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.

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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. 

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

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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

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 vs 

Game Time: 7:00PM CST
TV/Radio: NBCSN, WGN-AM 720
Ben Roethlisberger Is A Rapist With A Gray Dick: Pensburgh

Ahh, the national TV spotlight for two of the league’s showcase franchises sporting signature stars with hardware to match. Cups, Hart Trophies, Ross Trophies, international gold medals and numerous other awards smattered across each roster, with the Cup Final matchup that would have defined an era that never happened, and is in all likelihood never going to happen as these two powerhouses now fade into the sunset, or in the Hawks case, completely implode over a two year span with no signs of being able to halt the inevitable.

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

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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

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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

Everything Else

All good things…

…or whatever this Pittsburgh Penguins thing was the past three seasons.

I don’t know what the final epitaph for this era of Penguins hockey should or will read. When you repeat as Cup champs you automatically walk amongst the giants of the past. It’s only been done nine times, to repeat as champs, since the ’67 expansion. And only the Penguins themselves and the Red Wings had done it in the past 30 years. So your favorite Roethlisberger-defender in your office decked out in his James Harrison jersey in July (they’ll still wear it, don’t let them fool you) is going to point to that no matter what you say.

And yet the entire time you couldn’t help but ask yourself…was this Penguins team that good?

While Florida is mostly to blame, the Penguins have their hand in this Vegas nonsense as well. Though really, it’s the fault of the rest of the league being categorically stupid. Because if two standard-thinkers like George “Right Cross” McPhee and Gerard “Shawn Burr Had More Skill Than I Did” Gallant could see the Penguins merely getting up the ice as fast as possible to get away from shot-blockers and think, “Hey we can do that and most of this league will be too stupid/drunk when we play them to do anything about it!,” why didn’t everyone else?

Perhaps mostly it’s just an indictment on Dan Bylsma, who had the same talent and just kept balloon-handing his way into first and second round exits. When you have two of the best five centers in the league, the 2nd round is basically your floor.

Either way, the Penguins were able to catch the rest of the league flat-footed when the cap flattened out, and merely played with a “Get The Fuck Up There” mentality that worked against teams that were still focused on getting defensemen who farted a lot. Seriously, they saw Roman Polak in a Final. On a team that TRADED for Roman Polak. I guess it’s something when you can look at your limited team, see a more limited league, and think, “Play faster?” And it works.

It was always a delicate balance. At some point a team was going to get a good goalie performance against them and Matt Murray wasn’t going to be able to channel the lovechild of Achilles and Aragorn. Especially when you go charging up the ice with Olli Maatta’s vacant gape out there. Hey Justin Schultz, you know your partner blows, right? Might want to dial it in a touch. And while you’re at it, get Letang a map.

But it seemed to be that way all series. Penguins fans will tell you Kris Letang is one of the best in the league, and one of these days he just might play like it! And no, trying to disembowel various Flyers, as enjoyable as that might be, doesn’t count. I look forward next year to the continuation of the competition between Phil Kessel and PK Subban as to who can swell more while still being productive. We’re about two years away from Kessel reenacting the post-credits scene to Dodgeball. “Fatty Made A Funny!” And he’ll still pour in 25 goals. Let’s just start calling him “Bartolo” now.

This is probably better than the Pens deserved, after all. They reacted to their consecutive Cups built on speed and more speed by trading a first round pick for Purina Factory resident/superintendent Ryan Reaves. Whom they discarded months later. Jim Rutherford has two rings. The NHL is just one accident after another. It’s like if you made a sports league out of that ball hitting Canseco in the head and going for a homer 10 times a night for eight months.

That’s the takeaway from these Pens teams, basically and indictment of the league. When people ask you about them years from now your reaction is basically going to be, “They were fine, I think?” They’re hockey’s answer to the San Francisco Giants. Multiple championship won by a team mostly made up of “guys” thanks to a league/playoff system that spits out silly results as a function. They were there, they stood upright long enough for everyone else to fall down around them, and then they’re the only ones left to hand a trophy to. Except in the NHL, pretty much everyone is Mike Matheny.

Much like other teams that reigned for a while, the Pens will be brought down by teams doing what they did. The architecture of your destruction is always within the architecture of your success. More and more teams, you hope, are going to play faster and in space and try and get thing done before a team can set up defensively. And attacking Maatta, Schultz, Oleksiak, and Ruhwedel with speed more consistently is going to lead to a lot of Iron City being spilled and thrown. Which is exactly what you should do with that swill. Though in all honesty, it’s no worse or better than Yeungling which we all spent our 20s spraying our shorts over and then you grow up and realize it’s not even Coors Banquet.

I suppose we should thank the Penguins. It’ll be a more entertaining league as more teams take their cues from them. But fuck that. 1992 scars still haven’t healed, and Lemieux is a fuckstick. No woman will ever mean as much to me as the night Darius Kasparitis punched him in the face.

So take your baubles and go, Pens.

 

Everything Else

 vs. 

SCHEDULE: Game 1 Wednesday, Game 2 Friday, Game 3 Sunday, Game 4 April 18th

Didn’t get invited to the party this year, so we’re stuck watching from across the street or hearing it from our basement. But just because we can’t have the fun doesn’t mean we can’t comment on it. It’s still going on after all. Maybe we should just enjoy the freedom of stress (that always works). So let’s start with the most anticipated of the first-rounders, Toronto fans excluded. Mostly because the last time these two teams did this, it was just about the most hilarious series we’ve seen in the Silver Age of the NHL (since they made the league logo silver and not like, orange).

Goalies: You think you’d be pretty confident with the guy who won the last two Cups in your net, and yet I doubt there’s too many Pens fans who think Matt Murray is a sure thing. Quite simply he was awful the past six weeks, when he wasn’t ouchy, and doesn’t have a consistent stretch over the whole season. He’s barely played 1oo games in the regular season, so in that sense we don’t have much idea what he actually is. But his two playoff runs are what they are, with a career SV% of .928 the past two seasons (32 games). Maybe he just “turns it on,” but for the first time I’d bet there’s an awful lot of uneasiness in Western P.A. about that this time.

The Flyers are going to turn it back over to Brian Elliot, who returned just in time to relieve them of Petr Mrazek, who has a terminal case of being Petr Mrazek. And if you’re thinking back to Elliot playoff runs in the past and kind of chuckling, it’s understandable. Yes, he was good enough to overcome the Hawks in 7 in ’16, though he was also a major reason the Hawks were able to even get it to seven after being down 3-1. He was pilfered by the Ducks last year in Calgary, and he’s always been just good enough to get you beat. But then again, isn’t that always the story with Flyers goaltending?

Defense: One day we’re going to look back at the blue line the Penguins won two Cups with, one without Kris Letang, and consider it a miracle on the level off Jules and Vincent not getting shot by that hand-cannon. Seriously, it’s not much. Dumoulin and Letang are very good, but beyond this it really isn’t much. Olli Maatta still sucks, despite the pedigree, and he has a stupid face. Justin Schultz hasn’t pushed the play in the way you’d expect and has in Pittsburgh before, and I’m sure it has nothing to do with his new contract. Jamie Oleksiak is a farm animal, and Chad Ruhwedel, much like a mountain, is just there. The Penguins don’t make it all that hard on their defense, as they’re just asked to chip and bank pucks out to the neutral zone for their forwards to race onto. But with Murray’s form iffy, they might have to limit chances like they haven’t before, especially considering the Philly forwards, and I’m not convinced.

That doesn’t mean Philadelphia has a huge advantage here. Ghost Bear and Provorov certainly piled up the points, but that doesn’t mean they carry the play. Travis Sanheim certainly does, but he’s dragging around a rotting corpse in Andrew MacDonald, who for some reason the Flyers won’t take out back and shoot. Radko Gudas will get suspended at some point in this series, and then he can finally do his Game Of Thrones cosplay full-time which he’s always been destined for. Neither of these teams looks like it’s locking the other one down… which is great for all of us who have no emotional investment here.

Forwards: The obvious strength of both teams. The Penguins have the neat feature of two 90-point scorers, and they’re both on their second line (Malkin and Kessel). Hornqvist had something of an unlucky year, but would be a good bet to be a playoff dynamo considering how many goals are scored this time of year from a distance usually referencing appendages (or a certain one). Guentzel, Sheary, Rust, and those types don’t pop off the page but have the whole “been here before” feel. This is what Derrick Brassard was brought in for, except I wouldn’t trust Brassard as far as I can throw him. But he’ll be taking third line assignments instead of first or second as both Ottawa and the Rangers asked him to, and Hagelin has been a playoff weapon before. You wouldn’t bet against them.

The Flyers are similarly stacked, just without the pedigree. Claude Giroux’s move to wing has done his career wonders, though it helps that Sean Couturier had some much more to give than just being a checking line center (and the best in the league at that when he was). He also drives Crosby nuts, so look for the Pens to avoid that at all costs. Nolan Patrick closed the season strongly with Voracek on the second line, so their top six can probably just about run with the Penguins. Meat Train and Travis Konecny as third-line wingers is a neat trick as well, though Filppula at 34 is probably not ready to go up and down with Brassard if that’s how things shake out.

Prediction: It looks like it’s going to be tons of fun, and the Penguins look just vulnerable enough that getting bounced wouldn’t be a huge surprise. And yet, this is still the Penguins, and it’s still the Flyers, and Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t here to turn this into Strawberry Fields. Murray only has to be Elliot-good, which is just about average. Penguins in 6.