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April 28, 2016
by Bill West


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Pens-Caps Game 1: Holtbeast, Flower and the Beanstalk

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Tired of all the Sid vs Ovi talk yet? You best believe the Penguins, from coach Mike Sullivan on down through the young wingers, are, particularly because they became a serious Stanley Cup contender with a strong team concept and thrived even while two other stars at the team’s core, Marc-Andre Fleury and Evgeni Malkin, missed time with injuries.

Offense will almost certainly remain the center of attention in the second-round playoff series between the Penguins and Capitals. But look for goaltenders to steal the show at least once or twice in what at least I suspect will be a long, back-and-forth string of games.

Washington goalie Braden Holtby emerged as one of three Vezina Trophy finalists on Wednesday afternoon. He tied Martin Brodeur’s NHL record for single-season win total (48), and even advocates of more advanced goalie metrics consider Holtby a quality netminder (though probably not deserving of the Vezina).

Rookie Matt Murray, the first of the Penguins’ three goalies to leave the ice at Thursday’s morning skate, will look to hold his own at the opposite end of the rink. Staring across the ice at New York’s Henrik Lundqvist in Round 1, he turned the Penguins’ greatest position-related question mark into an exclamation point. And while it’s still far too early in Murray’s career to declare him a future Lundqvist, the initial signs are encouraging.

Fleury, who participated in the Penguins’ morning skate and also manned a net at practices earlier this week, probably stood a chance of entering the Vezina conversation before his second concussion of the season caused him to miss April — the NHL’s general managers vote on that award. The other finalist spots instead went to Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick and Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop.

Holtby vs Pens goaliesJust look at War-on-Ice.com’s all-situations numbers for Holtby, Fleury and Murray. Holtby’s win total and time on ice set him apart. His various save percentages are strong but not necessarily game-changing compared to the Penguins’ top two netminders. (Again, Murray’s stats could change drastically as he sees more ice time and shots, so don’t champion him just yet.)

Let’s assume neither Holtby nor Murray drastically over- or underachieves in this series. Which shots might we expect to beat them? The easy answer is “high-percentage ones.” Thankfully, www.Corsica.Hockey can show us with a little more detail which shots tend to get by the netminders. I also included Fleury just out of curiosity.

Holtby shot locateMurray shot locateFleury shot locate

If those charts leave your head spinning — they’re certainly a little busy for my eyes — here’s a more digestible form that emphasizes density rather than individual locations.

Holtby goal locationMurray goal locateFleury goal locate

You’ll notice subtle differences between Holtby and Fleury. The Capitals goalie appears to have allowed a few more goals from the high slot and the top of the right faceoff circle. Fleury gave up a bit more down low. None of this means Holtby or Fleury is weaker in those respective areas — that just happens to be where the goals came from.

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April 27, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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What to watch

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Many television viewers in Western Pennsylvania will have a tough decision to make tomorrow night: Game 1 of Penguins vs. Capitals or Round 1 of the NFL Draft.

Jeff Zatkoff feels your pain.

Zatkoff will be watching the hockey game, of course. From a really good seat, in fact, as Matt Murray’s back-up. But he understands why it might be a tough call for many sports fans.

He gets the appeal of the NFL draft.

“It’s exciting, especially for us because we’ve been through that draft process.  You kind of know what it’s like,” Zatkoff said. “It’s exciting to see new guys come into your franchise or your team. It’s the appeal of the trade deadline, the draft, free agency. It’s all the same. It’s a day of hope for a fan base. Until that pick is made or that trade is made, you never know who you have.”

Zatkoff comes from a football family. His uncle Roger was an all-Big Ten linebacker at Michigan and an all-Pro for the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions in the 1950s.

Zatkoff is also a Michigan native and a Lions fan, so he knows how important a day of hope can be for a fan base.

“We start off the year every year and we’re supposed to be a playoff team. Then after a few games, it’s ‘Yeah, not our year this year,'” Zatkoff said.

You’d have to figure Zatkoff’s family would be tuned in to the hockey game, considering that they have a relative on the team and all. But he wasn’t so sure.

“I think depending on the family member, there could be a lot of ‘previous channel’ going back and forth,” he said. “I’m sure that’s going to be the case.”

More notes from today’s practice:

— Conor Sheary did not skate for the second consecutive day. Coach Mike Sullivan said he was held out with bumps and bruises but is expected to play in Game 1 tomorrow. Karl Alzner is going through the same deal for the Capitals this week.

— Defense pairs were the same as they were in the Rangers series. Because Brian Dumoulin and Ben Lovejoy had the most success against Alex Ovechkin at even strength in the regular-season meetings between the teams, I half-wondered if they might be paired together. But no.

Here’s how Ovechkin fared against Penguins defensemen this season as far as even-strength possession stats go. The main takeaway, of course, is that David Warsofsky owned the guy. He’s the Ovechkin Whisperer.

TOI CF-CA CF%
WARSOFSKY 1:56 0-6 0.0
DUMOULIN 28:57 23-30 43.4
LOVEJOY 24:04 18-23 43.9
MAATTA 23:09 16-17 48.5
POULIOT 1:25 2-2 50.0
SCUDERI 3:18 5-4 55.6
DALEY 16:20 15-10 60.0
CLENDENING 0:52 2-1 66.7
LETANG 33:16 32-14 69.6
COLE 12:48 24-5 82.8
SCHULTZ 1:26 3-0 100

More after an optional morning skate tomorrow in DC.

Bye for now,

jb

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April 24, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Game 5 Rangers postgame

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It’ll be easy to forget given the final score and all the hoopla over clinching a playoff series at home, but Game 5 between the Penguins and Rangers was a close game for a good long while this afternoon.

In the first 10 minutes of the first period, the Rangers came out flying. They scored two first-period goals. They were outshooting the Penguins 9-2 at one point.

The Penguins stayed in the game, in my estimation, for two main reasons.

1. Matt Murray. He easily could have been rattled by a pair of funky breaks that led to the first two Rangers goals. The first was a Dan Girardi point shot that deflected at least twice. The second was a pinballing puck around the crease that went in off the skates of Patric Hornqvist and Dominic Moore. But he wasn’t. Because that’s sort of his thing.

2. Phil Kessel. On the Penguins’ first goal, he threaded a pass through Kevin Klein to Carl Hagelin on the doorstep. Klein was dropping to a knee and laying his stick on the ice at the time. Heck of a pass. A few minutes later, on the power play, he ripped a patented Kessel wrister in off the knob of Henrik Lundqvist’s stick.

Rob Rossi has a whole column on the topic online and in the paper tomorrow, so I suggest you check that out. I just wanted to throw in my two cents and say that Kessel is, as unlikely as it sometimes seems, a bona fide playoff guy.

Some other notes from today:

— When it comes to Corsi, the Penguins were at a significant disadvantage in most of the series. I tallied it up and I had the Rangers with a 54.8 Corsi for percentage and the Penguins with a 45.2 at even strength in the series.

I think I understand why that is. For one thing, it speaks to the score effect. The Rangers trailed by a lot in large portions of Games 4 and 5. For another, the Penguins so dominated on the power play (8 for 21 compared to 2 for 19 for the Rangers) that five-on-five possession wasn’t as critical. Finally, I looked at some xG stats and saw the Penguins had a lot more dangerous scoring chances than the Rangers did.

I think the bottom line is that it was a series that couldn’t be defined by simple Corsi For stats, and I’m OK with that.

— A four-goal surge in the second period won the game for the Penguins and got the Consol Energy Center crowd riled up.

Bryan Rust had an amazing period. The two goals he scored were important, obviously, but a lot of credit goes to Trevor Daley and Evgeni Malkin for setting them up. The play that really impressed me was his assist. He ran down a long bouncing pass and backed off two Rangers defenders in the process, giving the trailing Matt Cullen all the time and space in the world to get a shot off.

— The Conor Sheary goal, set up by a stickhandling clinic and pass from Sidney Crosby, was the dagger. Who is this kid confidently beating The King with wrist shots two games in a row? And now it’s 5-2? Game over.

— There was a symbolic moment during the second period as well. Just as Dominic Moore released a breakout pass from the Rangers zone, Crosby finished a check on him, sending him sprawling to the ice. Moore has always given the Penguins problems. The Rangers, obviously, have too over the last two seasons.

That Crosby hit showed, metaphorically, that the Penguins are done with the Rangers hurdle and they’re on to the next one in Washington or Philadelphia.

I expect the Penguins will resume practice Monday in preparation for the start of the second round at the end of the week. So check back for the next blog update then.

Bye for now,

jb

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April 23, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Rangers Game 5 pregame

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Here’s a look at today’s game between the Penguins and Rangers from a coach’s perspective.

MIKE SULLIVAN

“I think, obviously, the elimination game is always the most difficult, when teams, their back is against the wall. There’s a lot to fight for. So I think it’s important that our urgency is there, that we heighten our intensity, but just as important as that is our attention detail and playing the game the right way.”

Sullivan said his line-up will be revealed in warm-ups. I’m curious about the status of Bryan Rust, who was limited in practice yesterday. If he can’t go, Oskar Sundqvist or Beau Bennett would slot into the lineup. Sundqvist would be a better stylistic fit with Kuhnhackl-Cullen. Bennett, obviously, would bring more offensive pop.

Sullivan also said Marc-Andre Fleury skated in full gear today.

ALAIN VIGNEAULT

“The only thing that matters for us right now is this afternoon’s game and how we need to play this game. Hits are a part of it. They’re just one part. We’ve obviously got a couple other areas that we’ve talked about where we need to be better. That’s where our focus is going to be.”

Vigneault has a decision to make on defense. He has flirted with inserting Raphael Diaz into his lineup, perhaps in place of Dan Boyle, to spark a lifeless power play. Diaz, a 30-year-old Swiss defenseman, has been with Hartford of the AHL all year. He has 49 points in 201 career NHL games with Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and the Rangers two years ago.

I’m also wondering if Vigneault has anything up his sleeve up front.

From today’s Bergen Record, in practice yesterday, the bottom two lines remained intact. They were Glass-Hayes-Lindberg, Stalberg-Moore-Fast. Seven other forwards rotated into the top six. They were Kreider, Stepan, Staal, Miller, Brassard, Nash and Zuccarello.

Vigneault said the rotation was because the Rangers were mostly working on special teams in practice. I wonder if it means Eric Staal could take a seat? Staal is pointless with a league-worst minus-6 rating in the series.

More after the game,

jb

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April 22, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Rangers Game 4 postgame

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Even though the series seemed to be trending in their direction, I really thought the Penguins had something to prove coming into Game 4 against the Rangers tonight. Here’s why.

The style of play they used to dominate the final month of the season – the efficient puck retrievals and quick breakouts and speed through the neutral zone and long offensive zone shifts – was absent more than it was present in the first three games of the series.

Absent in Games 1 and 2. Present in Game 3.

It was entirely possible the quick Rangers forecheck that gave the Penguins problems in the first two games was going to make its return in Game 4. Maybe Alain Vigneault cracked the code. Perhaps Game 3 was the fluke.

Before the game was eight minutes old, though, it was clear none of that was the case. The Penguins of March were back. Games and 1 and 2 were the flukes.

They got goals from Eric Fehr and Patric Hornqvist and took an 11-4 shots edge. In hindsight, the game was pretty much over at that point.

“I think we’ve played a lot better in Games 3 and 4 than we did in 1 and 2,” Fehr said. “We were a lot stronger on the puck and making better decisions in our end, which gives our D a little bit more rest. They’re not skating around our end chasing guys and that’s a big difference.”

Some other notes from Game 4:

— If I would have told you on Sept. 22 than on April 22, Matt Murray would outplay Henrik Lundqvist in a playoff game, you would have had me committed.

But here we are.

Matt Murray made 31 saves to record his first playoff shutout, which, in one sense, is not surprising. That’s what he does. In his pro career, he’s made 87 appearances. He recorded shutouts in 18 of them. That’s better than 20 percent.

In another sense, I mean, c’mon. A 21-year-old kid stopping 47 of 48 shots in his first two career playoff games at Madison Square Garden? It’s pretty wild.

“I was still pretty nervous,” Murray said. “I am nervous before every game. Obviously these last two more so than usual, but I thought I did a pretty good job of controlling that. Little jittery to start both games but I settled in fairly quickly.”

Lundqvist, meanwhile, got pulled in the second period after stopping 14 of 18 shots. The Penguins were outplaying the Rangers most of the night, so it probably wouldn’t have mattered in the long run, but the Fehr goal was a killer. It came on the rebound of a seemingly harmless Ben Lovejoy point shot less than two minutes into the game.

“All we can do now is go to Pittsburgh with the mindset that we have to win that game or the season is over,” Lundqvist said. “We just have to man up to the situation here and realize that this was not good enough.”

Didn’t know Lundqvist was a Briscoe brothers fan.

— Conor Sheary has always been a playoff guy. He had 11 points in 15 playoff games with the Baby Pens two years ago and 12 points in eight games last year. But these last couple games have been a different level. So much speed and confidence.

A lot of times you talk to a young guy about scoring a big goal and he’ll say he closed his eyes and shot. Now how Sheary described his breakaway goal tonight:

“We kind of pre-scouted on how he was going to play those type of shots. I kind of knew the way he was going to go down. I was going to try to go short side. I think he bit a little bit on where I was looking and I got to beat him.”

Bye for now,

jb

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April 20, 2016
by Bill West


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Penguins-Rangers Game 3 outro

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When the Penguins executed their chip-and-chase tactics to near perfection, as they did so often during the final month of the regular season, quotes from opponents became fairly predictable.

They vented about the lack of space and time to make plays with the puck in their defensive zone. They spoke of the Penguins’ speed on the forecheck. And they acknowledged how few opportunities they had to simply attain an odd-man rush, let alone capitalize on one. Just look at the Game 3 shot location chart from Hockeystats.Ca. Pens shot locate Game 3

On Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, for the first time in this opening-round playoff series, the New York Rangers sounded a lot like so many Penguins opponents before them.

  • “Playoff hockey is a real simple game: It’s to the red line and deep,” center Derek Stepan said. “That’s how you are going to get it in their zone. They have four guys in the neutral zone and you are not going to get it through pretty. You have to get it in deep and work as a five-man unit to get it back.”
  • “Playing in their end — we’ve got to find more opportunities to play down there,” defenseman Keith Yandle said.
  • “Both teams can check well, and they checked better than we did,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “We have to find a way to make plays with the puck, and we didn’t make any.

Possession, central to the Penguins’ rise from struggling team in December to popular pick to emerge out of the Eastern Conference in April, eluded coach Mike Sullivan’s crew in Game 1 and 2. In Game 3, the Penguins regained their mojo. (You’ll notice on these Hockeystats.Ca charts that the Penguins are the light blue line in Game 3 and black in Game 1 and 2).

Pens vs Rangers Game 3 finalPens Rangers Game 2 finalPens Rangers Game 1

It all played out as Sullivan the way suggested it could at practice on Monday.

“When our team is at its best, we don’t have to go back for as many pucks because our team defense starts in the offensive zone by controlling territory, by a puck pursuit game that’s relentless and forcing teams to have to come through four or five of us to get to (the net),” he said. “I think that’s an area of our game where we have to improve in this series. I thought we were decent in Game 1. I don’t think we were as good in Game 2. That’s an area where we have to improve to take some of the pressure off of our defensemen.

“It starts with our own puck management. We played a lot more of an East-West game (in Game 1 and 2). When we’re at our best, we play a faster game coming through the neutral zone. We’d obviously like to have (the puck) and keep it, but if we can’t, we’ve got to make sure we put pucks behind them and force them to have to go back to the puck and play goal line to goal line. (In Game 2), I thought we tried to do a little bit too much with the puck, especially when they had numbers back. It’s difficult to carry through two or three layers of sticks with any sort of speed.”

The Penguins heard their coach loud and clear heading into Tuesday’s game. Learning what the Rangers said confirmed a mission accomplished.

“We know what (Sullivan) expects us to do,” Tom Kuhnhackl said. “If you look at the last game we played at home, where we lost, I don’t think we got on the forecheck as much as we wanted to, so we couldn’t really establish that. I think we did a much better job today. … If you don’t have space, you’ve got to make that simple play to just get it in and move your feet.”

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April 19, 2016
by Bill West


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Pens-Rangers Game 3 prelude

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Penguins coach Mike Sullivan showed a little more chill with his gamesmanship this morning, as he ruled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury out for Game 3 and described his status as “still day to day” while naming Matt Murray as an option in net. Jeff Zatkoff left the ice first at morning skate, so we’ll see if Sullivan plays it straight or pulls another stunt for the 7 p.m. start.

Olli Maatta also practiced and left the ice fairly early — well ahead of Justin Schultz and Derrick Pouliot, the last two defensemen to head to the dressing room — so it appears Maatta will not sit tonight.

An optional skate meant no Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel or Kris Letang in addition to Fleury. But Evgeni Malkin took the ice and afterward sounded like he’s eager to improve upon Saturday’s much anticipated return-to-the-lineup performance.

“Two days are very important for me,” Malkin said. “I watched my game. It’s so-so. I talked to coach too. I think my game is coming back. … I didn’t play a long time. I lose my hands. Now it’s going back. I try to control the puck a little bit more.”

How he fits with Conor Sheary and Eric Fehr rather than Sheary and Bryan Rust is a subject of curiosity. To the amusement of some media members, Malkin described Fehr as something of a kindred spirit.

“Me and Fehrsie are big guys, use our speed, play in the corner, go to the net,” he said.

Fehr’s move from the Matt Cullen-centered checking line to Malkin’s line, combined with Rust’s reunion with Cullen and Tom Kuhnhackl, led me to wonder if Sullivan will change how he deploys his defensively “responsible” trio and the rest of his forward combinations. Rust’s speed certainly provides a different element to the fourth line than Fehr’s size.

Of course, on the road, the Rangers get the last line change for faceoffs, which adds another layer to the matchup game between Sullivan and New York coach Alain Vigneault.

Here’s what Sullivan had to say about how he’ll handle line-matching, specifically the Kuhnhackl-Cullen-Rust trio, away from Consol:

“Cully’s line is a real responsible line. We can play them against anybody. We feel like they can play against any line on any night. We have other lines that we feel can play against any line as well. There’s a fine line as a coaching staff between getting the matches you want and making sure that you keep your players into the flow of the game, so that they can be at their best. If you’re not careful as a coach, sometimes you get in the way of that flow. I’m a firm believer in making sure that we keep our players into that flow so they can be at their best. So do we look for certain matchups? Sure we do. Are they more difficult to get on the road? Yes they are, because we don’t have the last change. But we believe in a lot of players as far as who they play against, and we trust that they can get the job done, regardless of who they’re on the ice against. We’ll look for the matches that we want to get, but we’re not going to be a team that has players scurrying to the bench just to get the right people on the ice. I think if we do that, we’re taking our players out of the game.”

A glance at War-On-Ice’s head-to-head matchup charts from every Penguins-Rangers game this season, including the two playoff meetings, gave me some insight on whether Sullivan is better of eschewing line-matching in this series.

For those who aren’t familiar with these charts, here are the basics: Pay attention to the biggest squares because they indicate which players spent the most time on ice against each other. Big blue squares represent advantageous shot attempt differentials for the individual Penguins in this case. Big red squares are bad because they represent advantageous shot differentials for the Rangers. Grey squares mean fairly even play when the skaters matched up.

Below are Games 1 and 2, both contests where the Penguins had last-line-change opportunities. (The one that includes Malkin is obviously Game 2). You’ll notice the Kuhnhackl-Cullen-Fehr line spent a good amount of time seeing the Rangers’ top-six forwards, but they didn’t fare well as a lockdown trio. Crosby’s line got a taste of top- and bottom-six forwards, while Bonino’s line mostly squared off with Eric Staal, Jesper Fast and Kevin Hayes.

Pens matchups Game 1Pens matchups Game 2

Below are the Penguins’ regular-season games at Consol Energy Center. The Penguins actually lost the chart with a ton of blue on it in February, as Henrik Lundqvist did “King” things. But you can see from both charts that Crosby line again sampled a little bit of every part of the Rangers’ selection, particularly in the March 3 game.

Pens matchup Feb 10 at ConsolPens matchups March 3 at Consol

And lastly, here are the charts from the two regular-season games at Madison Square Garden, both of which the Penguins won. Anything stick out about these versus the Penguins’ home games?

Pens matchups March 13 at MSGPens matchup March 27 at NY

It’s difficult to say with absolute certainty that the Penguins are better off putting their best on the ice against the Rangers’ best and seeing how things play out, because six games is fairly small sample size, and there are many variables involved, most notably which skaters missed these games with injuries. But it’ll be interesting to see if Sullivan lets Crosby’s line handle the toughest defensive assignments tonight instead of trying to deploy Cullen’s line to handle many of those minutes.

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April 18, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Sullivan’s analysis

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These coach press conferences in the playoffs can often be a big waste of time, but not today.

Of course Mike Sullivan didn’t give any meaningful updates on his lineup. Marc-Andre Fleury is still day to day. Matt Murray was back at practice, but there’s no timetable for his return. It looks like Evgeni Malkin will skate with Conor Sheary and Eric Fehr, thus reuniting the Kuhnhackl-Cullen-Rust line, but that was gleaned from practice combos, not anything Sullivan said.

When discussing non-lineup related topics, though, Sullivan was more insightful. In fact, I think he addressed almost all the issues that seem to be trouble spots for his team in the first two games of the series.

– What’s the story with Olli Maatta? The Rangers abused him in Game 2?

“I think he could have made a few better decisions as far as how to play pucks and positioning. Overall, he’s trying to come off an injury. He hasn’t played a lot of hockey here in the last month or so. So that’s the position that he’s been in. That’s not always easy. That’s a tough challenge for players when they come back off an injury and go right into a playoff environment when the pace is high and the intensity’s high and the opponent is really good. Olli’s body of work for us has been terrific. We know he’s a very good player. He’s an invaluable player for us and he’s going to be a part of this thing going forward.”

– How should your guys deal with a quick, aggressive Rangers forecheck that has been giving them problems in the first two games?

“We gotta get back to pucks quicker. We might have to simplify our execution coming of out the zone. For me, I think when our team’s at its best, we don’t have to go back for as many pucks because our team defense starts in the offensive zone by controlling territory, by a puck-pursuit game that’s relentless in forcing teams to have to come through four or five of us to get to us. I think that’s an area of our game where we have to improve in this series. I think we were decent in Game 1. I don’t think we were as good in Game 2. That’s an area where we have to improve. I think it will take some pressure of our defensemen if we can establish that game.”

– Wait a minute. So the forwards not getting pucks deep into the offensive zone hurt the defensemen trying to get pucks out of the defensive zone?

“I think it starts with our own puck management. We played a lot more east-west game. I think when we’re at our best, we play a faster game coming through the neutral zone. We’d obviously like to have it and keep it, but if we can’t, we’ve got to make sure we get pucks behind them and force them to play goal line to goal line. That’s when this team is at its best. The last game, I thought we tried to do a little bit too much with the puck, especially when they had numbers back, and it’s difficult to carry through two or three layers of sticks with any kind of speed.”

– Sullivan wouldn’t commit to using the Sheary-Malkin-Fehr line in the game, but he explained the rationale for using Crosby, Malkin and Kessel each on separate lines.

“If we choose to go that route, we have threats on every line. I think that should make us more difficult to play against. I think that should provide matchup challenges for our opponents. We have players on each one of those lines that are difference makers. That’s the way the coaching staff looks at it.”

– Do you worry that your players are playing too conservatively in an effort to protect a back-up goaltender? (This one gets into an overall assessment of the first two games.)

“I’m not concerned about Zat being in goal. He’s played well for this team all year and his numbers are very admirable. We feel as though we have three goaltenders that are pretty good, that give us a chance to win, and Zat has done that the first two games. I’m not concerned about our guys as far as how they play. We have to understand, and I think our players do understand, when we’re at our best how we play. I thought we got away from it a little bit in Game 2. I didn’t think it was drastic by any stretch. I thought we had stretches where we had some real quality chances. The scoring chances were real even in the game. It wasn’t like it was a lopsided game on either side. It was a fairly even game that we ended up on the wrong side of the result.”

Bye for now,

jb

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April 17, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Rangers Game 2 postgame

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Mike Sullivan’s assessment of the five-minute stretch where the Penguins gave up three goals, ultimately leading to their downfall today in Game 2 against the Rangers, was interesting.

“We had probably a five or six-minute span in the second period where we lost some of the details of our game, the awareness away from the puck. … I think a couple of the goals were uncharacteristic of this group as far as what we gave up.”

On the first of the three goals, Derick Brassard won an offensive-zone draw and J.T. Miller made a centering pass that hit a leg or something and kicked right to Keith Yandle on the backdoor for a goal. Do the Penguins typically pick up the defenseman coming in from the point like that? I guess so.

On the second goal, a bouncing Miller pass through the neutral zone eluded Olli Maatta, sending Brassard in alone on net. Does Maatta typically stop that puck? Yes. Maatta has had his struggles this season – and in this game – sometimes looking like his footspeed has abandoned him, but he usually handles a puck like that with no problem. Pens poss Game 2 final

On the third goal, the Penguins had an absolute mess of a shift in the D zone. Ian Cole, Trevor Daley and all three members of the Nick Bonino line, I think, had chances to clear and did not. Do the Penguins typically have messy defensive-zone shifts like that? I’d say no, not in a long time anyway.

So the premise of Sullivan’s comment holds water.

But here’s the thing.

Why did the Penguins make uncharacteristic plays?

Is it because the Penguins had a bad day? Or is it because the Rangers’ forwards, who are usually pretty quick and tenacious to begin with, are playing with a brand of playoff intensity on the forecheck that is giving the Penguins’ defense problems?

“Tonight we might’ve gotten a little too cute in the neutral zone,” winger Bryan Rust said. “Against a team like that, they capitalize on turnovers like they did tonight. … They’re a really good defensive team. They have been for years. We knew that coming in, and we obviously didn’t expect to have it easy. We’ve got to find a way to be a little bit better (at playing with speed).”

Is that going to change in the next five (or fewer) games?

I’m not so sure. I think the Penguins will probably want to clean up their act, especially on the breakout, heading into Game 3. Pens Rangers Game 2 final

Some other notes from Game 2:

— Was it just me or was the Kuhnhackl-Cullen-Fehr line trapped in its own zone constantly?

— Don’t look now, but Phil Kessel is a point-per-game playoff performer in his career. Two goals today gives him 24 points in 24 games.

— I thought the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel line was much better in Game 2 than Game 1. I thought the line combination roulette that Sullivan was playing to try to get Evgeni Malkin in the most advantageous positions probably backfired. I think the Malkin line and the Crosby line would both be better served just sticking together.

— The Rangers’ inexperienced defensemen, Dylan McIlrath and Brady Skjei, looked pretty good to me.

— The Hayes-Staal-Fast line, so good in previous meetings against the Penguins, were a black hole as far as possession goes.

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April 16, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Rangers Game 2 pregame

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Of course Mike Sullivan said nothing about any of his players returning from injury during his pregame media availability. Everybody, from Evgeni Malkin to Marc-Andre Fleury, is a game-time decision.

He did, however, say something I found a little bit insightful. He was asked where he would like to see improvement from his team from Game 1:

“When we look at the last game we played, I think we can do a better job coming out of our end zone and handling the pressure. I think we can do a better job establishing a forecheck. I think when our team does those two things, we tend to have the puck more. Those are a couple of areas we’ve looked at over the last couple of days. That’s when I think our team is at its best, when we communicate well, we come out of our end zone. Obviously we played players who want to play with the puck and make their plays, but when they can’t and we have to pucks behind their defense, we have to do a better job establishing a puck pursuit game and forcing turnovers and creating some offense that way.”

He wasn’t revealing state secrets or anything, but I think those were the two areas where the Penguins didn’t make a strong impression Wednesday.

Their defensemen, under pressure from the Rangers forecheck, didn’t break the puck out as cleanly as they have for the last month.

Their forwards, especially the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel line, didn’t cause as many problems for the Rangers D as they have for teams in recent games.

Cleaning up those two areas would help the Penguins immensely.

— One note from the Rangers side. Defenseman Dylan McIlrath, nicknamed “The Undertaker,” will be in for Dan Girardi.

I don’t think the addition of one tough defenseman will change the style of play in the series, but if it does, here’s what Sullivan said about his team in games that get ugly:

“I think this team has had success over the last couple of months because they don’t get caught up in playing somebody else’s game, but we’ve been able to keep the focus on our team and play the type of game that we want to play in order to give ourselves the best chance to win.”

If you’re into this sort of thing, here are a couple noteable McIlrath fights.

In this one, I love the way his opponent skated out to center ice to give it more of a main event feel.

In this one, McIlrath sure looks hard to handle.

More after the game. Bye for now,

jb

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