Wednesday, January 26, 2011

GTOPG: Marc-Andre Fleury Sees Your Onus, Raises You a Shutout; Pens Win, 1-0

By GTOG Staff

The New York Islanders are playing the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center Tuesday night, and you're forgiven if you feel somewhat confused at first about which team is which. You find yourself thinking that, without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the Penguins' lineup, they look about the same. Two hungry teams, short on top shelf talent, scrapping and clawing just to get that one goal to put them over the top. Then suddenly, there is a goalie who overcommits, a wraparound chance, a juicy rebound, a shot towards an open net, and a right leg pad flashing like a great white cobra. The puck is kicked out with authority, and everything becomes clear: that's Marc-Andre Fleury, and that is the difference. Sorry, Kevin Poulin, you're way out of your league.

No Accident.

The Penguins got a tremendous effort from the entire lineup on Tuesday to carry some momentum into the long all-star weekend. Navy Seal Craig Adams did what elite warriors do and in the third period scored the only goal the Penguins would need. Max Talbot served notice that he can center a fourth line with tough-as-a-rusty-nail Aron Asham and Mike Rupp that will legitimately frighten people in the playoffs. Chris Kunitz had tremendous hop. Tyler Kennedy pummeled a guy about twice his size and made us wonder if, pound for pound, he is the toughest guy in the league.

But the story is Fleury. At what point do we have to consider - despite Sidney Crosby's brilliance before he was knocked from the lineup with a concussion - whether the Flower is this team's MVP? What more does he need to do? He leads the best penalty killing unit it the NHL. He's probably been one of the top 5 players in the league since his game turned around in November. And he's a great trash talker. If the Penguins don't have him in the lineup right now, they are the New York Islanders.

Some other thoughts on the game...

- For a large portion of the game, the best player on the ice was a 23-year-old Austrian named Michael Grabner, the 14th overall selection in the 2006 Draft by the Vancouver Canucks. At one point, he literally left exhaust fumes on Ben Lovejoy. He is a player to keep an eye on, not just because he is good, but because he has a remarkable stat line, including 14 goals and just five assists in 43 games. That's the same amount of assists as Mike Comrie has this season, for those who were curious.

- You will find no bigger fans of Jordan Staal than GTOG, but our appreciation for his abilities is grounded in the reality of what his abilities actually are, not his last name or his draft position. In three games without Sid and Geno, Staal has one assist on a short-handed goal. In other words, zero points as the team's top forward at even strength and on the power play. Even allowing for the fact that three games is a small sample size, zero points is, unsurprisingly, less than what you would want from your top forward. We believe that Jordan Staal is a great player when cast in an appropriate role. Here's hoping that he is surrounded by people who can convey to him that, when his contract is up in a few years, the grass will not necessarily be greener on the other side of Crosby and Malkin. If there are not, then GTOG will assume that responsibility.

Let's have a chat, Jordan.
- While the Pens' lineup certainly resembled the Isles lineup, one key difference is on the blue-line, where on two or three occasions, the Isles decided to set up their point men outside the blue-line. Interesting strategy, to say the least.

- If Crosby can return for the first game after the All-Star break, he will start the stretch run for the scoring race only one point back of Steven Stamkos. If I'm in charge of marketing for Tampa, the first thing I do is reassess my career goals. The second thing I do is hold off on printing those Stamkos Art Ross posters.

- The Pens have 31 wins at the All-Star break and a +40 goal differential. They are on pace for a 108-point season. Not too shabby.

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