Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Hawks 24-21-6   Coyotes 26-21-6

PUCK DROP: 6pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago

NO REGRETS: Five For Howling

The Hawks won’t get to ease their way back into the swing of things after their midseason bye, as they’ll immediately be plunged into something of a wildcard four-pointer in Arizona. And this has not been a location that has been too kind to the Hawks of late, nor the opponent.

The Hawks only have one win in their last five games against the Yotes, and they were popped there earlier in the season and lost what was essentially their last stab at relevance late last season. You wouldn’t think this would be such an issue for the Hawks, given the lack of star power Arizona has and the usual majority of Hawks fans in the stands making it a de facto home game. But their collective speed on every line provides the same problem that teams like Vegas or Colorado do, just on a smaller scale. They can harass the Hawks deep in their own end into mistakes and streak out of their zone away from the Hawks to get into open space.

The Hawks won’t be allowed any excuses tonight, however. They’re four points behind the Yotes, who hold the last wildcard spot, but have two games in hand. Thanks to the Jets incompetence and the Preds not being a whole lot better (as well as having their own bye), the Hawks are still in this with only Nashville to leap to get to Arizona. And the Predators have a date with Vegas tonight, so the Hawks can jump over them tonight if results go their way.

They should be seeing an ornery team, as the Yotes returned from their bye earlier in the week and promptly only took one point out of four against hanging curveballs Anaheim and LA. They would have looked at this three in four as a spot to really cement their status as playoff contenders, but could be looking at truly biffing it if they lose to the Hawks. And this isn’t a team that should be overflowing with confidence, given their history of fading into the background consistently.

Injuries have been an issue, most notably with Darcy Kuemper missing weeks as he was the anchor to this team. He won’t return tonight but is due back very soon, probably their next game. Without him, the Yotes’ weaknesses are much more easily exposed, as Antti Raanta and Adin “Silent” Hill have been hardly worth writing songs about. Those weaknesses are pretty much they can’t hit a bull in the ass with a banjo. They don’t score much, they don’t possess the puck much, and they’re barely a middling defensive team. If you dismiss Oliver Ekman-Larsson as a “Yeah, but who gives a shit?” guy, there really isn’t a star anywhere on this team. Phil Kessel was brought in to be that, but much like the story he’s getting old now.

Taylor Hall was then brought in to be what Kessel might not be able to be anymore, and he’s put up 16 points in 18 games as a Yote. He gives them what should be something like two scoring lines, as Keller and Kessel are on the other one. But Keller has one point in nine, and Kessel is a few months away from doing ads for The General car insurance. They’re depending a lot on Hall, Dvorak, and Garland, though the top line of Keller-Stepan-Kessel has been possession-mutants.

Defensively, without OEL there isn’t really an advanced puck-mover here. Chychrun chips in goals with a booming shot but it’s not really what he does. Alex Goligoski is getting up there in age. Maybe Ilya Lubishkin, but he’s no guarantee for the lineup. OEL is a miss, whatever you consider him.

To the Hawks. Just about everyone other than the long-term casualties is reporting for duty, as it looks like Dylan Strome is going to make the post. That leaves the Hawks just one winger short of a pretty keen “3+1” model, with Dach at least getting limited looks between Kane and Saad and Top Cat reuniting with Strome. Kampf will continue to try and square-shape into that round hole as the other winger on that line for now. No word yet on which goalie will start but considering the way Crawford was playing and the way Lehner kind of had a hiccup that almost made him barf against Florida, the money is on Crow.

You can count on the Coyotes to try hard, because they have to, and because they’re coming off two disappointing results. You can probably expect a pretty scratchy first period from the Hawks, as they try and figure out how their legs and arms work again and get timing down. So really, just wading through the first 20-30 minutes is the order of the day, and then if things are still tied or in one goal the Hawks can begin to find their game. They’ll have to be tight with the puck in the offensive end, because this Arizona team will be looking to spring on them and away from them at the first sign of a turnover.

This is a big month, as February doesn’t tend to be. The schedule is very road-heavy, but that’s suited the Hawks better all season. Most games are against teams around them or below them. If you’re a part of this, then be a part of this. Otherwise, stop wasting our time.

Hockey

Oliver Ekman-Larsson – Not likely to play tonight after getting injured Thursday, and it’s a harsh label we know. We’ve spent many a wasted moment in the past trying to figure out how to get OEL on the Hawks, though he never showed any inclination to leave Arizona. And now we have to ask, is he a “Yeah, but who gives a shit?” guy? He might be the smoothest skater in the league, and the numbers are good, but if he made such a difference wouldn’t the Coyotes have mattered in the last eight years? Maybe it’s not fair to hold him up to an Erik Karlsson level of the past, where he can drag a bunch of plumbers and rodeo clowns to a playoff spot, but the Yotes haven’t even been close. Maybe it’s all just production in the dark?

Phil Kessel – We love him, simply because he pisses of Canadians so, but he bitched his way out of Pittsburgh, who haven’t missed a beat you’ll notice, and now he’s in the desert doing exactly dick. Not even on pace for 20 goals. Yeah, he’s old, but his game was supposed to age better than this. But hey, he gets to play in a hockey outpost which is probably what he always wanted.

Arena Game Presentation – It looks like something out of 1989 in Glendale. Seriously, get a new scoreboard. You don’t need the volcanic eyesore that the United Center has, but you can do better than Chicago Stadium.

Hockey

Just about two years ago, we wrote a spotlight on Arizona GM John Chayka and how we hoped that one day the NHL would finally have a front office that did things differently and broke through the old ways. We wanted our Moneyball, so that the sport might actually move into the 21st century. At the time, Kyle Dubas was being Phantom of The Opera’d in Toronto, though he’s finally ascended to the actual GM chair. There aren’t too many other candidate of GMs who come from the more executive or analyst side of the ledger. Chayka is one. And two years on, we don’t see anything that will make up hope he’s going to change anything.

Oh sure, the Coyotes are tussling with the Oilers for first place in an increasingly weird Pacific Division. Do any looking under the hood though, and you’ll see that’s merely the product of having Darcy Kuemper throw a .937 at the world. The Yotes lead the league in save-percentage, and that’s enough sometimes admittedly, but are pretty terrible anywhere else you look. They’re not even a good defensive team, they just have the goalies bail them out all the time.

And worse yet, this collection of whosits and whatsits are a cap team. Sure, some of that is taking on Marian Hossa’s salary as a favor to the Hawks really, but you shouldn’t be spilling into LTIR territory to ice a team with no genuine star. Look over this team and it’s hard to find a genuine top line/pairing player. Sure, Oliver Ekman-Larsson sure has all the appearance of that and maybe the smoothest skater in the league, but he hasn’t played a game that matters in eight seasons. Didn’t Erik Karlsson drag worse teams to the playoffs in Ottawa?

Clayton Keller maybe? We’ll give you that one, but after that it’s perfect that Nick Schmaltz was an acquisition last year. This is a team full of Nick Schmatlzes. Small, fast forwards who pass through your vision without ever doing much to make you remember them as soon as they fade out of view.

Strangely, this team is already capped out for next year as well. It only has $750K in cap space for next season with 17 players signed. What’s the plan here to get a genuine star? They probably won’t be bad enough to get into the top three draft-wise, and they have no room to lure a big free agent.

Chayka brought in Phil Kessel this summer, possibly to fill in that gap, but at 32 that’s hardly likely. And that only made up for the bad trade of Alex Galchenyuk in return for sending the little mutant Max Domi to Montreal. The Canadiens certainly aren’t complaining.

Chayka has yet to get anything out of the past two drafts other than 12 games out of Barrett Hayton, and his first round pick from ’17 was part of the Kessel trade. As it was when we last looked at this, Keller and Jakob Chychrun remain his only hits in the draft, and they look to be more second line/pairing products. Which you need, but you also need the stars they support.

Clearly money is not a problem in the desert, because of their cap status the next two years. Maybe Chayka can move along Demers and Goligoski in the last years of their deals to open up about $7M, but is that enough? Dvorak, Schmaltz, Fischer, and Keller have all been given reasonable extensions, but one might want to ask why? Where is this going?

Maybe it’s two years down the line that Chayka has circled, when Stepan, Grabner, Hjalmarsson, and the vets mentioned above come off the books and the kids should be entering their prime. Perhaps no final judgements can be made until then. Brayden Burke will join up by then, as will one or two other kids. But does Chayka have two more years without a playoff berth? If Kuemper drags them to one this year it’ll buy him the time. Maybe the Pacific’s remedial nature this year will also help. But building a fringe playoff team shouldn’t be the long-term goal. The playoffs are merely a step. Do you see a contender in the offing here?

Hockey

For the 378th straight year, this is the time when the Arizona Coyotes will be relevant. Their oh-so-smart and oh-so-young and oh-so-handsome GM has finally broken the code, and now all the young talent they’ve been amassing since I had hair is finally going to gel, take a huge leap forward, and save hockey in the desert. You heard it here first, motherfuckers! Actually, you’ve heard it every goddamn year from everywhere, and then by December you’re genuinely shocked when the Yotes pop up on the schedule because once again you’ve forgotten they exist.

So I’m just going to go ahead and say this year will be no different. It’s the safe bet.

2018-2019

39-35-8  86 points (4th in the Pacific

2.55 GF/G (28th)  2.68 GA/G (6th)  -11 GD

48.7 CF% (20th)  49.2 xGF% (17th)

16.3 PP% (26th)  86.0 PK% (3rd)

Goalies: Once again, the Yotes will roll it back with the hopes that Anttie Raanta can keep the loose grip on all the gremlins that form his body and muscles, and not see them go spilling off in every direction again and miss a large chuck of the season. It happened…never.  So when he once again finds himself in the infirmary, the starter’s role will be taken up by Darcy Kuemper again. Strange things happen to goalies in AZ, which is they turn good. They have a system for it. So you may remember Kuemper as the middling place-holder in Minnesota, which is what he was. But last year in Glendale he threw up a .925, which followed a season of .920 in both LA and Arizona. That doesn’t mean he’s definitively turned a corner or anything, because this is still Darcy Kuemper we’re talking about. But the Yotes seem to just get representative goaltending at worst the past few years, which they probably will again through the combo of DK and the times Raanta maintains oxygen intake.

Defense: Of course, the main problem has always been assembling skaters for Arizona. This defense still contains Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson, who were dominant last year (a single tear rolls down my cheek). Beyond that, I can’t help you. Jakob Chychrun has missed huge parts of the last two seasons through injury, so maybe this is the one where he really leaps into the main picture except I don’t know what it is he does that gets everyone with a breeze going between their legs. Even with that though, there is not much beyond this. Alex Goligoski is 34 now. Jordan Oesterle is…you know what? His name is enough. Jason Demers is solid but needs a dynamic partner, which may or may not be Chychrun. They basically need the latter to finally blossom for this to be a good unit, because they’ve had OEL for years now and all that’s gotten them is a handful of themselves and their face in the dirt.

Forwards: And here’s another issue. They hardly scored last year, and are hoping that an aging and cranky Phil Kessel will solve that problem on his lonesome. I guarantee he tries to murder Derek Stepan by Christmas when he’s not getting any passes on his tape. Nick Schmaltz is healthy after blowing out his knee, so Yotes fans can look for five great games followed by a month of him floating around the outside and avoiding contact and waiting for a breakaway pass. Clayton Keller is probably due for a step forward, and will certainly be tasked with feeding Kessel at least on the power play where the Yotes need all kinds of help. Nothing helps out a young player like having a moody sniper’s feelings weighing on him. Still, Keller’s second season was a step back, and he might not be a point-per-game player. Which the Coyotes have exactly none of.

Prediction: This team was able to goalie and defend its way to near a playoff spot last year. The hope is that Kessel and growth from Keller and one or two others will aid their scoring and power play problems, but I’m not convinced. Kessel will get you 25-30 goals until he can’t walk, but the Coyotes need more than that. He’s no longer a surefire top line winger, and there might not be another one on the roster. Keller has yet to prove that he is. Schmaltz most certainly isn’t. Everyone thought their pick of Barrett Haydon was a joke. And you’ll never convince any of us here that Rick Tocchet isn’t huffing paint and betting lines behind the bench. With the playoff bar certainly going to be higher this year than it was last year, it feels like the Yotes are still behind it. The top three spots in the Pacific are spoken for, which means scrapping for a wildcard spot. It could happen if either or both Kuemper and Raanta have great years, but that’s their most likely hope. Feels like they’re coming up short again. Which is their lot in life.

Previous Team Previews

Carolina

Columbus

New Jersey

New York Islanders

New York Rangers

Philadelphia 

Pittsburgh

Washington

Boston

Buffalo

Detroit

Florida

Montreal

Ottawa

Tampa Bay

Toronto

 

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

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. 

Everything Else

Mike Darnay is the editor-in-chief of Pensburgh.com. You can follow him on Twitter @MikeDarnay.

 

It’s been a weird start for the Penguins. They sit near the top of the Metro (though some of that is having played the most games), and yet they have a terrible goal-difference even without the 10 they gave up to the Hawks. Their analytic numbers aren’t very impressive either. Are the problems actually structural? Is this just fatigue/boredom? Combination thereof?
Weird doesn’t even start to describe it. They’re in a unique spot where their point totals are pretty much fine, all things considered, but everything else stinks. I guess a 10-1 loss will do that when compounded with a pair of 7-1 losses as well. It’s easy to chalk it up to those second legs of the back-to-back games on the road that Niemi played in, plus an NHL debut from Casey DeSmith in the other. Those three losses are enough to submarine any statistics. But I do think fatigue is a valid issue, given that they’ve played an extra 1/2 season more than some teams in the past two years.
Matt Murray has struggled to start the year for sure. Just a sophomore slump? Any worry about the amount fo games he’s been asked to play?
I don’t think so. I think he’ll be fine and get back to form. Not having a viable backup didn’t help him, as two of the games he was supposed to rest (Chicago and Winnipeg), he ended up having to come in for relief despite playing a full game the night before with travel in between cities. Now that Tristan Jarry has been called up and appears to be able to be a competent backup, it should help Murray get the rest he needs and give the Penguins a backup they can go to.
This sounds stupid, but 15 points in 20 games for Sidney Crosby isn’t up to his usual standards. In addition, his analytic numbers are below what we’ve come to expect. Anything serious going on here?
I don’t think it sounds stupid, because *everyone* has been talking about it. You could even focus on the fact that he scored 0 goals in 11 games and only logged 3 points in those 11 games, before scoring a goal and having an assist on Tuesday night. I think it’s a compounded issue, with the defense not being helped out much by forwards, so goals are going in Pittsburgh’s own net in bunches, and the fact that the whole team is in a spot right now where they aren’t finishing scoring chances and every opponent is.
Conor Sheary, 23 goals in just 61 games last year. Eight already this year. Genuine top line scorer or product of playing with Sid?
Honestly, I don’t know? Seeing as that the Penguins found Sheary out of UMass-Amherst and signed him as an undrafted free agent who spent some time in the AHL before coming up, no one has seen him play at the NHL level outside of the current role he’s in. Perhaps a little bit of both is the correct answer. Players who have a skillset combined with understanding the way Sidney Crosby thinks the game at the speed he thinks the game can set themselves up for success for a long time. I mean, Chris Kunitz was made an Olympian, and Pascal Dupuis extended his shelf life with a team about seven years longer than usual for him before he came to Pittsburgh.
The Metro has kind of come up flat. The Jackets are fine, we guess. The Caps are diluted. The Devils are likely to fade, you’d think. Even if it takes a while, is there any reason to think that the Penguins can’t take this division at a canter?
I don’t think there’s reason to doubt the Penguins right now. The past two years, they’ve shown that it’s not how you start. Once the holidays end and December and January are knocking on your door, that’s when it’s time to start putting together consistent results, and they still have time. Rutherford loves to make trades during December, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he does it yet again. To run through the Metro gauntlet here:
Blue Jackets: Probably will have another good regular season, but can they beat the Penguins in a 7-game series?
Devils: Seem to have rebuilt their team fairly quickly into a much different style but still think they need more time.
NY Islanders: I guess they’re still the Islanders? I haven’t seen much this year other than I know their line of Josh Bailey, John Tavares, and Anders Lee are lighting it up. After that, they don’t have much though, right?
Washington: A shell of their former selves, going through a cap-forced rebuild that usually happens to teams who win the Cup, forcing to let free agents walk and make trades to fit under the cap. Not pretty right now.
NY Rangers: Traded their #1 center this season to be able sign Kevin Shattenkirk?
Philadelphia: They can’t score goals right now.
Carolina: i expected them to be better this year but they did sign Justin Williams, so we can blame him for everything.
Everything Else

For the first time in 19 years, a team will enter this NHL season twice-defending champions. The Pittsburgh Penguins will look to be the first team to win three in a row since some team called the Islanders did it in the 80s. We’ll forgive you if you’ve never heard of them. The Penguins still have the star power at the top of the roster to be a hard out for anyone come April and May. And unlike some previous champs, like one in this area code, they haven’t had to completely erode their depth in a deal with the devil for silverware.

Pittsburgh Penguins

’16-’17 Record: 50-21-11 111 points (2nd in Metro, won it all)

Team 5v5 Stats: 50.1 CF% (16th)  51.3 SF% (6th)  52.6 SCF% (6th)  8.5 SH% (5th)  .926 SV% (8th)

Special Teams: 23.1 PP% (4th)  79.8 PK% (20th)