Friday, January 31, 2014

Pens beat Kings, 4-1; Might Jeff Zatkoff be good?

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

If Evgeni Malkin's goal 57 seconds into the game last night didn't immediately take your mind back to the first few minutes of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston last year, then you are a lot more mentally healthy than we are.  The Pens were flying at the beginning of that game but failed to bury one.  The Bruins got a goal and started slowly suffocating the Pens ... Crosby took two penalties, Malkin got into a fight and Matt Cooke got ejected for boarding.  The Pens doubled down on frustration in Game 2 (got blown out 6-1) and by the time they regained their composure and got to double OT in Game 3, it was too late.

Would things have been different if the Pens bury one in the opening minutes?  Paul Steigerwald can say some pretty bizarre things (last night he suggested that the Pens sat Kris Letang so that Bob Bortuzzo could play in front of Mom Bortuzzo), but he was right about one thing -- the importance of the first goal against teams like Boston and L.A.  If you don't score early, they can weather the storm with their goaltending and then slowly suck the life out of you.  It's especially effective against the Pens, who too easily allow frustration to drag them into very dark places.

This isn't to say that the Pens deserved a different fate last year.  Quite the opposite. The fact that the Pens couldn't and didn't bury one early against Boston simply means they weren't good enough.  The fact that Boston went on to put the Pens in a choke hold just confirms it.  But if the Pens score early, could Game 1 have gone the way of the game last night, with the goal giving the Pens a boost, the opponent taking a penalty in an attempt to slow down a superior athlete, and the Pens seizing control with a deadly power play?  We'll never know, but we can assume.

More on the actual game last night, after the jump...

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Jeff Zatkoff is out for revenge against the LA Kings, or something

Big game tonight against the Kings.  They're about as deep as it gets, and they have great goaltending.  They're the Bruins of the Western Conference.  So, naturally, Dan Bylsma picks this game as the one Jeff Zatkoff starts, rather than starting him this past Monday against the horrific Buffalo Sabres or this coming Saturday against the mediocre Arizona Coyotes.  The justification?

To summarize: Jeff Zatkoff is returning to face the organization that realized Jeff Zatkoff is an AHL goalie.

Only this time, it's personal.

This is actually a GIF showing Jeff Zatkoff's lateral movement in real time.
- In other news, Tanner Glass is getting a lot of attention for his 13-hit effort in Dallas last week and then the empty net goal and assist he had against the Buffalo Sabres, the worst team in the NHL by infinity.  Here comes Tanner Glass!

- Should the Pens try to buy low on Bryan Bickell?  Yes.  All he needs to do is get to his game.

- Fun stat: In his first 9 games against San Jose, Mario had 39 points.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The numbers might suggest the Pens' depth is terrible, but your reaction to this will prove it

There's no shortage of ways to measure the discrepancy between the Pens' top 2 lines and the bottom 2 lines, but this puts it about as simply as it can be stated:

It is not much of an overstatement to describe the Pens as the best team in the league when the top 2 lines are playing and the worst team in the league when the bottom 2 lines are playing.  In the span of one line change, the Pens go from the biggest challenger to the Blackhawks and Bruins to worse than the Sabres.  It's that bad.  None of this absolves the entire team of their awful performance in Dallas last night -- everyone was bad.  Or, to put it more accurately, the bottom 6 played like it usually does, and the top 6 had a bad game.  Hence, the team looked like they were barely participating.

After today, we're morphing from the diagnosis stage (Negative Depthitis) to the treatment stage (who can we trade for, how quickly can they get here, and can we please waive Tanner Glass).  But indulge us for just a moment by playing a game of fill in the blank.

In Game 6 against the Red Wings in 2009, the Pens won 2-1 on goals by Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy.  Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin had 0 points and combined for 3 shots in 37 minutes of ice time.

A long, long time ago.
The chances that the 2013-14 Penguins could win a game against a great team by a score of 2-1, with goals from Brandon Sutter and Tanner Glass and with Sid and Geno combining for only 3 shots is _________.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Two big lines dominate; Two big wins for the Pens

By GTOG Staff (follow Finesse and Artistry on Twitter)

The Pens just scored 11 goals in two games.  It takes the Sabres an average of 6 games to score 11 goals.  Putting aside defensive flaws or notions about whether this style is sustainable in the playoffs, the Pens provide more pure entertainment over the course of an 82 game season than just about anyone.  The power play that led to Letang's goal was abusive.

Too good.
But consider: Has there ever been a Penguins team that is so good--and this one is on track to tie the 92-93 team for best regular season record in team history, so they're pretty, pretty good--but also so flawed? The answer is no, of course not, it's virtually impossible to be this good and this flawed. The Pens have the number 1 power play in the league. They have the number 1 penalty kill in the league. They have the two best players in the league, two of the best wingers in the league, the top +/- guy in the league is listed as 5th on the defensive depth chart, and there are seven guys playing in the Olympics. They lead the entire Eastern Conference by 9 points, and it's January. Yet we spend most of our time talking about the most uninspiring collection of bottom 6 forwards since Ramzi Abid haunted the bowels of the Mellon Arena. We harp on what looks like increasingly lackadaisical team defense. And we note that for much of the game last night, it looked like the Islanders were firing pucks at an immobile AHL goalie. (Hang on. We're getting word now that we are exactly right about all of these things). HOW CAN THIS ALL BE TRUE?

Because when you eat up $17.4 million of a declining salary cap, you're pretty much stuck filling out the rest of the team with league minimumers and as we're finding out, these guys are league minimumers for a reason.  Shero hasn't found a diamond in the rough with the bottom 6 and so the Pens are getting what they're paying for.  The Bruins have a guy making $900K (Reilly Smith) who has 36 points in 49 games.  The Pens' bottom 6 forwards from the game last night (I'm counting Kobasew and not counting Engelland) have a combined 41 points in 193 games played.

But on to some happier thoughts ...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

'It Happens'; Pens crushed by Florida, now face Montreal in game where winning isn't what matters

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

The Pens got rolled by a team way beneath them in the standings and looked very pedestrian, if not outmatched, in the process.  We know from recent history that if Sean Bergenheim is dominating the Penguins, it usually doesn't end well.  But as Ron Cook eloquently and repeatedly and then repeatedly again said, "It happens."

I know this is out of context, but it just feels appropriate.
The Pens face Montreal tonight and the barometer for success should not be whether the Pens win or lose, but whether they give up fewer than 3 goals.  Prior to a 4-3 shootout win over the Rangers on December 18, the Pens had given up 3 goals or more 12 times in 35 games (34% of the time).  In the 14 games since, the Pens have given up 3 or more goals 10 times (71% of the time).  Most everyone on the team, including the coaches, is talking about this slow and steady defensive slippage, but no one seems to be able to do anything about it.  Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi are two of the players ringing the alarm bells the loudest, but given that their performance is as big of a problem as anyone's, they are skating dangerously close to The Brooks Laich Zone, which is where the players most culpable for a team's slide can safely go to preach cliches to insulate themselves from criticism.
Crosby certainly doesn't get a pass for any of this, as he and Kunitz have been spending an inordinate amount of time recently chasing pucks in their own zone.

It's hard to be too tough on the Pens because their record is superb, but given that the Pens' high-end talent and systems-continuity gives them a huge advantage over the course of an 82-game season, the record is not that surprising.  And it's also not an indicator of how they'll do in the playoffs.  It does seem that the Pens have made some progress since the flame-out to the Bruins last year, but there is still a long way to go.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

It's Always Funny Beating Washington; Pens win, 4-3

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

The first time the Pens and Caps played this year, the Caps were non-participants and the Pens cruised to a 4-0 win.  Last night was neck-and-neck, but the mere fact that the Pens played the Caps evenly despite employing what could be considered one of the least productive bottom 6's in Pens history -- and that was true even before it was announced that PL3 was starting in place of James Neal -- is impressive.

- Evgeni Malkin did the impossible last night by making Taylor Pyatt look like an actual NHL caliber winger.  Geno was dominating the puck, and though much of the credit for the winning goal is going to Olli Maatta, the entire sequence was made possible because Malkin was able to hold on to the puck long enough to exhaust the Caps and allow Pyatt to do something he is good at -- stand in front of the goalie.  Offensively, there are few, if any, players who can touch Geno right now.  Two offensive zone penalties in the 3rd period, however, can't be ignored, nor can anyone expect that they won't continue to occur from today through eternity.

More on Maatta, Letang and Sutter after the jump...

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Pens-Caps Preview: Some fun numbers on just how bad the Pens' bottom 6 will be tonight

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

Brandon Sutter is going to get a shot playing wing on Sidney Crosby's line tonight.  Part of me -- a large part -- wonders whether this is an effort by Dan Bylsma to prevent Sutter from achieving his second 11-game goalless streak of the season tonight, and thereby be only one additional 11-game goalless streak away from handing me a victory in what would be my single greatest prediction: taking Brandon Sutter to go over 2.5 11-game goalless streaks this season.  There are two ways to view this move: 1) it's an effort to maximize the Crosby-Kunitz line; or 2) it's an indictment of Sutter's ability to anchor his own line.  You can probably guess which camp I fall into (though I acknowledge that his line-mates on said 3rd line would be awful).

But speaking of awful, and in what is in some bizarre way a compliment to Sutter, the Pens' Sutterless bottom 6 tonight has the potential to be among the least effective bottom 6's in Penguins history.  The third line tonight (third line!!!) is Tanner Glass-Nick Drazenovic-Craig Adams.  The fourth line is Taylor Pyatt-Zach Sill-Deryk Engellend.

Just how unproductive are these guys?

Zach Sill has no points in 18 games.

Nick Drazenovich has 0 points in 11 games and sounds like a bad guy on 24.

Out for Jack Bauer's blood.
Among all Eastern Conference forwards who have played at least 12 games and actually scored a point this season, Taylor Pyatt scores the fewest of them per minute played: 1 point in 335 minutes of ice time.  Put another way, if he played 20 minutes per night at this pace, he would average one point every 16.75 games.  Or to put it yet another way, if he played 20 minutes a night every night over the course of an 82 game season at this same pace, he would finish the season -- FINISH THE SEASON -- with fewer than 5 points!

Of all Eastern Conference forwards who have played at least 37 games this season, Craig Adams is the sixth least productive point-producer, trailing guys like Peter Regin, Cal Clutterbuck, and Radek Dvorak, who everyone had just assumed retired 6 years ago, but is now on his 9th team.

By the so-called advanced statistics, Tanner Glass is the single biggest drag on his team's puck possession in the entire NHL.

And Deryk Engelland is a defenseman, for God's sake.

It's gotten to the point where it's kind of hilarious that the Pens trot these guys out there, get almost nothing from them offensively, but still lead the division by 16 points.  It's a testament to how good the top 6 has been and, I'll happily concede, to the fact that some of these guys (like Craig Adams) contribute value to the team in a lot of ways beyond the score-sheet.

But the fact remains that we may be witnessing an historic disparity between one half of a team and the other half of the same team.  Watching Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz and Neal dazzle tonight against a very soft defense is going to be like watching James Tissot paint "The Fan."

Watching the bottom 6 might be like watching shit hit it.

Go Pens.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Brandon Sutter Nudity Situation is the perfect metaphor for this Penguins season

Look, we've all seen Brandon Sutter's penis. Three generations of Artistry's family have seen Brandon Sutter's penis. Finesse's dad saw Brandon Sutter's penis, and texted a picture of it to his son. Brandon Sutter's own parents and siblings have likely now renewed acquaintances with Brandon Sutter's penis. You can find the link if you need to. It's not a big deal. But you know what is a big deal? The Brandon Sutter penis situation. Because it's a metaphor for this Penguins season.

We begin by acknowledging that we're looking at a ROOT Sports broadcast, and ROOT Sports is notorious for distracting camera angles and general broadcast malfeasance. It's a surprise that Paul Steigerwald didn't come on the broadcast and say that the Pens have the best naked third line in hockey. Nice job on this one, ROOT Sports.

Next, we see that the primary focus here is on Tanner Glass. After nearly making it through an entire--albeit abbreviated--regular season in 2013 without registering a single point, Tanner Glass is once again in the spotlight. It is not a coincidence that Tanner Glass was prominently involved in a situation that went horribly awry.

Then Kris Letang appears. With a dazed expression and a slice of pizza in hand, he is genuinely out to lunch, unthinkingly opening the door to yet another bad outcome. Don't just stand there, Kris Letang, you turned over Brandon Sutter's penis! But even more symbolic, does Kris Letang even know he made a mistake? When he watches tape of the incident, does he even notice Sutter in the background or is he only evaluating his pizza eating form? Is he upset that the takeaway from this incident isn't "Camera Inadvertently Catches Kris Letang Eating Pizza"?

Finally, we see Brandon Sutter and part of Brandon Sutter's penis. There are a number of ways to go with this metaphor, and most of those possibilities are best left unexplored. Sutter explains the incident as a "freak accident," as if a pigeon got stuck in the fuselage of the space shuttle and caused an explosion. From our perspective, there is only one takeaway: Brandon Sutter, on the verge of his second 11-game goalless streak of the season, isn't even good at knowing where to be naked.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Recap: Pens blow late lead in Edmonton; lose 4-3

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

That Craig Adams failed to get the puck out of the zone on an easy clearing attempt in overtime should not be what leaves a bad taste in your mouth from this game.  The Pens have the #2 penalty kill in the entire league, and Craig Adams leads the team in PK minutes.  The ice was bad, Adams was exhausted, and he made a horrible play -- it's magnified by the fact that he's having a pretty quiet season, but even if he were playing like John Madden in the early 2000s, that stuff happens.  We're over it.  If Adams gets the puck out, the Pens kill the penalty, and then James Neal or Chris Kunitz scores the OT winner, it gives the Pens a standings point they don't really need.  That's about it.

What should be the lasting concern from this game, and basically every game this season (with particular emphasis on the games since Pascal Dupuis was injured), is that the Pens are playing an 18-man sport with 12 guys.  The Crosby and Malkin lines are generating at least 2 or 3 goals per game and the team's strategy is essentially to hope for those 2 or 3 goals, and then another goal or two from those guys on the power play.  If the Pens were a clothes dryer, the bottom 6 would be the lint screen that no one ever cleans ... the more games the Pens play, the more crap that accumulates in there, until at some point the clothes (the team) just spins and spins and spins and nothing is happening.  That analogy needs extensive work, but you get the point.

Compounding the lack of diversity on the score sheet is this: the Pens have given up 3 or more goals in 8 of their past 11 games.  Of course, the Pens have only lost 3 games in regulation since Thanksgiving, so it's not panic time.  And it's entirely possible that given the standings and the upcoming Olympics, this is the least meaningful January in Pens regular season history.  But if you've watched this team regularly over the past several years, there's always a palpable sense of when the team is regressing defensively.  We're not quite there yet, but the hairs on our necks are standing up a little.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Pens win shootout in Vancouver, 5-4; Some thoughts on Crosby, Gibbons, Letang and more...

By GTOG Staff

We'd be lying if we told you that we watched the whole game last night, though the failure to do so isn't for lack of effort.  It's just that it's January and the Pens have a 17-point lead in the division -- it's hard to live and die by a Tuesday nighter in Vancouver.

But here are some things that have been catching our attention ...

- We're in the midst of the highest combined level of play from Malkin and Crosby since the fall of 2010.  They were jockeying for the scoring title before Malkin's injury and barring any more injuries, they're probably still going to end up 1-2 in scoring.  And James Neal and Chris Kunitz will be right there in the top-10 with them.  Despite really having only 4 legitimate top-6 players, the Pens have the most lethal top-6 in the NHL, and it's not that close.

Look at Kunitz in the background thinking about how to utilize his velvety hands.
- The bottom 6, of course, is a much different story.  Other than Joe Vitale, who is playing himself into earning a one-year contract for $600K at the conclusion of each of the next 8 seasons to be the new Craig Adams, none of the rotating cast that is the bottom 6 is playing above expectations.  Sutter is on pace for 29 points, and in his last 8 games, he has 1 assist and a total of 9 shots on goal.  Taylor Pyatt was signed for reasons that elude us, unless needing a worse version of Tanner Glass is a reason.  Craig Adams is good on the PK, but is becoming a liability at 5-on-5.  In an ideal world, can't you get good penalty killing from a guy who can actually sustain offensive zone time at 5-on-5?  Chuck Kobasew was on an 82-goal pace after the first two games.  In the last 23 games he's dressed, he's on a 0 goal, 0 assist pace.  Zach Sill hasn't scored a point in 17 games, or to put it another way, Zach Sill hasn't scored a point in any game he's ever played.  Deryk Engelland as a winger?  Let's just say that no one who plays fantasy hockey is that excited about Engelland now having forward eligibility.

The one exception is Brian Gibbons.  He has only the most remote of chances to stick on the Penguins top line, if only because he's 5'8 and generously listed at 170 pounds. But he's been fun to watch these last few games - he's like Chris Connor with swagger and a lower center of gravity. That Gibbons looks comfortable with Crosby and Kunitz also puts the lie to the ridiculous notion that it's unusually hard to play with Crosby. Notice we said "unusually." It's hard to play with any great player, because, news flash, if you suck they won't want to play with you. Take James Neal and Evgeni Malkin. Neal has said before that Malkin can be very challenging because he has high standards for his wingers. Comes with the territory.

- Defying rumors that he had already flown to Sochi in anticipation of being named to the Canadian Olympic team, Kris Letang showed up in Vancouver last night. And for the first time in a long time, he looked like Norris Trophy finalist Kris Letang. Perhaps the most realistic way for the Pens to solve their lack of offensive depth problem is to get more offense from their defense, and if the highlights and reports from last night are any indication, we may start getting that from Letang.  Because Crosby and Malkin are healthy, and because it's January, scoring depth is not an urgent problem ... but it's a problem that will pop up after the Olympics and into the playoffs, and it's one that Letang will have to play a big part in solving.

- Since his healthy scratch, Olli Maatta is back in the 17-18 minute per night range, which is exactly where he should be.

- Fleury has had a strong year, especially coming off of last year's playoffs.  But he's given up 3 goals or more 6 times in the past 8 games.  Is this just a temporary market correction of his lofty stats early in the season ... or is this the real Fleury?  Like the lack of scoring depth, goaltending is another issue bubbling just below the surface of the Pens' remarkable success so far this season.  

Such a Fleury picture.
- For those who track the shot attempt numbers, the trending is not great...

- Interesting analysis by Pensburgh on whether Sidney Crosby can pass Mario in points.  Without looking at the numbers, it may seem highly likely that Sid would pass Mario eventually simply because of how many games Mario missed.  But Mario scored a lot of points, and Sid has missed a lot of games, so it's going to require at least 8 more seasons of Crosby at his current level to get in the ballpark.  The gut says that Crosby will do it because as he ages and maybe loses a step, he will morph his game into one that still relatively easily churns out 80-assist seasons into his late 30s.  Other than an injury, the main reason he won't do it is because his salary drops abruptly from $9M to $3M per year for the final 3 years of his deal.  $3M is a ton of money ... but it's not so much that he couldn't walk away from it.