As the Pittsburgh Steelers spiraled to a dismal eight-and-eight, leaving a huge gaping hole of “what to watch?” in the pro-sports world in Pittsburgh, hockey comes through with a 10-year deal, a micro-mini of a camp, and a speed-round of a schedule. This is the thoroughbred race kind of hockey season that may be the silver lining to all the bitterness and angst that has led up to this moment. Hockey is back, and it’s back big in Pittsburgh. The Penguins, once again, go the extra mile to please their fans, and I have to say, the concept of televising a full game-style scrimmage and free seats for those who could make it (and did) smacks of another cool tradition in the making. It would be nice to see this as an annual pre-pre-season game kick-off. Just my humble two-cents’ worth if anyone is listening.
Having all but worked through my seven stages of grief at the parting of Jordan Staal, I turned my sights to his “replacement” Brandon Sutter. I can’t help it…ever since Mark Messier, I’ve been a sucker for two-way, shut down kinds of centers who can score. I ‘d have loved to see Staal stay that extra year on his contract to see how playing with a healthy Sid and Geno worked out (much as Jordan admitted he had hoped to do), but what’s past is past. So, a full week of hockey has already come and gone, and what do we have? Two quick wins with lots of goals, none of which were produced by Sid or Geno, and…well, two embarrassing losses with goals scored by the duo. Did anyone see that coming?
What Looks Promising
- James Neal seemed completely at ease and unleashed, happy to have Geno back and a big body like Eric Tangradi to throw his weight around. I keep pulling for Tangradi, but it always feels like he can never get over that hill to feel comfortable at this level and his demotion to the 4th line in favor of Tyler Kennedy’s promotion to the 2nd line is the right move for now.
- Blue-liners scoring – Paul Martin opened the scoring for the season against the Philadelphia Flyers with, of all things, a power play goal off a Matt Niskanen feed that he got from Sutter. In the 6-3 win over the New York Rangers, Niskanen took a turn followed by the capper of the evening, a Kris Letang’s empty netter. The Pens defense, in all four games, have been taking more offensive opportunities from the blue line with blistering slap shots and whipping wristers. What is good about this, especially with this crew, is that such shots that get in and around the goal make perfect “garbage” for the forwards to put in behind opposing goalies.
- The new philosophy of putting Sid on the ice of the last 30-40 seconds of a penalty kill is not a bad idea. He’s the kind of player that really relishes break-away chances, and while it hasn’t happened yet on the penalty kill, it will, and the short-handed goals should begin to accumulate. That was Jordan Staal’s territory, and it’s going to take a little more time before it’s known that Sutter can/will do it with any frequency. Until then, Sid is a good bet.
- Goaltending was strengthened by the acquisition of Tomas Vokoun. With the shortened season, it’s looking like he and Marc-Andre Fleury will just about trade off nights evenly, leaving Fleury sharp and Vokoun ready. Both have been impressive except for a few nailbiting moments when they would go behind the net and signals got crossed with defensemen. This should improve. Both are seeing the puck well and playing their angles efficiently, in many cases saving the team from costly mistakes during defensive breakdowns.
What Raises Concern
- After hearing about Geno’s success in the KHL while awaiting the NHL, one would think of all the Penguins he would be simply hitting the ground running, just in a different time zone. He’s been wracking up the assists, but by the third game, which was the first loss, Geno started to lapse into his perennial bad habits: east-west passes through traffic and blind drop-offs at the offensive zone blue line, giving the Toronto Maple Leafs ample scoring chances the other way. It didn’t get much better in the game against the Winnepeg Jets.
- Speaking of bad habits, I was really excited to see the power play situations start out pretty crisp with fast passing all over the place and good disruption in front of the net. And then Sid…rotated…up…to…the…right…half-wall and slowed it all down. Geno’s sweet spot is dangling off the right half-wall with Kris Letang feeding him from the opposite corner all night long. With the sneaky ability of Chris Kunitz in front of the net, and Sid BUZZING THE GOALIE ALL ALONG THE GOAL LINE (caps intended), the arguably best hands in hockey (Sid) can score at will and perhaps give a few opposing goalies a twitching nervous breakdown (or at least a nasty case of whiplash) as they try to account for him. Finally on this score of bad habits, it would not hurt to shoot at the pads of the goalie from a wing position to force him to open up to it and leave the opposite side wide open for puck clean-up duty by the forward coming in backdoor on a gaping net. So many opportunities to do that have been passed by in just four games.
- In both losses, the Penguins suffered from a horrible lack of discipline. Sid and Geno score, the team relaxes, and the opposing team does not. On the defensive side of things, Simon Despres looked out of shape, especially by the third game. He was often out of position against a fast-moving forward line leaving Vokoun or Fleury exposed. The answer was a sit-out in the fourth game in favor of Ben Lovejoy. Depres, however, was not alone in poor play when lazy east-west passes breaking out of the Penguins zone and miscommunication behind the net on more than a few occasions made for harrowing moments. In the two losses, it became the product of a score-fest for opponents. Penalty trouble disrupts the establishment of any kind of flow, and lackadaisical 2nd periods (shades of the past) are not doing them any favors either.
In looking at the two opponents that beat the Penguins, one has to remember that the Winnepeg Jets (and their fans) are still riding high on the excitement of having a team back after a 15-year hiatus. They were down 2-0 to Sidney Crosby, basically, and decided to get down to business. They proved grittier. They were hungrier. They were faster. As a result, they left no Penguin player with any kind of time to screw around with the puck anywhere, and it didn’t matter who that Penguin was. With the Toronto Maple Leafs, this is a team that is continually taken for granted, but like the Jets, they were fast, challenged Penguins breakouts right at the blue line, clogged up the neutral zone, played mean man-on-man coverage, and just wanted it more. They got a commanding win for that kind of effort.
As I watch all of this, the Penguins enter the den of the Ottawa Senators next, and like the Leafs, they always prove more trouble than the Pens expect. I continue to transition from the familiar stride of Jordan Staal, learning how to spot Brandon Sutter, and have found that he has been very steady but quiet. He’s due for his break-out game, and the Pens are due to start another win streak.