line with Crosby and Kunitz, you get a guy like that on the wing, he can make those types of plays in tight. You can see over the last couple games that they’ve become a true puck-possession line. Losing Duper hurt us, but with Beau in there now, he’s a young guy, and if he keeps his confidence where it is right now, then he can really pick up the slack for Duper, and he can also make a lot of plays in the offensive zone.”

Anyway, Bennett is in for Sundqvist tonight, as it should be.

More after the game,



March 23, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie

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Getting some reps


It’s not often that a team on a six-game winning streak has a glaring hole in its performance, but the Penguins do. It’s the power play.

They’re 1 for 16 in their last four games and 6 for 57 (10.5 percent) in their last 20 games.

So they spent a good portion of practice the last two days working on it. Coach Mike Sullivan was particularly animated today, barking at the first unit a few times when things weren’t going well.

He has tried a few different combinations in the past week or so, shuttling Phil Kessel and Justin Schultz between the first and second units. For what it’s worth, I thought the top unit looked best today when Trevor Daley was on it.

The Penguins have obviously been able to manufacture enough offense to get by lately without the power play, so it’s not like the ship is about to sink if they don’t get it figured out, but you’d have to figure they’re going to need it at some point down the stretch, right?

Here’s what Sullivan said about his power play after practice:

“We’re trying to get repetitions with some different combinations. We haven’t had a lot of practice time because we’ve had a lot of games in a short period of time. So we tried to give the power play an opportunity to get some reps out there. Most of our focus is just on movement and trying to get more pucks to the net. Today gave us an opportunity to give everyone a chance to get some reps in those different aspects.”

Some other notes from today:

— Brian Dumoulin took part in a full practice and looked good. He’s a game-time decision tomorrow.

Dumoulin on the hit he took from Alex Ovechkin last Sunday: “He’s a tank out there. He’s a big guy and when he’s coming full speed, if he hits you anywhere, it’s going to hurt. It’s good that it was nothing serious.”

— Beau Bennett worked with the second power-play unit in practice today, which looks to me like another step forward in his recovery from an upper-body injury. Sullivan said Bennett is considered a game-time decision tomorrow night too.

Judging by some of the comments I’ve read on Twitter, I might be in the minority on this, but I think getting Bennett back would be a really nice boost for this team down the stretch. A Sheary-Fehr-Bennett fourth line would be a nice addition to the attack, the way I see it.

Just because Bennett gets hurt all the time doesn’t mean he’s not an effective player when he’s healthy.

— An international film crew was in town today and a reporter asked Sidney Crosby about Evgeni Malkin.

“When he’s skating, when he’s using his size, you can’t stop him. He’s a guy you can’t really contain,” Crosby said.

I call Dan Patrick gimmick infringement on that one.

— The six-game winning streak the Penguins are on is not Sullivan’s longest of the season. The Baby Pens, under his watch, won 11 straight games from Oct. 17 to Nov. 15.

This was kind of a big deal in Northeast PA because the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton franchise, around since 1999 with good teams most of those years, never had a winning streak reach double digits. So Sullivan was asked about it a lot in the days leading up to win No. 10. I think his responses were interesting and worth repeating here.

Just before win No. 10: “We don’t talk much about winning streaks. We talk about the next game we have in front of us.”

Just after win No. 10, he was asked for his thoughts on the historic streak: “I have no thoughts,” he said.

Thankfully for my reporter pals in Wilkes-Barre, he later elaborated a little: “We want to win each game as it comes. We’re not looking to get ahead of ourselves and look beyond any one game. That’s going to be our mantra all year with these guys.”

After the streak ended Nov. 20, Sullivan offered this: “For me, there’s no time to reflect at this point. I’ll reflect in the summertime when it’s all said and done.”

Just another reminder about how Sullivan seems to want to make sure his teams don’t suffer any rotator cuff injuries patting themselves on the back when times are good.

Bye for now,



March 22, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie

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Winning the press conference


I wrote a few times, in the days after Mike Sullivan took over as Penguins coach, about winning the press conference. Between Mike Tomlin and Clint Hurdle, it happens quite a bit with the pro teams in town.

It happened again Tuesday after the Penguins practiced in Cranberry.

The team, you’ve probably noticed, is playing well. Six straight wins. 7-1 in a stretch of nine games against Metropolitan Division opponents with one game to go. Convincing wins over two of the team’s biggest rivals on consecutive days over the weekend.

Prosperity of this nature tends to bring out a different tone in a coach.

After Pitt’s basketball team upset Duke a couple weeks ago, ex-coach Jamie Dixon said this:

“I kept saying, ‘We’re going to get better. We’re going to get better.’ People were laughing at me, but we’re getting better.”

That remark was widely panned for its I-told-you-so tone. Dixon lost the press conference that day. Sullivan, conversely, offered none of that kind of stuff today. You could make a bumper sticker out of some of these quotes. Or a cat poster. Or an internet meme. Or whatever. Just read them. You’ll see what I mean.

Coach, you had a big weekend, beating Philly and Washington. Why do you think you were so successful in those games?

“We’ve become a much more difficult team to play against. We’re defending hard. We’re playing a faster game. Our attention to detail has improved each and every night. We have to stay on top of that. We have to be diligent each and every game and we can’t let complacency set in and have to make sure that we stay hungry and we push each other and challenge each other to get better. I know we can get better. There’s another level for this team that we have to continue to strive to get to. And we’re going to push these guys every day to try to get there.”

Coach, do you think your guys needed a feeling-out process when you first got here and now they’re playing the way you envisioned?

“I don’t think a team ever arrives. It’s a constant process to try to get better. When teams reach their potential, it’s that insatiable appetite to get better each and every day, and you never really arrive. You can always improve at something. That’s our approach with this group. Whether it was a feeling-out process when we first took this team over or how it’s evolved with some of the new players that have come on to the team, whatever it may be, I think we put a stretch of games together where we’ve become a difficult team to play against. We have to recognize what those details are and why we’re having success and then we’ve got to challenge each other to continue to do it.”

Coach, what do you think about having a couple of days off between games this week?

“I think the rest is important for our guys. We’ve played a lot of hockey here the last little while. The rest is important. I also think from a mindset standpoint, we can’t exhale. We’ve got to make sure we stay hungry. We recognize how we’re playing and the details of how we’re playing in order to get the results we’ve enjoyed here over the last couple of weeks and we’ve got to continue to challenge one another to stay on top of our game. I thought we had a spirited practice today. We’ll try to do the same tomorrow. Then we’re right back at it.”

Coach, what are you planning to have for lunch today?

“Maybe a salad. Some lean meat. Whole grains. But I think it’s important, even after eating lunch, to stay hungry. We have to recognize the details of the game that have made us difficult to play against and continue to challenge each other to play the right way.”

OK, that last one is made up, but would it surprise you if it were real? Sullivan’s focus was singular. Recognize what you’re doing right and challenge each other to keep doing it.

The Penguins might not run their winning streak to seven games when they host the Devils on Thursday night. They haven’t become an unbeatable juggernaut or anything. But I think you can rest assured that they won’t lose because their coach didn’t warn them of the dangers of getting fat and happy about the previous six.

Bye for now,



March 21, 2016
by Bill West

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Capitals postgame


Pens v Caps finalPens Caps shot location

Behold the taming of the best team in the NHL.

The Penguins, a day removed from an equally decisive win over the hottest team in the Eastern Conference (save for themselves), rolled their win streak to six in a row with authority. Washington rallied from a 2-0 deficit with a quirky header and a well-timed exit of the penalty box. Their goals, while not textbook, conjured memories of the Penguins squandering their lead in Washington at the beginning of the month.

Enter the third line of Tom Kuhnhackl, Matt Cullen and Bryan Rust. Name the last time a group of bottom-six Penguins forwards forechecked as well as this one.

Coach Mike Sullivan did not declare this game the arrival of that trio as a two-way force. Instead, he offered his usual praise, mentioning the energy brought by the line and how Cullen’s crew often matches up with the opposition’s top scoring line.

I guess it’s unfair to expect Sullivan to break character at this point in the season. He brings intensity and discipline 24/7, which is probably why the players find it fair that he only asks for 60 minutes of that combination from them.

All the talk of speed and skill and fun embodied by the Penguins is warranted.  But it’s the team’s relentlessness in all zones — a product of that speed and skill and all the intangible stuff that exists in unquantifiable amounts — that bodes well with the playoffs on the horizon. Even after a really grueling stretch of games against Metropolitan Division foes, the Penguins are skating with so much energy. They’re doing it despite the absence of Evgeni Malkin.

No wonder almost every metric continues to trend upward. Analytics have liked the Penguins for months now. This weekend might have the masses convinced, too.



March 20, 2016
by Bill West

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Capitals pregame


Washington coach Barry Trotz, a man who half-jokingly referenced the last time the Penguins met the Capitals, offered only a puzzled response to a question about shot suppression prior to Sunday evening’s fourth meeting between his team and Mike Sullivan’s crew.

Maybe the phrasing of the question led to the disconnect. Or the broadness doomed it. Or maybe, despite all of the analytics community’s hopes about increased awareness in things like shot generation and shot suppression, such concepts just aren’t conversation starters yet.

Here’s the exact exchange…

Q: “What amount of shots-against starts to make you a little uneasy, a little uncomfortable?”

Trotz: “In which way? Like we gave up 20 last game, like those 20?”

Q: “Well, I mean, what amount do you start to get worried about? 30? 35? 40?”

Trotz: “I don’t really — it’s all depending on the game. I really don’t understand the question. Sorry.”

Without offering specific examples — maybe that was the mistake — I asked because the Penguins and Capitals’ three previous games served as prime cases of what drives analytics skeptics crazy. When the Penguins out-shot/attempted the Capitals by the widest margin — even after using War-on-Ice’s score-adjusted method — they lost, 4-1. When they were out-shot/attempted by the widest margin, they won, 3-1. And when they held a smaller but still favorable differential in the most recent meeting, they lost, 3-2.

Below are’s score-adjusted, all-situations Corsi charts from each game.

Pens vs Caps March 1Pens vs Caps Dec 14Pens vs Caps Oct 28

I believe advanced metrics are most useful for big-picture judgments than individual game analysis. Some of you believe this. But much of the public has not developed an opinion on the matter and really only cares about the final score. And if the metrics don’t align with that score, the public wonders why it should care in the first place.

The debate about whether to trust analytics, particularly in regard to the Penguins and Washington, likely will only grow hotter as the postseason nears.

Advanced metrics love Crosby and company more than the Capitals, particularly if we only measure from Sullivan’s arrival. In fact, nary a team in the NHL has better underlying data than the Penguins over the past two-plus months. Below are War-On-Ice charts for 5v5 Corsi and Scoring Chances since Dec. 14, Sullivan’s debut.

Pens vs Wash WOI    Pens vs Wash WOI2

Of course, conventional metrics — overall record, goals for and against, special teams conversion rates — all say Washington is better.

At the heart of the debate is whether current publicly available analytics account for enough of hockey’s many subtleties. What is shot quality? How do we measure it? Does it matter over the course of a seven-game series, let alone a season? On the questions go about that and a variety of other data-driven topics.

Which brings me back to Trotz’s answer. “It all depends.” As Penguins fans mentally prepare for the playoffs, it’d be fair to consider the optimism that comes with analytics-based assessments of the team’s chances. But also keep the traditional data in mind. Because believing only in the new stuff or the old stuff probably is the most foolish move a fan can make.

Since this a pregame blog post, here are some relevant-to-the-game factoids….

  • Marc-Andre Fleury will start in goal. This is the first pair of starts on consecutive days since the Penguins met Chicago in January.
  • Ben Lovejoy is a game-time decision, Sullivan said. Follow-up questions produced no further insights on how Sullivan plans to handle the wealth of defensemen tonight or beyond.
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