Minggu, 15 April 2012

Penguins live and die with team identity


PITTSBURGH — Nobody expected the ledge to come this quickly, but here it is. The Pittsburgh Penguins had the fourth-best record in the National Hockey League this season, sported perhaps the two best players in the game, and were the betting favourites to win the Stanley Cup. What could be better?

And now they are down 2-0 to the Philadelphia Flyers and heading back to Philadelphia after two games in which they watched an early lead slip away, in pieces or in bursts. They haven’t just lost; they have been beaten. And much like the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks, two games into the post-season it has become a question of identity and trust, and whether the Penguins can hold onto either one.

“I mean, I think if you really watched the game closely it’s not like they’re carrying the play and all of a sudden it’s five shifts that they’re wearing us down and then they’re putting one in,” said Sidney Crosby, who had a goal and an assist in each of the first two games.

“It’s the other way around. We have possession for most of the time and we make one mistake, and it ends up in our net. Unfortunately that’s the way the game goes sometimes — it doesn’t seem fair, but that’s the way it goes. So we really, really have to focus on not making those mistakes, and we all believe we we have the guys to score goals.

“I think eventually, we keep doing good things, we keep going hard to the net, keep doing the things that we’re doing, hopefully we get some bounces too.”

Bounces is one thing; free-range defensive play is another. Philadelphia didn’t luck its way to eight goals in Game 2 — they did it on a rebound off a breakaway, a power play, an open rebound, an open shot from the slot extended, a defensive zone giveaway for a breakaway, a contested wrist shot from near the faceoff circle, a 3-on-1, and an empty netter. The Flyers had acres of room, and came flying at Fleury as if he was standing in the middle of an expressway. In Game 1 Philadelphia came back from a 3-0 deficit; in Game 2 Pittsburgh led 3-1, 4-3, and 5-4, and lost going away.

“If you’re asking does it affect the mindset, I think it does,” says Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma. “You can say that losing 4-3 is a 4-3 loss no matter how it goes down, and an overtime game is painful for anybody who’s losing 4-3. But I think we understand we had leads, 3-0 leads and two-goals leads, and they were able to come back … It’s difficult to deal with those losses but at the same time, we have to put it behind us.”

The question is what is wrong, and how to fix it. Down the stretch holes opened up in Pittsburgh’s defensive ice — an 8-4 loss to Ottawa, two 5-3 losses to the Islanders, a 6-4 loss to this same Philadelphia team in which the Flyers scored four third-period goals. Marc-AndrĂ© Fleury started three of those games, and finished two of them.

As Penguins defenceman Paul Martin puts it, “when you think of playoff games, and it being tight, the last couple of games I think for the most part have kind of caught us off guard as to what you expect, some of the chances given up … But I think we know the type of team that we are. I think the hardest part is we spend too much time trying to figure out why we let the lead slide.”

Pittsburgh was 32-0-3 this season when leading after two periods, tied for the sixth-best winning percentage in the league in that situation. But they were tied at the end of two in Game 2, and were only 19th in the league when leading after one period. They were 17th in goals-against, and 24th in save percentage. In their final 14 games with Sidney Crosby in the lineup, they went 1-4-1 when scoring fewer than five goals, and 8-0 when they scored five or more.

They have become, it appears, a sort of run-and-gun team, and against the Flyers — third in the league in scoring this season, two slots behind Pittsburgh — they have proven incapable of turning off the spigot once they race out in front.

But the Penguins believe this is wholly uncharacteristic. Maybe they’re right. Maybe they have no choice.

“This is who we are, this is our team, this is our identity, then as it unfolds down the stretch and you end up going goal for goal or you end up giving up some goals late — it can definitely be frustrating for teams,” said Martin. “For us, I think we still believe in who we are. We know who we are.”

Who are the Penguins? They think they know, but it’s time to find out again. And in Game 3 they can either peer into the abyss, or pull themselves away from it. We’ll see who they are. They will, too.

“We faced a lot this year. We had a lot injuries, a lot of media questioned our team, how fragile it was, and we always responded well,” says Pittsburgh defenceman Kris Letang. “We have a lot of character, I think, we have a lot of leaders in that dressing room. I’m really confident in this group.

“A good rivalry like that, you just want to live for those games. It’s fun to be part of, and we’ll see the true face of our team. And I think we’ll see if guys have character, and we’ll prove a lot.”

• Email: barthur@nationalpost.com


Flyers follow comeback script to take 2-0 series lead over Penguins

Jaromir Jagr’s evolution comes full circle

Sabtu, 14 April 2012

Penguins throwing it all away

Saturday, April 14, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 13: Sean Couturier #14 of the Philadelphia Flyers scores hat trick against Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 13, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Flyers defeated the Penguins 7-5. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

If someone had told you Sidney Crosby would score 15 seconds after the opening faceoff, that he'd make a moving show of leadership by giving up his place on the power play, that it would reap a reward right away, that his sweet setup would bring a two-goal lead in the first period ... would you take it?

If someone had told you Tyler Kennedy would snap a tie in the opening minute of the third period ... would you take it?

If someone had told you the Penguins could enter these Stanley Cup playoffs richly healthy, with the exception of defenseman Matt Niskanen, for the first time in three years ... would you take it?

Don't ask these Penguins. They're too busy throwing it away.

They should be capitalizing on more talent than they've had up front since the early '90s, more good fortune than they've known since Crosby raised that Cup in Detroit. But instead of stamping out a Philadelphia team they've had under their foot countless times, they've crumbled again and again.

Flyers 8, Penguins 5.

"We're down, 2-0," coach Dan Bylsma said of the score that really counts. "There were some crazy situations, a lot of back and forth. The bottom line is that they came into our building and won both games."

How sad.

And, really, how ugly it all looked: Every rush up ice by the Flyers brought a cringe, every rebound seemed to find an unguarded opponent, and every shot felt like it would find a hole. Marc-Andre Fleury gave up a touchdown on 30 shots, even though he really only could be faulted on the final two goals, and the defensive play — forwards and defensemen included — fluctuated only from porous to pathetic.

The day after Bylsma stressed moving forward — skating and passing — defenseman Ben Lovejoy maddeningly flicked a puck across the middle of the Penguins' zone, right at Philadelphia's Sean Couturier. That resulted in a breakaway and the goal that made it 5-5 just 17 seconds after Kennedy struck.

Seventeen seconds!

As if it didn't occur to anyone on the home side to preserve a lead for, oh, a minute or so.

How about Brooks Orpik going for a big hit in the neutral zone to set the stage for Philadelphia`s last-second goal in the second period?

Or Zbynek Michalek passing the puck laterally through the neutral zone in the third … to a linesman?

Seriously, there wasn`t a teammate within 30 feet, and he still went sideways.

Small wonder most Penguins sounded mostly eager to erase this and get on with Game 3.

"We've got to be a lot better, and that's all that we can control from this point," Crosby said. "The mistakes that we've made have ended up in our net. It's not like mistakes have gone by without any consequence."

"We made some mistakes, and they capitalized" Orpik said. "But there are 20 guys working as hard as they can. No one's pointing fingers in the room. Everybody's giving max effort."

He'd better be right. If things are going to change, it will be in performance and not personnel.

I'd been calling since mid-winter for the Penguins to promote Simon Despres and prepare him for the playoffs. But he's still in Wilkes-Barre, and that ship likely has sailed.

Odd how Niskanen, a third-pairing guy, has been so terribly missed in this setting, huh?

While I'm asking questions, here are others the Penguins might want to ponder ...

Will Evgeni Malkin, the league's imminent MVP, continue to be outshone by the 19-year-old Couturier, who not only shut down Malkin again but also netted a hat trick? Or will Malkin stop trying to stickhandle through the world?

Will the power play score or allow more goals by series' end?

Will the penalty-killing ever expand from its tiny box against the Flyers' killer power play?

Will Fleury flat-out dominate, because that's now critical?

Was Chris Kunitz really a minus-5 with two goals?

It's very much worth praising the Flyers. They've been relentless in bouncing back, furious on the forecheck and deadly on the finish. They found a way to hold their only lead in the third.

But sorry, I can't accept that this Philadelphia roster is the '80s Oilers reincarnated. It's a good group of forwards, but it's not eight-goals good. Nobody is in today's NHL. That takes two.

Alas, it takes only one to blow a beautiful opportunity.

Highlights: Game 2- Flyers 8, Penguins 5

Kamis, 12 April 2012

Pens undone by power play

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Philadelphia Flyers' Jakub Voracek (93) scores in overtime past Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29) and Penguins' Jordan Staal (11) during Game 1 of the opening-round NHL hockey playoff series Wednesday, April 11, 2012 in Pittsburgh. The Flyers won 4-3. (AP)

What a bizarre evening — and I`m not talking about the animals in the stands.

"Did you see all the bears out there?" Jaromir Jagr said to no one in particular in a joyous Philadelphia Flyers` dressing room. "There were like 70 or 80. How did they get tickets?"

They were not real bears, of course. They were Penguins fans dressed as bears, playfully mocking Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who, before the series, memorably told reporters the only thing he was scared of was "bears in the forest."

The Penguins looked pretty darn scary for a period, jumping to a 3-0 lead before they were undone by a familiar foe: their own power play.

That is their bear in the forest.

Unable to bury the resilient Flyers, the Penguins saw their three-goal lead melt into a stunning 4-3 loss when Jakub Voracek scored at 2:23 of overtime. Kris Letang flubbed a puck in front of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and Voracek whacked it home.

"What we did," Bryzgalov said, "was unbelievable."

To call the loss dispiriting would be a radical understatement. Blame it on the power play.

Not only did the Penguins fail to score on their three chances — all coming with an opportunity to bury the Flyers — but they sapped themselves of momentum.

"We didn`t have much end-zone time," said coach Dan Bylsma. "It was more off the rush, and within five to 10 seconds a shot, and (the Flyers) got it cleared."

The ineptness was enough to spark memories of last year`s power-play meltdown against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Surely, you remember. The Penguins went 1-for-35 overall and 0-for-25 at home.

At least that power play had an excuse. It didn`t have enough talent.

This one might have too much.

This isn`t new, either. The power play with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin underachieves to its talent level.

It`s time for Bylsma and his staff to make some changes. One, the Crosby-at-the-point experiment needs to end. He belongs around the net. That is where he does his best work. It`s where he scored a brilliant even-strength goal last night.

Two, Steve Sullivan belongs back on the first unit full-time. Gaining entry has been a problem. Sullivan is a master there. He and Kris Letang need to man the points. It seems obvious now. Chris Kunitz would then be the odd man out.

The Penguins didn`t shoot enough with the man advantage last night. They got too cute. When they did get a decent shot, they had zero net-front presence.

The only space that cleared faster than the Flyers` goal crease was the Penguins` dressing room after the game. Players were gone in record time, leaving a trail of unanswered questions.

The Flyers gained life immediately after a failed Penguins power play early in the second period. A goal there, and "it`s over," as Voracek put it.

Instead, Daniel Briere took advantage of a Joe Vitale turnover to make it 3-1 (yes, Briere was a mile offside on the play).

Briere struck again early in the third to make it 3-2, beating Fleury on an odd-angle shot from near the left boards.

"I`m sure he`d like to have that one back," Briere said.

The Flyers showed the Penguins what a real power play looks like after Brooks Orpik went to the box for interference at 10:41 of the third. Brayden Schenn skillfully deflected a Scott Hartnell pass into the net at 12:23.

Game 1`s don`t always foretell a series, especially when the Penguins are involved. In their past four playoff series, and five of their past six, the Game 1 winner went on to lose.

But this was a shocker.

It puts a ton of pressure on the Penguins Friday night, unless they`re planning more 2-0 escapes on their way to another Stanley Cup.

That doesn`t sound like a good plan.

A mandatory practice today, featuring lots of power-play work with Sullivan at the point, sounds like a great one.

Time to bear down.

Highlights: Game 1- Flyers 4, Penguins 3 (OT)

Rabu, 11 April 2012

Say it: Penguins will win Cup

Wednesday, April 11, 2012
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman presents Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins with the Stanley Cup after his team defeated the Detroit Red Wings by a score of 2-1 to win Game Seven and the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Finals at Joe Louis Arena on June 12, 2009 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

It`s been three years since Marc-Andre Fleury slid across to stone Nicklas Lidstrom and Sidney Crosby raised the Stanley Cup on that joyous June 12, 2009, at Joe Louis Arena.

Three long, lousy years.

Or, to put that in more painfully precise terms, it`s been 101 games lost by Crosby to concussions and other stuff, 61 games lost by Evgeni Malkin to knee injuries and other stuff, and 60 games lost by Jordan Staal to two foot surgeries, three related procedures, an infection, a broken hand, a strained knee and … am I missing something?

Oh, yeah: Two Game 7 losses to inferior opponents on home ice.

Those might have hurt the most.

Anyone ready for a change?

Anyone ready for all that misfortune to take a hard Pittsburgh left?

I can name at least 20 individuals — notably the 10 who were in uniform that defining night in Detroit — who sure sound ready to generate that change, beginning with Game 1 against the Flyers on this great Wednesday for hockey at Consol Energy Center.

"The fire is there, for sure," Crosby said Tuesday after practice.

"This team`s really hungry," right winger Craig Adams said.

"We`ve wanted it all along," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "The desire was there even last year when we were playing without Sid and Geno. This year, it`s just a little more realistic."

Sure is.

Everyone around town has been sharing their first-round predictions in recent days. Here`s mine: These Penguins are going to win the Stanley Cup.

And when they do, few of us will even remember how they took out the Flyers.

I`m not suggesting it`ll be easy. Clearly, it won`t, based on the rivals` heated, mostly even back-and-forth this season. But I am saying there isn`t another NHL team — not the Flyers, Canucks, Blues, Predators, Rangers or anyone else — that can match the Penguins` total package.


That was No. 1 in the league, led by the game`s preeminent players in Crosby and Malkin and suddenly one of its preeminent wingers in James Neal.


Not many teams can claim seven players with 17 or more goals, and bear in mind that Crosby isn`t among them. He had eight. Chris Kunitz (26), Pascal Dupuis (25) and Matt Cooke (19) all had career-high outputs in supporting roles.

Special teams?

The power play ranked fifth, the penalty-killing third. If your biggest problem on special teams is how to utilize the best player on the planet with the man-advantage, you have no problems.


It`s got a star in Kris Letang, it`s got good mobility and, while it`s hardly rambunctious, I wouldn`t cross the blue line with my head down against Letang, Deryk Engelland or Orpik. That`s half the corps right there.


This is as tough as any roster, top to bottom, in franchise history. And I`m not talking about fights, which are rare in the playoffs. I`m talking Adams tough, Arron Asham tough, in-your-face tough.


OK, we`ll see on this one. Suffice it to say facing the Flyers first should help.


Of the current top performers at the game`s most important position, Fleury is the only one with a ring. That counts.

Add all this up, look at the rest of the field, and don`t be afraid to say it: This team is built to win the Cup.

Not to take a round or two.

Not to reach the final.

To win it all.

The way most in this locker room see it, they should have challenged for the Cup every year since 2009. They should have reaped so much more from this blessed well of talent, and they would have had it not been for the curse of injury.

"I think now comes the realization, with these last couple years, that you don`t know when you`ll get the opportunity again," Cooke said. "You don`t know when you`re going to have a full lineup like this. You don`t know when you`re going to have all this potential like we have. You want to make the most of it."

He`s right.

Now, dump the Flyers in five or six and get on with it. There`s bigger business at hand.

Flyers don't scare Pens; won't beat them, either

By Mark Madden
Special to The Beaver County Times
April 8, 2012

The first-round playoff series between the Penguins and Flyers is a mismatch on paper. The Penguins have better hockey players.

But sometimes the Flyers play better hockey.

The Flyers went 4-2 against the Penguins this season by repeatedly applying the same formula: Lots of offensive-zone time, exploitation of odd-man breaks, a razor-sharp power play and a maximum of distraction. The Penguins have difficulty getting to their game against Philadelphia.

The Flyers could win this series. But they won't.

Over seven games played consecutively, talent adds up. Matchups and game plans adjust constantly, but Dan Bylsma certainly takes no backseat to Peter Laviolette in those departments. It's hard to imagine the Flyers dealing with the Penguins' three centers over the long haul of a series.

The Penguins enjoy a massive advantage in goal, with Stanley Cup-winner Marc-Andre Fleury facing a ready-to-erupt goalie controversy.

The Flyers are playing Ilya Bryzgalov $51 million to be their No. 1 netminder. But Sergei Bobrovsky is 5-1 lifetime against the Penguins. If Bryzgalov drops Game 1, the Philly faithful will call for Bobrovsky. If you think you have two great goaltenders, you really don't have any.

The Flyers' power play is their biggest weapon. The Penguins normally hope for tight refereeing. This series, not so much.

Hopefully, mayhem gets curbed. But the Penguins don't want to trade power plays with Philadelphia. Each team's man-advantage unit converted 19.7 percent of its chances, but the Flyers led the NHL in power-play goals with 66. The Flyers' PP produces relentless pressure with quick passes and plentiful shots. The Penguins' PP indulges a bit too much.

The Penguins' offense has been insane since Crosby's return, averaging 4.8 goals per game and netting fewer than four just twice in 14 games. That's incredible, especially given how laissez-faire officiating is slowing down NHL hockey.

One disclaimer: High-octane offense doesn't win in the postseason. The Penguins have played great hockey. But are they playing playoff hockey?

Not really. But they will be. This team isn't a bunch of dummies, and Bylsma didn't just fall off the turnip truck.

When the Penguins had their early-'90s juggernauts, they definitely had an unstated philosophy: The regular-season is for stats, the playoffs are for winning. Trap if you have to. Do whatever it takes. These Penguins have 12 holdovers from their 2009 Cup winner. They understand.

The Flyers, despite zero psychology degrees, were always going to try to get inside the Penguins' heads. That's what Laviolette's histrionics a week ago and assistant coach Craig Berube's volatile quotes were about.

But all that seems to have backfired. NBC analyst Mike Milbury, Hockey Night in Canada gadfly Don Cherry and Rangers coach John Tortorella piled on, and it seems to have brought the Penguins even closer, instilling an us-against-them mentality Hines Ward would be proud of.

I've never understood the idea of angering Crosby. When is the last time that paid off?

The Penguins did not engage the Flyers' silliness in Saturday's regular-season finale, save when Joe Vitale paid for past transgressions by being forced to repeatedly bruise his knuckles on Harry Zolnierczyk's melon. Stamp that message "return to sender." The Flyers don't scare the Penguins. The Flyers may not even annoy the Penguins, not any more. There's a bigger picture. The Penguins see it.

Pittsburgh in six. It could be shorter.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).