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March 19, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Philadelphia pregame

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I thought there was a little bit of swagger in coach Mike Sullivan’s pregame comments before the Penguins take on the Flyers in a big game this afternoon in South Philadelphia.

Here, see if you agree.

Sullivan was asked if he stresses anything different to his team before facing a team as hot as the Flyers are coming in (8-1-1 in their last 10). Starts? Puck management early in the game?

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Their team’s playing well. So is ours. There’s two teams that are going to play here today that are well aware of the importance of the game. From our standpoint, it’s more important that we concern ourselves with how we want to play and making sure we control what we can to get the outcome.”

“So is ours.” Sullivan had the option to paint his team as the plucky underdogs coming into a hostile environment against a home team clicking on all cylinders and he passed. I find that interesting.

Some other pregame notes:

— Marc-Andre Fleury will start in goal today. I also expect he’ll start tomorrow at home against Washington, but that’s not written in stone.

— Ben Lovejoy won’t play today.

— The last time the Penguins played the Flyers, on Jan. 21, they gave up two power-play goals in the first period and had to rally for a 4-3 win. The last time the Penguins played anybody, when they faced Carolina on Thursday, they turned pucks over like crazy early in the game, fell behind 2-0 and had to rally for a 4-2 win.

Hard to imagine they’ll be able to climb out of a 2-0 hole given the circumstances today’s game present.

“Certainly starts have been something that has been a priority for us,” Sullivan said. “We’ve had inconsistencies with that over the course of my tenure here anyway, to the point that we’d like to be more consistent so that we can control the outcomes better. When you play a game like today, it’s an afternoon game, there’s going to be a lot of excitement in the building, there’s going to be a lot of emotion, I think the first 10 minutes are important.”

— Here’s Sullivan’s take on the decision to call up Oskar Sundqvist and send down Dominik Simon yesterday.

“(Sundqvist is) a big, strong kid. I think he can play at both ends of the rink. His last time up with us, we could all see with each and every game that he played, he got that much more comfortable with the pace. He started to chip in at the offensive side of the rink. You can see how difficult he is to play against. He’s a big kid. He leans on people. He’s got real good awareness defensively. We have a comfort level that whichever line he plays on, he can play against anybody’s top players and he has the size, the awareness and the skill level to be able to be a solid checking center-ice man against them. We like all those aspects of his game.”

Sullivan went on to say he likes Simon’s skill level and is impressed with how quickly he has adapted to the North American game, but the implication is clear. Sundqvist is harder to play against than Simon, and at this time of year, in the bottom six, that’s what Sullivan is looking for.

More after the game,

jb

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March 18, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Battle of Pennsylvania

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First off, check out the weekly Penguins Roundtable podcast with Ken Laird, Bill West and myself.

OK, starting tomorrow, the Penguins will play three of their 12 remaining games this regular season against the Flyers. The potential for great rivalry moments, obviously, is great.

Here are 10 of those compiled by TSN a few years ago. I’d forgotten that Sebastien Caron save. Might be the best save I’ve ever seen. No joke.

The chances of adding to the memorable fights between the two teams over the years is significantly less.

The Penguins don’t have many fighting majors this season to begin with. Seven of them, next to last in the league. But then subtract the guys who won’t play tomorrow (Scott Wilson for two, Evgeni Malkin once and Bobby Farnham once) and you’re left with three fighting majors (on each for Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Eric Fehr).

On top of that, given the time of season and state of the standings, you’re not likely to see a whole lot of shenanigans anyway.

That’s fine, because what you are likely to see is fast, intense, high-stakes hockey. Here’s Matt Cullen from today’s practice on the topic:

“I think it’s just a different level of intensity. There’s a little more hitting. It’s a higher-paced game. The battles in front of the net and the battles in the corner take on another level because of the intensity. It’s changed. It’s not the line-brawl days that we used to see, but it’s going to be a playoff game. We’re both in playoff mode and need the two points. It’s going to be a battle everywhere.”

One thing Sidney Crosby said about the Flyers rivalry today that I found interesting. He said it’s important for the team’s veterans to prepare the newcomers for what a Flyers game is all about.

“You try to make sure you prepare guys. If you look at the last game here, a lot of guys were new to that. As much as you watched it on TV, you have to go through it to really experience it. I think you try to prepare them because it is higher intensity, the game is faster, more emotion. You have to be ready for that.”

Some other Crosby comments from today:

How do you manage your emotions in a game like this?

“It’s a fine line. You’ve got to be intense. In a game like that, the intensity is higher. The emotion is higher. You’ve got to raise your level as well, but at the same time, be disciplined and focus on playing the game and understand that some games are more physical than others. Things happen out there, but you’ve got to focus on playing the game and getting two points.”

Do fans talk to you about beating the Flyers?

“Yeah. Usually around the time we play them, yeah. It’s not random, like ‘Beat the Flyers,’ but anytime we’re playing them, they seem to be more emotionally engaged.”

Where does the emotion come from?

“The history. It was a long-time rivalry before a lot of us got here. It’s something when you come here, you understand right away when you see the two teams play. With the history in the playoffs that we’ve been involved in, guys can relate to that pretty easily. I think it’s something that’s continued to develop.”

Some other quick notes from today’s practice:

— Coach Mike Sullivan didn’t say whether he plans to start Marc-Andre Fleury twice this weekend or if he plans to split starts with Matt Murray. That might be my fault because of the way I asked the question.

Me: Are you thinking about using Marc-Andre both games this weekend?
Sullivan: I’m thinking about the game tomorrow against the Philadelphia Flyers.

I put that one on a tee for him, didn’t I?

— Big basketball game in the Rust household this afternoon. Bryan went to Notre Dame. His brother Matt went to Michigan. Bryan was pretty confident in the Irish’s chances, but he admitted a team that shoots the 3 like Michigan is a tough out.

— If I told you the Penguins would go 4-8 the rest of the regular season, but the four wins would be three over Philadelphia and one over Detroit, all in regulation, would you take it?

More from Philly tomorrow. Bye for now,

jb

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March 18, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Carolina postgame

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Two turning points in this game, the way I saw it, and thanks to @myregularface on Twitter, you can catch both here.

First, the Penguins weren’t playing poorly, per se, in the first period — they got 22 shots, for crying out loud — but they were turning pucks over at an alarming rate and two of those gaffes led to Carolina goals.

Now, watch this play and tell me it doesn’t look like Crosby saying, ‘OK, enough of that crap.’

Second, with the game tied 2-2 in the second period, Jordan Staal spears Bryan Rust in the undercarriage.

A few moments later, Nick Bonino is called for holding the stick.

The Penguins just saw one of their teammates speared in the man area and had a call go against them.  This would make anyone angry.

They responded by killing the penalty easily and getting another goal from Crosby 65 seconds after the Carolina advantage ended. This one came on a knee-drop redirection of a clever Ian Cole shot-pass from the right point. It was such a good pass that I saw the 8 on the jersey and assumed Kris Letang made it. Apologies to Cole for that one.

Anyway, which play made more a difference? An enough-of-this individual effort from Crosby or a galvanizing stick to the junk? You can decide for yourself. The bottom line is the Penguins won a game they needed to win even after a horrible start.

Some other notes from tonight’s game:

— The Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel line got going with a pair of goals. Here’s what Sullivan said about that:

“When we get that line going offensively, we’re harder to play against,” Sullivan said. “We can’t rely on the same people all the time every night to score goals for us.”

There have been plenty of hot takes on Kessel’s play lately and I understand why. He is paid a lot of money to score goals, and when he doesn’t, he receives deserved criticism. Here’s my lukewarm take on the topic. Evgeni Malkin’s injury has given Kessel a second chance to really endear himself to the fanbase. A lot of players don’t get that. If he heats up down the stretch and into the playoffs, a lot of missed chances and shots off the crossbar will be forgotten.

— I didn’t have the room to get into Matt Murray’s night in the game story, but it’s definitely worth writing a few words about. He gave up a goal on the first shot he faced after a Chris Kunitz turnover in the defensive zone in the first minute of the game. The puck trickled between his pads before he could snap them shut. By Murray’s standards, I think we can call it a bad goal.

Hardly mattered. Murray was really good after Carolina made it 2-0, even stopping a shot by Nathan Gerbe on a two-on-none. It was a gritty effort from a rookie goalie. Here’s what he said about it.

“I’m always pretty confident. Letting up a bad goal doesn’t really change much. It happens. That’s kind of the mindset you have to keep.”

— Crosby’s two-goal night made him the only player in the NHL this season with two 10-game scoring streaks. It also put him over the 30-goal mark for the seventh time in his career.

Bye for now,

jb

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March 17, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Carolina pregame

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Radio analyst Phil Bourque brought up the C-word in coach Mike Sullivan’s meeting with reporters after morning skate.

Calgary.

If you look at the Penguins’ last 10 games, there are seven wins, a one-goal road loss at Washington, a one-goal road loss in Brooklyn and the loss to Calgary at home on March 5. I think it’s safe to say that Flames game is the only one in the last 10 that is out of line with how a playoff contender should play.

So how to prevent a similar performance in a trap game against Carolina tonight before a Philadelphia-Washington weekend? Sullivan answers:

“I think our players are well aware of the importance of this game. When you look around the league, every night provides lots of evidence that if you’re not ready to play, regardless of how your opponent is, then you’re going to leave yourself vulnerable to get beat. I think it’s important that we’re all respectful of the league.

“Regardless of where teams sit in the standings, there’s good players on every team.  They’re motivated people. They’re well-coached teams. I don’t think there’s any game on the calendar that if you don’t bring the effort and the necessary conviction, you’re (not) going to leave yourself vulnerable to get beat. I think our players are aware of that. I trust our leadership that they understand how important this game is for us.

“We expect this to be a pace game. Carolina is a team that likes to skate. They’ve got a lot of skill. They’ve got a lot of youth and energy in the lineup. Those types of games are hard-fought games. That’s what our expectation is. I know our players are aware of it.”

A couple other notes before tonight’s game:

— Jordan Staal on Sidney Crosby is always a key matchup when the Hurricanes play the Penguins. I asked another lanky centerman with a good defensive game what a night vs. Crosby is like.

It’s Eric Fehr, who often had that job when he played for the Capitals:

“It’s a big challenge. He’s one of the more interesting guys to cover because he’s as effective on his backhand as he is on his forehand. I think that’s something you really need to take into consideration when you’re covering him. He’s never really out of a play. You have to stay on him and take away time and space.”

Do you put your offensive ambitions on the back burner when you get the Crosby assignment?

“I don’t think so. Anytime you play against top guys, you want to make them defend. These guys are built to score. That’s in their DNA, but you want to try to make them defend. No one has fun defending. It’s not fun chasing the puck around. That was always my goal coming in here was to try to put him on the defensive side of the puck.”

— Sullivan said Scott Wilson will require surgery to repair the lower-body injury suffered on a Daltpon Prout check last Friday in Columbus.

“There isn’t a timeframe yet. Once his swelling decreases, we’ll have more definitive information.”

To me, unless and until Beau Bennett is ready to return, Dominik Simon has to replace the contributions Wilson was making. It’s not a perfect replacement. Wilson is faster and more physical while Simon is more quick than fast and plays a more skill-based game. But in terms of a bottom-six forward who can pop into open spaces on the ice and score a goal or two, Simon is the man.

The coaching staff obviously didn’t trust Simon in a tight, low-scoring game against the Islanders the other night. He played less than four minutes. If tonight is a “pace game,” as Sullivan suggested, that could benefit Simon.

— Finally, Happy St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday that always makes me think of bare-knuckle brawling.

The WBS Penguins’ website did a great frame-by-frame, fight-by-fight breakdown of these shenanigans. Check it out.

More after the game,

jb

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March 16, 2016
by Bill West


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Islanders postgame

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Fans who fear the teams below the Penguins in the standings, namely Philadelphia, probably view Tuesday’s 2-1 shootout win over the New York Islanders as a critical two-point bump in the standings. And they’re not wrong to think that way.

Fans who want the Penguins to catch the teams above them in the standings, namely the Islanders, probably came away a little disappointed that a victory in regulation slipped away. And they’re not wrong, either.

The Penguins are on a win streak of three-plus games for the first time since claiming four in a row from Jan. 21 to Feb. 2. Their possession metrics remain favorable, and neither their shooting nor save percentage appears unsustainably high. They are playing the kind of hockey that should secure them a playoff berth, even without the services of Evgeni Malkin.Pens Isles shot chart final

Until the Islanders’ Kyle Okposo buried the game-tying goal late in the third period, even the Penguins’ performance in front of their own net looked much improved from what transpired when the teams met in Brooklyn on March 8. Anders Lee still managed to influence the game’s outcome simply by causing mayhem around the crease, but he found fewer opportunities overall. Just look at the hockeystats.ca charts to the right. The Islanders clustered considerably more shot attempts from close range during the last meeting.

Pens Isles March 8

“They got some puck luck,” Kris Letang said of Okposo’s goal. “The rebound came out right on the back door. It was one of those goals that’s going to happen.

“They didn’t get as much zone time as they had in Brooklyn, so I didn’t have to deal with (Lee) as much.”

There’s no need to remind the Penguins that every point counts at this juncture in the season.  They recall the narrow margin between those teams that qualified for the playoffs and those that fell short a season ago.

“Last year, we were the same way, a little bit,” Marc-Andre Fleury said. “We kind of had a tough ending and battled to make it. … I don’t think it’s a (bad) thing, though. We get used to playing these close games. Tough battles. It’s just good preparation for the playoffs.”

With wins over both New York teams in the span of three days, the Penguins are proving what the advanced stats have suggested for months: They’re good enough to take down anyone in the Metropolitan Division. But if they allow the Rangers and Islanders to come away with points in these next few meetings, the Penguins will likely find themselves paired up with Washington, a team with considerably less vulnerability than the New York teams.

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March 15, 2016
by Bill West


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Islanders pregame

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Kuhn combs

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan wants to see whether the physicality and shot-suppressing abilities of wingers Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust remains effective when he puts them on separate lines. He liked what he witnessed in New York on Sunday during the 5-3 win over the Rangers, and he stuck with that plan at Tuesday’s morning skate.

It’ll be interesting to see how Kuhnhackl performs when he’s no longer on a line designed specifically for checking purposes. On a line with Eric Fehr and Conor Sheary, Kuhnhackl is the grinder of the wingers. Rust will serve the same role on a line with Matt Cullen and Dominik Simon. Will the attempt to balance size, speed and scoring abilities on the bottom two lines improve productivity from both lines or simple water down what worked?

Look at Kuhnhackl’s With-Or-Without-You chart from stats.hockeyanalysis.com: In his limited 5-on-5 time away from Rust, he hasn’t fared well on the possession front. (Rust, meanwhile, sees no dropoff in possession effectiveness away from Kuhnhackl, a testament to how well his speed works when Sullivan moves him up to the second line).Pens Isles matchups

In the last meeting between the Penguins and New York Islanders, Sullivan certainly struggled to find a line that matched up well against the bruising fourth line of Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin and Casey Cizikas. Just look at those big red boxes on the War-on-Ice chart, which indicate the Isles’ fourth line dominated possession in ample minutes against Conor Sheary, Tom Sestito and Matt Cullen.

Most of the Islanders-related questions from this morning actually focused on the Penguins’ penalty kill and power play breakdowns when the teams met March 8, a 2-1 win for New York.

“Our special teams have to be better on both sides,” Sullivan said. “I would expect a similar type of game. They like to play a speed game. So do we. So I’m sure the game will involve pace. But we expect a hard-fought battle.”

Islanders net-front nightmare Anders Lee came up a few times within the special teams discussion.

“Once a player gets there, it’s hard to move him, especially a big man,” Sullivan said in reference to the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Lee. “I think what you have to do is try to get body position on him so you can battle on a rebound and you’ve got to try to tie up his stick so you don’t give him an opportunity to get a deflection. … If he’s already there, it’s very difficult to move him. In some instances, you make it more difficult on your goaltender. … Sometimes if he’s tight to our crease, we’ve got to play in front of him and maybe we can deny the puck from getting there.”

All indications are that Ian Cole and Justin Schultz will continue to serve as the Penguins’ third defensive pairing, leaving Derrick Pouliot out of the mix as a healthy scratch. But Sullivan said Ben Lovejoy basically is ready to play, with just a couple practices standing between the defenseman and a return to game action.D pairs 2

We’ll save the “Which defensive pair should play?” debate for another day, but for now, here’s some small-sample-size info to the right, courtesy of www.corsica.hockey, to consider regarding the production of Cole and Schultz versus Pouliot and Lovejoy. You can ignore the Dumoulin-Lovejoy pairing up top, as I doubt that pairing will return this season. (I just couldn’t get the Corsica search to limit the pairing results any further).

 

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March 13, 2016
by Bill West


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Rangers postgame

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I must make this quick, for my plane will gladly take off without me. (Let’s hope the Penguins chill on mid-flight news this time).

Maybe a playoff series against the New York Rangers isn’t a worst-case scenario for the Penguins.

Let’s leave the previous seasons’ postseason outcomes in the past and just look at how each of the three games between the Rangers and Penguins played out.

As hockeystats.ca’s score-adjusted Corsi charts from each of the three games shows, puck possession and scoring have rarely been on the same page. Henrik Lundqvist looked like the King against the Penguins in February. He hasn’t in March. A little luck around the crease goes a long way, too.

Pens vs Rangers Feb 10Pens vs Rangers March 3Pens vs Rangers March 13

Keep in mind, Evgeni Malkin missed two of these three. The Penguins are a better possession team with Malkin, but they’re by no means poor at controlling the puck without him.

Should the Penguins expect to get two goals from  Conor Sheary with any regularity down the stretch? No. To ask any of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton wingers to start producing like a top-six forward is foolish. But if the young forwards provide the team some offensive balance, there’s no reason to rule out the possibility of the Penguins catching the New York Islanders in the standings and likely setting up another series with King Henrik and the boys in blue.

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March 13, 2016
by Bill West


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Rangers pregame

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After the New York Rangers beat the Penguins, 3-0, at Consol Energy Center in the teams’ first meeting of the season on Feb. 10, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault shared with satisfaction just how much he tried to match center Derick Brassard’s line against Sidney Crosby’s.

After the Penguins topped the Rangers, 4-1, on March 3, coach Mike Sullivan stoked the matchup narrative by suggesting he welcomed the Brassard line’s presence on the ice against Crosby and company.

This afternoon at Madison  Square Garden should help indicate which coach actually has the edge in the Brassard-on-Crosby debate. Brassard, who missed Saturday’s Rangers game with the flu, returns to the lineup.

Crosby v Brassard Though I question whether some of the totals in the Puckalytics chart to the right are correct, they at least reflect where things stood between Brassard and Crosby during at least some point this season. (If anyone knows of a WOWY Against program other than Puckalytics, @ me on Twitter, please). Sure, Crosby scored — that’s what produced Sullivan’s smirk and comment about liking the matchup after the 4-1 win earlier this month. But possession heavily favored the Rangers when Brassard and Crosby roamed the ice at the same time.

Round 3 between the Rangers and Penguins also means a new chapter in the Henrik Lundqvist saga. Making his second start in as many days, will he shine as he did when he turned away 34 shots in the February shutout win? Or will he flip (see what I did there) and prove porous as he did in the last meeting?

As everyone no doubt knows by now, the Penguins must find their way past the Rangers and the rest of their regular-season opponents without Evgeni Malkin, who will miss the next six to eight weeks with an upper-body injury. What the Penguins achieved during Malkin’s 10-game absence in February should provide fans some hope that a playoff berth remains attainable. But there’s no denying the team again looks hard-pressed to put together any sort of postseason run. As the tweeted chart below from @ManGamesLostNHL shows, this has become something of an unfortunate tradition.

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March 12, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Columbus postgame

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This game, a 3-2 Penguins win over Columbus, could be really bad news or really good news for the Penguins going forward.

The bad-news scenario is obvious. Evgeni Malkin left in the second period with an apparent injury to his left arm after an awkward collision with Dalton Prout behind the net. Coach Mike Sullivan said the team would know more about Malkin’s condition tomorrow.

The Penguins are already in a playoff race up to their necks. If Malkin is out for a significant period of time, they might have a hard time keeping their heads above water.

But if Malkin isn’t out for long, this game could end up being very beneficial in that it might have provided a blueprint for how they’re going to have to play down the stretch and into the playoffs.

They’re not a big, physical team, so they shouldn’t play like one. Use their speed. Convert on the power play if opponents are up to no good. Survive and advance.

They should probably look to avoid some of the bigger hits they took in this game, of course. Scott Wilson and Brian Dumoulin each left the ice for a time after taking brutal checks in the third period. But both returned before the end of the game and seem to be OK.

Bryan Rust, who tangled with Scott Hartnell in the third period, had a quotable comment about this topic after the game.

“Maybe in the past, this team hasn’t responded as well to things like that. But I think tonight, the team as a whole responded well and that’s how we got the win,” he said. “When the buzzer went off, it was like, ‘Yeah. We got ‘em, and we got ‘em good.’ That was one of those games where it feels a little bit better when you win it.’”

Some other notes from tonight:

— I don’t think it’s terribly significant that Malkin was injured in a collision with Prout. Yes, Prout is a big, nasty D man, but the collision really could have been with anyone. It was awkward more than it was violent.

Still, I think it’s fair to wonder if the game might have played out differently if Tom Sestito had dressed. Say Sestito fights Prout in the first period. Does that change anything the rest of the way?

I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s a reasonable question to ask.

— A cool moment in the second period. Cam Atkinson scored on a breakaway to make it 2-2. A few minutes later, after the Penguins went up 3-2 on a Carl Hagelin goal, Atkinson got another breakaway. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped it with a lunging poke-check. It was as if Fleury was saying, “Once is enough, pal.”

— Sidney Crosby extended his point streak to seven games when he assisted on a Chris Kunitz goal in the first minute of the second.

— Kris Letang scored on the power play in the first period. He’ll have to be the shooter on that first unit if Malkin is out for any length of time.

— Sergei Bobrovsky was playing his first game since the end of January due to a groin injury. I thought he was shaky at times.

— The Penguins protected the lead well in the third period by possessing the puck as much as possible. They did that against the Rangers the other day, too. Didn’t do it against the Capitals. It’s a good thing to be good at this late in the season.

Bill West has you covered from New York this weekend. In the meantime …

Bye for now,

jb

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March 11, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Columbus pregame

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If you’re willing to accept the premise that the Penguins have played a lot better in the second half of the season than the first — and I am — then it’s worth looking for a turning point, right?

The obvious choice would be the coaching change, but the Penguins did lose their first four games under Mike Sullivan. There’s also the comeback win over Detroit on New Year’s Eve, but they were 2-1-1 in their previous four games coming into that night.

The real answer might be the Columbus game on Dec. 21, the first win under Sullivan. Digging a little deeper, the Penguins were losing 1-0 in the first minute of the second period of that game when this happened:

After the fight, which was the first of Fehr’s NHL career, the Penguins scored four unanswered goals in the second period and won, 5-2. Now backing up to the big picture, the Penguins were 15-14-3, averaging 2.19 goals per game before the fight this season. They’re 19-10-5, averaging 3.18 goals per game, since. I’m not sure I believe this 100 percent, but you could easily make the case that the moment Fehr held Dubinsky accountable for his past transgressions, the Penguins became a more formidable team.

This is one of the topics we discussed on the Pens Roundtable podcast this week. Check it out.

Some other notes from Columbus:

— Sullivan wouldn’t say who would be in his lineup tonight after morning skate, but judging by who came off the ice when, I’d say you’re going to see the following lineup developments: Carl Hagelin and Fehr in for Conor Sheary and Tom Sestito. Beau Bennett and Ben Lovejoy are still working their way back from injuries. Derrick Pouliot will be scratched again. Marc-Andre Fleury starts in goal.

— If those guesses are correct, you won’t see Sestito against the Blue Jackets tonight. I think that’s risky, since an out-of-the-playoffs Columbus team could easily be rambunctious, not worrying about running afoul of the refs or the department of player safety.

I also see the other side of it, though, which is the Penguins are best served playing the game straight and staying away from extracurricular confrontations all together. Either way, it’s probably best to watch these old Dubinsky-Sestito scraps on You Tube to get it out of your system.  

More after the game,

jb

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