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Chipped Ice

April 8, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Washington postgame

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I realize I’m still relatively new here, but I honestly thought there might be mixed emotions in the Penguins locker room — and especially in the coaches room — after a 4-3 overtime win over the Capitals tonight.

Sure, they clinched second place in the Metropolitan Division. They actually did that just by getting to overtime after the Rangers lost 4-1 to the Islanders earlier. But they also had to play overtime after holding a 3-0 lead as late as 17 minutes into the second period.

Coaches usually hate that.

But that’s not how it played out.

The Penguins seemed happy to secure home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs and coach Mike Sullivan chalked up the blown lead largely to the vagaries of the game.

“That’s hockey. When you look around the league, it happens a lot,” Sullivan said. “I think our team has been extremely diligent in making sure when we have leads, we continue to play on our toes and we don’t sit back and let teams come at us. This is a good team we played. They had some chances in the third and they buried a couple of them. What I love about it is how our teams responds to it. For me, that’s encouraging. We don’t sink on the bench. We don’t get rattled. We go about our business. We go back and we play.”

Sullivan’s right, I guess. When the Senators blew a three-goal lead to the Penguins two nights ago, you didn’t see them steady things up and force overtime. They got rolled.

And they certainly didn’t score an OT goal as pretty as this one.

Beyond that, Matt Cullen, whose 39-year-old legs helped him score two hustle goals in the first two periods, said he thinks a game like tonight’s might end up helping the Penguins in the long run.

“That’s good preparation for the playoffs,” Cullen said. “Nobody’s going to go away, no matter what the lead is. It was good for us to see that. It was good to experience it. The crowd really got into it. It felt like a playoff game, which is good for us. Obviously there are a few things we’d like to clean up and we’ll take a look at them, but that’s playoff hockey. There’s a lot of ups and downs. Teams are going to come back. It’s an emotional roller coaster.”

All right. I give up. I guess Sullivan and Cullen have convinced me. Go ahead and celebrate home ice without my pesky questions, Penguins. You’ve come a long way since December.

Some other notes from tonight’s game:

— Sullivan said Beau Bennett did not play after taking warm-ups because the team is being cautious with him as he’s still dealing with the effects of a shoulder injury that cost him 42 games earlier this season. Tom Sestito took his spot in the lineup.

— Sestito was right earlier. His presence in the lineup didn’t deter Tom Wilson from taking a boarding major that sent Nick Bonino briefly to the locker room for repairs. But that doesn’t mean Sestito didn’t play a good game. I thought he was excellent. He played seven shifts for about six minutes of ice time, recording an assist, getting involved in at least one other scoring chance and delivering five hits. A strong showing.

— Who was the toughest No. 43 on the ice tonight? Was it Wilson, who would win a fight against all but one or two players in the division? Or was it Conor Sheary, who scored a second-period goal despite having an ugly, swollen eye from a high stick two days earlier? Depends on your definition of toughness.

— Checking out the possession stats, good night for the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel line. Good night for Brian Dumoulin, who has been really effective defending Alex Ovechkin this season. Bad night for the Cole-Schultz pair.

As I try to learn more about using advanced stats, tonight’s Corsi chart from hockeystats.ca confuses me. The Capitals had more shot attempts when the Penguins were scoring and the Penguins had more shot attempts while the Capitals were scoring.

penscapscorsi3

If anybody wants to take a crack at explaining it to me, I’m all ears in the comments or on Twitter. (Comments about my sloppy screen-grabbing are not as welcome.)

— You know how teams often talk about wanting to turn in a full 60-minute effort? I think that’s where Matt Murray is right now. He’s been good for the most part, with a handful of hiccups along the way. Early in the game against Ottawa. Late in the game tonight. Not awful hiccups. I mean, two of the three goals he gave up tonight came on redirections around the net. But for a few minutes here and there, on a few shots here and there, he hasn’t consistently reached the high standards he’s set for himself.

— Power play wasn’t good tonight, going 0-4, including a five-minute major after Wilson hit Bonino. Can’t imagine the coaches were too happy with that.

See, there I go again …

Bye for now,

jb

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April 7, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Washington pregame

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The way I see it, the Penguins have three objectives here tonight in Washington.

1. Clinch second place in the Metropolitan Division and the home-ice advantage that comes with it.

It’s not a huge deal, really. The Penguins have been very good lately no matter where they’ve played. They’re 7-0 in their last seven road games and 6-1 in their last seven home games. I can’t imagine having to start a playoff series in Manhattan or Brooklyn would bother them much.

Still, you’d rather have home ice than not, and here are the three ways the Penguins clinch it tonight, according to the NHL’s PR department:

1. Win
2. Lose in overtime or the shootout AND the Rangers lose to the Islanders
3. Lose in overtime or the shootout AND the Rangers beat the Islanders in a shootout

2. Make a good impression against an opponent they could easily see in the second round of the playoffs.

You know, like the last time the teams met, a 6-2 Penguins win at home on March 20. That kind of impression.

Sidney Crosby, more or less, buys into that idea.

“You look at the games throughout the year, how teams match up, what you can improve on based on previous meetings. I thought the last game, we did a better job staying out of the box and being more disciplined, but at the same time, we still played with that intensity that we needed. You learn things about your team. Hopefully we can build off that and use it as a good motivating factor here, that we could see them again.”

3. Stay healthy.

Mike Sullivan gave an injury update after morning skate today.

Evgeni Malkin, Olli Maatta and Bryan Rust have been ruled out for the final two games of the regular season. That’s not a significant change in prognosis for any of the three. It’s just basically a formal update from the team.

Based on the reports right after Malkin got hurt, the earliest he could be expected back is April 23. When Maatta got hurt March 24, he was deemed week to week. No surprise they won’t play tonight or Saturday.

It’s a bit of bad news for Rust. The team called him day to day when he got hurt March 29. I thought there was at least a chance he could be back before the end of the regular season.

Marc-Andre Fleury, you’ll notice, wasn’t ruled out for the next two games. That’s good news for him as he recovers from a concussion. Sullivan said he’s been making significant progress in his recovery.

Conor Sheary, meanwhile, took morning skate after taking a high stick near his right eye Tuesday in Ottawa. There is considerable swelling and discoloration but no damage to the eye itself which, of course, is the primary concern in situations like this. He’s a game-time decision tonight.

Sheary said he feels fine, that it looks worse than it is, but there’s a complicating factor, in my mind anyway. Sheary wears contacts. He said he’s near-sighted, so he can get by on the ice without them, as he did for morning skate. I’m not sure he’d want to try that in a game.

As an aside, I can’t imagine jamming a contact into that eye. Can you? I have a hard enough time with it the morning after having a few drinks the night before.

If Sheary is out, Tom Sestito will be in. He was called up this morning and took part in morning skate.

I asked Sestito if he thinks his presence could stop some of the hack and whack hockey that’s been going on the last few games for the Penguins. He said he wasn’t sure. Maybe if someone was thinking of starting something, they’d see him out there and think twice, but probably not.

I completely agree with Sestito. Let’s use Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds as an example. If Sestito had been dressed last Sunday, would that have stopped Simmonds from scraping his stick blade across Matt Murray’s neck or elbowing Kris Letang? Probably not.

But since those actions weren’t penalized by the referees, justice has to be administered somehow. That’s where Sestito would come in.

I was going to close the pregame post with a video of Sestito’s previous scraps with Washington’s Tom Wilson, but to my surprise, the pair haven’t tangled before.

Instead, here’s Wilson’s most recent fight, a meeting with LA’s Kyle Clifford about a month ago:

And Sestito’s fight with a Capitals farmhand, Liam O’Brien, from last month. Sestito does an amazing job fighting off a takedown attempt at the end of this fight. As I tweeted the night it happened, I think he was using a whizzer.

More after the game,

jb

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April 6, 2016
by Bill West


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Ottawa postgame

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I guess I should start by apologizing for today’s pregame post, which certainly fulfilled its jinx-y promise to the fullest. Guess it’s a good thing the Penguins no longer have a non-playoff team left on their schedule.Pens vs Sens final

What I found interesting/unique about tonight’s 5-3 win over Ottawa, at least in regards to the pregame entry, was the Penguins actually performed poorly on the possession front. Unlike in the wins over Buffalo, Carolina and Columbus, the Penguins didn’t pile up shot attempts and simply wait for the probabilities to play out. They legitimately trailed in score-adjusted Corsi throughout the game and never caught up, even as they tied and then surpassed Ottawa on the scoreboard.

Below, you’ll find a very helpful set of data tracking the Penguins’ score-adjusted Corsi differential over the past two months. All credit goes to Mike Darnay for putting it together in a nice, tidy tweet.

Of course, almost any Penguins fan knows what happens when the team pulls off a comeback win by now. Cue the #ResilientPenguins quote.

“When you get down three goals, that’s a tough climb, and I love the resilience that our guys showed to crawl back into it, one goal at a time,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “For me, that’s kind of been part of the identity of this group here. They’ve shown that regardless of how the game goes, or especially early on, if we’re down in games, we have the ability to come back. I think it’s an indication of the mindset of the group right now. There’s a mental toughness there, that we can battle through some of that adversity, even when we’re not at our best.”

The Penguins won when trailing after one period for the 10th time, a total which tied them for second in the league. Only Washington (12) has more wins of that variety.

Is there any panic among players when the Penguins fall behind these days? Apparently not.

“We played even sloppier in the first five minutes of the second (period),” said Carl Hagelin, who scored the tying and winning goals. “Sometimes that’s what it takes for us to get going. It was a good response.”

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April 5, 2016
by Bill West


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Ottawa pregame

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After the Penguins pulled off a 5-4 shootout win over Buffalo on March 30, even the players began to support the month-long storyline that they simply lacked a sharp, stifling intensity against non-playoff contenders. They needed the high stakes of a matchup with Washington or either of the New York teams, they said with shrugs.

As the Penguins head into the last of their regular-season games against also-rans tonight, let’s look back at a few of these past “letdown” games and determine whether the narrative is more fact or fiction.

Below are the score-adjusted, all-situation shot attempt counts graphed by Hockeystats.Ca. I included both March games against New Jersey, a fringe playoff contender at the start of the month, in addition to the matchups with Buffalo, Carolina, Columbus and Calgary. (Remember that loss and the panic that ensued? Kind of funny in retrospect.)

Pens vs Buffalo March 29Pens vs Devils March 24Pens vs Canes March 17Pens vs CBJ March 11Pens vs Devils March 6Pens vs Calgary March 5

What you’ll notice is the Penguins finished with a better Corsi count in each of the six. None of the non-playoff teams really controlled a game by that measure. However, there was some legitimacy to the “bad start against bad teams” theory. Calgary came as close as any of the opponents to legitimately outplaying the Penguins. And the March 6 meeting with the Devils certainly went back and forth for the first two periods, though the Penguins found far better success at putting the puck in the net.

After that though? The Penguins mostly just encountered teams that scored on a couple of their rare shots and went into a protective shell thereafter.

Fears about how the Penguins handle a protect-the-lead style from the opponent, even an overmatched one, probably will continue when the playoffs arrive. And shot attempts can sometimes be misleading as a measure of performance, because teams will happily clog the neutral zone and/or the area in front of their goal and allow pucks to fly from the periphery.

But what must (or at least) should bring the Penguins’ faithful some relief is that this team increasingly understands how to score off of forced turnovers and by chasing down chip-ins. While there’s a tendency to think of the Penguins’ stars dangling their way through defenses and tic-tac-toeing passing as the team’s defining moments, it’s perhaps wiser to envision the team’s plan of attack for the immediate future involving every skater, from Sidney Crosby down to Conor Sheary, looking to pressure their way to wins, just as a college basketball team might full-court press its way through March Madness.

Keep an eye on how the Penguins deal with Ottawa’s star, defenseman Erik Karlsson. If they can pester a player as offensively gifted as Karlsson into costly mistakes, there’s little reason to think the Penguins will grow any less confident about how they go about the business of generating scoring chances and shot attempts when the regular season ends this coming weekend.

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April 4, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Philadelphia postgame

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In an apparent effort to make the end of the season more exciting, the NHL backloaded the Penguins’ schedule with rivalry games.

Their first meeting with the Flyers, for instance, didn’t come until Jan. 21 and the next three were all scheduled for the middle of March and later.

This turned out to be a stroke of terrible luck for the Flyers.

If the Flyers caught the Penguins four times in November and December, who knows how the meetings would have gone? After all, it wasn’t that long ago when conventional wisdom said the Flyers were in the Penguins’ heads.

These days, frankly, it isn’t even a contest.

The Penguins completely dominated this game today. Just like they did the previous meeting a couple of weeks ago in Philadelphia.

The first period was particularly lopsided. The Penguins took the first six shots of the game, outshot the Flyers 16-6 in the period and took a 2-0 lead.

The first goal was a good metaphor for how things went. With about five minutes left in the first, Wayne Simmonds tied up Sidney Crosby in the high slot and took him down. Crosby retaliated by scoring 35 seconds into the ensuing power play.

Take a penalty against the Penguins? You pay. Turn a puck over in the neutral zone? You pay. Bring anything other than your best game? You lose.

Some other notes from today’s game:

— There was some talk after the game about a few bits of nasty business from the Flyers. Most notably, about how Simmonds ran his stick blade across goalie Matt Murray’s neck after a whistle in the third period.

I didn’t think this was a particularly egregious example of a team trying to take liberties with the Penguins to get them off their game. I mean, Simmonds should have been penalized for that little move. Should have been penalized for an elbow on Kris Letang earlier, too. But I mean, I’ve seen worse.

The most interesting part about the bouts of ugliness in this game weren’t how awful they were. It was how the Penguins responded. They completely ignored it and went about the business of scoring goals.

“We’re pretty focused right now,” Eric Fehr said. “We know what we’re trying to accomplish and we know the stuff after the whistles isn’t going to get us there. That extracurricular stuff isn’t our team identity right now. We’re trying to be a fast team and a high-scoring team. That doesn’t gain us any points in the standings.”

We’ve heard Penguins teams say that for years. This one seems to mean it.

— The old hockeystats.ca Corsi chart for this one illustrates how lopsided it was:

A couple of other things I noticed looking at the possession numbers. The Cole-Schultz pair pwned the Flyers, which makes sense since it seemed like Schultz was joining the rush for a scoring chance every other shift. The Kunitz-Crosby-Hornqvist line was pretty dominant too.

— The Penguins hit the 100-point threshold and are five points up on the Rangers in the race for second place in the division. The Rangers have five games left. If this were CNN, we’d be getting pretty close to making a projection on that one, no matter how many precincts are still outstanding.

— Coach Mike Sullivan did not have an update on Marc-Andre Fleury’s condition after the game. He said Fleury was scheduled to meet with doctors Sunday evening. There could be an update by Monday or Tuesday.

My experience with concussions is that the average absence is about 10 days, but it’s such a personal injury that citing averages is almost completely pointless. When Fleury’s symptoms subside, then he’ll begin the road to recovery.

The Penguins have a schedule off day tomorrow, so expect the next blog update Tuesday from Ottawa.

Bye for now,

jb

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April 3, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Philadelphia pregame

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Take a look at these Eastern Conference standings that I’ve clumsily screen-grabbed and you’ll notice something new.

standings0403

For one of the first times this season, the Penguins’ opponent needs the two points more than the Penguins do. Sure, the Penguins are fighting for home ice and sure, the Flyers are actually sitting fairly pretty, all things considered, but when it comes right down to it, the orange and black has more motivation today than the black and gold does.

So how does coach Mike Sullivan approach that situation with his team?

“I don’t feel that way. If you do the simple math, you could probably come to that conclusion, but for us, it’s important to play a certain way and continue to push the envelope to challenge one another to get better. I think our group is mature enough to know that all we’ve done by that win yesterday is secure an opportunity to compete for the ultimate goal. We have a lot of hockey in front of us. We have to make sure we keep our eye on the ball. The way we’ve been able to have success is by not getting ahead of ourselves, not dwelling on the past, but making sure we just stay on task. We’ve got one game in front of us, and that’s the Philadelphia Flyers today, and we’re going to focus all our power to try to win.”

Some other pregame notes:

— Sullivan said the Penguins won’t make any lineup changes after a game in Brooklyn yesterday that featured a few nasty little pieces of hack-and-whack hockey.

You’d have to imagine the Flyers will employ the same type of strategy today. Is there anything the Penguins can do to try to stay healthy in these situations? Sullivan didn’t seem to think so.

“It’s hockey. That’s how I look at it. It’s hockey. Teams are playing with urgency. Everyone’s trying to establish themselves as playoff teams. There’s been a lot of teams that try to defend against us that way. We have to make sure we don’t get distracted from it and we continue to play the way we know we can play, to our identity, in order to give us the best chance to win. I think our guys have had that real laser focus and not getting distracted from any type of tactics against us. We know how we have to play in order to have success. We have to make sure we stay the course and not get distracted by any sort of tactics to play against us.”

Distraction is one thing. A broken bone from a slash is another. But ultimately, Sullivan’s right. For better or worse, that’s hockey.

— Sullivan said Matt Murray will start for the second consecutive day.

In one sense, nothing to see here. In the AHL, teams routinely play three games in three days over the course of a weekend. Murray has already played 10 sets of back-to-backs in his young pro career.

“I think he’s used to the workload. He’s had plenty of rest here. I think it will serve him well, actually. The more he plays, the better he plays. He’s played back-to-back in the minors on a number of occasions and been fine.”

In another sense, it’s something worth watching. Take a look at Murray’s numbers vis a vis rest:

Playing the back end of a back-to-back: 5-5-0, 2.62 GAA, .904 save percentage
Every other appearance: 40-15-5, 1.68 GAA, .941 save percentage

The difference, especially in save percentage, is pretty significant.

There are a number of extenuating circumstances here, of course. For one, when Murray is playing on a Sunday on the tail end of a three-in-three, so are his teammates. I’ve seen some goalies get hung out to dry badly in that situation over the years. For another, those AHL back-to-backs almost always include bus travel, sometimes hours of it, almost always more grueling than the quick flight back from Brooklyn that the Penguins took yesterday.

Still, the idea of a young goalie proving he can be just as effective when dealing with a little bit of fatigue is a storyline worth watching today.

— Finally, Sullivan said Marc-Andre Fleury was scheduled to be in the building today to be examined by doctors. There’s a chance there could be an update on his condition by the end of the game.

More after the game. Bye for now,

jb

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April 2, 2016
by Bill West


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Islanders postgame

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Chalk it up to a chance and coincidence that the Penguins delivered one of their better two-way performances of the season on the same day they announced Marc-Andre Fleury will miss time with his second concussion in four months.

Or maybe there was a correlation.

Either way, coach Mike Sullivan and his players approved of how the Penguins handled their business at both ends of the rink during a 5-0 win over the New York Islanders.

“Our attention to detail away from the puck was really good, and I think it gives us a chance to generate offense off of that defense,” Sullivan said.

Pens Isles shot locatePens vs Isles final

Both charts, provided by Hockeystats.Ca, hint at the positives for the Penguins, but focus on the shot location chart in particular. See how few of those black diamonds are near the front of the net? No wonder Matt Murray looked so calm and cool after his first NHL shutout.

“I feel like we’re just sticking with the way we play, regardless of who it’s against,” Sidney Crosby said. “We’re not trying to cheat for offense. We’re playing good in our own zone, which is giving us a chance to create offense.”

As the game wore on, the Penguins grew better and better at showing how to frustrate opponents without the use of blunt force. Whereas the Islanders looked for big hits and opportunities to bully, the Penguins leaned on the lankiness of their third liners (Tom Kuhnhackl, Eric Fehr and Matt Cullen) and the speed of their second liners (Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin) to take away space.WOI Pens h2h Isles

Check out the head-to-head matchup cube chart from War-On-Ice and the line combo data from Corsica Hockey.

See those blue squares next to Cullen, Fehr and Kuhnhackl? That’s evidence of how well the checking line did against New York’s top two forward units in 5-on-5 play. (Blue is good. Red is bad. Gray is meh. Bigger boxes mean more)

The Islanders vaunted brutish fourth line of Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas appears to have spent most of its night chasing Conor Sheary, Oskar Sundqvist and Beau Bennett around. And the Penguins’ youngsters came away with positive possession numbers.

Pens lines IslesNotice how many of the names mentioned in this post are either call-ups or offseason additions? Neither Sidney Crosby nor Kris Letang, the two Penguins’ healthy stars, put together particularly remarkable performances. Yet to see the final score and even watch the game, you’d think every aspect of the Penguins’ lineup clicked on all cylinders, considering the quality of the opponent.

“It’s more of just positive additions around an exceptional core,” Cullen said of the many productive first-year members of the Penguins. “There’s a lot of really, really special pieces there, and when you can add guys around to help complement that, like what happened this summer, it can make something really good.

“It’s a really good feeling in the group right now. We’re playing hard every night, and I think that’s kind of been the trademark for this group. Our effort and our battle level has been there every night. … Guys have filled in holes and stepped up when we’ve had guys get injured, and we’ve had quite a few (injuries), but we’re just able to keep our level.”

 

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April 2, 2016
by Bill West


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Islanders pregame

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Add this to the list of things for which Penguins coach Mike Sullivan deserves credit: He delivers bad news without a hint of self pity.

Sullivan remained stoic as he announced Marc-Andre Fleury’s concussion ahead of Saturday’s 1 p.m. start against the New York Islanders. He didn’t speak of back luck in that moment, just as he didn’t flinch when he announced the injuries for Evgeni Malkin, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Scott Wilson or Kevin Porter in the past few weeks. He never offers any “Woe is us” rhetoric, nor does he go out of his way to acknowledge the void left by a player as important as Fleury or Malkin.

Maybe I’m just accustomed to more chatty authority figures — West Virginia football coach Dana Holgorsen and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle were the central characters in my last two beats. But it never ceases to amaze me how casually Sullivan mentions these injuries and then just waits for the next question.

Matt Murray will serve as the Penguins’ starter until Fleury can return. When that might happen isn’t clear. Fleury, who also missed time in December with a concussion, certainly shouldn’t rush back. Multiple concussions over the course of a career is less than optimal. Several over the span of the season is scary for Fleury’s long-term health.

Sullivan didn’t share much information on the rest of the Penguins’ lineup against the Islanders. He was asked specifically about Dumoulin, but said the lineup is a game-time decision.

For those who aren’t aware, the Penguins can clinch a playoff berth today. A variety of circumstances will get the job done. They’re listed below. Each gets the Penguins in the postseason.

  • Beat the Islanders
  • Detroit loses to Toronto
  • Penguins lose to the Islanders in OT or shootout, and Red Wings go to a shootout against Maple Leafs.

Much of the Penguins-related buzz on Twitter this morning centered on the selection of Sidney Crosby as Team MVP. Some advocated for Fleury, who actually on Friday won the “Player’s Player Award,” which is the lone award where players have the only votes — so find some solace in that. Kris Letang, who won the team’s defense-oriented award on Thursday, also got some Twitter love.

I think a strong case can be made for any of the three. Hell, I think Malkin deserves a least a mention, considering how solid he played during the season’s first few months.

I suspect Crosby ultimately got the nod for two reasons: 1. He’s the captain 2. It doesn’t help Crosby’s case for the Hart Trophy if he doesn’t win his won team’s MVP award. To assume the Penguins, as an organization, aren’t trying to stump for Crosby to win the sport’s biggest regular-season award is foolish.

Crosby, by the way, earned the NHL’s “First Star” honor for March.

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April 1, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Playoff odds

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With a playoff berth all but sewn up for the Penguins — be honest, did you think at midseason that you’d see that sentence before the last weekend of the regular season? — it’s probably time to start to take a peek at first-round playoff matchups.

According to the fine folks at sportsclubstats.com, here are the most likely opponents for the Penguins.

Rangers 59.9 percent
Islanders 20.2 percent
Panthers 13.5 percent
Lightning 3.5 percent
Capitals 2.3 percent
Flyers 0.6 percent

It’s hard to imagine the Islanders jumping the Rangers in the Metro standings, especially with today’s word that Travis Hamonic is done for the rest of the regular season, but the math says it’s possible. If so, tomorrow’s game is a pretty big one for the Penguins. They’ve proven they can handle the Rangers’ defense, shot-blocking and goaltending. I’m not sure they’ve proven they can handle the Islanders’ size and net-front game, not all the time anyway.

Some other notes from practice:

— Brian Dumoulin skated without incident for the second straight day. I’d say there’s at least an outside chance he plays this weekend.

— Coach Mike Sullivan said Olli Maatta and Bryan Rust are technically getting closer to returning from lower-body injuries, but they’re not ready yet.

— Marc-Andre Fleury had the day off for maintenance. He also did not participate in morning skate yesterday. Sounds to me like he’s gearing up for back-to-back games this weekend, although Sullivan didn’t say as much.

— Why not listen to today’s edition of the Penguins Roundtable podcast? It’s got a different feel this week. Ken Laird, Bill West and I are locked in a terrible feud, so none of us are on the air at the same time. (I’m kidding about the feud part, but the other part is true. Josh Taylor hosts.)

Bill will have you covered in Brooklyn tomorrow, so stay tuned for that. Bye for now,

jb

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April 1, 2016
by Bill West


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Nashville postgame

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Despite the absence of Evgeni Malkin, Scott Wilson and Bryan Rust from the forward corps and Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin from the collection of the blue liners, the Penguins put together another complete performance against an opponent that, from both traditional and analytics-driven perspectives, looks pretty strong most nights.

The injuries and an immense amount of respect for Nashville’s top defensive pair, Roman Josi and Shea Weber, led coach Mike Sullivan to go with one of his more creative deployment gameplans in a while. And as the War-On-Ice chart shows, most of the matchups didn’t turn out too poorly. (Blue squares, especially big ones, are a good thing, while red ones, particularly of the larger variety, are bad; gray means neither good nor bad). Pens h2h Preds

Center Sidney Crosby spent time with his usual winger combination, Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz, as well the less physical but arguably more offensively clever fourth-line duo of Conor Sheary and Beau Bennett.

“I think sometimes if I’m trying to get Sid away from a particular line match or defense pair — Weber and Josi are pretty difficult players to play against — so sometimes if I think I have an opportunity to free him up a little bit, I make those decisions during the course of the game,” Sullivan said. “The other thing I like about when I do put him with Conor Sheary and Beau Bennett is those are two guys that have pretty good offensive instincts, so it gives him an opportunity to play with a different set of wings and a different circumstance. If they do get the puck down in the offensive zone, those guys have the ability to think it. They can play that give-and-go game. They’ve got pretty good instincts. Sometimes we bounce him in between those two guys, depending on who is playing well and what the circumstances are over the course of the game.”

Kris Letang paired with Trevor Daley but also skated alongside Derrick Pouliot late in the game. Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole teamed up for stints.

The deployment that intrigued me most entering the game was the Penguins’ checking line, which lacked Rust’s speed and forechecking proficiency. How would Eric Fehr’s size offset his lack of speed, relative to Rust?

Sullivan indicated afterward that he remained completely confident in the trio of Fehr, Matt Cullen and Tom Kuhnhackl as a go-to checking trio.

“Those guys are all pretty solid two-way players,” Sullivan said. “Eric Fehr has been in this league for a long time. He’s a smart player. He’s strong on the wall. He’s good away from the puck. He’s a different type of player than Rusty is. But those three guys together, no matter how we use those guys, if Rusty is part of it or he’s not and it’s the other three guys like they were tonight, I think they’re a good line. They can play at both ends of the rink. They can play against anybody. The nice thing when I do have Fehrsy up with that line is it puts two centericemen on the ice that can take faceoffs. That’s an added bonus, I guess, when he plays up with that group. But I don’t think it changes how we use them.”

Overall, none of the three finished with great possession stats, as both the hockeystats.ca (left) and Corsica.Hockey (right) charts below show. The War-On-Ice head-to-head chart indicates most of the Cullen line’s troubles came against Ryan Johansen, Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal. Against Mike Ribeiro, Filip Forsberg, and Craig Smith, the matchup proved more favorable.

Pens possessionPens lines Preds

It’s worth noting Nashville coach Peter Laviolette became frustrated with how well the Penguins took away space.

“Tonight, puck management was not executing the plays that we needed to because we didn’t do it quick enough and they got a stick on it or they read it and defended it before we had a chance to get it off and make a play.”

How Sullivan deploys his lines is something that will only become more interesting when the playoffs begin. In a seven-game series, look for more chess-match tactics. And the Penguins’ coach will no doubt want a full array of pieces at his disposal, even if the team rolled through its final 10 games with stars and secondary contributors alike sidelined.

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