Monday, October 10, 2011

GTOPG: Battles of Alberta; Pens Take 5 of 6 on Opening Swing

By Artistry

Stop me if this sounds familiar. The Penguins played Sunday night without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Mark Letestu centered the top line, James Neal took about a dozen shots, was credited with 4, and failed to score, and Kris Letang played like half the game. Are you banging your head against your smart phone yet? Take it easy! It's Columbus Day. There is so much to celebrate. First and foremost, these are not your spring 2011 Pittsburgh Penguins. These are your spring 2011 Pittsburgh Penguins and Steve Sullivan.

So short, yet so threatening
- Can't complain about taking 5 of 6 possible points on the road to start the season, but you can't leave the recently Bar Mitzvahed Ryan Nugent Hopkins alone in the slot late in a one-goal game like that. You just can't.

Mazel Tov!
- The power play in Calgary and for the first half or so of the Edmonton game looked very much like a unit that had a man advantage, enabling it to control the puck and generate scoring chances against a shorthanded opponent. I know. It seems simple. Before blowing a 5-minute power play that would have beaten the Oilers, Pittsburgh was leading the league in power play efficiency, and there are a few obvious reasons for that: 1) everybody is shooting, and most everybody is hitting the net; 2) movement; and 3) Steve Sullivan. It's not just that Sullivan is a skilled player. He is. But he also plays with infectious confidence and creativity, things that were missing almost entirely from last year's team. Look at what Tyler Kennedy did this weekend. He'll always be a shoot first guy, but he was positively dancing off the half wall on the power play, making defenders miss, and backing people off. If there's one thing I learned as a kid from watching Mario Lemieux, it's that I was going to have a mullet in high school, and I didn't care what anyone had to say about it. If there's another thing I learned, it's that you back teams off on the power play when they can't predict what you'll do next.

- Before Geno got hurt against Calgary, the Penguins had that look about them. The look that says, "We know we're good, we're not satisfied just winning this game, let's score 4 more goals." We can expect more of that when Malkin comes back, and we can expect a lot more of that if something else happens that I won't discuss here because we all know what we're talking about. Meanwhile, we revert back to "clog the passing lanes - score dirty goal (singular) - squeeze 14 good minutes out of Joe Vitale" mode. The Pens have proven that they can pile up regular season points in this fashion even as they encourage us to channel surf to keep from falling asleep, but here are a few things to avoid:

1) Overplaying Kris Letang. We know he's in the best shape of his life. So was Ben Roethlisberger at the start of his season. Now he's limping towards the locker room, pausing to let the cameras catch up, then continuing to limp towards the locker room. No matter how dominant Letang is on a given night - and he was nothing short of brilliant on Sunday - he can and will burn out. We saw him try to do too much last spring, and his play rapidly deteriorated. The same things goes for Martin and Michalek. For a team that's supposed to have the deepest defense in the East, Bylsma is not coaching like we have the deepest defense in the East. Play everybody. We'll likely complain about that, too, but do it anyway.

"I do not need dis much of de Onus."
2) Letting James Neal go off on a one-man crusade. Neal is a monster, easily the most physically dominant winger the Penguins have put on the ice since Marian Hossa. But when you put him out there with Letestu, it's like watching a shark ram its head into a steel cage. Impressive, but ineffective. Which brings us to our third and most important thing to avoid.

3) Playing without either Malkin or Crosby. Can we move on from this please?

- Brent Johnson is all we could hope for in a backup goaltender, but if last night didn't make you appreciate what Marc-Andre Fleury does in a shootout, nothing will. Johnson was lost out there. In fairness, if the NHL was just a big shootout competition, Edmonton would probably win. Those kids can dangle.

Check back later for Steelers GTOPG and to see if you can guess today's real Ben Roethlisberger quote.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Couldn't agree more with each and every point. Did you actually see me banging my head against my smartphone after about 3 and a half minutes of the Smyth major at the end of the game?

    I loved how Johnson was playing throughout the game. He's not going to make the amazing sprawling arm-behind-the-back saves, but that's because he is so well positioned. Every shot seemed to have hit him right on the crest of his jersey. He was ready, he was calm, he reminded us that a hockey goal is only 4*6. In the shootout Eberle and Hemsky went top shelf from 4 feet out. Against shots like these, being well-positioned won't be of much help. But your average heart rate with Johnson in net is considerably lower than when Fleury is in (which is not necessarily a good thing. Hockey is not meant to be good for your health).

    Other than that it vintage 2011 Penguins hockey - a low score grind fest in which the Pens make an average goalie look incredible and then win in a shoo... oh, except that.