Pittsburgh Penguins’ radio color analyst Mike Lange is fond of saying “…to take the heat out of a hot kitchen” during harrowing defensive stands, but he may have to amend that slightly as the Pens and their opponents are fighting fire with fire.
Penguins 6–Devils 1: The Pens cranked up the heat on the New Jersey Devils, and while one would think they could take it, it was no April Fool’s joke. The Devils clearly did not look like themselves that night, and the Pens, by contrast, looked possessed. Six guys figured in the goal scoring: Matt Cooke (11), Bill Guerin (20), Evgeni Malkin (34), Sidney Crosby (30), Jordan Staal (21), and Chris Kunitz (23). On top of that, 12 players assisted in those tallies with defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Hal Gill leading the way by contributing two assists each. Not to be outdone, even netminder Marc-Andre Fleury had an assist, his first of the year, on the Guerin goal.
The confidence of the defensive corps of the Penguins is evidenced in their plus/minus rating. The tandem of Gill and Rob Scuderi posted a +4. This is an outstanding improvement for the pair considering that in days of yore (pre-Bylsma), at the best of times they looked mediocre and at the worst of times shell-shocked. Many were the games when plays in front of Fleury by those two created incredible anxiety for the fans and heart failure for their netminder whose own confidence was shaky. The insecurity was palpable and hard to watch. Fast-forward to present day, and Gill and Scuderi have been reborn. They are as in sync as Siamese twins, playing the way many believed they could play, and Fleury has felt the effects translate to his own crisp game.
Penguins 2–Hurricanes 3 (OT): “Kickin’ it up a notch,” the Pens went into Carolina Saturday night. From the first puck-drop to the goal horn in the OT frame, it was such a firestorm of speed, shots, hits, and break-aways that FSN’s Paul Steigerwald and Bob Errey never had a chance to talk about anything anecdotal except during commercial breaks and intermissions. They were nearly out of breath as they tried to match their play-by-play calling with the speed of the game.
Crosby and Malkin were picking pockets like Fagin’s street urchins, generating chances. Tyler Kennedy had yet another solid game, which at least merits an honorable mention to the 3 stars of the game–all Hurricanes. Malkin’s failing to score on the penalty shot he was awarded was a bad break. However, Guerin’s disallowed goal was a result of a bad Kunitz penalty, which hearkens back to what Bylsma said days ago. It’s not so much about how many penalties they take, but the kind they are and when they occur. This was not a good penalty as without it, Guerin’s goal would have counted, and Jordan Staal’s goal, then, would have been the game winner.
A Hurricanes-Pens playoff round match-up would make for an exciting, heart-stopping, nail-biting, teeth-gnashing series. These two teams are about as evenly matched as any two could be, including their season-long ups and downs and the fact that each possesses an outstanding young goalie in Fleury and Cam Ward, energizing stars, and, oh yes, a Staal brother. Pens fans seem to travel well as the crowd appeared to cheer just as loudly for the Penguin goals as the home team crowd did for the ‘canes, showing some Pittsburgh faithful in attendance.
Penguins 2–Panthers 4: After a strong first period, notching a hefty 19 shots on netminder Tomas Vokoun, the second period saw the Pens experiencing fatigue. No doubt this was a result of the supercharged, all-out slug fest in Carolina just 20 hours earlier. It did not help that a flukey goal came off a misplayed puck by Hal Gill that popped up strangely and could not be cleared out. Add to this the fact that neither Crosby nor Malkin registered a point in this game or in the Carolina game, and both were a -2 at Carolina and -1 at Florida.
However, Coach Dan Bylsma has recognized the power of the Staal-Kennedy duo, putting just about every winger he could think of on the line to try to generate something. It worked for Pascal Depuis, and Staal was also part of the unit that netted Eaton’s power play goal.
While rest can renew tired legs and focus weary minds, it is still unacceptable that the power play produces so few chances on net. The Pens had 4 power play chances and registered only 3 shots with Mark Eaton scoring the sole power play goal. If they are not putting at least 5 shots on net per power play, then it is powerless. If not correctly quickly, such a situation will not bode well for a deep playoff run, let alone a Stanley Cup final. It cannot be stressed enough that Crosby is best working the end boards behind the goalie, forcing the goalie to split his attention to account for him. As soon as he is slides up on the half wall, he has much too much ice to play around with, and 99% of the time, he elects to pass.
The Therrien-era power play reared its ugly head in this game: the passing was excrutiatingly slow, and the player in possession of the puck held it entirely too long. The Panthers’ PK unit loved this because they hardly had to move. They could have killed a 10 minute penalty without a line change at that rate. So few shots on net leaves guys like Kunitz and Guerin with nothing to do, negating one of the biggest reasons they were acquired. Bottom line: Sid, more than any of them, must shoot.
All is not lost though. This team has proven time and again over the past three seasons that it has the collective intestinal fortitude to grind it out and push through a new growing pain. They are in position to have a date with destiny, to get back to where they were last season–maybe to avenge some unfinished business. The road is long and hard, and it will be a test for them and for their new coach, but as Bylsma said, going into the Hurricanes game, he put to them this question: “What mindset do we want to have going into the game?” How they respond 60 minutes at a time will determine their outcome.