Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Hawks 5-7-3   Penguins 9-6-1

PUCK DROP: 6pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago, NHL Network

WIGLE IS A DAMN FINE WHISKEY: Pensburgh

Something of an old home week for the Hawks. It started with the Kings, whom they once sat upon the top of the West with for years. Then it was the Canucks, with whom they shared the league’s fiercest rivalry, but long enough ago that you have to start to squint to keep seeing it. And now it’s the Penguins, their Eastern counterpoint, a team they were always compared to, and one that’s outlasted them in NHL relevance. They will always be connected as long as Toews and Crosby are around, the two pillars of two Canadian gold medal teams. But that’s about where they stop sharing similarities now.

As is always the case with the Pens, they’ve steered their ship successfully through injuries, and injuries to just about the same guys as always. Geno Malkin has only played five games but recently returned. Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist are out at the moment, as is their way. They’ve had up and down performances from Matt Murray. But there they sit, comfortably in a playoff spot in the Metro Division. It was ever thus.

As you might expect, Engine #87 is leading the way, as he and Jake Guentzel (who simply must give half his paycheck to Crosby) are leading the Pens in scoring and doing most of the work. They’ve been able to create more depth than they had last year with the additions of Domink Kahun (a tear rolls down our cheek) and Jaren McCann last year without having to give up anything of note. McCann has flourished since arriving, with 17 points last year in 32 games and nine this year in 12 outings. This is his third stop in the league, so perhaps he heard the footsteps of oblivion calling and kicked his ass into gear. Or he just found a team that plays a way he can adapt to.

In fact, the results might have betrayed the Pens a little. They’re the second-best team in the league in Corsi and xG%. They’re top-ten in both goals for and goals-against per game in the league. Only their goaltending has been a little suspect at even-strength, but hardly terrible at .920. They just halted the Islanders March To The Sea, so don’t be shocked if their record picks up in a hurry and aggressively. They’re doing just about everything right, and might just be victims of some weird sequencing.

If there’s one aspect they need to get going it’s their power play that’s worse than the Hawks’ at the moment. Geno’s return will certainly help, and they won’t shoot just 8% on it forever (for comparison’s sake, the Caps are shooting at 20% on the man-advantage at the moment).

There’s a clear delineation on how the Penguins deploy everyone, as Malkin and Crosby pretty much are restricted to starting in the offensive zone and the third and fourth lines in the other. Their fourth-line has been a true weapon so far this year, with the trio of Aston-Reese – Teddy Blueger (I almost forgot my beautiful babies!) – Brandon Tanev being used almost exclusively in the defensive zone and consistently turning over their opposition. Their success has lessened the pressure on Crosby to do everything every night, which he’s taking to as well. Must be nice.

To the Hawks, and there are more changes than you would have guessed coming off their most complete game of the year. The two kids, i.e. the only two reasons you’re watching, are both going to watch this one. It’s an odd call to scratch them both at the same time, but the occasional night off for two teenagers negotiating an NHL season for the first time isn’t a complete crime. Still, it makes the bottom six way less interesting, and pairs Gustafsson with Keith likely, and that’s been an utter disaster every time it’s been tried. Maybe de Haan slides up with Maatta rejoining Seabrook…except that hasn’t worked either. There are no complete answers.

It’ll be a return home for Olli Mattaa, and he’ll be greeted with the Pens gleefully trying to attack him at every turn. Pittsburgh kind of started the whole get-it-the-fuck-up style of hockey that got them to two Cups in a row, and it’s still a style the Hawks have yet to prove they can handle. Look for the Pens to do no messing about in their own zone, and trying to spring their forwards onto the Hawks defense as early as possible every chance.

The strange thing is as fast as the Penguins have played the past few years and how much more skilled they’ve been than the Hawks recently, they haven’t beaten the Hawks in six seasons. The Hawks have won 11 straight in this matchup, which goes all the way back that Eddie O suggested the Hawks replace Corey Crawford as starter on air and Fifth Feather had a brain bubble about it.

Wednesday was probably the Hawks most complete game of the year. The Canucks did their part, but everything pretty much worked. Whether it was a one-off or an actual turning point, we’ll find out this weekend.

Hockey

The other dynasty. And one that might be heading the way of the Hawks more than they’d like to admit. It was something of a nothing season in The Burgh, if a 100-point season can be described that way. Maybe it can after the Pittsburgh Penguins turned out to be not much more than cannon fodder for the Islanders in the first round, and promptly rolled over for a team that rolled over to the next one to a team that rolled over for the next one. There doesn’t seem to be much forward momentum with this bunch, and it seems to be about hanging on to what they have. We know how that goes. Will it go that way for the Pens this term?

2018-2019

44-26-12  100 points (3rd in Metro, lost in 1st round to NYI)

3.30 GF/G (6th)  2.90 GA/G (14th)

49.6 CF% (15th)  51.5 xGF% (11th)

24.6 PP% (5th)  79.7 PK% (19th)

Goalies: As it has been, as it will be, the Penguins will trust Matt Murray with the crease. He’s been just about everything in just four seasons, barely, at the top level. He’s been a playoff hero, nothing more than tissue paper, hurt, and then revitalized and he’s barely had time to learn the street (they’re difficult there). He ended last season with a .919, which is more than acceptable, but he went the roundabout way in that he was woeful in October and November last year, then brilliant in December (.950), before evening out in the season’s second half. At 25 and his fourth full season in the NHL, this should be when he enters his prime, and if he does a lot of the other questions about the Penguins seem less daunting. Still, he’s got a clunky month or two in his locker, and this Penguins outfit probably can’t as easily survive those as past ones.

He’ll be backed up by Casey DeSmith, who is a raging piece of shit, but a capable backup as he provided a .916 last year.

Defense: And here is where things get sticky. The Pens will still count on Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin for their top pairing, but Letang has managed a full season of work in one season out of the last eight. He’s 32 now, which is just about the time things turn for a d-man whose game was built on mobility. When he did play last year, he was nearly a point-per-game, and his metrics were glittering again, so it’s unlikely he’s going to fall off a cliff here. But the end does come quickly, as we know around these parts.

Beyond that pairing, they seem serious about running it back with Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson, quite pleased with themselves they got away with using the latter after the trade deadline last season without sending the entire city into the combination of rivers. That won’t work a second time. The kid who could start to take more and more responsibility–and helped pave the way for Olli Maatta‘s immobile ass out of town–Marcus Pettersson, remains unsigned. The Zach Werenski contract should help with that, but the Penguins need him because they can’t seriously give the two monoliths in front of him second pairing minutes.

Justin Schultz is still here, or at least is when everything is attached to him, which isn’t often. He only played 29 games last year, and 63 the year before that. He’s a power play weapon when actually dressed, and provides more swiftness to cover for Johnson or Gudbranson.

If Pettersson and Schultz are healthy, there is a chance for some real spice to this blue line. If they aren’t or Pettersson takes a step back, then Guddy and JJ are going to play far too often and there are going to be guys in Hazmat suits patrolling the Penguins’ defensive zone, no matter how well Murray plays.

Forwards: Interesting group here. It’s always a boon to start with two Hall of Famers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but the latter threw up a….well, he just threw up last year. 72 points in 68 games, which is still really good but below what you associate with him. Just 21 goals. the lowest per game mark since the Season In A Can. His metrics also took a hit, and there were a lot of nights where he was either petulant, or too lazy to even be that. He’s 33 now, and while that’s starting to age it shouldn’t be the mark where he turns into something a raccoon gets drunk off of.

The top line will still be Crosby and Jake Guentzel, with other forward to be determined. Phil Kessel and his continual mush of sadness has been shipped off to Arizona, with Alex Galchenyuk coming in return. Neither Montreal or Arizona were able to unlock what seems to be within the American with the Russian name who used to play for the Canadiens, and now it’s a question if it’s there at all (or serious questions about what is).

Another question mark is getting a full season of Nick Bjugstad. All the tools are there to be a dominant power forward, either at center or wing, and yet it’s never happened. Jared McCann seemed to fair a little better in Pittsburgh from Florida, but they’re going to need both of these guys to be more than they’ve been. Dominik Kahun could play himself into top line minutes at times, but is certainly more than enough on a bottom six. Brandon Tanev arrived in the summer to shore up that part of the roster as well. With just a couple pops from guys who haven’t popped before, this could be the usual deep crop of Penguins forwards who never stop that you’re accustomed to. But if guys like Bjugstad and McCann don’t make a move forward and Galchenyuk can’t get his face out of a mirror, then suddenly they look awfully top-heavy again.

Prediction: With Murray, Letang, Dumoulin, Crosby, and Malkin, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the Penguins being bad. And if they get some luck in the health department with Schultz, Letang, and get Pettersson in the fold, you could see where they could be really good again. They need guys to do things they’ve never done before up front, but that has happened before in Pittsburgh. Then again, Derick Brassard also happened there, as did others. This is a team that seemingly could be anything. It could win the division, it could slide down into a wildcard fight with a couple injuries and stall-outs in development. They’re Cup-winning days just might be over, but they still might get a say in who does.

Previous Team Previews

Carolina

Columbus

New Jersey

New York Islanders

New York Rangers

Philadelphia 

Everything Else

And now the Penguins have their own 2017 Predators series. We’re not alone.

Two years after their third Cup. Swept out. Looking out of ideas, out of energy, out of speed. Those who had been pillars of historic success simply nowhere to be found. A GM floundering and picking up slow, past-it d-men, holding onto methods that no longer apply. A former playoff chew-toy rising up and vanquishing those that hadn’t even considered them an adversary before. A raucous crowd behind them, swinging wildly between euphoria and disbelief that it’s finally happening (though let’s thank Isles fans for finally stealing European soccer songs instead of just college chants, a la Music City). A sense of of it truly being over.

Sound at all familiar? The difference here of course is where the Predators simply sped past the Hawks at every turn, the Islanders boa constrictor’d the Penguins from the off, and there wasn’t any air anywhere for them. You can’t really blame the Pens. After the past three years, it would take an utter miracle to find the energy to get through a Barry Trotz team. Especially when you’ve run into a Barry Trotz team the previous three seasons. At some point, everyone just says, “Fuck this, I’ve had enough.” Victory has defeated you, as they say.

It seems every defining team goes through this. The Hawks in ’17. The Kings missing the playoffs altogether after their second Cup and then being utterly destroyed by the Sharks a year later. The Wings being flattened by the same Predators in 2012. The endings are never clean or graceful. As Sick Boy put it, “At one point you’ve got it, and then you lose it and it’s gone forever.” In the NHL now, that moment where it switches doesn’t let you down gently. It goes upside your head with a mace.

Oh, I’m sure Penguins fans will scream until they wretch up an Iron City that as long as Crosby and Malkin are around they’re never out of it. We said the same thing around these parts, and look where it got us. If Sidney dyes his hair purple and tells the assembled press in September he’s really gotten into writing his own poetry, you’ll truly know where you’re headed. They’ll pout and stamp their feet about how Jim Rutherford will figure it out. The same Rutherford who signed Jack Johnson and traded for Erik Gudbranson and then wondered why they couldn’t bust a Trotz trap. And remember, that was all for a still useful Carl Hagelin, who just happens to still be playing. I’m sure Rutherford has a real master plan here. After all, he wasn’t responsible for all of the Canes playoffs-less decade. Just most of it.

Oh, they’ll tell themselves that Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad will put it together at The Confluence. That they just need to be in a winning atmosphere and suddenly they’ll blossom. Sure thing, that’s why the Panthers are so good. Maybe they can bring back Matt Cullen again, assuming they can find enough virgin’s blood between now and training camp to keep him upright. Signing centers over 40 is always such a keen strategy.

Next year will be the 54th straight that Olli Maatta is going to have a breakthrough. Or maybe next year is finally the one Justin Schultz can make it through without catching legionnaires  or having half of a construction site fall on him. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. Maybe if you try hard enough, Pens fans, you can close your eyes and focus and suddenly Marcus Pettersson will just become Elias.

Matt Murray is still young, they’ll tell themselves. Really had a surge in the second half of the year. All that’s true, except he just put up his second subpar playoff performance to go with his two good ones. Are they ready for another Marc-Andre Fleury roller coaster? They didn’t like the first one much. There are no answers here either.

No, realizations like Patric Hornqvist proving that if you’re an asshole power forward and you take the power forward away, you’re just an asshole, aren’t going to get any better and brighter when he’s 33. Come December the Pens will have their very own Milan Lucic! They must be so excited.

And there’s little salvation to be found. The only big contract coming off the books soon is Schultz’s, and that will mostly be insurance after he’s eaten by werewolves. This is entrenched. This is what you are. It was good enough not so long ago. It’s not now, and it  won’t be again. There are glories past to be celebrated, and you’ll have to hang on tight, because what comes next isn’t very fun. Ask us. We know. Keep the DVDs close.

So fare the well, Pittsburgh Penguins. Don’t worry, the NHL will keep shoving you in outdoor games and on national television. The name recognition doesn’t fade. But that only shines a brighter light on what isn’t there any longer. Believe us, we got here first. When all you want is to remain in the shadows so no one will notice you trying to white-knuckle through another Gudbranson shift, the masses will keep coming back to scoff and mock, and try to remember what it was like before, while decrying that they still have to watch and pay attention to you. And you’ll tell them you don’t want them to either, but NBC keeps bringing you back. Everyone is going to know your pain when all you want is to be left alone.

It’s a dark ride from here.

Everything Else

vs.

SCHEDULE: Game 1 at Islanders – Wednesday 6:30, Game 2 at Islanders – Friday 6:30, Game 3 at Penguins – Sunday 12pm, Game 4 at Penguins – April 16th 6:30

Ho-hum, here the Penguins are with 100 points again, and likely as anyone to get out of the Metro Division. Before anyone tells you what the Hawks have gone through the past four seasons was unavoidable due to the cap and success, ask yourselves if the Penguins ever went four seasons without a series win, or three without a playoff win, or even two without the playoffs. The answer…is no. They’ll meet up with the league’s biggest surprise, and its tightest defense. Which will probably make this one a slog to watch, other than the Nassau crowd being utterly bonkers and frothing and smelly, because it’s Long Island. This will be the first series the Islanders have started at home since the Mesozoic Era. Let’s run it through.

Goalies: You have to start with the Isles, and their tandem that brought home the Jennings Trophy. As of now, Barry Trotz hasn’t announced a starter, and the Isles might just tandem it up as they did throughout the season. While Trotz certainly did lock things down defensively after Doug Weight had turned the Isles’ zone into what Springfield Elementary looked like when Flanders was the principal, both Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner both performed above their expected ranges. Which makes beating the Islanders quickly almost an impossibility. However, playoff runs rarely work out when you’re switching goalies, the 2010 Flyers being something of an exception and that was due to incompetence. Generally you get one trigger-pull. The Isles are unique, and if one drops the ball they can just go with the other. But then there won’t be the safety net they’ve had all season. It’s a tough balance.

And if New York was hoping that their playoff fortunes hinge on getting significantly better goaltending than their opponent, they’ve picked the wrong fight here. Since December 1st, Matt Murray is rolling up with a .929 SV% overall. And a .933 at evens all season. And he’s already gone the route twice, so the stage won’t frighten him.

Defense: While the blue and orange faithful are probably hoping Barry Trotz can conjure more magic from last year, he doesn’t have the horses on the blue line this time around. I would argue John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov are better than anyone the Isles can boast. While promising, Pelech, Pulock, and Mayfield have only ever projected to be middle pairing guys. Nick Leddy was woeful for most of the season, as his freewheeling style doesn’t fit in with Trotz. Devon Toews has been something of a revelation, but you see how far Trotz trusts a rookie in the postseason. They play a style that shields them well enough, but there’s also a couple legends on the other side.

The Penguins will actually head into this series healthy on the blue line…for about five minutes. Again, it has the experience. There’s just way more firepower here with Letang and Schultz. Somehow, Erik Gudbranson didn’t sink them, and the Isles aren’t going to play fast enough to expose him and Jack Johnson. Maybe they capitalize on a mistake or two, but aren’t going to constantly cave them in.

Forwards: There have been series in the past when the Penguins won because they had Crosby and Malkin and the other team didn’t. Malkin had what everyone called an offseason, and he was pretty bad at times, and he still ended up with 72 points in 68 games. It’s still Evgeni Malkin. Jake Guentzel had 40 goals, and I’m not sure he does anything but stand still and let Crosby bank it off of him in the net, but he’s good enough to finish all those chances. Hornqvist is a nasty playoff weapon because he’s just around the net all the time, and especially in a series that could easily be trenched the fuck up, those kinds of goals and those kinds of scorers are paramount. PHIL!’s goal-scoring has dropped off a touch but he’s actually a better playmaker now. Again, the Pens don’t starve for weapons.

The Isles aren’t bereft of skill, it’s just not used that way. Barzal led them in scoring with 62 points. The Penguins feature four players who topped that, and a d-man who wasn’t far behind in Letang with 56. Brock Nelson is a hell of a second center, and Anders Lee could be a Hornqvist in the playoffs. But boy, beyond that…

You can write off Jordan Eberle now. This isn’t his time of year. His one playoff journey in EdMo saw him manage an 0-fer in 13 games. Sure, playoff narratives are built around grind-y, check-y, grunt-y guys like Casey Cizikas and ClusterFuck, but I’ll still take the Hall of Famers on the other side, thanks.

Prediction: Trotz is going try and make every game 2-1, because the Isles sure can’t shoot it out with the Penguins. And he did get one over the Penguins last year. He also lost to them twice. You honestly can’t count on the Islanders getting better goaltending than the Penguins will with how Murray is playing. Sure, it’s hockey and when things are this tight bounces can go either way. Still, if the goaltending is even, the offenses aren’t. Who do you think is more likely to get the 2 than the 1?

Penguins in six. 

Everything Else

 vs. 

RECORDS: Hawks 15-21-7   Penguins 23-12-6

PUCK DROP: 7pm

TV: NBCSN

MUNCHIN’ ON A JOE, DICK, AND STANLEY: Pensburgh

While it’s easy to look at the Kings and Hawks, two recent main forces in the NHL, falling on hard times, throw your hands up and say, “Well, that’s just the price of being good for a while,” the Penguins keep putting their thumb in that eye. And when it looked like the Pens would join the Hawks and Kings in the has-been room, they go and ruin it all by doing something stupid like ripping off 10 of 11 since the last time these two met. That has seen them tied atop the Metro division again, with the Capitals, and we’re going to do this dance forever.

It’s not much of a secret how the Penguins managed it. Matt Murray came back from the wilderness and hasn’t lost. Since that Hawks game that he missed, Murray has gone 7-0-0 while giving up just nine goals. Casey DeSmith, despite being a woman-beating dickhead, has backed him up ably, and hence it’s nearly impossible to score more than one or two against the Penguins of late. You can win a lot of games like that.

At the opposite end. having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sure helps. Crosby has gone off for 29 points in his last 17 games, taking Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust–he of the hat trick the last time we saw the Pens–along with him. Phil Kessel has returned to the third line, though his combo with Derick Brassard has been just short of a disaster. That’s almost all Brassard’s fault, who has just not fit in The Steel City at all, at least not at center. Kris Letang is also molten-hot, and he’s basically all their drive from the back end as the bottom two pairings are a lot of construction horses in the form of Olli Maatta, Jamie Oleksiak, and Jack Johnson (he the name you know).

Given the state of the Metro, there’s little reason the Penguins can’t get back to a conference final, and if Murray is going to be like this then they could go farther. Obviously he’ll have to be that level to get past the Lightning. But a goalie and star power is just about all you need to make a run in the NHL. The Penguins have both right now in spades.

To the Hawks, Cam Ward will take tonight’s start with Collin Delia going at home against the Flames tomorrow. So duck. Drake Caggiula will make his Hawks debut tonight on the fourth line, which is where he should be. His inclusion led to the demotion of Dylan Sikura, which makes us make a frowny face. Though Sikura hadn’t scored, his metrics were really good, he’d showed and understanding with Alex DeBrincat, and Brendan Perlini just doesn’t have the same dash. But whatever, he’ll probably be back soon. Chris Kunitz seems to be drawing back in in a place where he played, throwing a useless veteran a bone for reasons we wouldn’t understand and don’t want to hear. Henri Jokiharju would likely be back tomorrow, no later than Wednesday for sure.

This is not the time to be playing the Penguins, and especially at the Not-Igloo where they will get their matchups and will harass a Hawks defense that simply can’t escape its own zone. That three-pass bullshit the Hawks still insist on using to breakout will get them slaughtered tonight, so they need to play the Pens game and get it the fuck out and get it the fuck up the ice. Otherwise the Penguins loaded forward corps is going to go nuts. If the Hawks do that, it should be at least a fast, entertaining one. Until Cam Ward melts from the inside.

 

Game #44 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

 

Everything Else

The Kessel Run writes for Pensburgh.com. You can follow him on Twitter @Gbehanna.

When we last saw the Penguins, they were struggling and just outside the playoff spots. They have ripped off 9 of 10 since. What’s been the difference?
I think the biggest difference to the Penguins’ change of play since the Dec. 12 game has been the goaltending, and the reemergence of Matt Murray to what looks to be his pre-injury / Stanley Cup-winning form. Since Murray’s return on Dec. 15, he’s gone 7-0, with a .959 SV% through the month of December. Casey DeSmith has also held his own, winning three out of his last four games since the Pens last met the Hawks. Winger Bryan Rust has also exploded on the score sheet since then, alleviating the pressure of the top stars, notching a hat-trick in that loss to Chicago and tallying eight goals and 13 points to close out December.
The Pens just re-upped Jake Guenztel for five years at $6 million per year. Good deal?
Jake Guentzel has been a constant alongside Sidney Crosby for a while now, and he’s even made a name for himself with his crazy goal-scoring prowess in the postseason. I think every Penguins fan knew an extension was coming. It was just a matter of when and figuring out how Guentzel’s new deal would affect the team’s salary cap with so much money already locked up to big-name guys. Luckily, the salary cap looks to be increasing next year, which was one of the reasons GM Jim Rutherford was able to get the deal done now. Given Guentzel’s consistently positive possession metrics, his knack for scoring big goals, and chemistry with Sid, $30 million over the next five years looks like a great deal for all parties.
Why hasn’t Derick Brassard worked out? It seemed a perfect fit on the third line. 
Derick Brassard becomes more polarizing with each passing game. Jim Rutherford even called Brassard out for his lack of overall production since the trade. Was this done to try and light a fire under Brassard? Who knows. However, Brassard holds a sub-50 CF% on the season, which blows given the role he has on the team. While his linemates have been shuffled around, he’s just never looked comfortable for whatever reason on the third line. Possibly due to more defensive responsibilities on more of a “checking” line. When given the off chance to move up the lineup, to play on Crosby’s left wing for example, he’s said he loves playing there with Sid. But everyone knows that’s not why we traded for him. He was supposed to be that cornerstone in the bottom-six like Nick Bonino was during the two Cup runs, but Brassard has never found his groove. Only time will tell if he’s shipped out in a package or something along those lines before the trade deadline.
What do you think the Penguins will do before the deadline and what will the spring look like for them?
Jim Rutherford’s favorite unofficial holiday may be the NHL Trade Deadline. Rutherford has never been shy of making a deal, especially while in Pittsburgh. With that said, there are a few moves I could see the veteran GM making to bolster his team for another championship run. Trading the aforementioned Brassard is a package deal may be a possibility if Rutherford feels he’s not getting anything out of him. Young defenseman Olli Maatta is another player whose name has been floated around in recent weeks and months as part of a larger package deal. Realistically, I could see Rutherford looking to bolster his defense again by swapping Maatta for a different face. The same goes for Brassard and the third-line center role. Whatever value both players have now and leading up to the deadline remains to be seen. As you may know, Rutherford has already shipped out the Penguins’ top prospect in Daniel Sprong earlier in the year, so prospect depth isn’t really a strength the team has for wheeling and dealing. The team has its 2019 1st-round pick still with them, so that may be a vital piece in whatever Rutherford decides to do.
It will be another interesting spring for sure. After the horrendously slow start the Penguins were on, they are now riding a season-defining eight-game win streak at the moment. Wins are more crucial as the season draws to a close, obviously. With goaltending looking better and better with each game, the Pens are in position to close out the 2018-19 season in pretty good shape, with their eyes on yet another Stanley Cup.

 

Game #44 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

Box Score

Corsica

Natural Stat Trick

Holy hell, the Blackhawks finally looked like a competent NHL hockey team tonight. I am not sure if that means that the Hawks are “back” (they’re probably not, cuz they’re still bad) or that the Penguins are just utter ass. The Hawks streak of bad play was not going to continue to be that bad, though, so it’s probably a small mix of both. Let’s do BULLETS:

– I am definitely not about to issue some kinda proclamation that the Hawks forward depth is suddenly good or unsung heroes, but I will say that tonight’s game showed how freaking important it is to get production from your depth forwards if you want to win. The Hawks got goals from Andreas Martinsen and Marcus Kruger in this one, and while Martinsen kinda lucked into his by just being a big guy and getting hit by the puck, Kruger’s ended up being the GWG. Obviously the Hawks depth is still ass, and it’s completely misguided to think that they can somehow become a productive depth group, but it still tells you that you need to get that right to be good. So that’s an area of need this offseason.

– When I was on the podcast this week, I mentioned that one of the most frustrating parts of the Colliton Hawks is that they don’t seem to know what to do in the defensive zone, and that was a theme tonight for sure. The Penguins first goal was a result of two key screw ups in d-zone positioning. Jokiharju was too deep in the zone to cover Bryan Rust in the left slot, but that wouldn’t have been a problem if the forwards were helping down low. So, with both Joker and the forwards out of position, it was a recipe for disaster, and Rust cashed in. To me that’s a coaching thing, and while this is basically a lost season at this point, Colliton has to correct that in his team to keep them competitive now and in the future.

– Crawford looked a bit better in this game than he has recently, but he’s still kinda jumpy-stabby at saves. Sam pointed out on Twitter after the game that he tends to do that kind of thing as he corrects himself, so maybe it’s that, and it never really hurt them tonight, but something to keep an eye on.

– Alex DeBrincat is so fucking good, which I know everyone knows already but we have to talk about it more often. The goal he scored tonight was absolutely beautiful work of art, and the fact that the Hawks got this guy with a 39th overall pick that they got for Andrew Shaw will be hilarious to me forever and ever. Thank you Montreal, you dumb french fuckers.

– Friendly reminder that Jonathan Toews was a Top 100 NHL player and Evgeni Malkin was not. That list was fucking meaningless but idiots on Twitter took it way too seriously and that made it hilarious.

Everything Else

Perhaps before tonight’s game, or maybe after, or even during given anyone’s urge to actually watch the Hawks these days, Stan Bowman and Jim Rutherford will kick back with a beer and laugh about how similar their situations are. And maybe Stan can prepare Rutherford for what he’s probably in for in a year or two.

Both men took their current posts when everything was already pretty much set for a sustained run. Where Stan took the GM chair with Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith, Seabrook, Crawford et al. in tow, Rutherford arrived in Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Briam Dumoulin, both Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray, Jake Guentzel already there. So for both men, filling in the edges was the only directive.

And Rutherford did that after a middling first year in charge of ’14-’15. He traded one of the only three NHL regulars he’s taken in the draft as Pittsburgh GM, Kasperi Kapanen, along with others to rid the Maple Leafs of their Phil Kessel headache and cap hit. James Neal was moved along for Patrick Hornqvist, which has worked out more than fine. Carl Hagelin was brought in midseason for the total fraud that David Perron has always been. He was able to clear out Brandon Sutter for Nick Bonino. The Matt Cullen signing worked out better than anyone could have hoped. No, we’re not going to list Trevor Daley here, because Trevor Daley sucks to high heaven and we’ll shout it until our throats literally disintegrate if that’s what it takes.

The following season, the Penguins’ second Cup in a row, saw the flier on Justin Schultz which worked a treat. Other than that, it’s pretty much been the same group. Good work here.

But the problems, much like here, begin when those moves around the edges you make deserve more money and cause more decisions. Nick Bonino got expensive and was left to get it in Nashville. The Penguins tried to replace that with Derick Brassard, who is cheaper. It has not worked. Justin Schultz required more money after his resurrection, and he’s been basically hurt the last two seasons. Patric Hornqvist got a raise, which is part of the reason impending free agent Hagelin had to move along for the unimpressive Tanner Pearson.

Rutherford has not been able to replace any of this through his drafting, as the only pick he’s made in the five drafts he’s had that his playing for the Penguins currently is Derek Simon. Without Schultz, the Penguins really don’t have much behind Dumoulin and Letang. Their bottom-six is basically a mess. Rutherford whiffed on Jack Johnson. Jamie Oleksiak isn’t anything. Fans are not exactly pleased about the moving of Daniel Sprong for Marcus Pettersson. The edges are fraying a bit.

And while you may say the Pens made the playoffs last year and are in a playoff spot this year while the Hawks do a modern dance interpretation of the Hindenburg right now, look closer. The Penguins surrendered kind of meekly to the Caps last year in the second round, and benefitted from being in a terrible division. They’re in an even worse division now, and the only thing that will probably keep them out of the playoffs this year is if basketcase teams like the Flyers or Hurricanes ever put it together. And you know what we’ll predict on that one.

The Hawks too put together a couple castles-on-sand playoff berths after their last championship, but didn’t have the luxury of a god-awful division. They’re in the league’s best, in fact. And it could go that south on the Penguins soon, just in less choppy waters.

Their cap problems are only really what Jake Guentzel wants to sign for in the summer as a restricted free agent, but they need upgrades in both defense and the bottom six and will only have somewhere around $10 million to do it.

Perhaps this is just how it is. You get your five-years in the sun, and then it slowly fades out when you can’t keep batting 1.000 with your moves around the core you have. Miss on more than a few though, and the tumble gets violent.

 

 

Game #33 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

Mike Darnay (@MikeDarnay) has been our Penguins friend for a while now. So that’s where we go whenever the black and gold show up. His work can be found at Pensburgh

Hey look, you guys aren’t very good a couple years after your third Cup either. Is this just the way things go?

Partly, I think so. It’s much harder to replicate repeated success than it has been in past years, and the expectations are still just as high. I am guessing in Chicago’s case, as long as Toews, Kane, Keith, and Crawford are in the picture, the expectation is going to be for success regardless of any other mitigating factors. In the Penguins case, they are habitual slow starters. It’s a dangerous game to play, but I think they manage it well. This season may have taken it too far, but as it stands right now they are in 3rd place in their division despite losing 9 out of 10 games less than a month ago. It’s a weird league right now and a weird division and despite their struggles, I think they are able to tread water well enough even when they aren’t on their game.

This is the second straight season that Matt Murray has struggled. Is there a worry that this is what he is and will be?

From many, yes. From me, not really. We saw the level of success that he was able to get to in consecutive postseasons. He wasn’t even *bad* in the 2018 Playoffs. Taking the eventual Champions to six games isn’t all bad. He’s coming off of his worst season that featured several injuries and a major personal thing for a young player to go through. I think he tried gutting it out this year for the better of the team, but ultimately it worked out the other way around. If he can get fully healthy now and give himself the time he needs, I am confident in his ability to return to form.

So the Jack Johnson thing was just a joke, right?

He stinks. There is no way of polishing this turd. He’s just bad. I still can’t believe he was given the TERM that he was. It’s so bad. And he can’t do anything well. Buy him out or ship him to Seattle.

Kris Letang is on pace for what could be a career season. What’s going on there?

To be honest, I think it’s quite simple. He missed several months at the end of the season in the spring and summer of 2017 when the Penguins won their second of the back-to-back Cups. He was on the shelf for most of the summer and didn’t get a full training in at all but was still ready for the start of the season. After the team was eliminated from the 2018 postseason earlier than usual, he was able to get a rest and get a full offseason training program in. How that reflects on the ice — i think it’s important to understand that with the style he plays, being able to trust your body is vital and not playing hesitant allows him to fully expand his skillsets.

 

Game #33 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

It’s kind of startling how quickly you can become an afterthought in the NHL. We’re only a year removed from the Pittsburgh Penguins being two-time defending champs (clap for them) and at times looking like a third was a distinct possibility. But when you finally succumb to the fatigue and your long-time plaything in the Capitals, suddenly no one remembers your name. Despite them still having perhaps two of the best five centers of all-time, a goalie with two rings, a consistent 30-goals scorer on the third fucking line, and quite possibly the best center-depth in the East.

It’s a strange world, this.

And yet, because it’s kind of the same team that didn’t get it done last year, with a much worse player in defense which we’ll get to, it’s whole “You’re Falling Behind If You’re Standing Still” thing. Let’s run it through.

2017-2018: 47-29-6 100 points  272 GF  250 GA  52.2 CF%  52.6 xGF%  7.2 SH% .910 SV% (ES)

Goalies: Here’s something strange to say about a goalie with two Cup runs under his belt: We still don’t know what Matt Murray is. That’s because we only have two regular seasons to deal with, and even in both of those injuries limited him to just 49 games in each. Two years ago he was really damn good. Last year he was very much not. How do you know where to go with that?

Of course, a young goalie having a rough sophomore year is no obstacle to eventual greatness, as every Blackhawks fans should be able to tell you now. And much like football and its quarterbacks, it’s a real advantage if you can have a young, really good goalie for cheap because that’s money you can spend elsewhere before the bill comes due for what’s between the pipes (and one day, goalies are going to get paid market value and there will be several making over $10 million, because they’re that important).

We know Murray is fragile, but beyond that we’re just going to have to find out. We know that there’s greatness in there somewhere, and inconsistency in there as well. As a goalie who can rely on his athleticism too much and end up somewhere near the parking lot sometimes, he’s still learning his angles and anticipation. Sadly, it doesn’t look like he’ll get much help from his defense this time around.

Backing him up is Tristan Jarry, who was basically “there” as a backup last year. Let’s just say if Murray turns out to be Ondrej Pavelec more than Carey Price, the Penguins are going to be pissing up a rope (the only actual good Ween song and go fuck yourself).

Defense: WHY DOES ANYONE EVER THINK JACK JOHNSON IS GOOD HE MOST CERTAINLY IS NOT PLEASE STOP DOING THIS TO YOUR FANS AND TEAM AND REALLY SOCIETY!!!

The Penguins signed Jack Johnson this summer, because they thought he was the guitarist, or because the concise rhythm of his name makes you think he’s good, or you’re actually thinking of the boxer, or you think d-men with big, round, dumb faces have to be good even though Braydon Coburn has been disproving that for nigh-on eight years now. Not only that, they gave this dipshit $3.2 million until he’s 36, even though he’s bad and slow and dumb now. And he’s going to have to take second-pairing minutes while Justin Schultz looks at him quizzically. It’s important to note that Justin Schultz looks at everyone quizzically, because that’s just his face.

It’s even stranger because the Pens had their big, dumb face quota filled on the blue line by another overrated, slow player in Olli Maatta, who I guess will be restricted to only third-pairing assignments, something he’s proven he can handle but that’s it. They think they’ve unearthed something in Jamie Oleksiak. They haven’t.

Which once again means Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang, for the four minutes something hasn’t fallen off of him, are going to have to shoulder the load in every possible situation. They’ve done it before I guess, but Letang is now 31 with an awful lot of miles and an awful lot of ailments and one wonders when all the king’s horses and all the king’s men are going to arrive and pronounce him DOA. This is clearly the Penguins’ weakness. And they weren’t a good defensive team last year and have added Jack Fucking Johnson. Then again, they weren’t really a good defensive team two years ago and won the damn thing.

#EndHockey

Forwards: The Penguins can get away with a lot of things most teams can’t at the same time because for two-thirds of any game they can throw out Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. It’s just that simple. That’s 180 points right there, easy. They’re still here, they’re still really good, and as long as that’s the case it’s nearly impossible for the Penguins to be bad.

They’re still accompanied by a host of forwards we can’t be sure are any good but are smart enough to be where Malkin and Crosby need them, otherwise known as “The Marchand Method.” Jake Guentzel scores, I don’t know he does anything else. Bryan Rust is another. Dominik Simon joins the ranks. Carl Hagelin is really fast, and maybe nothing else, but here it works.

Phil Kessel is still around, and he’ll pour in 30 goals without breaking a sweat. Like, literally. And he’ll be a grumpy asshole about it and it’ll be awesome. I hope the Pens win again and beat the Leafs on the way and Kessel misses the Final because he’s too busy walking around Toronto, pointing at people and laughing. This will be the only good ending to the season possible.

Derick Brassard spells his first name wrong and has never been as good as people have wanted him to be, but he’s a damn fine #3 center. He’s not exactly a checking-type though, which means Crosby will have to do more firefighting than he has in the past, because Riley Sheahan blows goats. Whatever, this is still a really fast and skilled outfit that set the new style in motion, and they’re still going to get the puck the fuck up there and score before you can set up and that’s probably good enough for another 100 points at least.

Outlook: The Metro has a few good teams but no great ones. The Penguins have more questions than they’ve had before, but they still have those two guys. You can see them winning the division, getting a sweetheart first-round matchup before yet another kerfluffle with the Caps. You could see them finishing third or fourth in the division, too, as the miles catch up and Matt Murray continues to try and do a rubix cube in the dark.

They’re not as good as any of the Big Two in the Atlantic. But they don’t have to be. They just have to beat them in a series if it comes to that. Really, anything is possible for this team.

 

Previous Team Previews

Detroit Red Wings

Buffalo Sabres

Boston Bruins

Florida Panthers

Montreal Canadiens

Ottawa Senators

Tampa Bay Lightning

Toronto Maple Leafs

Carolina Hurricanes

Columbus Blue Jackets

New Jersey Devils

New York Islanders

New York Rangers

Philadelphia Flyers