“Guys that are working should be on the ice right now” — Bob Errey at 11:19 in the 3rd period of the Penguins-Islanders game. Score: Islanders 4 – Penguins 1 … about a week ago.
Underlying and permeating the whole debacle of the Penguins-Islanders event (because it really couldn’t be called a game) was this heavy befuddling sense of “whatever.” After 2 1/2 periods of wasted opportunities and almost collectively wasted effort, the guys who had been working hard, showing some kind of signs that they really wanted to be there, were put on the ice over and over again: the 3rd and 4th line.
There were not many bright spots, but one positive thing in particular did stand out: Simon Despres. The 2-game sit-down turned out to be what the doctor ordered as he was let back into the fold and proved that he was ready, willing, and able to get focused and make a solid contribution. It was the best we’d seen out of him so far in the short season, and set against the backdrop of overall lacklustre play by most of the rest of the team, his performance stood out, earning him 19:12, just 27 seconds shy of Brooks Orpik’s minutes on the ice. He had 3 shots on goal, 1 blocked, and put on 4 commanding hits.
Darkness Falls: 11 giveaways, entry problems through the neutral zone, entry problems through the offensive zone (provided they got through the neutral zone), amnesia about how to go north-south by using something called a stretch pass along the boards, and a non-existant power play, lowlighted by a trashed opportunity on a 5-minute major penalty against Islander Colin McDonald where the Pens could have scored as often as they wanted.
Epiphany: It was clear over the next 3 games that a great deal of introspection and soul-searching occurred at the end of the embarrassing loss. The Penguins clearly remembered to bring their lunch pails in the next game against an improving New York Rangers team, and they began to play with that cohesive, methodical, surgical precision that has been their hallmark in the Bylsma era. Whatever it was that brought the Penguins back to themselves, the proof is in the stats.
In the games versus Winnipeg, Ottawa, and the Isles the Penguins had:
- 4 goals for
- 9 goals against
- 0 power play goals
- 3 power play goals against
Compare those numbers to the Penguins in the last 3 games leading up to the impending Isles rematch:
- a whopping 14 goals for
- a stingy 4 goals against
- a promising 3 power play goals
- and a commanding 0 power play goals against.
Despres continued to shine and gain confidence with each game under his belt, showing that he’s a nice fit with Kris Letang, not to mention having a very heavy wrist shot at distance and his comfort with joining the rush. The choice to add Robert Bortuzzo’s size over Ben Lovejoy’s experience also proved a good move as Bortuzzo seemed to click immediately, unafraid to lay a hit or rip a shot from the blue line. It needs to be noted that Paul Martin is having his best season in a Penguin uniform. While his shot is not powerful, it’s targeted, and his ability to set-up plays is reminiscent of Sergei Gonchar. Martin is another one who has become very comfortable with his main linemate, Brooks Orpik. By the time the Pens finished humiliating Alexander Ovechkin and crew on their home ice Sunday afternoon, the Pens defensive corps had put on a clinic of responsible play with good gap, smart breakouts and crushing man-to-man coverage. Add to that impressive timing on the rush and no fear of taking shots that set up nice garbage opportunities for the forwards.
On the offensive side, the previously non-existant offensive zone time in both even-strength and man-advantage situations was suddenly back. It returned in the game against the Rangers, improved in the game against the Devils, and was commanding in the game against the Capitals. In addition, the acquisition off waivers of another Carolina Hurricane, Zach Boychuk, seemed to really be the missing piece to the puzzle for the Malkin line. To watch this kid in action with his new mates, James Neal and Geno, was amazing. It was like they had been playing together for years. Neal’s comfort level with Geno is well established, but to see the sheer intuitiveness of Boychuk as if he was inside the heads of his linemates was a real pleasure to behold. They played loose and it seemed to spread to the Crosby line because suddenly, Chris Kunitz and Sid were flying and wheeling, racking up points left, right, and center. So, how has production in the last 3 games for the new fab four contributed to their league ranking?
- Sidney Crosby - (1G, 6A) ranking 5th in the league in total assists (9) and 6th in points (13)
- Evgeni Malkin - (1G, 5A) ranking 4th in the league in total assists (10) and 9th in points (12)
- Chris Kunitz - (6G, 5A) ranking 4th in the league in total goals (6), 4th in power play goals (3), 3rd in game-winning goals (2) and 5th in shot percentage (40%)
- James Neal - (5G, 1A) ranking 8th in the league in goals.
That’s not too shabby. At what seems to be an intensifying pace, if this keeps up along with key contributions from other teammates, the oddsmakers may just know what they’ve been talking about regarding a date with Lord Stanley in the not-so-distant future. It will start with the redemption match on the Islanders’ pond to finally rinse out the bad taste left by that seemingly so long ago performance.