Friday, November 29, 2013

Steelers finally put Two-Point play on tape; lose to Ravens, 22-20

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

Almost a year after deciding not to go for a two point conversion against the San Diego Chargers because he "didn't want to put [it] on tape,"  Mike Tomlin finally unveiled the special play against the Baltimore Ravens last night.  Unfortunately, there is now (more) tape of Emmanuel Sanders dropping what was a tough -- but very catch-able -- game-tying pass.

The quick summary of the game is that the Steelers were terrible for a half, clawed their way back late, never got the back-breaking turnover they needed from Joe Flacco, and came up a Young Change Purse drop (or two) short of having a legitimate shot at getting a wild card spot in the AFC playoffs.  Now the season is basically over, unless the Steelers win out and about six other crappy teams in the AFC go 8-8.  The latter is likely; the former is not.

Mike Tomlin has done an admirable job of covering kickoffs and keeping a fairly untalented team very competitive.  Early in the season when the Steelers were 0-4, there was a lot of talk about how it would be great if the team bottomed out and got a top-5 pick in the draft.  But there's something to be said for the idea that losing breeds more losing.  The Steelers pride themselves -- deservedly so -- on always being competitive and never being embarrassing.  After starting 0-4, that pride was in serious jeopardy.  Though the Steelers almost certainly won't make the playoffs, they never stopped playing like they thought they could.  There have been embarrassing moments along the way, and there may still be more to come.  But Tomlin & Ben & the Lord Ben Points To have put to rest any notion that the franchise itself is becoming an embarrassment just because they may not make the playoffs.

The Pittsburgh Steelers: Always lurking.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Pens out-entertain Leafs, win 6-5; Crosby vs. Malkin?

By Finesse

Breaking down the Pens' 6-5 win over the Leafs would be an exercise in frustration and contradiction.  We'd want to slam Kris Letang at the same time we're praising him for getting 3 points.  We'd want to rip the team for giving up 5 goals, but praise them for holding Toronto to ZERO SHOTS in the 3rd period and overtime (that's unreal).  We'd want to say that this isn't a formula for success in the playoffs, but then we'd challenge you to name a team in the East that could keep up in a track meet with the Pens when Malkin and Crosby are on their game (hint: no teams).

So really, all there is to do with the game last night is take it for what it was: pure entertainment.  And a nice 2 points.

But speaking of Malkin and Crosby ... right now they're 1-2 in scoring, with Geno 3 points behind Sid.  Since they both surpassed 100 points in 2008-09, this is all we've wanted  --- for the two most gifted players in the game to both be at their peak at the same time, pushing each other (in a friendly way) for the title of best player in the game.  This is when any debate about which guy is better is completely pointless.  Let's just sit back and enjoy watching them sort it out.  On the ice.

A debate where everyone can win.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pens fall to Bruins in OT, 4-3; Whatever.

By GTOG Staff

Like we said after the first Boston game (which the Pens won, 3-2), there's no point in getting too worked up about the final score of these games against Boston.  Whether the Pens go 4-0 or 0-4 against Boston in the regular season is less important than whether the Pens are making strides in their ability to beat Boston in a 7-game playoff series.  There is some evidence that they are.  And some evidence that they're not.

In the playoffs, we'd like to be as far away from Loui Eriksson as possible.
The best and worst thing about this game is that the Pens rallied from being down 2-0 and 3-2.  The Pens stayed patient until, literally, there was no time left in the game.  But the Pens also failed to capitalize during a strong opening 10 minutes and then, in the blink of an eye, ceded all control of the game and scoreboard to Boston.  If you want to take the glass-half-full view of this series of events, here you go: That the Pens are going to play well, not score, and then fall behind quickly is well known.  So taking that as a given flaw of this team, it's encouraging that the Pens have shown some degree of mental toughness in not folding in the last two games.

Some other thoughts after the jump...

Monday, November 25, 2013

Pens have huge game in Boston; reflecting on the Martin Erat Era

When the Pens beat the Bruins in Pittsburgh earlier this season, the takeaway wasn't that the Pens actually and finally beat Boston, it was that the Pens stayed composed long enough to beat Boston.  There will be times tonight when the announcers talk about how well Tukka Rask is playing and you will be sitting there wanting to punch yourself in the face because you will know that the supposed "high quality" chances Rask is stopping are because the Bruins clog lanes, get sticks on sticks, and otherwise make it extremely difficult to get an actual clean look.  But if the Pens can enter this game determined to shrug off the inevitable frustration, they can win.  If the Pens get sidetracked for large portions of the game like they did in Montreal (with Brandon Gallagher and P.K. Subban), it will be a nightmare.  You're not coming back from 3-0 against Boston.  Probably not even 2-0.  But if it's 1-0 Boston going into the third?  That's a game the Pens have to be OK with.

Not really what you want.
- Some interesting numbers on the matchup.  For all the feelings of discontent we've had at times this season, the Pens look pretty good:

- So does Boston:

More after the jump...

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Pens follow up domination of Caps with win over Isles

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

Whether last night's 4-3 win over the Islanders goes down as great win against a potent team or a harbinger of loose play to come will sort of depend on the next few games.  But in either case, it was a ton of fun watching the Pens -- and especially Crosby and Malkin -- dazzle.  We hate when the Pens get in track meets because we know the Pens' D and goaltending (Zatkoff? Yikes) can get sloppy.  But imagine how other teams feel when they get into a track meet against the Pens?

A lot of this.
Though their line wasn't great defensively, Crosby and Kunitz were generating at least two high quality scoring chances every shift.  I know there are a lot of wingers in the NHL who are better than Kunitz ... but how many are actually playing better?  His combination of being a straight-line-skating grinder and still-improving Handsiness is pretty much unmatched.  The guy is entering his mid-30's and still getting better.  He's like a more wholesome Barry Bonds, with softer hands and a smaller head.

And a lot of this.
Malkin's improved play of late is also encouraging, and it probably has a lot to do with James Neal finally settling into the season.  They're also buzzing every shift.

As for the Caps game on Wednesday, that was a complete deconstruction.  After Ovechkin hit the post early, the Caps basically folded and the Pens were completely dominant.  It's amazing watching Crosby in Malkin in person because you really see how much space they create for other players.  If you're just focusing on the matchup of them and the closest player, you're missing the whole game going on away from the play.  A lot of what they do is buy time for other guys to get open.  They're incredible.

A few other thoughts after the jump...

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Several good things happened in this game.  Malkin notched two assists and, more importantly, played with confidence.  Crosby scored and, as usual, could have had like 5 points.  A guy no one ever heard of scored.  Brandon Sutter played with burst (who knew?).  The Pens got better as the game went on instead of following their more predictable pattern of petering out when they don't experience early success.

But most important was Fleury.  The save he made on Andrew Cogliano is why he was drafted first overall and why he's been to the Cup Finals twice.

That's an incredible save, and it's not even a lucky one.  It was perfect form, he stopped it with confidence, and he bounced right back up.  He wasn't covering for his own mistake.  It was just an awesome save that not every goalie can make.  It was the play of the game, if not the play of the season.  What a save.

(The combo of Orpik's pinch, Malkin's backcheck, and Martin's defense of the 2-on-1?  Let's not discuss those things the morning after a win).

For the collective panic that many have experienced, and are still experiencing, in light of the Pens' relatively unimpressive play recently, remember:

The Pens are in first place in their division.  Only three teams in the East give up fewer goals per game.  Only one team in the East gives up fewer shots per game.  Only two teams in the East average more shots per game.  And, if you're into the possession metrics, the Pens are the best possession team in the Eastern Conference.

If you're worried about the Pens not scoring enough as a team, remember:

In 2012-13, Boston was 8th in the East in goals per game.  In 2011-12, New Jersey was 9th in the East in goals per game.  Right now the Pens are 5th.

Finally, as a quick nod to anyone (the one Anonymous guy) who thinks we don't call out Crosby when he makes a bad play, here's Crosby's defense on Getzlaf's goal:

Monday, November 18, 2013

AUTUMN PANIC: 5 Things That Genuinely Worry Us About The Penguins

By GTOG Staff

After bursting out of the gate with a dominating start compared to the rest of the unfortunately minted Metropolitan division, the Penguins have fallen back to the pack, losing 4 out of their last 5, scoring a total of 8 goals in those 5 games, and triggering an annual tradition among fans: the Autumn Panic. Two things happen during the Autumn Panic: 1) The team woefully underachieves; and 2) We contemplate firing the coach, conducting some sort of a Letang intervention, flying in Malkin's parents for a long weekend, banning stretch passes, and generally lamenting that WE CAN'T GO ON LIKE THIS.  It's all very predictable. So with the acknowledgment that this is a routine early-regular season rite of passage, are there things we're genuinely concerned about going into Monday night's game against the Ducks? You bet. Here are the Top 5:

Evgeni Malkin

It's nice that the Pens have the best player in the league even when Crosby is hurt.  The problem is that when Crosby is healthy, the Pens have the best player in the league (Crosby) and a guy playing like a less-aggressive Jason Spezza.  There is definitely something to the idea that Malkin is due to break out of his slump, because he is and he will.  But when you're at his level, you shouldn't ever be "due" -- you should always be scoring more goals than Jesse Winchester (our sympathies kudos if you don't have to stop reading to Google Jesse Winchester).  Malkin hasn't scored a goal in a month, and in his last 51 games he has 51 points and 52 PIMs.  He is not the reason that the Pens feel so blahh right now -- more on that in a second -- but he isn't playing like he's part of the solution, either.

"I have fewer goals than Jesse Winchester?"
Four more concerns, after the jump.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Podcast: Recapping Pens-Flyers, and a few Steelers thoughts

We discuss the positives from the Pens loss to the Flyers, and Artistry baits Finesse into a rant about Brandon Sutter.  Then we talk about the Steelers for a few minutes.  It's the GTOG Podcast.

Listen above or check out our Spreaker page. To download the podcast directly from iTunes, click here.  Or you can download, listen, and subscribe via the Spreaker app on iTunes by clicking here, or on Android by clicking here.

Five things we want to see from the Pens against the Flyers tonight

What the Flyers do best, especially against a team susceptible to getting rattled, is make you feel hurried in your defensive zone.  What they lack in composure, they make up for in making you lose your composure.  That's why tonight, beyond just the final score, here are five things we're looking for from the Pens:

5. Kris Letang to collect himself

The easiest way for a team to get the Pens off their game is to target Kris Letang, and history has proven that the Flyers know this.  Without Scuderi and the Prime Minister tonight, Letang will be logging close to 30 minutes.  If he can take the abuse from Simmonds, Rinaldo, etc., and then skate away like a grown up, the Pens will win.

4. Evgeni Malkin to score off the rush, top shelf

The guy is due for a goal scoring outburst, and here's hoping he buries at least one at even strength off the rush.  Skate down the ice, look at the top corner, and then pick it.  If he passes to James Neal and lets Neal do it, that's ok, too.  But if Geno himself can knock the water bottle off, the Pens will win.

3. A trolling of Clooode Giroux

Clooode has been having a bad season, though his last two games have been better.  As imminent as a Letang meltdown is at all times, isn't it just as likely that Clooode loses his composure?  Sid should take the opening faceoff with a 9-iron instead of a hockey stick.  If Clooode breaks his hand with a golf club tonight, the Pens will win.

2. Not giving up a goal in the first 5 minutes

The Flyers are coming off an impressive 5-0 win over the definition of mediocrity, the Ottawa Senators.  The Pens have lost two straight and haven't played in four days.  Fleury's save percentage on the first shot of a game should be a stat that you can look up, but since you can't, we'll estimate that it's 61%.  Flower has been really good this season -- if he can stave off what should be a fast start for Philly, the Pens will win.

1. Outsmarting Craig Berube, because if you can't outsmart Craig Berube, you can't outsmart anyone

Claude Julien got Chara out for 14 minutes against Crosby, and Alain Vigneault and Ken Hitchcock stymied the Pens' long stretch passes in the last two games.  Even though Bylsma is stubborn to adjust, those guys are good coaches so it's not a complete shock that they may have small tactical advantages.  Craig Berube probably looks up to Dale Hunter as one of his intellectual idols.

This should be a gift to the City of Pittsburgh.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Pens season hits cruising altitude; a long flight ahead. Some links and thoughts

If the NHL season were a long international flight, we'd have just hit cruising altitude and you're sitting there staring at the screen in front of you debating whether to start watching 17 Again or wait until after beverage service so that the stewardess flight attendant doesn't interrupt the scene where Chandler Bing turns into Zac Efron.  The Pens have played 2 games in the last 10 days and they lost both.  They play something like 15 games in the next 8 days.  It's a long season.

A few links we've been looking at...

- Mark Madden echoes a lot of what we've been saying about the Pens' bottom two lines, though the term "grit" is not our favorite.  You can be gritty and still suck.  

When we say that the Pens need to be harder to play against, we don't mean that the Pens need to hit more.  We mean that the Pens bottom 6 forwards needs to have the puck more in the offensive zone and regularly contribute on the scoreboard.  Being gritty only matters if it helps you get the puck more.  If you're just hitting people for the sake of hitting them, it still means they have the puck.

- The Pensblog goes buck wild on the game logs and outlines the various goalless streaks that Crosby and Malkin have suffered over the course of their careers, as Malkin hasn't scored in 10 games and Crosby hasn't scored in 7.  Them not scoring in the regular season is not really cause for concern because they've proven themselves.  And Crosby still leads the league in scoring, something he usually doesn't do until he makes his December push.  He's way ahead of schedule.  The only reason it's a concern this year is, again, because the bottom 6 is not as strong as it has been in years past.  

- Bummer to see Stamkos go down with what conceivably could be a season-ending injury.  He's a unique player in that he's one of the three best players in the league, but no one we know really has any visceral reaction to him, either positively or negatively.  Crosby, Ovechkin, LeBron, Manning, Brady ... almost everyone has a very strong opinion about those guys.  With Stamkos, everyone acknowledges that he's a great player and then quickly moves on to talk about something more interesting.  

- Don't let anyone tell you that his injury isn't a huge loss for Team Canada.  Of course they're stacked in the middle, but in a tournament against the best defensemen and goalies in the world (particularly when Canada plays the U.S.), you need guys like Stamkos that have such a good shot that even perfect defense and goaltending can't stop them.  He would be replaced with someone like Giroux, Nash, or Jeff Carter.  That's a big drop off.  

- Oh, forgot to mention ... sucks for Tampa, too.

"I'm available to carry the puck into the offensive zone and then fall over."

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ben Roethlisberger vows to play in playoffs this season whether Steelers make it or not

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

A day after promising never to quit on this team and vehemently denying rumors that he was seeking a trade, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went even further on Monday morning, vowing to play in the playoffs this season whether the Steelers make it or not.

"Whether we qualify for the playoffs or not is neither here nor there," Roethlisberger told GTOG when reached by phone Monday afternoon.  "I don't quit.  So after we play our 16th game, I'm coming to the stadium ready to go to work on Game 17.  I'll be there no matter what.  No locked gate will keep me away.  I'll be there."

When reminded that the Steelers won't have any scheduled games if they fail to qualify for the playoffs, Roethlisberger was steadfast.  "Schedules don't dictate my schedule," he said.  "You know me.  I don't quit.  So while the season might end for some people, I keep playing.  Right now, based on my projections, we'll be playing Baltimore in the third wild-card game.  Terrell and his men are always prepared, so we better be ready."

This would mark the second year in a row that Roethlisberger continued playing football after the season was over.  Last year, following the team's Week 17 victory over Cleveland, Roethlisberger showed up the following Sunday at Heinz Field in full equipment and ran around by himself for three hours playing pretend.  Chester Rollins, who has been working security at Heinz Field since it opened in 2001, said this is par for the course for Roethlisberger.

"Last year he was actually more reasonable than most years in terms of understanding that the season was over. Usually it takes until about March 1st before he stops showing up thinking there's a game.  But around Valentine's Day last year, he finally understood.  It never gets any easier watching him come to that realization."

According to statistics provided by Roethlisberger, he was 17-for-26 for 282 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in Week 18 last year, a 26-23 victory over Miami.  Roethlisberger was 4-for-5 on the game winning drive, culminating in a 14-yard TD strike to Heath Miller.  In quotes attributed to himself after the game, Roethlisberger highlighted his perseverance.  "We never quit.  We never gave up.  I tweaked the left ankle there a little bit.  A sprain.  Doc said it was a high and a low.  Grade A.  No excuses.  You know me.  Just some pain.  Judge me on my wins."

Asked about the win over Miami, Rollins confirmed what all of Pittsburgh has already come to know.  "There's no quit in that guy.  I mean, seriously, that guy will not quit telling me that he won't quit."

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Pens outplayed, again, by good team; lose 2-1

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

At times over the past few years, it was clear that the Pens stood apart from the pack, at least in the regular season.  The Pens were the best team, or very close to it.  Everyone else wanted to be what the Pens were.  That's not the case at the moment, even as the Pens sit atop their division.  The Pens sit squarely within a group of maybe 8-12 teams that are legitimate Cup contenders.  But while the Pens are in that group, make no mistake: the Pens are not at the top of it.

The Pens have played 7 games against teams .500 or better, and their record is 3-4.  The Pens beat Tampa, Vancouver, and Boston, though the Pens were thoroughly outplayed by the Canucks and the Bruins game was basically a coin flip.  The Pens lost to Colorado, Toronto, New York Rangers, and St. Louis, though the Pens thoroughly outplayed Colorado.  If you look at these seven games as if they were a 7 game series, it's a pretty good barometer of what the Pens are -- a good team that probably goes 6 or 7 games in a playoff series against another good team.  And not necessarily as the favorite.

(If you want to take an even more pessimistic view, don't forget the gag at the end of the loss to an underachieving Islanders team).

Other than the three wins over good teams, the Pens' other 8 wins are against New Jersey, Buffalo, Carolina (x2), Edmonton, Philly, and Columbus (x2).  Don't take these wins for granted -- it matters that you can win games you're supposed to win -- but if you want to predict how the Pens will do in the playoffs, it's ok to mostly ignore them.

The Pens' next three games are Philly, Nashville, and Jersey, but after that the road gets a lot tougher:  Anaheim, Washington, Islanders, Montreal, Boston, Toronto, Tampa.  Look at that 7-game stretch as its own 7-game series and then we'll see where we're at.

A few thoughts on last night's loss to St. Louis:

- The horse we've beaten to death is now completely decomposed, but we're going to shovel more dirt on it any way: Kris Letang's decision-making can be abominable.  The guy is clearly not 100% physically, so we'll cut him some slack in the skating department, but the problem is that he's never been close to 100% mentally.  He had a ludicrous offensive-zone pinch last night that lead to a 2-on-1 for St. Louis (Fleury bailed the Pens out of that one) and then a truly bizarre attempt to step up at his own blue line, which resulted in a guy basically standing wide open in front of Fleury while Letang caught a whole bunch of air.  He also has the emotional stability of Jonathan Martin at the roast of Jonathan Martin.  The guy is a $7 million player with a target on his back ... and every time the other team targets him he has a borderline meltdown.  This is a problem that hasn't gone away, and doesn't appear to be going away any time soon.  And the problem isn't that he is making mistakes, it's that he makes them over and over again and probably doesn't even realize that they're mistakes.  He probably took the game tape home to his wife last night and was like, "honey, check out this sick pinch."

- The Pensblog lays out Letang's errors last night in greater detail.  Bottom line: Letang is either impervious to coaching, or he isn't being coached properly.

- Crosby had a strong first period, then completely lost his hands for the next two periods.  He never misses that deflection that he rung off the pipe late in the 3rd.  And he compounded it with a terrible hooking penalty.

In previous seasons, Crosby gets hit in the face with a puck here.  So that's encouraging. 
- Part of the problem with Crosby's mini-slump is the play of Pascal Dupuis, who has been uncharacteristically sloppy.  I know his Corsis are good, but he's making passes directly to the other team, something he's never done before.

- Speaking of the Corsis, Brandon Sutter continues to be a huge drag on the whole team.

- Missed James Neal.

- Blues routinely stepped in between the 80-foot stretch passes the Pens were attempting.  And continued to attempt.  And continued.  And continued.  And continued.

- Another solid effort from Fleury.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What if the Pens had drafted Jonathan Toews instead of Jordan Staal?

By GTOG Staff

As we've said a million times, it's impossible to judge Ray Shero without discussing his first draft in 2006.  He took Jordan Staal with the second pick (Erik Johnson went first), and it's hard to argue that Staal didn't have a successful run in Pittsburgh.  But what can never be forgotten is that the three players drafted immediately after Staal were Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel, each of whom is a better player than Jordan Staal.

Would the Pens be in a better position today if they had taken one of those guys instead?  Would the Pens have more than one Cup?  These are legitimate questions that must frame every debate about Ray Shero, whose other first round picks include Angelo Esposito in 2007, nothing in 2008, Simon Despres in 2009 (looking more and more busty by the day), Beau Bennett in 2010 (could be good), Joe Morrow in 2011 (never played an NHL game; traded for a corpse), and Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta in 2012 (both promising).

So let's ask the obvious questions, after the jump...

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Podcast: Talking Pens-Rangers, and how bad the Steelers are

We discuss the Pens' loss to the Rangers, and the Steelers' 2-6 record.  We also debut our new game: "Is it on me? Or do you know me?" It's the GTOG Podcast.

Listen above or check out our Spreaker page. To download the podcast directly from iTunes, click here.  Or you can download, listen, and subscribe via the Spreaker app on iTunes by clicking here, or on Android by clicking here.