Minggu, 15 April 2012

Penguins live and die with team identity

By





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-André 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


Related:

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

By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/?_s_icmp=nav_sports
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

By Joe Starkey, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/?_s_icmp=nav_sports
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

By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/?_s_icmp=nav_sports
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.

Scoring?

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.

Depth?

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.

Defense?

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.

Toughness?

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.

Discipline?

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

Goaltending?

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
http://www.timesonline.com/sports/
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).

Selasa, 10 April 2012

Defenseman Letang is Penguins' unsung star

BY FRANK SERAVALLI
Daily News Staff Writer
http://www.philly.com/philly/sports/flyers/
April 10, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 15: Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck in front of Marian Gaborik #10 of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on March 15, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH - For the Pittsburgh Penguins, one player - more than any other - is vital to their on-ice success against the Flyers.

He is a 24-year-old Canadian with a sparkling resumé that includes a Stanley Cup, multiple All-Star appearances and statistics that stack up with the best in his position in the NHL.

He missed a significant chunk of this season with postconcussion symptoms. He returned for a bit, dazzled to pull the Penguins out of a funk, and then was forced to sit out again later because of fogginess. His team struggled mightily without him.

His name is not Sidney Crosby.

In fact, many think the Penguins learned how to win without Crosby, who missed 107 games over the last two seasons and five against the Flyers alone. Instead, it's a lot tougher to explain Pittsburgh's marginal 18-13-0 record without Kris Letang this season.

The Penguins' two-pronged attack of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin deservedly garners the spotlight on a nightly basis. Quietly, some think Pittsburgh will go only as far as Letang - their horse on the back end - will take them in the playoffs.

"When he's out, we miss him, there's no question about that," Penguins forward Arron Asham said. "He's just as talented as any one of those guys [pointing around the locker room]."

To say the least, it was a tough season for Letang. Injuries are the only thing that have kept him out of the Norris Trophy race as the league's top defenseman. Even with the concussion and knee injury, which caused him to miss 31 games, Letang was nearly a point-per-game player, with 42 in 51 contests.

He finished second among defensemen in points-per-game to Ottawa's Erik Karlsson. Letang has 21 points in 28 career games against the Flyers.

But to single out Letang as simply an offensive dynamo would be to shortchange him.

"I've really seen his overall game develop," Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden said on Saturday. "We have quite a bit of depth, both here and in [AHL] Wilkes-Barre, but none have the unique package that he does.

"He's a unique package of being able to add in the offensive zone, whether it's on the power play, or just getting a shot through most of the time. Then he's able to be able to defend with his feet. His pride with defending has changed quite a bit.

"His feet are great. His stick-on-puck is arguably one of the best in the league. When it comes time for him to play physical, he's got a great center of gravity down low. He can win battles down low against bigger, power forwards, and that's something that goes unnoticed."

Reirden, the former NHL player who heads the Penguins' defense under Dan Bylsma, said Letang's game has changed thanks to a daily video session that has quickly become a tradition. Letang and Reirden review game film together "for at least an hour" daily.

Even though plus/minus is a flawed hockey statistic, Letang finished this, his fifth full season, as a plus-21 playing against each opponent's top line nightly.

"The video has allowed him to slow the game down," Reirden said. "He's studied how to make himself better. Then he watches the top defensemen around the league."

Asham said Letang will "skate you into the ground." Letang averaged 24:50 in ice time this season, which Reirden said is "just a normal game for him." For the Penguins, any sense of normalcy is fleeting when Letang's familiar No. 58 is not meandering the blue line.

Pittsburgh lost six straight from Dec. 29 through Jan. 11. Letang returned on Jan. 19 and, not surprisingly, the Penguins went on to win five consecutive games; they had another 11-game streak from late February to mid-March.

"We saw our numbers on the power play drop quite a bit without him," Reirden said. "The minutes he can play are effortless. He takes a lot of pressure off our other guys."



Contact Frank Seravalli at seravaf@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @DNFlyers. Read his blog, Frequent Flyers, at www.philly.com/frequentflyers.

Crosby regaining his hockey instincts

By Shelly Anderson
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/
April 10, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 7: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins handles the puck against the Philadelphia Flyers during the game at Consol Energy Center on April 7, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Skating over the blue line, Sidney Crosby still finds himself pondering a little about what comes next.

That makes him just a mite envious of his Penguins teammates who have played all season and are performing heavily on instinct.

"They go in and they don't have to worry about stopping in the [defensive] zone," Crosby said. "They have to think about it, but it's becomes more [a habit]. I miss that. I miss it feeling automatic."

Only a well-trained eye could pick up on that rustiness. Crosby has been out most of the past 15 months because of concussion and neck problems, but he has stormed back in his latest, second comeback.

He enters the first-round playoff series against Philadelphia, beginning Wednesday at Consol Energy Center, with 25 points -- six goals and 19 assists -- over 14 games since returning to the lineup.

Where many might see an impressive average of 1.79 points a game in that month-long stretch, Crosby sees room for improvement, especially with goals.

"It's more of a timing thing for me," he said. "I want to make sure I take advantage of [scoring opportunities]. When you get to the playoffs, you're not going to get five, six a game. It could be two.

"I've been trying to focus on every little detail and make sure I improve. Sometimes it just takes time, but it hasn't been from a lack of effort. I knew coming in that it's a little tougher jumping in in March than it is jumping in in November. It's a different style. The games are different, faster-paced."

Crosby first returned to the lineup this season on Nov. 21, to great fanfare after he had been out since Jan. 5 -- more than 10 months spanning two NHL seasons. He had two goals, two assists in a 5-0 win at home against the New York Islanders. His numbers wilted a bit -- no goals, eight assists -- over the next seven games before recurring symptoms again forced him out of the lineup.

Back to watching. Back to waiting. Back to wondering when he would feel normal for good -- his version of normal being one of the best hockey players, if not the best, on the planet.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sports/penguins/sid-regaining-his-hockey-instincts-630697/

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com and Twitter @pgshelly.


Related: Ron Cook - Flyers Crumble When Crosby At His Best -
http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sports/ron-cook/flyers-crumble-when-crosby-at-his-best-630686/

Senin, 09 April 2012

Extra cash won’t change Cutch

By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/?_s_icmp=nav_sports
Monday, April 9, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 08: Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a walk-off RBI single in the 9th inning in front of Brian Schneider #23 of the Philadelphia Phillies during the game on April 8, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Andrew McCutchen is an extraordinarily wealthy young man, you might have heard. That six-year, $51.5 million extension he signed with the Pirates a couple of months ago launched him into a spending bracket most of us can't fathom, much less attain.

As McCutchen loosely acknowledged Sunday morning, "It's a heck of a lot of money. A lot more money than I'd ever be able to spend on my own."

Must be nice, huh?

But here's another way to think about all that cash: If McCutchen takes 500 at-bats a year over the life of the extension, he'd be paid $17,167 for every time he steps into the box.

That can exact a price of a different kind.

It can bring pressure.

It can have a player squeezing his bat to sawdust.

"Really? You think so?" McCutchen offered through a playful smile when I raised the topic. "You think that's me?"

Um, well, no.

And if it recklessly crossed my mind ever so briefly in seeing McCutchen go 1 for 7 and bounce into two double plays through two games of this opening series with the Phillies ... well, all was set right by Sunday afternoon: The Pirates' best player went 3 for 4 with a double, a walk and, oh yeah, a walkoff single slammed off the center-field fence in the ninth.

Pirates 5, Phillies 4.

The outcome was a thing of beauty, a second walkoff in as many days and two of three from a National League power armed with great arms.

But it was no prettier than the final at-bat alone, one that Pedro Alvarez adroitly said, "just shows the kind of player Cutch is."


Read more: Kovacevic: Extra cash won’t change Cutch - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/columnists/s_790471.html#ixzz1rYTVVSRZ

Minggu, 08 April 2012

Don’t rip Penguins, or else

By Larry Brooks
New York Post
http://www.nypost.com
April 8, 2012

Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (71) and Sidney Crosby (87) sit on the bench during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers in Pittsburgh Saturday, April 7, 2012. The Penguins won 4-2. (AP)

As If there had been any previous doubt, this week’s events demonstrated once and for all the Penguins are the NHL’s version of Made Men, not only untouchable but protected by the authorities against insult.

The league responded to John Tortorella’s withering verbal attack on the Pittsburgh organization, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as if the Rangers coach had bellied up to the bar and told Mario Lemieux to go home and get his shine box.

The NHL whacked Tortorella in the pocketbook is what they did, because if there’s one thing the league can’t allow, it’s calling attention to the Most Favored Nation status granted the Penguins and their owner.

The irony is that’s exactly what the league accomplished by overreacting to Tortorella’s colorful verbiage with its $20,000 fine approximately 14 months after the NHL had allowed Lemieux to skate away free of charge after the owner issued a statement on his team’s website in which he condemned the league for its response to brawls between the Islanders and the Penguins at the Coliseum.

Lemieux threatened to walk away from the NHL the way he once threatened to take his team to Kansas City. He said the league had failed. The league said it would take no action against the owner.

The “arrogance” of the Pittsburgh ownership to which Tortorella referred is a sense of entitlement bestowed upon it by a league that appears more invested in protecting the Penguins than opponents who might be injured as a result of reckless plays that somehow always are deemed accidental or not worthy of NHL sanction.

On its own, the Brooks Orpik knee-on-knee hit delivered to Derek Stepan in the final minutes of Thursday’s game in Pittsburgh probably was not worthy of a suspension.

The fact is, however, it was not a stand-alone incident. Orpik initiated a similar, perhaps even more malicious, knee-on-knee hit against Brad Richards in the neutral zone midway through the first period of a game at the Garden on Nov. 29, a play in which neither a penalty was called nor supplemental discipline issued.

Malkin is notorious for his slew-footing escapades on which he never is cited, all the way back to the 2008 playoffs against the Rangers. Matt Cooke got away with a leg sweep on Richards in the second period of a game at the Garden on Jan. 19. Aaron Asham injured the Bruins’ Johnny Boychuk leg-on-leg April 3, two days after another one of those “accidental” collisions against Philadelphia that just happen to follow the Penguins from city to city.

Pierre McGuire, meanwhile, saw nothing.

Better for the NBC’s between-the-glass future employment prospects in either the broadcast industry or in an NHL front office to remain silent rather than cast a critical glance at the Penguins, much less record anything other than an audio love letter their way.

It always has been inexplicable NBC would have wanted Mike Milbury, someone whose idea of analysis is invariably to dive straight to the bottom and engage in character assassination and attack on an individual’s manhood, as its representative.

But the network never one time flinched until this week, when Milbury had the audacity to defame Crosby, Malkin and the Penguins the way he has built a TV career defaming Jaromir Jagr, Alex Ovechkin, Daniel and Henrik Sedin ... uh, maybe there’s a pattern?

The network, and by extension, the league, was fine with years of ridicule and personal attack over its own airwaves, but when Milbury dared to similarly bottom-feed on the Penguins and Crosby in a radio interview, no less, whoa boy, enough was enough.

An apology was coerced and Milbury conveniently will not be among the participants in tomorrow’s joint network and league conference call (“Uh, Mike, did you mean it when you called Crosby a ‘punk’ before you recanted?”) designed to publicize the coverage of the playoffs.

The 11th Commandment: “Thy shy not speak ill of the Favorite Son.”

Everyone is on notice from the league. The problem for the league though, is everyone has noticed the double standard as applied to the Penguins by a league that was silent when Lemieux, coolly detached two days after an event, attacked the operation but reached into Tortorella’s pocket for $20,000 when the coach, white hot 20 minutes after an incident, did the same.

As far as the smell test goes, the league has passed.

It smells, all right.

larry.brooks@nypost.com

Malkin's feats thrill team

By Ron Cook
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/
April 8, 2012

Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (71) celebrates his 50th goal of the season, in the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers in Pittsburgh Saturday, April 7, 2012. (AP)


It turns out there was a good reason the Penguins' power play looked so putrid Saturday during a five-minute major penalty given to the Philadelphia Flyers' Zac Rinaldo for checking defenseman Zbynek Michalek from behind into the boards midway through the first period.

"We were killing ourselves looking for [Evgeni Malkin]," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

Getting Malkin his 50th goal was the Penguins' No. 2 mission going into the game. No. 1 was getting out of it with everybody healthy against a team that likes to play it rough and tacitly had threatened violence against Penguins star Sidney Crosby earlier in the week.

The Penguins accomplished both goals in their 4-2 win.

They will start the playoffs against the Flyers this week with all hands on deck, including 50-goal scorer Malkin.

Does that have a nice ring to it or what?

"That's a huge number," Bylsma said.

Malkin didn't get No. 50 during that long early power play, but he did become the ninth player in Penguins' history to reach it when he took a drop pass from defenseman Kris Letang and blistered a shot by Flyers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky at 19:48 of the second period for the game's final goal. Crosby is one of the other eight along with Jean Pronovost, Pierre Larouche, Rick Kehoe, Mike Bullard, Mario Lemieux, Kevin Stevens and Jaromir Jagr. Crosby, who scored 51 goals in the 2009-10 season, knows how hard it is to reach.

"When you get close to 50, the games start to go and start to narrow down," he said. "You obviously think about it. It's a great number. To do it coming off the injury that [Malkin] did makes it even more impressive. I think we're all really happy for him."

Happy?

"Everybody is ecstatic," Bylsma said.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sports/ron-cook/cook-malkins-feats-thrill-team-630432/

Dedication paying off for Pens' Evgeni Malkin

By Rob Rossi, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/?_s_icmp=nav_sports
Sunday, April 8, 2012

Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (71) celebrates his 50th goal of the season with teammate Sidney Crosby in the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers in Pittsburgh Saturday, April 7, 2012. (AP)

Evgeni Malkin is an acknowledged cheater.

As a teenager, his mom said, Malkin would complain of a sore arm and quit tennis matches against his brother late in a decisive set when defeat seemed imminent.

Since joining teammates' card games on Penguins charter flights, he has bullied his way to wins. All is well if Malkin plays the proper hand, but somebody is at fault if he does not and teammates concede defeat rather than deal with his sharp jabs or sleight-of-hand deals, winger Matt Cooke said.

The surest sign of Malkin's willingness to put himself over, at least in the opinion of his dad, are the nights when he sabotages his girlfriend during games of Narde, a two-player board game similar to backgammon.

"If I lose, I hate everyone, everywhere," Malkin said Thursday night after he scored a goal and recorded an assist in a home win over the New York Rangers his sixth goal and eighth point in six games against the club with the best record in the Eastern Conference.

To be clear: Malkin is cool with cheating if it means not losing.

"Always," he said, flashing a grin, "and sometimes it's the same in hockey. You stay near the blueline, and the coach gets mad, but sometimes if you want to win you need a little bit to cheat."
This season has proven to be an ironic exception to that rule.

Malkin, 25 and in his seventh NHL campaign, won a second scoring title with 50 goals and 109 points and is the favorite to win the Hart Trophy (MVP) for which he twice has finished runner-up by refusing to cheat on a commitment to fitness he made about a year ago while rehabbing an injured right knee that forced him to watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

He has not skimped on the daily workouts that involve plyometric circuits, core compulsions, lung-burning cardio, kettle bells and traditional weights. What he started in July in Moscow with Penguins strength coach Mike Kadar continued through a postgame session Saturday.

Staying in supreme shape so that teammates could count on him to consistently produce not becoming only third Penguins player to lead the league in scoring more than once is what Malkin said he is most proud of this season.

That is a very Sidney Crosby-like thought, and it should not surprise anybody that Malkin expressed it.
"Geno is like Sid in the sense that he leads by example," Kadar said. "Also, if there is something in front of him, he wants to win at it.

"If you'd look at the stuff we did in the gym over the summer, it was always him wanting one more rep than the guy he was working with, but once we were done with the workouts, it was him back to being laid back and laughing. He's really funny in those spots, but when there is a competition, he gets serious. You can actually see the difference on his face.

"I think he knew he had to step up this season because we weren't sure about Sid's health."


Read more: Dedication paying off for Pens' Evgeni Malkin - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/penguins/s_790414.html#ixzz1rV9DYUYW

Highlights: Penguins 4, Flyers 2

Sabtu, 07 April 2012

What to Expect in 2012

By Joe Giardina
Painting The Black
http://www.pittsburghsportsreport.com/
Mon, 04/02/2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 05: Erik Bedard #45 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies during the Opening Day game on April 5, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

For the first four months of the 2011 season, the Pirates were relevant again. They entered the All-Star break above .500 for the first time since 1992. They had three All-Stars for the first time since 1990.

On July 18 they were in first place in the NL Central – the latest in the season they were atop the division since 1997. But the final two months weren’t as kind. They lost 47 of their final 72 games and finished the season in fourth place, 24 games back of the division-winning Brewers.

So what is to be expected in 2012? Here are some bold – and some not so bold – predictions…

DO EXPECT to see left fielder Jose Tabata take a step forward in his development as a legit major leaguer. Despite the hype that has surrounded him – be it due to the fact he came from the Yankees, or that he was a victim of that awkward false identity scheme last season – Tabata really hasn’t shown much at the major league level, besides being an injury-prone singles hitter. But general manager Neal Huntington doesn’t generally throw money around easily, and the fact that Tabata was given nearly $15 million guaranteed shows they believe in the type of player he can be, and that the double-digit homerun power will eventually come – just as long as he can stay on the field.

DON’T EXPECT to see Pedro Alvarez develop into the middle-of-the-order bat the Pirates so desperately need. Spring numbers mean little – when they are good. But this spring Alvarez struggled with exactly what he has failed to do throughout his young career, and what he was expected to work on this offseason – hit the outside pitch, recognize off speed pitches, hit the ball consistently with authority. Maybe playing winter ball would have been a good idea? Regardless of the fact he struck out in nearly half of his March at-bats, Alvarez will start the season in Pittsburgh. There is a good chance the results won’t be pretty.

DO EXPECT to see Andrew McCutchen bounce back from a forgettable second half of 2011 in which he hit .216 with a .330 OBP. It’s no secret that McCutchen is the team’s most gifted player, which was obvious even before the ink dried on his new six-year, $51.5-million contract. He is the rare talent that can work the count (.390 OBP in the first half of 2011), hit for power (.505 SLG in the first half of 2011) and run (78 career stolen bases in two and a half seasons). Oh, and he is only 25 years old, meaning he hasn’t even approached his prime. Developing into an eventual 30/30 player, perhaps as soon as this season, isn’t out of the question.

DON’T EXPECT to see Jeff Karstens repeat his amazing two-month run last season in which he went 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA. It’s been written before, but Karstens repertoire doesn’t blow anyone away. His fastball isn’t fast, his breaking pitches aren’t unhittable, and even his usual control has at times escaped him this spring, with eight walks in 17 innings. Again, spring numbers obviously can be skewed, as perhaps he was working on specific pitches, or pitching to a certain location – but the fact is Karstens is a bottom of the rotation starter. On the Pirates, however, he is slated as the number two starter.

DO EXPECT to see Eric Bedard become the most significant and successful free agent signed under Huntington’s watch (not that he is dealing with exceptional company). Four years ago Bedard was making more than $7 million a year and coming off a season in which he struck out slightly more than 30 percent of the batters he faced, which at the time was the seventh best strikeout rate in the history of the American League. This off-season, due to obvious health concerns (he has started only 54 games and thrown 293 innings over the past four seasons, missing all of 2010), Huntington signed him for one year at $4.5 million. He might be one of the most fragile pitchers in baseball, but when he has toed the rubber he’s averaged nearly a strikeout per inning and hasn’t shown much regression. Is he a lock to start 30-plus games? Probably not. But against weaker offenses in the National League, the Pirates only need him to remain relatively healthy until the All-Star break, because…

DON’T EXPECT to see Bedard finish the season in a Pirates’ uniform. The benefit of a low-risk, high-reward signing like Bedard is that if he does stay healthy and perform to his ability, he will become valuable trade bait at the deadline. Contenders are always looking for starting pitching, especially when it’s available in a cheap, pro-rated one-year deal.

Read more: http://www.pittsburghsportsreport.com/PSR/node/4234

Jumat, 06 April 2012

Pirates must dig deep for runs

By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Friday, April 6, 2012


Pirates pinch hitter Nate McLouth strikes out in front of Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz during the eighth inning Thursday at PNC Park.
(Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review)



It spoke volumes that a pinch-hit at-bat by Nate McLouth put the biggest charge into the PNC Park-record 39,585 watching the Pirates` 126th season opener Thursday.

Not the strikeout that followed.

The at-bat itself.

It started with polite applause as McLouth was summoned on deck in the eighth inning, the Pirates having a man aboard and trailing the great Roy Halladay and the Phillies by a run. It then grew to a full-throated ovation when McLouth was announced. And by the time he stepped into the box, some folks were standing.

Not just in the stands. You should have seen the home dugout.

"Oh, we were totally into it," fellow outfielder Andrew McCutchen said. "That was awesome."

It was a neat moment. Really was. McLouth was a popular All-Star performer with the Pirates before plunging into Mendoza territory in two-plus seasons with the Braves. People clearly remembered and respected what he did here.

"For these fans to do that … that was so cool," McLouth would say in a quiet clubhouse. "I was trying not to think about it because I was locked into the game. But it means a lot. I just wish it would have been a different outcome."

Right. The outcome.

Turns out McLouth`s smoked liner for a foul ball on Halladay`s first pitch would be one of just four — count `em, four — hard-hit balls all day for the home side. No kidding. Neil Walker and Clint Barmes swatted balls to the track in left, and pitcher Erik Bedard lined out.

It was worse than that, actually. After Alex Presley opened the first inning with a soft single and Jose Tabata reached on a sweet bunt, all the rest of the Pirates` at-bats produced zero runs, zero hits, zero walks, seven balls getting as far as the outfield and, hey, those two hit batsmen.

Where have you gone, Jason Kendall`s elbow guard?

That`s why the fans rose to their feet for McLouth.

That`s also why, in a pleasant surprise, they warmly welcomed struggling Pedro Alvarez for his first at-bat. Funny, but it might have been the Pirates` best all day. Alvarez fought through seven pitches — the most Halladay threw to anyone — before flying out.

"Great at-bat," bench coach Jeff Banister said. "It`s what we want to see."

Pulling hard for struggling players is the stuff of a fan base fully aware that this offense will need to find hits under every overturned couch pillow.


Read more: Kovacevic: Pirates must dig deep for runs - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/columnists/s_790167.html#ixzz1rFwcKetY



PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 05: A general view of the home plate gate at PNC Park prior to the Opening Day game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies on April 5, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)


PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 05: A general view of PNC Park during the Opening Day game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies on April 5, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)


PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 05: Pedro Alvarez #24 of the Pittsburgh Pirates signs autographs for fans prior to the Opening Day game against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 5, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)


PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 05: Erik Bedard #45 of the Pittsburgh Pirates throws the first pitch of the game to home plate in front of Shane Victorino #8 of the Philadelphia Phillies during the Opening Day game on April 5, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)


PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 05: Roy Halladay #34 of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the Opening Day game on April 5, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)


PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 05: Ty Wigginton #24 of the Philadelphia Phillies slides safely into home plate to score in front of Rod Barajas #26 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 7th inning during the Opening Day game on April 5, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Highlights: Penguins 5, Rangers 2

Kamis, 05 April 2012

It's 82 or bust for Bucs

By Joe Starkey, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/?_s_icmp=nav_sports
Thursday, April 5, 2012

In this image made with a fisheye lens, members of the media line the dugout area and watch as the Pittsburgh Pirates have a practice session at PNC Park, Wednesday, April 4, 2012, in preparation for Thursday's opening day baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Pittsburgh. (AP)

Clint Hurdle, the second-year manager, insists his team is "better" than it was last season in all facets offense, defense, starting pitching, bullpen and bench.

Neal Huntington, the fifth-year general manager, says the club is ready to make "another big step."

Bob Nutting, the sixth-year principal owner, speaks of a different "expectation level."

What's it all mean in terms of won-loss record for the 2012 Pirates?

Well, nobody wants to get that specific. Which is just as well. The last time a Pirates official pegged a win total, it was then-owner Kevin McClatchy predicting 90 wins in 2000.

He was only 21 off.

Certainly, nobody wants to mention the magic number, even if we all know what it is.

Eighty-two.

That's right, 82 wins. A 10-game improvement on last season.

A complicated sabermetrics calculation tells me 82 is one more than 81 a nice number upon which much of the fan base is fixated. After all, an 81-81 record would snap their team's pesky 19-year losing skid.

Problem is, it would not prevent the streak of non-winning seasons from reaching 20. Eighty-one wins would therefore be annoying, confusing and highly inconvenient.

It's 82 or bust.

Nobody's saying 82 wins should be a stated goal at Pirates headquarters. That would be embarrassing. But the rest of us know the importance of 82 and until the Pirates post a winning season, that 500-pound gorilla will have a prominent place in their clubhouse.

Is this the year?

I doubt it. But a bad division and better arms give the Pirates hope. There is always hope, especially on Opening Day.

I asked MLB analyst Eric Byrnes to put a percentage on the Pirates winning the NL Central. He did not hesitate.

"None. Zero. Zilch," he said.

Really, no chance? Byrnes amended the figure to 4 percent, which sounds about right. His analysis was spot-on.

"This isn't a bad team," he said. "I don't think it's a team that will lose 100 games. But this isn't a good team. They have a bunch of middle-of-the-road guys."

Good thing the Pirates don't listen to voices outside of their clubhouse especially the sabermetrics crowd. Consider ESPN's "fantasy projection" for new shortstop Clint Barmes:

Barmes is one of the worst regulars in baseball ... his .297 on-base percentage the past six seasons combined is ninth-worst among players with 2,000-plus plate appearances.

Casey McGehee?

Coming off one of the worst seasons of any regular his .223 batting average was fourth-worst and .626 OPS third-worst among qualified hitters.

Geez. How about Pedro Alvarez?

Among players who saw at least 200 curveballs and sliders combined last season, his .072 batting average against them was a major-league worst.

Alvarez hit .072 on breaking balls? Good thing he went to winter ball to work on that. Oh wait ...

The division has gotten worse, no doubt, but I'm guessing you wouldn't mind a middle of the order featuring Ryan "Real Story" Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart. That's Milwaukee's. Or maybe a 2-3-4-5 combo of Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and David Freese, like they have in St. Louis.

How about a rotation that kicks off with Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos (Cincinnati), or maybe Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum (Milwaukee)?

Circle those games against the rebuilding Cubs and pitiful Astros all you like, just know this: Somebody's circling the Pirates, too.

Injuries obviously could be an equalizer. Alvarez could be one, too and I'm expecting Andrew McCutchen to leap toward MVP-like numbers but the biggest key, as always, is starting pitching.

Incredible pitching is why the Pirates were in first place in late July. Horrific pitching is why they crumbled.

Erik Bedard, A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton have top-starter stuff without top-starter resumes. If they stay healthy, and if some combination of Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia and James McDonald is respectable, all bets are off.

I'm betting on 72-90 again but there's always hope. Especially on Opening Day.

Senin, 02 April 2012

It's Bylsma's move now

By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/?_s_icmp=nav_sports
Monday, April 2, 2012


Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, center, talks with Penguins' Steve Sullivan (26) and Sidney Crosby (87) on the bench during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, April 1, 2012. The Flyers won 6-4. (AP)

Forget the Penguins' total flat-liner of a 6-4 loss to Philadelphia, if you hadn't already by sundown Sunday. The outcome meant little, and the sideshow that followed meant less.

There's no point fretting over blowing home ice for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, not with the Flyers still undefeated at Consol Energy Center. You'd rather see Games 1 and 2 in the Civic Arena rubble than on this side of Centre Avenue.

No point fussing over Peter Laviolette's freak-out, either.

In a final-minute show of what might well have been manufactured rage, Philadelphia's coach reacted to Joe Vitale's textbook hipcheck on Daniel Briere and an ensuing center-ice brawl like a petulant 7-year-old: He smashed a stick, finger-pointed the Penguins' bench and — in a classic case of the pot calling the kettle orange and black — twice described the Penguins' staff as "gutless" for deploying the fourth line late in a lopsided game.

OK, and?

The Flyers behaving boorishly is about as newsworthy as Cup-free summers on the other end of the commonwealth.

No, the most important takeaway here for the home side should have been this hard realization: These fast, furious and more-skilled-than-most-think Flyers are very much a threat to outskate, outsmart and ultimately outlast the Penguins in the first round if Dan Bylsma and his staff don't make major — and yes, gutsy — adjustments.

Here are five:

1. Leave the lines alone

The only line Bylsma left unchanged through this game - and in recent weeks — was Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz. There's no reason that shouldn't also be true for Sidney Crosby, who had four wingers in addition to semi-regular linemates Steve Sullivan and Pascal Dupuis in the first period alone.

I raised the issue with Bylsma, and he replied that "there's probably a little bit of a misconception that I mix and match," adding that special teams can force his hand. But he used 13 combinations in the Penguins' previous meeting with the Flyers and 11 in this one.

If Bylsma is going to ream out his players for a lack of cohesiveness, as he did last week at practice, he needs to do his part.

2. Um, Letang on point?

Kris Letang returned from missing three games to injury, but he remained conspicuously missing from the power play, as Bylsma stuck with his talented by terribly non-functional five-forward formation.

If that seems nuts, consider that Bylsma afterward vowed to continue the five-forward plan "into the playoffs," while getting "Kris into the mix."

If that's not a bluff, it borders on madness.

3. Malkin up front

On one power play Sunday, the NHL's leading scorer touched the puck exactly twice. Both times, he was 100-plus feet from the net, lugging the puck to the red line to let others do the offensive work.

To whom should Laviolette send the thank-you card if this persists into playoffs?

Malkin on the half-wall brought a 26 percent success rate. This isn't complex.

4. Stop the stretch

The Flyers, like most opponents during this 2-4 funk, stretched out the Penguins in the neutral zone by sending a forward behind the defense. That forced one defenseman to backpedal early — looked like Zbynek Michalek got started an hour before faceoff — leaving the middle of the ice open for an easy breakout and, all too often, an odd-man break.

Max Talbot, formerly of the Penguins, acknowledged the Flyers picked up the flaw in video study: "You look at things."

There isn't an easy answer. If Bylsma brings a forward back into the neutral zone, that takes away the Penguins' natural aggressiveness.

The best remedy is the one Bylsma has been advocating: Stop recklessly forfeiting possession when deep in the attacking zone.

That was Michalek's response, too: "We all just need to manage the puck better."

5. Adjust, adjust, adjust

Bylsma and his staff deserve all the praise sent their way over the years, but no one can charge them with being adept at changing on the fly. That's been obvious in failures to adjust to disciplined opponents such as the New Jersey Devils, and it was most glaring in the first-round loss last season to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Anyone remember the Statue of Liberty power play?

That's the one where the participants barely budged from their perimeter positions, the Lightning stood in the box and wiggled their sticks and, before long, the Penguins were hitting the links.

Time to get moving.

Highlights: Flyers 6, Penguins 4

Senin, 26 Maret 2012

Fond memories: Fisher, retired voice of Penn State, goes back a long way with Pirates

He met Honus Wagner and saw Babe Ruth hit his last home runs

By Lou Prato
The Altoona Mirror
http://www.altoonamirror.com/
March 18, 2012

Fran Fisher, Penn State football's radio announcer, gazes at Beaver Stadium from the Press Box. (Collegian Photo / Timothy Gyves)


STATE COLLEGE - Two of the most memorable days in the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field were on October 13, 1960 when Bill Mazeroski hit his dramatic game-winning home run in the ninth inning of the 1960 World Series and on May 25, 1935 when the legendary Babe Ruth hit the last three home runs of his career.

There is at least one dedicated Pirate fan in the region who not only witnessed those immortal home runs in the now extinct Oakland ballpark, but he also met the equally legendary Honus Wagner during Pirate batting practice when Wagner was an honorary coach around 1930.

The fan may not be as famous as those three Hall of Famers, but he is also well known in his own right. After all, Fran Fisher was "The Voice of Penn State football" for nearly 40 years.

"I was raised as a Pirate fan by my dad," Fisher, now 88, said as he gears up for another Pirates' season. "My father, Homer, was a devout Pirate fan, and the company he worked for was a box holder at Forbes Field, and he used to take me to games. I met Honus Wagner, and it came about in an unusual way."

The Fisher family then lived in Dormont, and Homer Fisher had became a friend of pitcher Wilbur Cooper, the best Pirate pitcher of his era (1912-1926) and a teammate of Wagner's until Wagner's retirement in 1917.

Homer was a pioneer in the building and constructing of the Memorial Park concept - cemeteries without tombstones - and as sales manager of a local company, he hired Cooper to sell cemetery plots after Cooper retired.

Cooper, who is still the Pirates' winningest pitcher in history with a 216-178 record, invited Homer and his young son to watch a Pirate batting practice.

"I think I was around 6 or 7," Fisher said, "and Wilbur Cooper suggested to my father that since I had become such a fan, it might be enjoyable to me and my father if he would take me to the Pirate dugout before the game to watch batting practice and maybe get some autographs. Wilbur arranged that, and we went to a game and sat right next to the water cooler, as Wilbur had suggested, because when the players finished batting practice, they always wanted a drink of water.

"We got there very early and prior to the start of batting practice, this old, bowlegged guy comes waddling over to the dugout and tousled my head like a guy would do with a youngster. When he walked away, my dad said, 'Do you know who that is?' and I said no, and he told me it was Honus Wagner.

"He was an honorary coach then ... as a PR thing. I've read recently that the Pirates hired him as an official coach in 1933, and reportedly he helped players with their batting and fielding, pitched a little batting practice and did some other little things. But was really still there for public relations, and he did that until he died [in 1955]."

In 1935, Fran Fisher had another brush with greatness. Homer and his son were sitting a couple of rows behind the Pirates' dugout along the first-base line for the final game of a three-game series against the Boston Braves. Along with most of the 10,000 other fans that Saturday afternoon, the Fishers were there to see Babe Ruth, who had been traded by the New York Yankees to the Braves in February. By that time, the Fisher family had moved to Greensburg, where Homer had created and owned the new Westmoreland County Memorial Park.

Everyone in baseball, including the fans, knew the great home run king was close to the end of his playing career. His skills had deteriorated, and he could hardly do anything but hit and trot slowly around the field.

Ruth was batting just .157 in 20 games, and had hit just his third home run of the season in the Braves' previous game at Chicago when Boston opened a three-game series with the Pirates on May 23. The Braves were in last place with an 8-18 record and the Pirates in fifth at 16-17. Forbes Field could seat up to 41,000, but attendance at each of the three games was estimated at about 10,000.

Fisher was 12 at the time, and he witnessed history.

"I remember he hit one into the lower deck, dropped it right over the right field screen, hit the second one into the second deck, and then hit his third one over the roof and clear out of the ball park, the first of only four guys in history to hit one clear out of Forbes Field," Fisher said with excitement still in his voice after what he had witnessed 77 years ago. "Those were his final home runs - 712, 713 and 714. He played just five games after that until he retired completely."

Read More: http://www.altoonamirror.com/page/content.detail/id/559107/Fond-memories--Fisher--retired-voice-of-Penn-State--goes-back-a-long-way-with-Pirates.html?nav=751

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http://www.collegian.psu.edu:8080/archive/1997/10/10-09-97tdc/10-09-97d03-006.htm

Dupuis shows his winning touch again

By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/
March 26, 2012


Pittsburgh Penguins' Pascal Dupuis celebrates his second period goal with teammate Sidney Crosby during an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils in Pittsburgh Sunday, March 25, 2012. (AP)


Pascal Dupuis slid in quite nicely Sunday night as the No. 2 star between Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the Penguins' 5-2 win against the New Jersey Devils.

Three of a kind, you know?

"C'mon, you're pushing it now," Dupuis said, grinning. "You're really pushing it."

Not as much as you might think.

OK, so the woman who took part in the Penguins' scoreboard version of "Wheel of Fortune" early in the game couldn't come up with "Dupuis" even though she was spotted "Super Duper Pascal ... "

To most other Penguins fans, though, Dupuis is becoming something of a household name.

"I'm not going to lie to you, this is mentally fun," Dupuis said. "I've never come close to a streak like this."

Dupuis scored the winning goal against the Devils late in the second period, cruising down the slot, taking a pass from Crosby and burying the wrist shot. It was his eighth winning goal of the season. To put that in perspective, Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, who has an NHL-best 52 goals, has 10 winners. Malkin has nine winners among his 46 goals.

"Eight game-winning goals are a career, let alone one season," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

The goal stretched Dupuis' point-scoring streak to 10 games (8 goals, 5 assists). A little perspective again: That matches Jordan Staal for the Penguins' longest streak of the season. Only five players in the league have longer streaks, led by Carolina's Eric Staal and the New York Islanders' John Tavares with 12.

The goal also extended Dupuis' career single-season-best total to 23. An assist later on a Crosby goal gave him 50 points for the first time. It's a remarkable total because he generally gets almost no power-play time. The Penguins are 20-1-1 when he scores a goal and 34-5-1 when he has a point.

Dupuis has to be the Penguins' MVP, right?

Don't be silly.

I'm talking most versatile player.

The man can play on anywhere from the first to the fourth line.

"Hopefully, not too much of the fourth," Dupuis said, grinning again.

Dupuis played on Crosby's line with Chris Kunitz in the 2010-11 season before Crosby was hurt and helped Crosby produce a staggering 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games. This season, Dupuis has spent much of his time on Jordan Staal's line with Steve Sullivan. With Sullivan out with an injury Sunday night, Dupuis played mostly with Crosby and Tyler Kennedy.

Read More: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sports/ron-cook/dupuis-shows-his-winning-touch-again-628001/

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.