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.


  1. This is a game where I knew whoever scored the first goal was going to win. Although to be fair, I also assume we're going to lose any time we fight at the first faceoff. So completely pointless. There is just never any second effort from the Pens. As soon as they lose a battle along the boards they just skate away and change. They're so worried about the changes. And enough of the stretch passes and cross ice passes through the entire defense, especially on the power play. Malkin literally tried to pass it through all 4 defenders last night when Letang was wide open at the blue line. And Letang needs the puck to shoot a lot more often to make up for passing it directly to the other team at least 3 times a period.

    The only things I liked from last night were Fleury's play, we were in a relevant player's head on the opposing team (Steen, but couldn't quite break him), and someone wanted to fight Bortuzzo (once again seemingly for no reason).

  2. Ah - so we've moved from Sutter-bashing to Letang-bashing. Seriously, though - he does make poor decisions - and he definitely does not look like himself. But you can't ignore context in a decision to pinch in. It's always a risk. But they were - at the time - in a 2-1 game with only a few minutes left. They had been able to generate nothing 5 on 5 for over 55min. So you take the damn chance. And he probably was given the green light by the coaching staff. This didn't happen at the 10 min mark of the first period. So make a fair assessment, rather than just looking for opportunities to prove how right you are and how terrible today's goats are.

    That said - I'm not convinced this is the best team in the league either (although I'd say top 6-8. They are certainly not the 12th best team in the league). But it's November. The Pens were without two top-4 defensemen, and this was the first game playing with anything close to the proper forward lines. We'll see.

    What does concern me is that none of the offensive catalysts look like themselves - not Sid, not Geno, not Neal, not Letang, not Kunie, not Duper. They all look banged up, exhausted, or a combination of both. All of them. And they just don't bury anything. Not, as you say, that throwing direct passes to the opposition is helping matters much.

    1. You'll have to forgive me for holding the guy about to be the 3rd highest paid defenseman in the league to a high standard. Look at the three plays pointed out in the Pensblog post ... there is no context that makes these good plays.

    2. Look - I opened by saying that all of his decision were hardly flawless - and I haven't seen a game from him yet this year where he's looked like himself (although I stand with what I said about the pinch.) He hasn't been particularly good. I agree.

      I just find the constant goating of various players - and I mean in general, not particularly here - tedious and often obnoxious. It's always somebody, and it always gets old - Martin, Sutter, Fleury, Letang, whoever.

      I certainly don't mind reasonable criticism - and if it was just what you wrote above, I probably wouldn't have thought anything of it. But the Letang bashing is becoming a regular habit, and as I said - I, personally, don't find it a productive or interesting way to discuss hockey. I felt the same way about it when it was Brandon Sutter. Criticizing like that is cheap and easy - and why you find it on a site like Pensblog that hasn't put any thought into its content since 2009.

      I remember at least 3 giveaways by Duper equally egregious. What about Brooks fumbling around with a puck for so long at the blue line that they just came over and took it from him? I could make a 10 min film of Pens, just about every guy on the ice, passing a puck straight to a Blue. Almost every significant player, excepting Jokinen, looked completely off. Where are our animated gifs of Sid and Geno's idiotic passes? Cause there were quite a few of them - and they make more money than Tanger.

      We notice what we look for - all I'm saying. Pick a guy, and I could put together a package of significant, inexcusable decisions in under a week. It's a game of mistakes. That player just doesn't happen to be today's goat. Like I said - this really isn't directed at anything you guys have done per se (although I am very happy that we've had a reprieve from hearing about Sutter).

      It's more just my personal (and admittedly subjective) feelings about talking sports - I despise the Yinzer inclination to turn on players en mass and with incredible zeal (even if they haven't played well). It irritates me and bores me, and I'm sure it colored my comment. It has less to do with your particular assessment and more to do with the gearing up I see in Yinzer nation to find who's next on the list, since Flower's been playing well. Tanger? Geno? The old guys on Sid's line, who are looking kind old? I'm giddy with suspense to see who'll be the subject of hundred of words worth of blog posts and hours of talk radio.

    3. If you think we turn on people, you're not getting it. When guys have a good game, we'll write about it. When guys have a bad game, we'll write about it. We've said it a million times, but you must have intentionally ignored it because it would impede your diligent efforts to criticize us -- we don't root against players on the Penguins. We don't "turn on players." If Brandon Sutter scores the Stanley Cup winning goal and Fleury wins the Conn Smythe, we'll be happier than anyone. But by reflexively criticizing us for being too negative, you're cherry picking information that suits your argument in the exact same manner as the people who actually are too negative.

      The team has been a spectacular disappointment the last two years in the playoffs; Fleury has been terrible in said playoffs; Letang makes bad mistakes that guys at his level shouldn't be making; and Brandon Sutter has pretty much been a stiff since he got here. If it upsets you that those are negative things, your beef shouldn't be with us for pointing them out. It should be with the Penguins.

    4. First - I made it clear that those feelings were not particularly directed at you - or this site. I said the goating of certain players generally gets to me. I said that multiple times - sincerely. I even acknowledged that my original comment was likely influenced by my "general" feeling about Pittsburgh sports culture than it was what you said. In fact, I would have said I read this site because I see that far less often here.

      Why respond if you don't read the comment? I was trying - I thought - to explain that and mitigate the sense that the comment was directed at you. I tried - honestly - to express myself in as non-personal, non-hostile way I could. I sincerely meant the comment to be civil, if the first one didn't come across that way. So your response is to then attack me for it?

      Incidentally - I also gave a few quite critical assessments of some of the Pens players' recent play, if you notice. So I'm not sure why you think I don't want to hear anything negative. So that's probably a pot-kettle thing on the whole cherry-picking of information.

  3. I'm not sure there's value in talking about where the Pens stack up relative to other cup contenders in April, much less November. The history of the Stanley Cup playoffs is replete with #1 and #2 seeds that didn't make the finals much less win the tournament.

    What we know is that the Pens are going to make the playoffs, and once they get there there's no telling which team is going to show up. The first 82 are a tune-up.

    1. Let's be precise here. Is there necessarily a correlation between the Penguins' ranking among potential playoff teams now and how they'll actually do in the playoffs? No. But is there "value" in talking about how the Pens stack up? I think so. I can guarantee you management isn't thinking, "Let's just wait until the playoffs and see what happens." Everyone is trying to identify and address weaknesses. That's part of the tune-up you refer to. Besides, ranking teams and players is fun. It's what we do. This is a blog that once RANKED NFL QUARTERBACKS IN TERMS OF HOTNESS. Ben did not fare well, BTW.

    2. I'd actually love the Pens to go into the playoffs as something other than the top seed. Would be nice to be an underdog. But ... you want to be one of the underdogs that is peaking, not one that is hanging on just because of muscle memory.

    3. Indeed, the Pens can only truly be evaluated by observing their strengths and weaknesses against the Blueses and Bruinses of the league. "Value" probably wasn't the right word, and I concede that it's important to see what flaws need addressing throughout the season. But the problem with the Penguins is that they are uniquely adept at playing dominant hockey at various points in the regular season in between fits of boredom, and this manifests itself in a team that can go from winning 15 games in a calendar month to nearly being ousted by an 8 seed to eventually being swept by a good team that, nonetheless, should never be able to win four in seven from them, much less four straight.

      The general consensus last year was that the Pens were dynamic but soft, so Shero picked up Crankshaft, Morrow, and Iginla - players in possession of unquestionable sandpaperiness. Crankshaft's skating turned out to be more of a liability than his physical play was an asset, Iginla looked like a lost puppy on his off wing, and Morrow somehow aged ten years on his flight from Dallas to Pittsburgh. It was befuddling.

      Tuukka Rask became Mike Vernon c. 1997, yes, but so did Jaro Halak in 2010, and Dwayne Roloson (!) in 2011. The Flyers series of 2012 was the most surreal situation I have ever seen in sports for many reasons, not the least of which was that it became a meltdown that lasted six separate games with at least one day in between each.

      I'm rambling, but my point is that I wish there was some way to use the regular season play of the Penguins as a barometer for what they need to address for the playoffs, but it hasn't been for the last four years. Maybe they'd be best served to rack up 110 points in the regular season and fire Bylsma and start Jeff Zatkoff game one of the playoffs this year.

      Or better yet, I like Finesse's idea. A la the Kings in 2012 or the 2005 Steelers, I'd love for this team to face some adversity in the regular season (without an injury to a superstar, thanks) -- some kind of scenario where a true need is exposed, where Sid and Geno and Flower and Letang are really forced to take over, where they MUST play some great regular season hockey just so they can experience that feeling before the playoffs. I think this would do them more good than any deadline acquisition possibly could.

  4. The fact of it only being a 2-1 loss is encouraging. I can recall more than a few meltdowns when the Pens were previously being outplayed. I'm not overly anxious about the way any of the Pens' losses have gone so far because (and I HATE to say this, I feel like too often it's an excuse) so far everyone hasn't been healthy at the same time. Granted, at this level, these guys should be able to compensate for the absences of injured teammates, but I think they'll be okay in the long run.