Tag Archives: hockey

Trade Deadline 2008: Conflicted

Two trades for the Penguins today.

Defenseman Hal Gill from Toronto for Pittsburgh's 2nd and 5th round picks in the 2008 draft.

Gill is 6' 7", all of it mean. He's very good at parking himself in the slot on the penalty kill and beating on anybody who dares cross his path. If you remember him from his Bruins days, you probably remember him because he frustrated the bejeezus out of Jaromir Jagr.

Wings Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis from Atlanta for  wing Colby Armstrong, center Erik Christensen, center Angelo Esposito (currently back in juniors), and Pittsburgh's 1st round pick in the 2008 draft.

Wow. This is a big, big deal.

Hossa is a five-time All Star, has averaged about one point per game, and is a steady 30 goal per season scorer. He's also a strong penalty killer. Dupuis is more of a third-line checking winger, and is also a good penalty killer. (Detecting a theme here?)

The now ex-Penguin I feel, um, least bad about is Christensen. Crusher's ideal role is second line center. He doesn't really have the physical style that his nickname would suggest, so he won't work on a third or fourth line. Michel Therrien tried him on the wing last year, but he wasn't very effective there. Thus, the only way Christensen could get quality time was when Crosby or Malkin were, for whatever reason, not the 1 and 2 centers.

That excess depth at center also explains Esposito's departure. With Crosby locked up for six years, and Malkin due for a big contract this summer, there wasn't room for another first round center. It could end up another Markus Naslund for Alex Stojanov deal, if Espo lives up to the potential he's shown with the Quebec Remparts. The jury is still out on that, though.

The big shock in the deal is Colby Armstrong. On the ice, he's had some scoring droughts, but he never takes a shift off, is a reliable penalty killer, can take on any role in the system, and never lets his beanpole physique get in the way of a good hit. In the locker room, he set the tone for this young team: Take the work seriously, but never let the game stop being fun. You probably couldn't find a human being in the city of Pittsburgh who didn't like Army.

That kind of heart isn't easily replaced.

But from a tactical point of view, Ray Shero's moves make good sense. The Penguins' penalty kill has been mired in the mid-20s in the league rankings this year. Meanwhile, Hossa and Dupuis were 1-2 in shorthanded ice time for the Thrashers this season. (Which makes you wonder what will happen to their PK down the stretch…) Gill's size speaks for itself. Together, they should improve the team's biggest weakness.

Acquiring Hossa also solves the dilemma that has been perplexing armchair GMs in Pittsburgh all season: Who will be Sidney Crosby's linemates? Since Sid's high ankle sprain, the Malone-Malkin-Sykora line has caught fire. Nobody wants to break that up, but that left the cupboard bare for Crosby's line. Now, with Hossa, Sid has the finisher he needs to complement his play-maker role. Add a grinder like Talbot, and the Penguins already potent offense gets that much deeper.

Gill's place in the line-up creates a new question, though. Who's the odd man out? The obvious answer would be Brooks Orpik, who has been in and out of Therrien's doghouse all year. Down the stretch, though, there's always somebody hurting, so a seventh defenseman isn't a bad thing to have around. Ask Alain Nasreddine.

We'll have to wait and see how this all unfolds. The obvious message from Ray Shero is that the time for rebuilding is over. Now, it's time to win the Stanley Cup.

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Call it the “52 Pickup” line.

What is it about the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise that chews up coaches and spits out a pile of picked-clean bones? I ask this because Michel Therrien is rolling full speed ahead into the "lost his shit" phase, which has signaled the end of every Penguin coaching tenure not involving Bob Johnson (cancer) or Scotty Bowman (getting on Mario's bad side).

Last season, when the Pens were changing line combinations frequently, it appeared that Therrien was creating match-ups, making little tweaks and adjustments that would keep the offense one step ahead of the night's opponent. It would be something simple, like switching Malone and Roberts between the first and second lines. And let's face it; it's easy to excuse coaching decisions that would look iffy at other times when the team is winning.

This season, he seems to have no idea what combination of forwards will give him four strong lines.

The fourth line appears to have fallen into place for him. Jarkko Ruutu, Georges Laraque, and Maxime Talbot had some great shifts last night against the Devils, producing good cycles down low, one or two quality scoring chances (which is as much as you can expect from a 4), some SportsCenter-worthy hits (not that ESPN would show them), and plenty of energy for the team and the crowd to feed on.

At the top, Therrien has five players for three positions: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Malone, Petr Sykora, and Mark Recchi. Most coaches would love to have that many options for their first two lines, with playmakers like Sid and Geno, finishers like Malone and Sykora, and grinders like Rex and…

Uh-oh. There's the problem. Nobody has stepped up to complete that second line. Jordan Staal is mired in the Mother Of All Sophomore Slumps. Erik Christensen has started out cold. Gary Roberts seems to be a half-step behind on every shift. Adam Hall and Tyler Kennedy are third line players. And Colby Armstrong has, for reasons unknown, landed in Therrien's doghouse, and can't play his way off the healthy scratch list for love or money.

Therrien doesn't want to put Crosby and Malkin together. That kills the second line. A Malone-Malkin-Sykora line would have the potential to wreak havoc on NHL defenses. They haven't played on a line together for more than a few shifts, but in pairs, Malkin-Malone and Malkin-Sykora have clicked. But that leaves the reigning NHL scoring champion and MVP on a line with Recchi and a spare part.

And with Recchi producing turnovers faster than Arby's, he's playing like a spare part, too.

Thus, with 14 forwards and 12 slots, Therrien's decision making looks a little something like this:

Fourth line: Ruutu-Talbot-Laraque. Truth. Ask Johnny Oduya and Danius Zubrus if you don't believe me. As long as the line Ruutu doesn't take dumb penalties, they'll give you 8-10 minutes of reliable energy a night.

First line: Crosby, obviously. Can't put all our eggs in one basket and put Malkin here, so do the next-worst thing (as we'll see in a moment), and use Sykora and Malone here.

Second line: Malkin, obviously. He's the only one of the remaining forwards who scores on a regular basis. OK, now what?

That leaves Recchi, Roberts, Hall, Christensen, Staal, Kennedy, and Armstrong.

Colby is on Coach's shit list, and Kennedy is a recent call-up from Wilkes-Barre, so they're the designated healthy scratches until further notice.

Recchi's scoring comes in streaks these days, but those streaks won't get started on the third line. They're not getting started on the first or second lines, either, but there's still a chance. That leaves Crusher and Staal. Staal worked well with Malkin last year, so maybe that will help lift the sod farmer's malaise.

Second line: Staal-Malkin-Recchi.

Third line: Roberts-Hall-Christensen. Feel free to substitute Kennedy and/or Armstrong as you see fit. It doesn't really matter who of these five is playing, or where. This is the junk drawer of the Penguins' roster: Occasionally useful, but usually clutter.

That was the general line combination last night. By the way, all of this probably changed in practice today, since leaving Malkin without any support killed the second line. Lord only knows who will be on the first line with Sid on Thursday night, but without help from Sykora or Malone, Geno might as well have a neon sign over his head that reads "TRIPLE-TEAM ME".

So why am I dropping this on Therrien's head? Because the Penguins have three games remaining on this homestand, and Therrien will almost certainly change the line combinations for each and every one of those three games. He just can't stop himself. It worked last year, and by God, it will work again this year, right? Therrien's English is serviceable, but I honestly believe that he doesn't know the meaning of the word continuity.

Oh, and he called Marc-Andre Fleury "fragile" in last night's post-game presser. But if I get started on our goaltending situation, this could run longer than a Peter King column, and I wouldn't even get to the tangents about coffee.

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Yes, once again, I’ve fallen behind

Having a Real Job will do that sometimes. Having a third period like we did against the Maple Leafs will do that, too.

Toronto 5, Pittsburgh 2: 25 Oct 2007
Exasperating 20 minutes of hockey, after the score was tied at 1-1.

Montreal 3, Pittsburgh 2 (SO): 27 Oct 2007
Ended up watching this one from home, as the Old College Roommate claimed both tickets. Any shootout that goes 8 rounds will be ended by somebody who's making the first attempt of their career. Cue Andrei Markov.

Philadelphia 3, Pittsburgh 1: 7 Nov 2007
28 seconds. That's how long it took for Sid to get too fancy with the puck, lose it at his own blue line, and set up a tic-tac-toe goal for the Umberger-Briere-Lupul line. Mellon Arena was having a Technical Difficulty Night, with the orange-gold runway lights staying on for much of the first period, no player numbers on the penalty board, a TV time-out game where the answer was given away on the jumbotron, and for a few minutes, Tampa was leading Florida 196-0, according to the balcony out-of-town scoreboards.

Oh, and the ice has been atrocious for all of these games.

As has the defense. Seriously, 22 shots against in the first period of last Thursday's Rangers game?

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Pens vs. Rangers: 23 October 2007

I'll keep this one short, because a few themes persisted throughout the game:

  • Ryan Malone was flying all night.
  • Brooks Orpik was meaner than he's been the past few nights.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury was sharp.
  • The posts behind Marc-Andre Fleury were sharp.
  • The Pens were making too many passes.
  • The Rangers did a better job of controlling the puck.
  • Scott Gomez and Chris Drury still don't fit in.
  • Constantly mixing lines leads to too-many-men penalties. The Pens got another one tonight.

The critical time of the game was the first two minutes of the second period. With 1:58 of power play time to start, the Pens scored the only goal they'd need. Sidney Crosby, from the right point, to Ryan Whitney, sneaking up the left wing, to Evgeni Malkin to the right of the goal, for a quick flip behind Henrik Lundqvist. 1-0 Pens. 0:25 later, Jordan Staal gets a penalty shot, thanks to a thrown stick. Unfortunately, Staal went straight in and threw an easy wrister on the net that Lundqvist had all the way.

This was one of those nights where throwing the kitchen sink at a goaltender just builds his confidence. The Rangers out-shot the Penguins 36-22, and Fleury just got stronger as the game went on. Meanwhile, the combination of Malone, Staal, Jarkko Ruutu, and Adam Hall kept Jaromir Jagr frustrated all night. By the third period, Jagr was hanging his head at the end of every shift.

Final Score: Penguins 1, Rangers 0, Jagr boos per period: 12.

Three Stars:

  1. Marc-Andre Fleury (36-save shutout)
  2. Evgeni Malkin (GWG)
  3. Brooks Orpik (Hits galore)

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Pens vs. Hurricanes: 19 October 2007

“Pittsburgh penalty, number 55, Sergei Gonchar, 2 minutes for hooking. Time of the penalty, 0:25.”

Yeah, that quick.

“Carolina goal, his second of the season, scored by number 13, Ray Whitney. Assisted by number 8, Matt Cullen, and number 17, Rod Brind’Amour. Time of the goal, 0:59.”

People had barely started into their nachos, and we had already given up a power play goal. Dany Sabourin started in goal for the Penguins, and he didn’t have a chance on Whitney’s shot, a laser of a slapshot from the left point that grazed the crossbar to Sabu’s left.

Ryan Malone, still feeling his oats after Wednesday night’s implosion, quickly decided to head the Canes’ momentum off at the pass, and picked a fight with Mike Commodore. (Why isn’t his number 64? Kids these days have no sense of humor. Back in my day, Steve Heinze wore 57.) Commodore won the fight, but Malone got the momentum shift he was looking for.

Until Sergei Gonchar touched the puck again. He and Ryan Whitney both had cosmically bad nights. Gonchar’s early hooking penalty was a result of a giveaway off the opening faceoff. Later in the first, he gave the puck away to Eric Staal behind the net, but Sabourin bailed him out. On his very next shift, he had to return to the bench for a new stick, and ended up with a towel caught on the blade, and couldn’t get away from the bench until somebody grabbed the towel. Meanwhile, Whitney played the entire game with a bizzaro stick. Pucks were bouncing around, over, and off his blade with random results.

This game had a lot more 5-on-5 action, so there was a much better flow. The Pens killed a Jarkko Ruutu hooking call, then Carolina killed an interference penalty to Brett Hedican, and we were back to 5-on-5 again, where the bounces started getting a little goofy. Sarge’s bad day continued, when he blew a tire while attempting to clear a puck to the back boards, and he ended up shooting the puck directly at Sabourin. Fortunately, it was a weak backhand that Sabu was able to steer aside easily. Carolina had the momentum through this long stretch of play, and the weird bounces went on for quite a long time until Sabu finally froze the puck. After the TV timeout, the Pens got their bearings again.

The Pens finally got the equalizer at 18:58, as Petr Sykora chipped in a rebound off a wrap-around attempt by Sidney Crosby. It was his 250th career goal.

Erik Cole picked up a late hooking call, and the Pens started the second with a little over a minute of power play time. They added four seconds of 5-on-3 when Hedican was tagged for tripping. Erik Christensen, for the second straight game, missed a slam-dunk rebound, but the second PP unit was strong. Cam Ward hung tough and weathered the storm.

Then the Pens screwed up a line change, giving Carolina a 3-on-1 break. Sabourin scrambled, but Trevor Letowski managed to score on a wrist shot before the Pens’ defense could get back. 2-1 Canes.

During the next TV timeout, the Pens PA announcer acknowledged Canes assistant GM and former Penguin Ron Francis, and congratulated him on his upcoming Hall Of Fame induction, which brought a standing ovation from the standing-room-only crowd.

After killing yet another Ruutu penalty, the Pens had a 3-on-1 break of their own, but Evgeni Malkin’s pass through the slot was somehow deflected harmlessly to the corner.

About halfway through a Commodore throwing-the-puck call, Mark Recchi was dinged for goaltender interference, setting up the most bizarre moment of the night. With the puck entering the Carolina zone, a referee whistled the play dead for too many men on the ice. Oh, no, not again. The ref didn’t point at a specific bench and both teams though the call was on them. My best guess is that the ref lost track of who coming out of the penalty box first, Commodore or Recchi. They eventually got everything straightened out, and reversed the call, but for a moment there, it looked like we were going to get a repeat of Wednesday night.

Not long after that, we got a repeat of something else entirely: soft goaltending. Justin Williams carried the puck into the zone 1-on-2, and fired a quick wrist shot that fooled Sabourin. 3-1 Canes.

Then a scary moment. On his way back to the bench, Carolina winger Scott Walker suddenly dropped to his knees. He was involved in a collision with Ruutu earlier in the period, but didn’t seem to be suffering any ill effects until he collapsed. They brought out a stretcher for him, but he was able to skate to the locker room with assistance. After the game, the Hurricanes described it only as a “torso injury,” and that he was released from the hospital and joined the team for their flight to Philadelphia.

This turned out to be ominous for Carolina, as it completely stopped their momentum. The Penguins fourth line came through with a tough goal, with Adam Hall picking up his first goal as a Penguin on a Ruutu rebound.

Then the Pens got a late period 5-on-3. With Commodore and Brind’Amour in the box, Sykora did what the Penguins have done well so far this season: banged home a rebound, this time on a Gonchar slapshot, at 19:54. The Pens entered the third period tied 3-3.

The third was good back and forth hockey, with one power play for each team. Sabourin settled down after that Williams goal, and Ward continued to stand tall. The highlight of the OT third was Sid, but it wasn’t a goal. Charging to the net right-to-left, Crosby launched himself into the air, tucked his knees into his chest, and cleared the entire crease, Ward included, before making a rolling landing into the corner. No goals, so we go to overtime, which was more of the same, but with two fewer skaters.

Shootout!

  • Christensen gets Ward to commit to his left, and scores on a wrist shot.
  • Cullen slows as he gets to the slot, gets Sabourin to commit to his left, and scores on a wrist shot.
  • Sykora fakes Ward out with the forehand-backhand, and scores.
  • Jeff Hamilton fakes Sabourin out with the forehand-backhand, and scores.
  • Crosby fakes Ward almost entirely out of the crease with a sick move, and scores an easy wrister.
  • Ray Whitney realizes that he can’t copycat Sid’s moves, and just goes for a straight-in wrist shot, which Sabourin easily gloves to win the game for the Pens.

Final Score: Penguins 4, Hurricanes 3 (SO), number of games Alain Nasreddine has been a healthy scratch this season: 4. The other two were a “conditioning assignment” in Wilkes-Barre. Since when did rust count as requiring “conditioning?”

Three Stars:

  1. Petr Sykora (2G, 1 SOG, 250th NHL goal)
  2. Sidney Crosby (2A, 1 SOG)
  3. Justin Williams (1G, 1A)

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Pens vs. Devils: 17 October 2007

You'd think, with the unbalanced schedule, that the Penguins would have played a division game by now. The NHL's scheduling computer operates on some complex calculus that mere mortals can't possibly understand, however. Thus, we get only two Atlantic Division games in October, but burn off two Western Conference games, and both Montreal home dates, in the first month of the season.

In hindsight, the tone was set before the teams even took the ice. Mellon Arena's crappy sound system was acting up again, and PA announcer John Barbaro's voice was creating tons of feedback. He got through the Devils starters and the scratches before stopping to give the audio engineers a chance to figure things out. As a result, he ran out of time to announce the referees, linesmen, and off-ice officials before the intro video started.

I think they were offended.

Right off the opening faceoff, Gary Roberts and David Clarkson got into a scuffle near the benches. Clarkson dropped his gloves, which should have earned him an unsportsmanlike conduct call, but the refs let it slide. In fact, the refs were letting things slide for most of the first period. The first penalty wasn't called until 16:28.

Most of the first looked like typical Penguins hockey: Soft defense and big rebounds from Marc-Andre Fleury. Meanwhile, New Jersey was (you might want to be sitting down for this) attacking! Instead of numbing teams to death with The Trap, new coach Brent Sutter has the Devils playing a more aggressive, up-tempo game.

You see where this is headed, don't you? Two goals by New Jersey before the period's half done.

First, Jay Pandolfo wristed home a rebound to make it 1-0 Devils. Fleury was down to his right to stop a wrap-around attempt, and made it across to the opposite post while the puck was bouncing around in the slot, but didn't get up in time to stop Pandolfo from roofing it.

About three minutes later, the Devils got a slow, awkward 2-on-1, and Clarkson fed John Madden for a slap shot that made it 2-0.

Then the most famous facial hair in Pittsburgh made its presence felt. The Pens battled through the neutral zone, and Ryan Whitney gained the blue line, slowed to look for options, and saw Max Talbot driving the net through the left circle. Whitney threaded a perfect pass onto Max's tape for an easy tip-in behind Martin Brodeur. 2-1 Devils.

Not long after, Danius Zubrus was called for slashing, and the Pens power play went to… um, we are on a power play, right? The first unit didn't seem to think so. After a minute of sloppy puck control, Coach Therrien sent the second unit over the boards, and they got the job done. Petr Sykora set up Sergei Gonchar for a blast from the center point, and Roberts deflected it home to tie the game 2-2. A late penalty on Madden gave the Pens most of a power play to start the second.

The first PP unit got straightened out. Evgeni Malkin dished it Sidney Crosby at the right point. Crosby then demonstrated how difficult it is to knock him off the puck, as he skated along the boards, behind the net, and all the way to the left half-boards, before he passed it to Gonchar at the center point again. No deflection necessary this time, and the Pens have a 3-2 lead.

At this point, the Pens were starting to look good. They had some good cycles in the Devils' zone, and Fleury seemed to be settling down. Then Jarkko Ruutu got a reputation call for hooking. Talbot had a good breakaway chance on the penalty kill, but his backhand shot was easily stopped by Brodeur.

Then Sydor got called for hooking just after the Ruutu penalty expired. Seems that the refs had made some adjustments in the locker room, too, and started calling things tighter, right? Travis Zajac converted on the Sydor penalty with a sharp-angle wrist shot over Fleury's glove hand to tie it again, 3-3.

And then things started to go downhill.

Another tight hooking call, this one on Sykora, killed a breakaway chance for Sid. The Pens killed that penalty, then went right back to the box again, as Recchi was called for a ticky-tack holding call on a hit that looked like it would have started a good forecheck. The Pens killed that one, too.

Then somebody greased the skids.

A nice lead pass by Brooks Orpik sprung Malkin and Jordan Staal on a two-man breakaway during a line change. Behind the play, a scrum developed in front of the benches. With the line change in progress, both teams ended up with too many men on the ice. By most counts, the Pens and Devils each had at least 7 skaters on the ice. A linesman can whistle a play dead for too many men, but they were tied up in the scrum. No on-ice official made a move to stop play before Malkin beat Brodeur to make it 4-3 Pens. No, scratch that.

The refs made two bone-headed decisions. First, they retroactively called the play dead before the goal was scored. A referee has the ability to call a play dead if, for example, the puck crosses the goal line as he's raising his whistle to his mouth. That's a fair cop. Who wants a hockey game to be decided by the reaction time of a ref's whistle hand? But you can't tell me that the three or four seconds it took for the play away from the bench to develop counts as "reaction time."  How far back can a ref go before deciding, "Yeah, I should have blown the play dead there"? Then, to compound the error, they only called too many men on the Penguins!

By the way, did I mention that the scrum started because Sid was face-washed down to the ice, in full view of every human being not wearing an orange armband, and no penalty was called.

Therrien couldn't really argue with the refs because 16,990 paying customers were booing at the tops of their lungs. For the entire TV timeout that followed. I couldn't begin to tell you what the trivia challenge was that night because every time they turned up poor Val Porter's mic so she could be heard over the boos, the boos just got louder.

The Pens had almost killed the penalty when the refs struck again. With three seconds left on the too-many-men minor, two things happened simultaneously:

  1. Max Talbot took a high stick to the face
  2. Sergei Gonchar tapped somebody on the leg with his stick.

Pittsburgh penalty, number 55, Sergei Gonchar, two minutes for hooking.

More screaming from the Mellon Arena faithful.

It looked like Sykora, who had been serving the bench minor, would save the day. He picked up the puck in the neutral zone as he exited the penalty box, and got another breakaway chance on Brodeur, but his wrist shot was gloved down.

On the ensuing faceoff, New Jersey had six skaters on the ice as the linesman was ready to drop the puck. Instead of calling a too many men or delay of game penalty, the refs allowed the extra skater to return to the bench. The last three fans who didn't think the Pens were getting screwed finally conceded.

Rock bottom came at 14:48 of the second.

With the Devils collapsing around the net, Brian Gionta crashes into Fleury, then Whitney crashes into Gionta. Gionta figures that the best way to get up from the fall is to push himself up from Fleury's chest. Meanwhile, Fleury, pinned to the ice by an opposing player, is in no position to find the puck. It's loose in the crease and in full view of the ref, who is so intent on the puck, that he doesn't see that Gionta is on top of Fleury, just a few millimeters to the left of the puck. Zajac pokes it home to make the score 4-3 Devils.

Fleury snaps.

As soon as he's free of the dogpile he was at the bottom of, he jumps up, throws the net off its moorings, and charges the ref who called the goal. The linesmen have to jump in to restrain him.

Michel Therrien snaps.

He's at the front of the bench, door open, screaming at anybody and everybody in black and white stripes.

Mellon Arena snaps.

Beers, programs, obscenities, and promotional mouse pads come raining down onto the ice.

In 2:24 of game time, the referees went from merely calling a bad game to losing all control of the game. In the end, Devils defenseman Andy Greene may have stopped a full-scale riot. By committing a puck-over-glass delay of game penalty, he forced the officials to give Pittsburgh a power play and settle the crowd down a little bit. Erik Christensen had a beautiful chance at a rebound with Brodeur out to dry, but he whiffed on the shot. The Devils were able to kill the penalty.

Then the refs, desperate to call some even-up penalties, gave the Pens about a minute and a half of 5-on-3 time after calling minors on Zach Parise and Paul Martin. Malkin punched in a close-range slapper to tie the game at 4-4.

Then Malone snapped.

With less than thirty seconds left in the period, he got caught for holding. He had picked up the puck to give it to the linesman before realizing that he was the one being called. Once he found that out, he spiked the puck at the referee's feet. In a rare moment of wisdom, the ref let that go. But Malone wouldn't stop barking on his way to the box and, as the ref was signaling the holding call to the penalty timekeeper, Ryan slammed his stick into the glass next to the penalty box door. That was the last straw, and he picked up an extra unsportsmanlike conduct minor. That gave New Jersey 3½ minutes of power play time to being the third.

Mercifully for the fans, the refs swallowed their whistles for the third. Unfortunately, that brought the Pens right back to the way they were playing in the first: Soft defense and big rebounds from Marc-Andre Fleury. Malkin was threading needles with his passes, and Sid was channeling his frustration into furiously intense play, but when they weren't on the ice, New Jersey had the upper hand.

Pittsburgh's defense finally broke at 10:38, when Aaron Asham snuck through the back door behind Orpik, and tapped home a pass from Parise. 5-4 Devils, and The Trap is now in effect.

Wait, did I say that the refs swallowed their whistles? I spoke too soon. Sid hammered somebody with a clean, hard shoulder check, and a ref immediately put his hand up and signaled… tripping?! Here come the mouse pads again – wait, Asham just went after Crosby and took a retaliation call. Never mind. Roberts and Asham squared off in the scrum, and the whole thing ended up a wash. Crosby and Roberts, two each, Asham, four, all for roughing.

By the way, did I mention that this was a national game on TSN?

With Fleury pulled for a sixth attacker, a linesman gives us one last twist of the knife with a questionable, and very late, offside call on a rush.

Final Score: Devils 5, Penguins 4, coefficient of drag of a mouse pad thrown by a drunken, angry hockey fan: 0.89.

Three Stars:

  1. Travis Zajac (2G)
  2. Sergei Gonchar (1G, 1A)
  3. Zach Parise (3A)

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Pens vs. Canadiens: 10 October 2007

The Penguins played two half-games tonight. One looked good, the other was a mess.

Both teams started out looking like good technical boxers: Testing each other with jabs and combinations, but nobody could land a power punch. The Pens relied on solid defensive play, holding the Habs to 5 shots. Pittsburgh mustered only 9 shots, and failed to capitalize on two power plays. Still, they forced some big saves from Carey Price in his first NHL start. Scoreless after one period.

The second period started out tilting the Pens’ way. Ryan Whitney finally broke the seal at 7:08. Andrei Markov was in the box for giving Sidney Crosby a two-handed shove in the back. Sid sent a pass to Mark Recchi, then drove to the net. Price made the save on Recchi as Crosby arrived at the right post. He was right on top of Price when Roman Hamrlik shoved him from behind. Crosby landed on top of Price, the refs let play continue because Hamrlik initiated the contact, and Whitney had an easy shot at the rebound from the left circle. 1-0 Pens, as Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau lobbied in vain for an interference call.

Then the Good Pens snuck away during a TV timeout, and the Bad Pens arrived.

For the rest of the game, the Pens looked clumsy and out-of-sync. At 13:07, with Darryl Sydor in the box for hooking, Markov threaded a circle-to-circle pass to Tomas Plekanec, who whistled a shot by Marc-Andre Fleury’s left ear to tie the game at 1-1. Four minutes later, after the Pens lost a faceoff outside their blue line, Plekanec hit Alexei Kovalev with a lead pass, and Kovy snuck a wrist shot under Fleury’s right elbow to give the Canadiens a 2-1 lead.

As the third period started, it looked like the Penguins were pretty much winging it on the ice. I don’t think anybody knew, once they had moved the puck, what to do next. Instead of following a game plan, they were making it up as they went. Fleury was holding the fort as best he could, but a juicy rebound for Markov made it 3-1 less than three minutes into the period. Less than a minute later, though, a little bit of that improvisation paid off, as Evgeni Malkin threw a no-look backhand pass from behind the net to Maxime Talbot in the left circle. Max one-timed it home to close to 3-2.

Not even a big hit could snap the Pens out of their daze. About halfway through the third, Brooks Orpik grazed Andrei Kostitsyn with a shoulder check in the corner, then Gary Roberts came streaking in to finish the job. The standing-room-only crowd roared to life, but the Penguins players didn’t seem to respond in kind. We were right back where we were before the hit: Fleury making big saves behind the Keystone Kops.

A late goalie-pulled rush was undone by a questionable call by the refs with about 15 seconds left on the clock. Malkin, charging the net, simultaneously lost the puck and got tripped up by a Canadiens defenseman. Malkin fell to the ice and plowed into the net, taking Price with him. The referee must have missed the trip, and ruled that Malkin’s momentum knocked the net off, forcing the faceoff to the neutral zone.

Final Score: Canadiens 3, Penguins 2, number of times Iceburgh tried to start a “Let’s Go Pens!” chant with his new drum: 1. Sorry, bird, but it ain’t workin’.

Three Stars:

  1. Andrei Markov (1G, 1A)
  2. Carey Price (26 saves)
  3. Mark Recchi (2A)

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Pens vs. Ducks: 6 October 2007

Ah, it’s good to be back.

The Pens kept the Opening Night festivities simple this year. No Morgan Freeman impersonators, no live penguins, just music videos. “Beautiful Day” + pictures of Pittsburgh skyline = good. National Anthem – Jeff Jimerson = bad. Nothing against the guest singer from the Civic Light Opera, but Jeff is the man.

The starting lineup for the Pens was Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, Brooks Orpik and Ryan Whitney on defense, and a front line of Petr Sykora, Sidney Crosby, and Jordan Staal. Before the night ended, Ryan Malone landed on Crosby’s line, and Sykora was paired with Evgeni Malkin. Anybody who expected Michel Therrien to stick with a line doesn’t know him very well.

But, as the results indicate, there’s a method to Therrien’s madness.

The refs were in mid-season form, handling this game with an utterly baffling standard of what constituted a foul. So, of course, Anaheim got on the board first on a power play.  With Malone in the box for a holding the stick call that easily could have been called both ways, Chris Kunitz beat Fleury. 1-0 Ducks. And, of course, the Penguins tied the game on a power play, as Sykora jammed home a Gary Roberts rebound. 1-1 after 1.

Ryan Getzlaf got a quick goal to start the second. 2-1 Anaheim before anybody could get back to their seats with their nachos. But two goals, 20 seconds apart, but the Penguins ahead. First, Colby Armstrong gave us the first “Holy crap!” goal of the year. (Admit it, you had Crosby or Malkin in your pool.) Colby took a pass from Roberts at the blue line, flipped the puck around Maxim Kondratiev’s back, put a leaning spin move on Kondratiev, and as he was being grabbed, chipped a shot over Jonas Hiller’s shoulder.

Off the next face off, Malkin and Sykora’s aggressive forechecking set up a little give-and-go, as Malkin, pressuring the Ducks behind the net, found Sykora in the right circle, then skated to the opposite post. Sykora skated free of his man and put a perfect pass on Geno’s tape for an easy tap-in. Just like that, it’s 3-2 Pens.

The rest of the second period was an uneasy ebb and flow, as the dog-tired-after-a-trip-to-London Ducks and the not-quite-in-sync Pens exchanged shifts of offensive pressure. Once the third period started, though, you could see the Ducks run out of collective steam. There was still room for an individual spark, though. Kunitz got a short-handed goal, with a little help from Sergei Gonchar (delayed hooking penalty) and Fleury (ill-advised poke check attempt).

Then the Pens decided that it was time for another Two Goal Quick Strike trick. First, Sykora got his second of the night, mucking in front of the net again after a shot by Georges Laraque. Nineteen seconds later, Sidney Crosby, hobbled earlier in the game by a Francois Beauchemin slapshot to the foot, chipped a pass to a wide open Ryan Malone, who buried a rifle shot behind Hiller. 5-3 Pens.

After that, the Pittsburgh defense went on lock-down. Anaheim only mustered 5 shots on goal in the 3rd. Corey Perry still made the yinzer faithful sweat a bit with a goal after Hiller was pulled for a 6th attacker, but Fleury held his ground for one last rush.

In the end, the line shuffling worked. With Crosby feeling the after effects of that slapshot, Malone was able to switch that line from scoring to grinding. Meanwhile, Malkin and Sykora just clicked. That may screw up Therrien's plan to put Sykora and Crosby together.

Meanwhile, the blue line is a mystery. Gonchar is off to his typical slow start, but Mark Eaton has been picking up as much slack as he can. The combo of Daryl Sydor and Rob Scuderi looks shaky. Meanwhile, Whitney was Whitney, and Orpik led the team in ice time, hit everything in a white jersey, with malice, and finished the game +1.

Final score: Penguins 5, Ducks 4, attendance: 17,132. Count on hearing that number a lot this season.

Three Stars:

  1. Petr Sykora (2G, 1A)
  2. Colby Armstrong (1 jaw-dropping G)
  3. Chris Kunitz (2G, 1A)

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Puttin’ On The Foil: Predictions for the 07-08 Season

During the struggle, they will pull us down
But please, please, let’s use this chance to turn things around
And tonight, we can truly say
Together, we’re invincible

“Invincible”, Muse

Everybody’s doin’ the Bucci! Why not me?

The NHL season begins in earnest tonight, after the Kings and Ducks split a “home-and-home” 8 time zones away from home over the weekend. Doesn’t quite have the same impact as the 15-game “big bang” opening night two years ago, does it?

Once again, it’s time to sharpen the skates, tape up the sticks, put on the foil, and hit the ice. It’s also time for hack columnists to blow the dust off their Big Book of Hockey Clichés, for ESPN to bury the highlights at the end of SportsCenter, and for an endless barrage of “hoc-key?” jokes.

We know better, of course. We know that what we have, while it’s not perfect, is way better than everybody else thinks it is. All we need is a chance to show them what they’re missing.

If the Kings/Ducks London games didn’t give me any unfair insight into how this season will unfold, I doubt the Ducks/Red Wings game I’ll be watching will either, but it will put me in the right frame of mind to foolishly attempt to prognosticate the end result of 2,460 games worth of regular season.

Oh, and I’ll go ahead and throw in a quickie assessment of each team’s new uniforms while I’m at it.

East

Draft-ready

Boston: I think the Bruins figured poaching a player from Minnesota was some kind of magic bullet. Look at how David Ortiz worked out for the Red Sox. Randy Moss is back in his Vikings-era prime after an exile to Oakland. And the arrival of Kevin Garnett has the Celtics faithful more energized that any pre-season in recent memory. Anybody here think Manny Fernandez will have that kind of impact for the B’s? Didn’t think so. (Uniforms: Beautiful, classic look.)

Atlanta: I think they’re going to back-slide from last year, when they fell up to the Southeast title. (Uniforms: They kept the one thing nobody liked: The numberless “ATLANTA” sleeve on the home blues.)

NY Islanders: They couldn’t keep rent-a-leader Ryan Smyth. They couldn’t keep Jason Blake. But they still have 14 years to go on Rick DiPietro’s contract. Good luck with that. (Uniforms: Blue-trimmed traffic cones. Eyesores.)

In The Hunt

Florida: An example of addition by front-office subtraction. They’ll be better if only because former GM Mike Keenan is no longer associated with the franchise. The acquisition of Tomas Vokoun from Nashville will help ease the pain of trading away Roberto Luongo before last season. (Uniforms: The sleeve stripes need to go all the way around, guys. Ruins an otherwise good design.)

Philadelphia: The Flyers can’t help but be an improved team after leaving a smoking crater in Philadelphia last year. Daniel Briere alone can push them near the playoffs, and the brace of young players picked up from Nashville will add some of the speed the Flyers lacked last year. They still need a season to pull it all together, though. (Uniforms: The road whites look like wife-beaters.)

Tampa: For as great as Vincent LeCavalier and Martin St. Louis are together, they can’t make up for the goaltending duo of Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist. (Uniforms: Cleaner logo, similar design, and they kept the armpit “victory” stripes. Not bad.)

Toronto: The make-up of this year’s Leafs squad won’t allow them to do much more than hang around all season. (Uniforms: The definition of “plain.”)

Playoff Bound

Buffalo: The Sabres are hoping that they have enough scoring depth to make up for the loss of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury in free agency. They’ll be banking on Thomas Vanek to make up most of the difference. He’s making up plenty of the payroll, thanks to the offer sheet from Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe. (Uniforms: Same as last year, which means ugly.)

Carolina: The Southeast isn’t known for producing powerhouse teams. In this division, it’s more about consistency than domination. I think the Hurricanes will be the least inconsistent of the lot. (Uniforms: A tweak of the old design. Nicely done.)

Montreal: Every season, there’s a team that’s so full of youthful exuberance, they can make the playoffs on energy alone. Montreal can be that team. Top-tier goalie prospect Carey Price will start the year with the Habs, and could get a shot if Cristobal Huet’s hamstring troubles come back. (Uniforms: Exactly what you would expect them to be.)

New Jersey: Brent Sutter is the new replaceable part on the Devils bench. Martin Brodeur is Martin Brodeur. That’s the good news. Scott Gomez is a Blue-shirt. Brian Rafalski is a Red Wing. That’s very bad news. They’ll make the playoffs, as they do every year. But will they sell out the new Prudential Center? (Uniforms: Same as last year. Same as every year since they dropped the Christmas green.)

Washington: Yeah, I said it. With Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov, and first round draft pick Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps are building the supporting cast Alexander Ovechkin needs to lead them back to the ranks of the elite. (Uniforms: Red, white, and blue good. Vertical piping bad.)

The Contenders

NY Rangers: “The best defense is a good offense,” as the saying goes. For the boys from Manhattan, it had better be. The Rangers did nothing to improve their blue line, but adding Gomez and Drury to an already potent scoring attack will put them right on the brink. Look for Henrik Lundqvist to have a breakout season. (Uniforms: Another Original Six team holds to tradition.)

Ottawa: There was nothing wrong with the roster for the Senators last year. Their ultimate failing in the Finals was about experience and heart, not matchups. They’ll learn from that, and be right back at the top of the league again. (Uniforms: Sharper logo, lots and lots of red, nice typography.)

Pittsburgh: Last year, the Pens broke out, as their young superstars accelerated their progress. This year, the expectations are far higher, and that may mean a rougher go through the regular season. The team’s leadership, young and old, will lift them to the top of the conference. (Uniforms: Growing on me. The home blacks look intimidating, emphasizing the shoulders. Odd stripes on the pants, though.)

West

Draft-ready

Columbus: Ken Hitchcock is an excellent teacher. He’ll coach this team farther than most people will expect them to go. But for every star like Rick Nash, there’s an utter enigma like Nikolai Zherdev. They still have too much building to do. (Uniforms: Last year’s thirds, without the black, and with the flying Ohio flag logo in place of that lame CBJ monogram. Nice.)

Edmonton: No more Smyth, one year after “No more Pronger.” The future begins now, as the team rebuilds around top draft pick Sam Gagner. (Uniforms: More like practice jerseys, but with Florida’s half-way sleeve stripes. Ugh.)

Los Angeles: Jason LaBarbara and eighteen year old Jonathan Bernier. That’s the goaltending tandem this year for the Kings. They probably bottomed out last year. Their youth movement, led by Anze Kopitar, Jack Johnson, and Alexander Frolov, needs another year or so before they’ll contend again. (Uniforms: Close to last year, complete with wordmark hem “stripe.”)

Phoenix: Their roster looks like a Who’s Who of NHL Castoffs. Look for them to hit rock bottom this year. (Uniforms: The one thing the Desert Dogs have going for them. Clean, simple.)

In The Hunt

Chicago: Another Central team banking on youth, especially Jonathan Toews and overall #1 draft pick Patrick Kane. Unlike the Blues, the Blackhawks will rise and fall on the goaltending of Nikolai Khabibulin and Patrick Lalime. (Uniforms: Why mess with perfection?)

St. Louis: The Blues have an intriguing mix of young guns with potential (Lee Stempniak, Erik Johnson, Hannu Toivonen) and cagey veterans (Keith Tkachuk, Paul Kariya, Doug Weight). They’ll only go as far as the young guns will take them, though. They’re still missing pieces here and there. (Uniforms: Unremarkably modern.)

Vancouver: Roberto Luongo has gone from playing behind a team with no defense in Florida to a team with no offense in Vancouver. The Canucks did nothing to improve their scoring depth, so it’s up to the Sedin twins to carry the team. British Columbia is in for a rude awakening. (Uniforms: VANCOUVER! I like the return to blue and green, but the text above the crest is a step too far.)

Playoff Bound

Calgary: If nothing else, Iron Mike Keenan will put a halt to the ugly play we saw in last year’s playoffs. And Miikka Kiprusoff will improve anybody’s chances. (Uniforms: They still insist on the infamous Black C. The Alberta flag shoulder patch, patriotic as it is, clashes horribly.)

Colorado: Don’t call it a comeback. Call it a team that can rally around Smytty and Joe Sakic with rising stars like Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski. Their Achilles heel may be goaltending, with Jose Theodore looking like a bust, and Peter Budaj yet to prove himself over a full season. (Uniforms: Where are the mountain range hem stripes?)

Dallas: The Stars just keep rollin’ along, year after year, the very model of consistency. (Uniforms: I’ll go out on a limb and say I like the college-inspired home jerseys, with the “Dallas” text and the number beneath.)

Minnesota: Surprise! The Wild could easily bore teams into giving them 100 points, but they’re more balanced than their reputation would indicate. Besides, if I don’t say that, Derek Boogaard will hunt me down and kill me. (Uniforms: The old third is the new home, which is nice, but they kept the old roads. I was hoping they’d adapt the home design.)

Nashville: The ownership instability during this off season caused a bit of a fire sale, so the Predators will go back to being the first team that’s not Detroit in the Central. (Uniforms: Too much piping, but the lack of hideous mustard yellow is a welcome development.)

The Contenders

Anaheim: You don’t ever count out the defending Stanley Cup champions. As much as I like Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer, I’m almost hoping they don’t come back, because this team can learn to win without them. The Ducks won’t be quite as strong as last year, but Ilya Bryzgalov can hold the fort until Jean-Sebastien Giguere is healthy. (Uniforms: The hem stripes don’t wrap all the way around. They break under the arms. Odd, but probably necessary with all the seams in the new cut.)

Detroit: The Wings just keep making smart moves to bolster their lineup, like signing Brian Rafalski. They’re also well stocked with players who redefine “ageless”: Chelios, Hasek, Lidstrom, Holmstrom, Maltby, and Draper. (Uniforms: Classic.)

San Jose: The Sharks have three pretty good lines. They also have a line of Jonathan Cheechoo, Joe Thornton, and… well, does it really matter? The Sharks’ balanced game plan keeps getting better every year, and Evgeni Nabokov and Dmitri Patzold continue the tradition of solid, deep goaltending. (Uniforms: The new logo and orange accents look great, and the new design is timeless when everybody else went for fancy.)

Playoffs

East: Pittsburgh over Ottawa

West: San Jose over Detroit

Stanley Cup: Pittsburgh over San Jose. Not that I’m a homer or anything.

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ESPN: The Worldwide Leader In Confirmation Bias

(h/t: Eric at Off Wing Opinion)

If you're like me, and you watch ESPN's hockey coverage with a mix of shock, disappointment, and simmering rage, there's good news. Jason Chung, writing for the Harvard Law School's Project on Law and Mind Sciences blog, The Situationist, has backed up our armchair media criticism:

To make matters worse, such informational social influence can translate into normative social influence, which is born of the need to “conform to the rules of other people.” If it seems that a growing number of people dislike hockey or that being a hockey fan exposes one to ridicule, many will hide, ignore, or lose their affection for hockey.

Thus, [ESPN]’s negative portrayal of hockey is very likely causing a profound two-fold effect on the viewing public by prejudicing their perception of the facts and by affecting their feelings for the game.

Of course, you can see this in action with ESPN's self-aggrandizing events of the moment: The ESPY Awards, and the "Who's Now" bracket.

The ESPYs are the network's annual "best reasons to watch Sportscenter religiously" awards. With categories like Best Male Athlete, Best Team, Best Game, Best Finish, and Best Play, there are plenty of opportunities for nominations from the NHL, right?

Wrong.

Not a single NHL player, team, or game was nominated in any of those categories. There is a Best NHL Player award, as there are for the other major sports, but that's it.

The Who's Now promotion pits 32 athletes in a bracket-style "tournament", broken down into four "regions", with the goal of finding the "hottest" athlete. Since celebrity and endorsements count as much as on-the-field achievements, it's obvious that ESPN is seeking to justify the fawning coverage they've already given to many of these jocks.

Sidney Crosby is the only NHL player in the field, seeded seventh in his region, and facing Derek Jeter in the first round. The 7-seed is insulting on its face, but a match-up with a media darling like Jeter in the first round? I'd say ESPN was intentionally trying to eliminate Sid in the first round, just so they'd have something to point to the next time someone calls them out on their anti-hockey bias.

Out of sight, out of mind. That's how ESPN covers hockey.

P.S.: Don't think you're off the hook, Sports Illustrated. Explain to me why your cover story, after the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup, was Yet Another New York Baseball Team, not the champion of one of the four major leagues in North America?

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