Monthly Archives: October, 2006

Common sense prevails at 66 Mario Lemieux Place!

Jordan Staal is staying in the NHL.

This is a refreshing change for Penguins fans. I'm sure that, if Craig Patrick were still GM, Staal would be on the first bus to Peterborough right now, and Patrick would be muttering something at the press conference about long-term financial implications, with that hangdog expression that was permanently etched in his face after trading Alexei Kovalev.

Ray Shero understands that you have to spend the money at some point, or else you end up with, well, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Kevin McClatchy has built the worst team in baseball to make a profit. (Hey, Kevin, just wait until that All-Star-game-inflated season ticket bubble bursts…) Rather than worrying now about how they'll deal with the contracts of Staal and Evgeni Malkin in the same year, Ray has placed his faith in the new CBA, not to mention the possibility that the Penguins will be contenders for the next three seasons.

It would be easy to view this as being an over-optimistic response to the team's 6-3-0 start. Look deeper, though, and it's more about how the Penguins are winning, not just the mere fact that they are, or that one year ago, we were still waiting for one lousy, stinking win. They're beating the teams they're supposed to beat, and hanging tough with rest. They have a couple of comeback wins, too. The mood in the clubhouse is far more confident than it was last season.

Staal has clearly been a part of that success. Getting three short-handed goals in nine games is a bit of a fluke, but it comes from strong penalty killing, which the Pens are getting this year. In fact, with Staal, Dominic Moore, Colby Armstrong, and Maxime Talbot, the Penguins penalty killing units are the best they've been in years. At the moment, they're 12th in the league at 85.2%. Last season, they finished at 78.8%, with only the Los Angeles Kings to keep them out of dead last in the NHL. Before The Lockout? A pitiful, league-worst 77.2%.

So here's to Jordan Staal, who just earned a regular NHL job before his brother Marc, who's still in the Rangers' farm system. And here's to all those matchups with brother Eric, just one more interesting twist to those crazy Pens-Hurricanes games.

Oh, and as much as I hate to reduce the kid to a by-the-way, Kris Letang was returned to Val d'Or today. Kris showed glimpses of the NHL-calibre defenseman he'll become, but the Penguins are better served by stay-at-home veterans like Mark Eaton and Josef Melichar.

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Pens vs. Devils: 24 Oct 2006

Lost: 2 jock straps
If found, please return to:
    Brad Lukowich and Martin Brodeur
    New Jersey Devils
    Continental Airlines Arena
    East Rutherford, NJ, USA

Right about now, the Devils are probably wishing Ryan Malone hadn't broken his arm. Because Malone is out 4-6 weeks, the Pens had to shuffle some lines. The first line is now Sidney Crosby, Colby Armstrong, and Evgeni Malkin. Witness the results.

Meanwhile, on the will-they-stay-or-will-they-go front, Kris Letang was a healthy scratch tonight, as Noah Welch was called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. It looks like Letang will be returned to his junior team, which is probably a good idea for a defenseman. Jordan Staal, on the other hand, was promoted to the second line to take Malkin's place beside Mark Recchi and Nils Ekman, and scored his first even-strength goal of the season. Staal has also been our best penalty killer so far this year, which is remarkable for a kid right out of juniors. This is going to be the first really difficult decision of Ray Shero's career as a GM.

Update: Turns out Letang wasn't a healthy scratch after all. He was out with a stomach bug. I still don't like his chances of staying, though. His ice time has been steadily dropping.

Final Score: Pens 4, Devils 2, days since the last time the Penguins had sole possession of first place in the Atlantic: let's see… carry the two… November 2002. You do the math!

Stars of the game:

  1. Evgeni Malkin (1 OMFG G, 1A)
  2. Sidney Crosby (1G, 1A)
  3. Nils Ekman (1G, 1A)

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Pens vs. Blue Jackets: 21 Oct 2006

This game was defined by special teams and momentum. And instant replay.

There was only one even-strength goal in the game, by Fredrik Modin. Otherwise, it was a ton of odd-man play, usually coming in long stretches for one team or the other.

Jordan Staal made a compelling argument for staying in Pittsburgh. (He has two more games before the Penguins must make a decision: keep him in the NHL for the entire season, with no option to send him to the AHL, and start the clock toward unrestricted free agency, or return him to Peterborough for one more season in the juniors.) He had two short-handed goals in the game. The first was good ol' fashioned aggressive penalty killing. The second allowed the replay booth to earn its keep.

Staal had a step on his defender, who got caught waterskiing, so Staal was awarded a penalty shot on Fredrik Norrena. Staal swung right-to-left, and snapped off a wrister that clanged hard off the post. The ref emphatically waved off the goal, then the crowd at that end of the rink (not my end, unfortunately) started shouting, as did the Penguins' bench. We never saw it on the Jumbotron, but the replay booth had a replay angle that showed the puck ringing off the post, off the back of Norrena's leg, and slowly gliding into the net. And thus, Jordan Staal earned his third short-handed goal, in only the seventh game of his NHL career.

Otherwise, it was three power play goals. Two from the usual suspects, Michel Ouellet and Sergei Gonchar, and one from Evgeni Malkin. Adding Malkin to the power play has given it a crispness it hasn't had in years. With Ryan Whitney and Gonchar at the points, and Ouellet making the left post his favourite campground, Sid and Geno are getting room to create. And I'm not convinced they're entirely in sync yet. We'll see how scary this power play unit can be as the season rolls on.

Final score: Penguins 5, Blue Jackets 3, number of games it took last year's Pens to reach 4 wins: 15.

Stars of the game:

  1. Jordan Staal (2 SHG)
  2. Sergei Gonchar (1G, 1A)
  3. Evgeni Malkin (1G)

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Pens vs. Devils: 18 Oct 2006

This Malkin kid, he may not be half bad.

It took Evgeni Malkin about 3/4 of the first period to get rolling, but once he did, he put on a show. Great hands, effortless speed, and no fear of the middle of the ice. (Although it may take a few highlight-reel shoulder checks to teach him to keep his head up.) And God help any goalie who gets in the way of his slapshot. A third period blast whistled over Martin Brodeur's left shoulder and broke the glass next to the goal judge's booth. From opposite end of the rink, it sounded like a gunshot.

His first NHL goal was good news, bad news. The good news was that it was at home, in front of a roaring, SRO sellout crowd. The bad news was that, as career highlight videos go, it was pretty ugly. Brodeur had just chest-blocked a Mark Recchi wrist shot from the right circle, and dropped to his hands and knees to cover the puck, but he didn't have it under his mitt like he thought he did. Malkin saw it, and more importantly, the referee saw it, so there was no whistle. Malkin simply poked at the puck from between Brodeur's arms, and it trickled through the 5 hole and in.

Unfortunately, there's one thing that Malkin and Sidney Crosby have in common: Both debuts were spoiled by Brodeur. Like last year's season opener, the Penguins peppered Brodeur with shots, actually outshooting New Jersey 38-34, but had too few quality scoring chances. The Pens recovered from last Saturday's lazy game against Carolina, and gave New Jersey everything they could muster, but the Devils got the better of the play down low, leading to goals by Jay Pandolfo and Jamie Langenbrunner. New Jersey's disciplined play also helped, taking only one minor penalty in the entire game.

Final score: Devils 2, Penguins 1, number of times some guy behind me called Malkin "Jorge" before somebody corrected him: 6. (Malkin's teammates nicknamed him "Geno". Um, "Jorge" and "Geno" both have "G" in them somewhere…)

Stars of the game:

  1. Martin Brodeur (37/38)
  2. Jamie Langenbrunner (1G, GWG)
  3. Evgeni Malkin (1G)

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Pens vs. Hurricanes: 14 Oct 2006

That may have been the scariest thing I've ever personally witnessed on a hockey rink.

For those who didn't see a clip on SportsCenter, Hurricanes right winger Trevor Letowski was knocked unconscious on a hit by Colby Armstrong. It was late in the first, and the Canes were breaking into the Pens' zone. Letowski lost the handle on the puck at the top of the slot, took a stride, and turned right into Armstrong as he was finishing his check. The impact was jaw to shoulder, and Letowski was out cold on impact. To make matters worse, he opened a nasty gash on his forehead when his head hit the ice. None of the newswire reports made mention of it, but it looked from my point of view in the stands like he was having a seizure on the ice. It turned out to be a concussion, not a neck injury, but it looks like he has a long road to go, so good luck to him.

As for the rest of the game…

At one point in the second, I said to my buddy:

We've secretly replaced the Penguins' regular sticks and gloves with lead, granite, and depleted uranium hockey gear. Let's see if they can tell the difference.

The Pens are good for one of these we-can't-handle-the-puck nights a month, and tonight was it. The fans' usual chorus of "Shooooooot!" was useless because Pittsburgh couldn't maintain any excessively long series of passes without at least one clanking off a stick, zinging off in the wrong direction, or getting lost in the receiver's skates.

For some reason, things always end up getting chippy between the Pens and Canes, even though there isn't really a rivalry between the teams. I recall a game in 2003 in which the Pens got shelled early and often, and decided that, if they weren't going to win, they were at least going to take two major penalties per period. That was an ugly loss by any measure. Then there was Brooks Orpik's dirty hit from behind on Erik Cole in their last meeting of last season. I don't think winning a Stanley Cup, with Cole on the ice for games 6 and 7, has completely satiated their thirst for revenge. (Orpik was an injured scratch tonight anyway.) The hit on Letowski didn't appear to be dirty. It looked more like they just made impact at the worst possible angle. Somehow, I doubt that will make a difference when the teams meet again in Raleigh next month. You can't really call it a rivalry when Carolina gets the best of the Pens so often, but there's definitely bad blood brewing.

Final score, Hurricanes 5, Penguins 1, Jocelyn Thibault sightings: 1 (After Fleury got a cut over his eye in the second. Thibault was the better goalie in camp, he deserves a start!)

Stars of the game:

  1. Scott Walker (2G)
  2. Ray Whitney (2A)
  3. Eric Staal (1G)

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Pens vs. Red Wings: 7 Oct 2006

Well, it was fun while it lasted.

The Penguins came back to earth Saturday night. They stayed in their system, held Detroit's offense in check, and generated no offense of their own. Not only were the Pens shut out, they were out-shot 26-13, only mustering 1 shot on goal in the second period. Thursday night, the Pens didn't need to work in front of the net because the Flyers were having a bad day. The Red Wings were stronger defensively, but the Penguins didn't seem willing to get dirty. Too much passing and trying to set up the "pretty" goal. You know the Pens' offense was bad when Hasek posts a shutout, but wasn't one of the night's three stars.

Loose officiating didn't help matters. The game was sloppy all around. That didn't stop the Killer Third Period Call from victimizing the Pens again. Normally, the Killer Third Period Call involves the words "Gonchar" and "hooking", but this time, it was two referees having two different standards of goaltender interference. At one end, in the first period, the ref correctly non-called when a Pens defenseman pushed a Red Wings player into Marc-Andre Fleury. In the third, however, the other ref called it on Colby Armstrong, ignoring the obvious shove in the back.

The Pens' defense held strong, for the most part. Detroit's first goal illustrated how small mistakes can make a big difference. Johan Franzen was left uncovered in the slot for just a moment, but it was long enough for him to collect a rebound and tuck it inside the opposite post before Fleury could reach back. Kris Draper got the insurance goal late in the third, while the Pens were gambling to generate some offense.

Final score: Red Wings 2, Pens 0, Donnie Iris sightings: 1.

Stars of the game:

  1. Kris Draper (1G, GWG)
  2. Johan Franzen (1G)
  3. Marc-Andre Fleury (24/26)

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Pens vs. Flyers: 5 Oct 2006

I started this on my old Slashdot journal, which is why 5 games suddenly appeared on the 22nd. (BTW, I'm keeping my old posts around over there, if you want to stumble through the history.)

I'm going to try to be better at this, win or lose. Last year's 0-bazillion start kinda snuffed out my enthusiasm. No such trouble so far this year.

Before the season started, Mario Lemieux requested that there be no ceremony for the re-retirement of #66. Of course, the Penguins couldn't let the moment go without some acknowledgment of Mario's great career, so they found a nice compromise. They started the pre-game ceremonies by bringing down the lights, and playing a brief video tribute narrated by Sidney Crosby. While the video played, they quietly lowered his new banner from the roof under cover of darkness, then turned the spotlights on it as Crosby's tribute ended and the familiar refrain of Tina Turner's "Simply The Best" began. One last standing ovation for the man in the owner's box, then on with the show. This year's theme was "March of the Penguins", complete with real penguins waddling out from the Zamboni entrance and a half-decent Morgan Freeman impersonator. Not half as corny as last year's "Grandpa" show. Clarks' lead singer Scott Blasey sang the Star-Spangled Banner. He's a great rock vocalist, but when he applies that sound to a national anthem, he sounds half in the bag. Why mess with the good thing they have in Jeff Jimerson? The only reason he's not recognized as the best anthem singer in the NHL is because he's nowhere near as cute as Lauren Hart.

Oh, and they actually played a hockey game. At least Pittsburgh did. Philadelphia apparently saw "@ PIT" on the first line of their schedule, figured they had an extra pre-season game, and only turned the dial up to about 8. The Pens, they were cranked up to 11.

If they were trying to make a statement tonight, boy howdy, did they ever make it: "We may not win every night, but we will not be out-hustled, pushed around, or be slept on this year. We will not be disrespected." This year's free agent signings didn't dazzle the hockey world, but they added feisty and mean to the lineup, and it was on display tonight. Put simply, Broad Street got bullied. The highlight was early in the second, when Colby Armstrong plastered Sami Kapanen with a shoulder check, then pummeled Nolan Baumgartner in the ensuing fight. The game stayed chippy the rest of the way.

All four lines contributed to this win, with the third line of Jarkko Ruutu, Dominic Moore, and Michel Ouellet delivering the greatest impact. Ruutu had 1 goal, 1 assist, and 20 Flyers wanting to cross-check him in the face. Ouellet also had a goal and an assist, and Moore led a penalty killing unit that got entirely too much work tonight. (From this homer's perspective, the Flyers got away with far more than the Pens did.) That imbalance in power-play time led to a ton of shots for Marc-Andre Fleury.

I spent most of the third period thinking, "OK, here's where Fleury gives up one of those momentum-killing soft goals. This PK is going to be the one." And it never happened. Fleury played the most complete game of his career under a barrage of power-play shots.

Robert Esche, not so good. The Ruutu goal was a tough bounce, but Ouellet's goal was an innocent wrister that Esche didn't seem to pick up, and he was just plain beaten by Sidney Crosby and Josef Melichar.

Let me say that again, in case you're having trouble wrapping your brain around the concept: Robert Esche got torched by Josef Melichar.

Esche eventually settled down (17 of 21), but not until he had given up 4 goals on only 11 shots. Antero Niitymaki, even though he was dressed, was too hurt to really play, so Esche knew he had to ride this one out, and better luck tomorrow.

Final score: Penguins 4, Flyers 0, Ken Hitchcock's blood pressure 200/125.

Stars of the game:

  1. Marc-Andre Fleury (40/40)
  2. Sidney Crosby (1G, 1A)
  3. Jarkko Ruutu (1G, 1A)

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Ooh, shiny new blog site!

Just a quick starter post. Nothing to see here. If this isn't the least interesting entry in this blog, it will be because everything else I post will be equally uninteresting. But that won't happen. Not on my watch, dammit!

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