New arena, new home for “Destiny,” new acquisitions and high expecations.
Any why not? For the first time in three seasons, the Penguins got a good chunk of summer to rest and recuperate having left the previous post-season early thanks to Montreal.
Pre-season seemed to uphold the excitement of all of the above. The Pens had a winning record with commanding leads and goal-scoring. On the ice, they looked incredibly faster, and they carried themselves like a disciplined team, and Marc-Andre Fleury looked sharp and unstoppable. The only real blemish was Jordan Staal’s delay from foot surgery.
Since pre-season: nothing but adversity.
Let’s just get this one out of the way. For anyone who knows and understands this position, it is by far the hardest position. It is the most psychologically difficult–the hero if the team wins, the immediate goat if the team doesn’t. That’s not to say it’s never the goalie’s fault, and Marc-Andre Fleury has not helped his cause for sure. However, there are rotating doses of five other guys on the ice in front of him, and all are responsible for minimizing situations that make their goalie the last man standing. Those five have a cushion that allows them some latitude if they make a mistake that often does not cause a goal. The goalie makes a mistake, it’s more often than not a goal. He protects a 4- by-6 space and is expected to do so with reflexes taking him from 0-60 in a micro-second. He cannot afford to lose focus for one second. He has, more than anyone else, the curse of physics working against him. That curse is what NHL scorers practice every day of their lives, how to get him to move in one direction so that they can score in the other, how to work angles upon angles, how to provide screens and tip in redirections.
Is there a controversy? Between Marc-Andre Fleury who holds a mind-numbing 1-6 record with an anemic .853 save percentage and an astounding 3.55 goals against average and back-up Brent Johnson who holds a reverse image of a 6-1-1 record with an impressive .943 save precentage and a 1.63 goals against average, their play is certainly forcing the issue. Coach Dan Bylsma does not make the supposed controversy go away either with the way he has been playing or not playing them, and his quick yanking of Fleury after only 6:56 in the net against Phoenix last night does not inspire confidence. Confidence needs to be inspired. Fleury needs to work on staying focused and talking more to his defensemen, and he needs to work through this rough stretch by staying in the net and starting games. On top of that, there are 18 other guys who need to collectively get their heads out of wherever they have them and do more to help the guy (whoever he is) between the pipes. When Fleury is forced to stay deep in his net for long periods of time, that means the guys in front of him are not doing their jobs keeping the space clear, allowing him to get out and cut off the angle, increasing the chances of making the save. Physics again.
Some question was raised in the off-season about how the exit of Bill Guerin would impact the team since, by virtue of his age and experience, he was considered a leader, someone Sid could lean on. One school of thought was that this was Sid’s team, and he was at a stage (with the help/tutelage of Guerin) to take the reins completely. Has he shown that readiness thus far? If not, how does he get on track? He says all the right things in the interviews, but on the ice, he has just seemed to melt into the group on the ice. Time and again, I find myself asking, is Sid out there? He seems rootless.
Evgeni Malkin has always given kudos to Sid for being able to handle all the responsibilities he has (i.e. interviews, engagements, PR) as a team captain, saying he’s more than happy to let his teammate do all that, but as both a star player and one of the guys on the team with the ”A” on his chest, his leadership is also expected. So far this season he has looked more like the super hero’s side-kick with insecurity issues. To his credit, Geno has reduced his penalty minutes and cut down on ill-advised blind drop passes to the opponent, but it’s not enough.
With every painful passing game of this season, the absence of Jordan Staal is felt more acutely. Not to take anything away from Sid as the captain, but Staal has emerged as the quiet leader, the still waters that run deep. He leads on the ice, end to end, and he is missed in every facet of the Penguins’ game right now. Think about it, he has been the anchor responsible for initiating the grinding cycles of his line wearing down opposing defenses that allowed Sid and Geno to work their scoring magic in the next shift. He has been the solid leader on the first penalty kill unit, triggering break-aways and impeding power-play set-ups, not to mention the occasional short-handed goal. He has proven to be the natural spark (and solution) for Geno, and once healthy as Geno’s center, the sky’s the limit. Offensively, his game has shown steady improvement from season to season, game to game, making him a standout two-way center. It has since come out that Staal was the first to tell it like it is in the locker room the night that Michel Therrien was ousted as coach.
Unforgivable Power Play
Lack of production on the Penguins’ power play may seem to defy logic, but broken down, it’s no surprise why prior to Friday night’s game they were a flatlining 0-25 on the PP. Really? Really? How does that happen with the kind of talent the Penguins have on the ice?
- Geno’s Not a Blueliner–Geno has never been comfortable at the point, so why try to turn a race horse into a cart horse? Why force that issue? With the abilities and sniper power of Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang, not to mention the prowess of Paul Martin, why put Geno in their place? Both Goligoski and Letang have proven they can handle the breakout and can shoot and score from along the top of their offensive zone. Turn them loose and let the other three guys crash the net for the garbage.
- Don’t Let Sid Be Pensive–Broken record time: a Sidney Crosby with the puck anywhere above the face-off dots is a wasted Sidney Crosby. It is inconceivable STILL why Sid is not consistently put in the narrow space to roam along the goal line and in front of the net, buzzing the goalie. As the guy with the best hands on the team, that is exactly where he should be with the other four guys slinging shots on net. If Sid roams out to that right dot and above, he gets the puck and starts thinking about it, slowing the momentum, negating the curse of physics. Goligoski had been originally placed as the rover, but lately, Sid has been put in there, and it has worked. Rooting Kunitz in front of the net along with Sid roving is what created the power play goal that broke that horrible 0% in 25 opportunities.
- Shoot the Damn Puck–It’s such a simple saying, “You can’t score if you don’t shoot,” and the Pens do not shoot nearly enough. They’ve had fits and spurts of it, but right now, teams are licking their chops when they go on the PK against the Pens’ because right now, it serves as no deterrent to stop shenanigans by the other team. One could play the Blue Danube Waltz while the Penguins run their power play and lull the whole arena to sleep with all the passes. And then there are all those fake shots to freeze the defender. OK, fake shot QUICKLY and then pull the puck to the side and try a wrist shot for once instead of the big wind-up slap shot that pretty much telegraphs where the shot will go. These guys are strong enough and skilled enough to place some good wristers, a shot type that can mask the location of the puck on the net.
Are the Penguins doomed? Snakebit maybe. They have tendencies right now to put themselves in holes and make things more difficult than they have to be. They are managing to hover around .500. All is not lost, and it will be very interesting to see how this team looks once Staal comes back into the lineup. Mike Comrie needs to drop his role as the Invisible Man, and it couldn’t hurt to try Arron Asham in place of Pascal Dupuis on the top line with Sid. He’s gritty and can score. Nothing ventured…