The Penguins In Review: The 2012-13 Regular Season

Consol Energy Center

It’s tough to believe that the regular season is over already. The most ridiculous lockout since the last hockey lockout robbed us of 34 Penguins games this year and although that already seems like quite a bit of missed hockey, it’s even more devastating when you break it down to the number of absent regulation periods (102) and missing minutes (2,040). And not to put salt in the wound, but if Sidney Crosby hadn’t missed any games during the season and averaged his regular 21:06 of ice time per game, that means we also missed out on nearly 12 hours of watching the greatest player in the world do his thing.

 But let’s focus on what we did get to watch.

TEAM IN REVIEW

 To put it simply, the Pittsburgh Penguins were quite an amazing team to watch. They went 36-12-0 and acquired 72 points in route to capturing their first Atlantic Division title since 2008 and their first regular season conference crown in two decades, when they were captained by Mario Lemieux, backstopped by Tom Barrasso, and competed in the Prince of Wales Conference with the likes of the Quebec Nordiques and the Hartford Whalers.

 Like that team from 1993, these Penguins looked unstoppable in the regular season and are considered amongst the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. The 1992-93 Pens finished with 56 wins and 119 points. This year’s team was on pace for 61 wins and 122 points. That would have made them the winningest team in franchise history and given them the second most wins in NHL history, behind only the 1996 Detroit Red Wings who finished with 62.

 They never lost more than two games in a row and they became the first team in NHL history to win every game in the month of March (and at the same time becoming the first franchise to record a 10-game win streak in each of three consecutive seasons). That was during a streak in which the Pens won 15 in a row, tying the 1981-82 New York Islanders for the second longest win-streak in NHL history.

 Although this Pittsburgh team was relatively sound in most facets of the game, it was their offense that drove their success. Despite the shortened season, they still put a heck of a lot of pucks into the nets. They were first in the NHL in goals, with 162, which put them on pace to score 276 in 82 games. Much of their success came on the power play, which netted 42 goals and clicked at 24.7 percent, good enough for second best in the league.

 Defensively, the Pens weren’t firing on all cylinders for the duration of the season but they eventually found their way. Once they worked out some early season troubles leading to too much up and down hockey (that were exemplified by a disheartening 6-5 loss to the Flyers on February 20th and a 7-6 overtime win in Montreal on March 2), they really found the winning combination of scoring and defense. Through the first half of games, the Penguins gave up four or more goals eight times. Through the second half, they chiseled that number down to five games. It still wasn’t elite defense, but it got the job done by helping to win 20 of their last 24 games.

Over the course of the season, Pittsburgh averaged 2.48 goals against per game (12th in the NHL) and their goalie tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury (23-8 in 31 starts) and Tomas Vokoun (13-4 in 17 starts) combined for a .917 save percentage and 2.42 goals against. They might not be Vezina-type numbers, but they were good enough to help rack up the second-best record in the NHL and the best one-goal game win percentage in the league.

 But as good as Pittsburgh was in most areas of the game, they were pretty awful when it came to the penalty kill. They finished 25th in the league with a PK percentage of 79.6. Comparatively, the best PK team in the league, the Ottawa Senators, killed penalties at 88 percent. What’s most disconcerting about the Penguins penalty killing woes is that they’re one the worst teams in the league at it on the road. In the Stanley Cup playoffs, the ability to excel on the road is critical for deep Cup runs. The Pens killed only 75.5 percent of penalties on the road and allowed 24 power play goals. The only team that allowed more was the Colorado Avalanche, a.k.a. the worst team in the Western Conference.

PLAYERS IN REVIEW

 Now it’s time to fire through the whole Penguins roster of 2012-13 and conduct a quick review of their bodies of work.

Craig Adams- Adams was one of the six iron men on the team this season, playing in all 48 games. That’s somewhat surprising considering his playing style. He was third on the team in hits (107) and eighth on the team in blocked shots (37). He may not have much offensive savvy (three goals and six assists), but he’s a valuable penalty killer and a fearless defender. He’ll be one of the first guys penciled into coach Dan Bylsma’s everyday playoff lineup once the team becomes completely healthy because he’s such a solid shorthanded asset.

 Marc-Andre Fleury

Marc-Andre Fleury

As I mentioned before, MAF won’t win the Vezina this year, but if he ends the season hoisting the Stanley Cup, nothing else matters. He didn’t have elite statistics this season. He was 19th in save percentage (.916) and 17th in goals against average (2.39). But he did finish tied for second in wins (23) and the only reason that number wasn’t higher is because the Penguins actually had a backup they could trust to give Fleury some rest. In the end, the Flower was consistent and always gave the team a chance to win. He has a Stanley Cup pedigree and no one wants to avenge last season’s early playoff exit more than he does. I expect the same form from the Cup year to return this week and so does Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Rob Rossi.

 Beau Bennett– The rookie winger from California might have entered the NHL as a skinny greenhorn, but he’s left a tremendous impression on anyone that’s seen his work this season. We could see him grow up before our eyes, learning to see the ice better and better each game. He developed great chemistry with his line mates whether he was playing on the second line or the fourth. He has a slick touch to his puck handling and he’s certainly not afraid to run guys into the boards and grind the puck out from behind the net. I really hope Bylsma finds a spot on his playoff roster for this youngster because he will make the most out of any ice time he receives.

 Robert Bortuzzo– Borts, as he’s affectionately referred to by teammates, may have trouble cracking the playoff roster. But that’s not an indictment of his play during the season. He scored his first two NHL goals, but any offensive production he brings is frankly a bonus. Where this big-bodied D-man plays his best is in his own zone, tying up bodies around the net. In 15 games, he blocked 14 shots and registered 18 hits. He’s also developing a reputation as a tough guy, dropping the gloves three times. Bortuzzo is yet another example of the quality defensive depth the Penguins organization still has, even after trading away some quality defensive prospects this season.

 Matt Cooke– This will be remembered by most as the season that Matt Cooke sliced Erik Karlsson’s Achilles tendon, drawing ridiculous accusations from the Ottawa Senators brass, boorish comments from ex-goon analysts and insulting comparisons from loose-lipped announcers. But in actuality, the dirty Matt Cooke is long gone. The new Matt Cooke has struck a balance of grit and skill and when he’s playing on the edge (without going over it) Cooke is a dynamic penalty killer and a scoring threat to boot. His offensive production was down slightly this season, but it was wrong to expect the same level of production this season as he had last year, when he spent time on lines with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He did, however, have his worst plus/minus (-2) as a Penguin this year so hopefully the postseason will change his fortune in that regard.

 Sidney Crosby

Sidney Crosby

I think I’ve spent more time writing about injuries to Sidney Crosby than anything else on this blog. And I can’t tell you what it is (Bad luck? Unintended voodoo?), but I’ve been in attendance for the two most serious afflictions he’s suffered. I was at the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh when David Steckel concussed him and I was at the Consol Energy Center when Brooks Orpik’s errant shot broke his jaw and gave him a hockey smile. But had that puck missed him, he would be collecting an Art Ross Trophy at the end of the season in addition to a possible Hart Trophy. But there’s no use hashing out hypotheticals. What we know for sure is that Crosby is still the best player in the world and once he returns to action, we all expect him to resume his torrid scoring pace.

 Simon Despres– Despres has progressed well in his young career and this season he certainly showed us glimpses of his true value as a skilled defensive player. There are still some rough patches to iron out, including some panicky play where he’ll sling the puck into dangerous areas, but it’s all on pace and in due time. Bylsma needs to learn to trust Despres to play against more “physical” teams because it looks like that shouldn’t be an issue for him. He may not see time in the playoffs, but if Brooks Orpik remains out with a lower body injury, Despres’ puck moving ability and skill could be an asset against the young and speedy Islanders. It’s not likely that he’ll get the nod ahead of Deryk Engelland, though.

Pascal Dupuis

Pascal Dupuis

NHL players usually hit their primes around their mid-20s. By 30 they’re typically on the downswing of their careers and by their mid-30s, it’s not uncommon for them to trade in their hockey sticks for golf clubs. But not Pascal Dupuis. At the age of  34, this Canadian winger has been downright prolific this season, leading the NHL with a plus-31 and tying for third with 17 even strength goals. He finished third amongst Penguins with 31 points and led the club with 140 shots. He became a quality point man on the power play and continued to be one of the best penalty killers in Pittsburgh. He can switch between playing wing and center and in his younger days he even played some defense. This man can do everything and he’s hilarious, too. What’s not to like?

Mark Eaton– Mark Eaton doesn’t have point this season. He has only eight shots on goal and his shot blocks and hit totals don’t rank anywhere prominently in the NHL. Mark Eaton doesn’t get noticed and that’s been the best part about his play. He quietly executes on the blue line every night and he doesn’t make mistakes. He’s brought a calming veteran presence to this Penguins club and the proof is in its record since he arrived. In the 23 games he’s played with the Pens this year, they’ve lost three times. Call it a coincidence if you like, but he may be the most overlooked defensive piece that the Penguins have had all year.

 Deryk Engelland– Engelland had a decent season overall, but it was nothing to email home about. He certainly has progressed since the days in which his sole purpose in hockey was to cave in the face of the other team’s tough guy, but he isn’t at the level of a top-six defenseman (and I doubt he’ll ever reach that level). His physical style is welcomed in front of the Penguins net, but he can get out of position at times and he isn’t a great skater. His usefulness can plummet in the playoffs, where fights are few and far between, but as long as Bylsma doubts Simon Despres’ physicality, Engl will be the sixth defenseman until Orpik is ready.

 Tanner Glass– A glance a Glass’ numbers will make it seem like he didn’t have a very good season and they’d pretty much be correct. Don’t get me wrong. He’s one of the hardest working Pens and he’s eats up time on the penalty kill, but here’s what I’m hoping is just a bad coincidence: the Penguins penalty kill is awful and its key components are largely unchanged from the past few seasons when they were among the best in the league. Glass is one of the few different components. Do I think he single-highhandedly destroyed their PK somehow? Absolutely not. Do I think he’s helping it? Not necessarily. It’s great that he adds grit and sticks up for his teammates, every team needs guys like that. But I’m just not sold on his value after this short season. Hopefully, he can flip a switch like the Arron Ashams of the world and turn into an asset in the postseason. If he doesn’t show something right off the bat, he shouldn’t dress.

 Jarome Iginla

Jarome Iginla

Iginla’s trade was obviously the blockbuster deal of the NHL this season. After spending his entire career in Calgary, he decided he wanted to win some hockey games and dropped his no trade clause to play with his old Olympic buddy Sidney Crosby. I attended his first game as a Penguin and the crowd was about as receptive as it possibly could have been. And now after only 13 games of service to the city of Pittsburgh, I know why Calgary was so upset to see him go. How has a howitzer of a slap shot, a pearly white smile that he displays frequently and he’s already developed serious chemistry with the rest of the team. He sold his house in Calgary so it seems like he won’t be returning there at season’s end, so the question remains: Can/will the Pens sign him to an extension for 2013-14 and beyond? Because at the right price, I wouldn’t mind seeing him do this in a Penguins uniform for a few more years.

 Dustin Jeffrey– I can only imagine the frustration of Dustin Jeffrey. He’s a young, decent hockey player on one of the best teams in the NHL but there is no room at the inn. He’s been with the organization since 2007-08 and has bounced back and forth between the AHL and NHL so much that he probably forgets what jersey to put on when he arrives at the rink. But lately, he can assume that a suit and tie is the appropriate uni. He played quite a bit in March but was a scratch for all but three games in April. And unless things go terribly awry in the injury department, it’s likely that DJ has played in his last game of the season. Six points and a plus-1 in 24 games should hardly be convincing otherwise.

 Jussi Jokinen- You might not have believed me if I told you that Jokinen would be the most efficient addition to the 2013 Penguins roster when Ray Shero brought him on board on deadline day, but that’s exactly what he’s been. When he shoots, it goes in. It’s that simple. The Juice has 13 shots on goal in 10 games and he’s scored on seven of them (and added four assists). That’s the best shooting percentage on the team. He’s also been the second-best Penguin in the face-off circle (57.9 percent). It should scare other teams that he might be relegated to the fourth line once the Penguins become healthy, because he has top-six talent.

 Tyler Kennedy– TK had arguably his worst season as a Penguin. He finished with six goals, five assists and was a minus-6. He did manage to put 100 shots on goal, but that’s hardly an exception for him. He’s always had a shoot first (shoot always) mentality and while he has seemed to elevate his game in past seasons when players went down because of injury, that really wasn’t the case this year. He got opportunities to center the first line when Sidney Crosby went down, but he struggled to inject any flow to his game and he was quickly relegated back to the third and fourth lines. For whatever reason, Bylsma loves Kennedy. I would pick him to be a healthy scratch once the Pens are healthy again, but knowing Disco, TK will be out there blasting off-target shots as soon as the postseason begins.

 Chris Kunitz

Chris Kunitz

I present for your consideration, the 2012-13 statistics of one Christopher Kunitz: 22 goals, 30 assists, 52 points, plus-30, nine power play goals, five game-winning goals, 19.5 shooting percentage, 113 shots, all 48 games played. He was easily the best Penguin not named Sidney this year. For awhile, he was in the running for the Rocket Richard and Art Ross trophies. The only question remaining about Kunitz is where he’ll play once the Penguins are healthy. Crosby said that he feels more comfortable with Kunitz and Dupuis on his wings, but it shouldn’t matter where they are plugged in. Whether its on the first line with Crosby and Dupuis or on the second with Malkin and Neal, his presence can make it the best line in the NHL. Pretty good for a 33-year-old undrafted free agent.

 Kris Letang– He’s the best defenseman in hockey and he should be recognized as such by being awarded the Norris Trophy. Letang tied another Norris front-runner, P.K. Subban, with 38 points and did him four better when it came to plus/minus. Letang’s odds were narrowed because he played in seven fewer games than Subban and scored six fewer goals, but he ate up two more minutes per game than Subban and was in the penalty box far less as well. Unfortunately, I don’t have a vote for the NHL awards but he deserves the hardware because he plays the game better than any other blue-liner in the league.

 Steve MacIntyre– What can I say about Mac? He played in one game with the big club this year and basically served as a bodyguard for Matt Cooke. He’s a big bruiser that doesn’t do much and his type will eventually be phased out of the game someday. But for now, it’s hard not to love the big lug because of one time he defended his teammates by beating up the entire other team. I’ll just say I’m glad he’s on our side.

 Evgeni Malkin

Evgeni Malkin

Last season, Evgeni Malkin finished the regular season with 50 goals and 109 points to lock up the NHL scoring title. He was also won the Ted Lindsay Award (Most Outstanding Player) and was voted the league MVP. This season, Geno had nine goals and 24 assist, which put him on pace for 15 goals and 41 assists in an 82-game campaign. Those numbers would represent the second-worst statistical year of his career, with the worst coming in a season in which he played only 43 games. He did have injury problems this year as well, but Malkin might as well have fallen off the face of the earth. Thankfully, there’s still the postseason to redeem himself. He’s played some of his best hockey in the Stanley Cup playoffs, most notably in 2009 when he when the Conn Smythe trophy as the postseason MVP. His odds for winning a second Conn Smythe are 20/1 this year.

 Paul Martin– At the end of last season, Paul Martin was public enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh. He had a putrid year and because of his $5 million per year salary, it didn’t seem likely that any other team would take him off our hands. We became stuck with Paul Martin. Now, thank god we’re stuck with Paul Martin. He was easily the team’s comeback player of the year. Just consider the numbers. This season he has four more goals in 39 fewer games. He has nearly as many assists this year (17) as he did last year (25). His plus/minus is five points better. When it comes to the intangibles, it’s also been night and day. Last year, he struggled in the offensive zone, especially when he was on the point during the power play. This season, he’s calm and collected in the offensive zone. There is no panic and he has seemingly always made the right pass or shot at the perfect time. And with 52 games played in the Stanley Cup playoffs, his experience is welcomed with open arms at this time of year. A $5 million Paul Martin? Hell, that’s a bargain.

 Brenden Morrow– Brendan Morrow has been a Penguin for only 15 games and already he’s a cult hero in Pittsburgh. The blue collar fans love his style of play. They love that he parks in front of the net and raises hell on ice for defensemen and goaltenders. They love that he’s averaged nearly a point per game since he’s arrived. But I think Pens fans really love him because he seems to play with such passion and emotion, even after 850 career NHL games. And what’s the most telling fact? When he scores, he beams. It’s like every time the puck zings off his stick into the net, it’s the first time he’s ever scored, and this is a man who has 249 career goals. Fans enjoy when it’s clear that players are having fun representing their city. And it doesn’t hurt that Morrow put the beat down on local villain Subban and yelled from the penalty box “You have five minutes to think about what I’m going to do to you when we get out there.”

Douglas Murray

Douglas Murray

In his former lives, Douglas Murray was a bouncer, a boulder, a bull dog and a beef cow. In this life, he’s a slow-skating mountain troll who doesn’t feel pain and clears the ice of human debris.  After Morrow, Murray might be the next favorite addition to the Penguins because of his strength, size and because he might be a slightly cleaner reincarnation of Ulf Samuelsson. Between his time in San Jose and Pittsburgh this season, Murray has 89 hits and 98 blocked shots, which both rank second amongst Pen’s D-men. He has the second worst plus/minus on the team, but other than that he certainly has made a positive influence in the Burgh.

 James Neal– The Real Deal James Neal hammered home 21 goals this season, nine of them coming on the power play. He still has one of the most wicked shots in hockey, a release so quick that the opposition can’t get in front of it quick enough (skaters and goalies all included). I wondered how Neal would look upon returning from a concussion, but my fears were alleviated by a four-point regular season finale complete with a hat trick off of eight shots. Neal is yet another power play specialist within the Penguins roster that will do some major damage in the postseason, especially off of a face off play that is so quick, the announcers can’t call the goal until the puck is in the net for five seconds.

 Matt Niskanen– Niksanen is another one of those Penguins players that rarely gets talked about because there’s never a need to do so. He’s been one of the most quietly consistent Penguins since he joined the team and this year was no different. He didn’t exactly wear out the net twine but he was able to put together a respectable season with 14 points, two game-winning goals and was a  plus-4. This was a carry over from last year’s playoffs, in which the former Dallas Star lead the Penguins in almost all major statistical categories in terms of shots against, goals against and Corsi.Pair his play on the ice with his recently received “Good Guy” Award and you have a quality person and D-man in Matt Niskanen.

 Brooks Orpik

Brooks Orpik

Orpik is the second-biggest question mark remaining on the Penguins roster heading into the postseason (with the first obviously being Crosby). He suffered a lower-body injury last week against the Buffalo Sabres that kept him out of the final two regular-season games. He did skate by himself this week but is listed as day to day. Orpik is an important cog in a Penguins defense that struggled in the beginning of the year, only to turn it around in mid-season. His potential absence could leave a glaring hole in front of the net. He was clearly the best defensive defenseman for the Penguins, leading the team in hits (119), blocked shots (114) and games played (46). I’ll feel a lot better about the back end once Orpik and his demonic bulging eyes are back on the ice.

 Dylan Reese– Reese played in three NHL contests this season and registered one shot on goal. He’s currently playing for the Baby Pens in the first round of the AHL playoffs. He grew up in Pittsburgh, so that’s nice. Moving on…

 Trevor Smith– If it doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry, it shouldn’t. Mr. Smith played in one game this year. I was at that game in March and didn’t know he had played in it. He registered zero stats during 10:24 of ice time.

 Brandon Sutter– Now that the season is over, we can finally compare the stats of Sutter and Jordan Staal and see which team won the trade! Although this doesn’t necessarily work in a black and white comparison, it’s still fun to see. Sutter finished with one more goal than Staal, but the ex-Penguin racked up 13 more assists. The glaring difference was their plus/minus numbers. Sutter finished with a plus-3 (the second-best of his career) while Staal finished a minus-18, easily the worst of his career. Sutsy finished with five game-winning goals. Staal had one. There wasn’t a huge difference between the two, but given where the Pens are right now, I’d say that Shero has no regrets. And given Sutter’s family pedigree and style of play, I cannot wait to see what kind of force he can be in the playoffs.

 Joe Vitale– I always admired Joe Vitale’s game. He hustles like he’s Bryce Harper on ice, he drills guys into the boards and while he doesn’t often fill the net, he scored one of the prettiest elevation goals of this shortened NHL season. He has a skill set that would be utilized a lot more were he not on a superstar-loaded team. He still managed to get on the ice 33 times this year, however that was the best number on his stat sheet. He was a minus-7 with two goals and three assists. I would have liked to see him get some more time this year simply because he’s fun to watch, but a healthy roster will probably relegate him to the press box for the remainder of the season. He has one year left on his contract after this season and then becomes a restricted free agent. Given his overall lack of production and the fact he’ll be 28 years old, that might be the last season we see him in a Penguins sweater.

 Tomas Vokoun

Tomas Vokoun

Much can be said about all of Ray Shero’s 2012-13 acquisitions, but the best of them all was Tomas Vokoun. Fleury was overworked when he entered last year’s playoffs because of the Penguins’ hesitance to start Brent Johnson more than a handful of times during the regular season. With the installation of Vokoun, the Pens were able to rest Fleury without worrying about their backup getting lit up. Vokoun’s veteran presence has seemed to push the Flower to become more focused and better rested. And heading into the postseason, Fleury is by far the most important person to be in peak condition both mentally and physically.

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Pittsburgh and the Mystical Winger: A Penguins Tale of Lore

Do you like bad fan fiction? Do you like hockey?

If you answered “yes” to both of those questions, this post is for you!

 

There is a fairy tale that has been told in Pittsburgh for some time now.

It is a chronicle about one man in search of eternal glory – not only for himself, but for his people and his small, but loyal army. His name was Ray Shero and he dreamt of drinking from a hallowed cup, the most precious of trophies and the most coveted of possessions among his peers. And he wanted to drink from this great Cup more than once, for he was a great wizard, deserving of great riches and heavenly wealth.

But to achieve this, some thought, Shero would have to find a man first. Prophecy foretold that this man would one day arrive in Pittsburgh, through no easy means, and find great comfort and success on the wing of Sidney Crosby, the vaunted White Knight.

But to speak of Shero’s vaunted White Winger, one must first understand Crosby.

Crosby was no commoner, himself. He had already fulfilled a prophecy, one which named him “The Next One.” At the age of 18 and in his first NHL season, he had already salvaged a dying Penguins franchise and a wilting National Hockey League. He did this with the help of a great 66, called “Le Magnifique” by some and Mario Lemieux by all.

But even though Lemieux and Crosby brought the NHL back into the public’s favor after a devastating lockout in 2004-2005 and saved the Penguins franchise from bankruptcy and relocation, there was still work to be done.

For you see, the Penguins still existed, but only barely. Even with Crosby finishing sixth in league scoring with 102 points (39 goals, 63 assists) and a runner-up bid for rookie of the year, the Penguins still finished second from last in the NHL with 58 points. Even Lemieux couldn’t help his ill-gotten team, for he had grown old by then and could no longer carry the remaining weight of the franchise on his shoulders.

The team’s mediocrity didn’t last, though. The very next season, they finished second in the Atlantic Division with an astounding 105 points. Crosby had grown into the vision the hockey gods had projected. He led the NHL with 120 points (36 goals, 84 assists) and won the Hart Trophy, becoming the youngest player and only teenager to win a scoring title. Crosby was also named the league MVP and received the Lester B. Pearson Award as the most outstanding player, becoming the seventh player in NHL history to earn all three awards in one year.

In 2008, Shero found himself pulling strings at the trade deadline. His army wasn’t quite legendary, but it was something to behold. It was the best in the East. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury were all as formidable as anyone in the league and no one doubted the team’s greatness. But it seemed that they lacked a key piece to make them the best in all of hockey.

And that piece existed.

He was skating and shooting and scoring in the land of Atlanta, a land long forgotten by the hockey gods. It, perhaps, was shunned because of one evil winger that played there. Unfortunately, for Shero, he was the thought to be that piece. He was Marian Hossa, who later became known as the Dark Winger.

“We must have him,” Shero thought. And so he worked his great magic and the Penguins sent Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and a first-round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft to the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for the heralded Hossa, as well as Pascal Dupuis.

Hossa helped carry the mighty Guins to the finals that season. But victorious the team was not. For unbeknownst to the Penguins and Shero, Hossa was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He was a shape shifting evil doer, hell-bent on personal success with no connection to the mortal world.

He was not a team player.

So the Penguins lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games. Driven by only his greed for personal success, Hossa departed from the Land of Steel for the Hell of the Midwest – Detroit, in search of glory of the evil variety.

Without Hossa the following season, the Penguins repeated as Eastern Conference champions. They crossed into the darkness of Detroit once more, this time besting the Redwings in seven games to capture the Cup in a valiant effort that will live in lore forever.

They drank from Lord Stanley’s fabled Cup, but some say it was against the will of the hockey gods. You see, although Detroit may be an evil land, it had become the home of the hockey gods, thus earning the city the name “Hockey Town.” The gods had built their sanctuary in the midst of the downtrodden city around them and that sanctuary was known as “the Joe.” It was the Joe Louis Arena, the oldest arena in the NHL. And because the Penguins seized the Stanley Cup on Game 7 in the Joe, snatching it away from the sanctuary of the hockey gods, they were cursed, doomed to never reach the Finals again.

But legend had it that if the Penguins were to find the White Winger, one man pure and devoted to the game and its fans, a captain of his own domain so incorruptible that he could endure a terrible team for years and still remain up-beat; only then could the Penguins return to the Finals and hoist the Cup once more.

In the coming seasons, the Penguins were tremendous. But as remarkable as they were, the playoffs became their Achilles heel because of the hockey gods’ curse. Once 82 games of regular season had elapsed, the Penguins lapsed. And for the three years following the Cup victory, the Penguins were ousted in either the first or second round of the playoffs.

Great regular season success followed by despicable postseason defeat was a curse that Shero’s people had great trouble enduring.

At the start of the 2010-2011 season, the Penguins believed they could triumph despite the curse and the lack of the White Winger. The hockey gods feared they were right. So in the midst of Crosby’s greatest season ever, the gods sent a lightning bolt crashing from the heavens during the nationally televised Winter Classic. It struck Crosby in the form of a David Steckel hit to the head. It was a hit that sent shockwaves throughout Shero’s kingdom.

Some foretold he may never play again. He missed nearly two full seasons, but by power of magic and great strength, he became the man he once was.

From then on, the Penguins and its fans realized they indeed needed the White Winger to succeed. This had everyone going on “watch.”

First it was “Jagr watch.” That wasn’t to be. Jaromir Jagr, once a masterful winger for the Penguins in the days of the first and second Penguins Cups, succumbed to dark sorcery and chose evil over good. He signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in the summer of 2011.

The following summer, Crosby’s good friend Zach Parise became the next prospective winger for the Penguins. “Parise watch” was in full force and many Pittsburgh faithful believed the ex-Devil’s captain would bring his talent to the Penguins and vie for a Cup. But once again, the hockey gods vetoed the suspicions and cast him to the great north of Minnesota, where he collected a king’s ransom.

So the final White Winger watch brings us to modern times. Rumors were whispered across the hockey landscape that the Penguins were closer than ever to finding him. Truth be told, the Penguins signed a winger, a captain, who many thought would fulfill the prophecy. He was Brenden Morrow, a veteran captain of the Dallas Stars. He was a born leader and would be valued because of his insight into the game and his gritty style of play. He had long been a bastion of good will in a town where the hockey gods had not been kind to in quite some time. He was pure of heart and remained upbeat in an unsuccessful hockey town.

After quick consideration, the Penguins faithful decided he was close enough to the prophecy. He played the wing. He probably wouldn’t supplant the outstanding wingers Crosby already had (Dupuis and Chris Kunitz) but he would fill the second-line role that was needed badly.

The visions had changed scripture and it was no longer Sid’s winger, but the second line’s winger that would fulfill prophecy. Dreamers fell back down to earth and realists realized something great: This Penguins team was now built for a deep run in the playoffs.

After the addition of the mountain-of-a-man, troll defenseman Douglas Murray a day later, reality now became the prophecy. Shero had found his pieces. The missing rook and the absent bishop were now on the board and Pittsburgh was more than capable of a checkmate against any team in the league.

But there had been another winger in the land of hockey, one of great value. His name was Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla. He hailed from the west of Canada for many years and donned a “C” on his chest and a “C” over his heart. Some soothsayers claimed that he was that mystical winger who could fill the void in Pittsburgh. This, of course, was before it was filled by Morrow, so it could no longer be.

But the days following the Morrow signing, these same oracles still whispered about Iginla’s interest in Pittsburgh. Most folk responded to these whispers with “delusions of grandeur! For Shero is done. He has finished his work, so let us be merry now without conjecture and speculation from fools with unnamed sources.”

The doubters were right. On a dark Wednesday night, as the newly acquired Penguins traveled toward their new kingdoms, the oracles confirmed that Iginla had indeed agreed to become a Boston Bruin. Penguins fans were not pleased, but certainly not worried. Although the Bruins would be their toughest playoff adversary, Iginla’s addition would certainly not guarantee a Pittsburgh demise.

“So be it,” they said. “Let Iginla skate for Beantown. It shall make no difference.”

So Penguins fans laid their heads to their pillows and began to dream new dreams. These were dreams of a tougher Penguins team, one that could score and skate and deliver blows to the opposition. They would have been nightmares had they been dreamt by fans of any other team.

But while they all slept, the great Shero was wide-eye and sharp minded in his quarters. His phone in hand and wit ablaze, he conspired in the early morning hours, working magic not seen in Pittsburgh since 1991, when another great wizard GM by the name of Craig Patrick clouded the minds of the Hartford Whalers management and usurped Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings in exchange for Jeff Parker, Zarley Zalapski, and John Cullen.

Shero had landed Iginla.

With a flick of his wand, Shero sent a 2013 Penguins first round draft choice and prospect forwards Kenneth Agostino and Ben Hanowski to Calgary in exchange for a future hall of fame right winger. Presumably, Flames GM Jay Feaster had been rendered deaf and dumb with zero chance of cognitive ability. The forwards he acquired are both C-rated NCAA players and according to scribe Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, neither was listed in the top ten best prospects within the Penguins organization.

Which brings us to today.

Iginla is everything the hockey gods have spoken of and everything prophecy has written of the White Winger. Although he may not be Crosby’s winger, he is a veteran scorer and man of virtue and good faith. He has said he will assume any role that is asked of him and that is why many believe he is the man foretold to undo the gods’ curse.

But we must all remember the fickle whims of the hockey gods. Those whims change at the drop of a puck and we may never truly know what they desire to be. It does appear they are still angered by Shero and his mighty plan, however, for they have once again struck down the great Crosby, this time by casting a whirring puck from the stick of Brooks Orpik into Crosby’s face, breaking his jaw and casting his teeth into the land of wind and ghosts.  We do not know when he will return to Shero’s army.

We also do not know if he or Morrow are the men who the prophecy spoke of. They each fit the description, but it seems of Iginla more so. Once the regular season closes, only then will we know if Iginla is the winger who will return to Cup to Pittsburgh.

So it was written, so it may be.

A quick thought on Pittsburgh patience

We live in a right now, knee jerk, gotta have it yesterday, instantaneous society. It’s a fact that’s tough to argue against when fewer and fewer people are willing to wait a day for their news in a paper and prefer to get breaking information over their Twitter feed, whether it’s confirmed as true or not. It’s a reactionary culture that’s quick to condemn, redeem or otherwise forget anyone or anything that seems to impact our existence at any given time.

Because sports tend to be a large part of many of our lives, it’s not surprising how quickly we decide what the state of our teams are or will be in the near future.

A good example is the firing today of Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike Brown after FIVE games. Did he deserve it? Maybe, but it seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to say the least.

Or how about the Duke lacrosse scandal a few years ago? That team was condemned by the media and public for alleged sexual assault crimes, only to be pardoned after due process and ultimately forgiven.

As difficult as it may be and as frustrating as it sounds, everybody needs to slow down and take a breath. We must all wait a bit to gather our thoughts and let the world play out before we pound the gavel and execute or dismiss. And because of recent events in the Steel City, this is especially true for Pittsburgh sports fans.

Last Sunday, the Steelers executed their finest win of the season, defeating the Super Bowl champion Giants 24-20. And despite horrendous officiating, the Steelers dominated much more than the final score suggested. Eli Manning – the owner of two very large rings and two MVPs to go with them – was held to just 125 yards and completed only 10 completions on 24 attempts. The Giants passing game was stagnant. Their run game was stifled (the G-Men racked up only 68 yards on the ground).

Not only was it an outstanding defensive performance reminiscent of the Steel Curtain teams fans fondly remember, the black and gold also put together a sound performance on the offensive side of the ball. Ben Roethlisberger went 21-30 and threw for 216 yards, two touchdowns and one pick. Back-up running back Isaac Redman carried the ball 26 times for 147 yards and a touchdown. The offensive line opened up holes big enough to drive a garbage truck through. The pass game clicked. The run game cruised. Everything went to plan.

Just about every way you look at it, this game was in stark contrast to what the Steelers looked like through the first five games of the season. At that point, they were 2-3 and suffered brutal losses including two to the Raiders and Titans, two of the worst teams in the league. Pittsburgh ranked dead-last in rushing and the defense allowed an average of 23 points per game while blowing a number of fourth-quarter leads.

They just didn’t look like the Steelers. Had the Browns changed their colors to black and gold? Did Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau go on mental vacations?

But after leaving Tennessee with their tail between their legs following a 26-23 loss, it seemed like something started to click. The game plans looked better and the execution was far superior. They went into Cincinnati and shut down Andy Dalton and A.J. Green (who is a top-five receiver in the NFL this year). Pittsburgh trounced rookie phenom and the Redskins 27-12. They finally looked like the Steelers again and everyone’s doubts went out the window and started to drown at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers.

But the problem is, there was never any reason to hit the panic button in the first place, even after losing to Oakland and Tennessee. Sure, the team looked out of sorts, but it was still quite early in the season and the rest of the AFC (minus the Houston Texans) looked no better. Pundits on national radio and television were killing the Steelers. Colin Cowheard of ESPN Radio said that the Steelers were too old defensively and they couldn’t produce well enough to be an upper-echelon team. Now the Steelers are 5-3, only one game back of first place in the AFC North and everyone is once again calling them contenders.

Here’s some advice to all fans and media: Avoid the waffling in the first place and wait until at least halfway through a season before declaring this or that about any team in professional sports. There’s something called a turnaround and we should all be well aware of it by watching the Giants the past few years. If they’ve taught us anything, it’s that all you have to do is make it to the postseason and then anything is possible.

Pirates fans learned this lesson the hard way over the last two years. The team started off their last two campaigns in excellent fashion. Both teams spent time in first place in the NL central division and it appeared that they would be locks to end 19- and 20-year losing skids. But both collapsed. We were all left wondering what happened and how it was possible. But it certainly was possible, if it wasn’t realistic, for both the 2011 and 2012 Pirates to blow up winning seasons because that’s sports. It’s not predictable in many cases for better or for worse. That’s what makes them great in the first place. Anything can happen.

And even now after Pirates owner Bob Nutting has decided that his inexperienced, sometimes hair-brained front office is staying intact, that doesn’t mean the team can’t have a winning season in 2013. Does it seem likely? Absolutely not. But stranger things have happened. I suppose it might be easier to expect the Pirates to be bad next season so that if we are surprised, it’s a pleasant one.

The same goes for the Penguins last year. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fluery, we’ve come to expect greatness from the Penguins recently. Not just Pittsburghers either. Last season, Vegas had the Penguins pegged as the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup. And after the regular season, it looked increasingly likely. The Pens finished second in the East and with Sidney Crosby finally healthy again and Evgeni Malkin having assumed the role of best player in the world, the only team that could beat the Penguins was the Penguins.But then they clashed with the Flyers in a less-than-heroic fashion and were defeated in six games. And entire season blew up in two weeks. Fluery, who had won a Cup in 2009, looked like Swiss cheeses as pucks easily found their way past him. Evgeni Malkin didn’t look the same as he did as the MVP in the regular season. Everyone let their expectations get the better of them because the Penguins were SUPPOSED to win. And should the NHL season happen this year, the Penguins are again the favorites to win it all.

Let’s just hold off on that judgement now.

Is it possible the Penguins and Pirates will collapse again? Yes. Is it likely? For the Penguins, no. For the Pirates. Maybe. But we shouldn’t engrave Sidney Crosby on the Cup yet and we shouldn’t fire Clint Hurdle before the season begins.

It’s best not to let any expectations get in the way of our sports. Just watch, listen and enjoy. Let the surprises work themselves out and let fate do what it does.

The 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope may have put it best when he said “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

Paul Martin’s Handling of Head Injury Clouded by Poor Performance

Earlier today, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Josh Yohe tweeted some disturbing information about Penguins defenseman Paul Martin:

Josh Yohe ‏@JoshYohe_Trib:

“Pens D Paul Martin just told me that he played the first three games against the Flyers with concussion-like symptoms.”

 “Martin said nothing to trainers until after Game 3. At that point, he was shut down for the rest of the series.”

 “Martin is fully recovered from the concussion and is working out every day in Minnesota.”

“Martin said the concussion took place at some point in Game 1, but he isn’t sure precisely when.”

Yohe later elaborated on Martin’s injury and prospective future with the Penguins in a story you can see here.

In Yohe’s article, he quoted Martin saying the following:

“I wasn’t feeling well during Game 1,” Martin said. “But I never said anything to the trainers. I didn’t feel well in Game 2. Then, after Schenn hit me in Game 3, I felt really bad but still finished the game. The next night, I felt worse. I talked to our trainers then, and told them about the symptoms. That was it. They shut me down.”

“The whole thing was tough,” he said. “I took a test and supposedly did fine. But with what had happened with Kris and with Sid’s (Sidney Crosby’s) problems, I think they were being overly-cautious.”

This should upset every Penguins fan.

My No. 1 criticism of the NHL the past couple of years has been the epidemic of concussion problems that has struck pretty much every team in the league. The main problem I’ve had is how the league has been inconsistent with its punishment of head shot offenders. I’ve also taken issue with the fact that players have not changed how they hit others on the ice; head shots are still happening at a high rate and both the league and its players need to make changes to make the game safer.

But in Paul Martin’s case, I’m not mad at the league nor an offending player.

I’m upset with Paul Martin.

Martin plays on a team that has been at the forefront of the concussion debate for two years. Penguins Captain Sidney Crosby spent two seasons dealing with a head injury and as the face of the league, he garnered plenty of attention for it. He was part of the reason the NHL adopted changes to Rule 48, the rule that deals with the penalization of head shots.

Not only did the Penguins have to suffer through a slow recovery from Crosby, they also faced a similar situation with star defenseman Kris Letang. Letang suffered a concussion on Nov. 26 after taking a big open ice hit from Montreal Canadians forward Max Pacioretty, but returned later in the same game. His symptoms became worse over the next few days and he ended up missing 21 games because of them. Later in the season, he dealt with concussion symptoms yet again after taking a hit to the head by Dallas Stars forward Eric Nystrom.

So the fact that Paul Martin played through the pain and tried to ignore concussion symptoms over a three-game span baffles me. He, as well as every other NHL player, is surely aware of how serious a head injury can be. If not treated properly, it can lead to permanent brain damage that may cause major problems for the rest of a players life — and eventually end it. One only has to look as far as Pat LaFontaine, Scott Stevens, Eric and Brett Lindros, Michel Goulet, Brian Bradly, Nick Kypreos, Adam Deadmarsh, Jeff Beukeboom, Matthew Barnaby, Paul Comrie, Keith Primeau and Marc Savard to understand how devastating a brain injury can be — not to mention the death of Derek Boogaard in 2011, which was caused by an accidental drug and alcohol overdose while he recovered from a concussion.

Now, I also understand why Martin didn’t tell trainers about his concussion symptoms until they were debilitating. In professional sports — particularly in hockey and football — players are taught to have tough-guy mentality. They want to go out there and prove themselves, even if it comes at their own physical peril. After all, nothing says you’re a team player more than playing injured and team players get paid and respected.

And for Paul Martin, he had even more incentive to play injured than most players. He had a terrible year, one of the worst in his career. He wasn’t playing at a level anywhere near where a $5 million-per-year player should play. Because of his let-down season, Martin felt that he needed to play, regardless of injury, to prove that he was better than his season had shown. Going into the postseason, Martin had already begun to hear rumblings from fans and media that the Penguins should trade him in the offseason.

Yohe illustrates that here:

Martin was aware of negative talk from local fans and media outlets, and admitted this may have affected his performance.

“Coming from New Jersey,” Martin said, “it isn’t a fishbowl like Pittsburgh is. All it takes is for someone to write an article and people can jump on board. It’s hard to ignore it. When you’re a player, you notice things. I take pride in my job, and when people are telling you that you aren’t doing your job well, you don’t like it.”

Here’s another telling Martin quote from Yohe’s story:

“Do I think the same team is going to be back in Pittsburgh next year? No. But I hope I’m one of the guys who is back. I want to prove to myself and to reestablish to everyone the player that I am.”

Fans, other players and team management want to see players doing everything they can to prove themselves. Unfortunately, that mindset is quite valued. This tweet from Yohe proves that point:

“Obviously Martin’s judgment can be questioned for playing with the symptoms. Can’t question his commitment to the team, though.”

Martin may have thought he was helping the team by playing injured, but he was potentially doing the exact opposite. The old saying goes “Loose lips sink ships,” but when it comes to head injuries, it’s the sealed lips that hurt the most. No team will ever benefit from a player that is unable to get back onto the ice because of a devastating head injury. It looks like Martin got lucky because he doesn’t seem to have any long-term symptoms of his head shot.

It’s tough to say whether or not Martin will be in a Penguins sweater next season. Many people agree that he should be traded, but his high price tag will make it tough for Penguins GM Ray Shero to move him after the terrible season he had. Pittsburgh has plenty of depth in the AHL that could take Martin’s place next year, but if the Penguins can’t move him and are unwilling to eat the remainder of his contract, he may be on the blue line in Pittsburgh for another year. Ultimately, that will be what saves Martin from being traded, not his ill-advised effort to play through a head injury in the post season.

If Martin is a Penguin next season, I’ll expect him to be better on the ice.

But I’ll expect more from his decisions off of it.

Penguins Fans Shouldn’t Fear Offseason Roster Changes

One look at the Penguins roster right now reveals a ton of talent and potential. But one look at the record this core of players has put together in the postseason in the past three years reveals something else: a pattern of poor play despite that overwhelming talent.

There aren’t a whole lot of Penguins fans out there that would say they’d like to see a major change to this roster, but they may not have a choice. Fans and Pens GM Ray Shero should be asking themselves the same question: Can this group of players win a Stanley Cup?

That may seem disheartening to some, mostly because the core of the team is largely unchanged from the team that raised the Cup in 2009 (13 players remain on the roster from the championship team, including Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang).

But as much as Pens fans want it to stay ‘09 forever (as Pens fans previously wanted it to stay 1991 and 1992 before) they need to consider what has happened recently and how that will affect the next few years for the team, especially with the uncertainty of the upcoming collective bargaining agreement in September.

Ray Shero may have to make some difficult decisions this summer because of CBA and that could mean the departure of center Jordan Staal. Don’t get me wrong, he may be just as big a piece as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and I believe the Penguins should do everything in their power to keep Staal. But if Shero cannot figure a way to keep all three, Staal is the odd man out.

Staal has consistently proven over the past few seasons that he is much better than the third line center role he has assumed on this team. Penguins fans undoubtedly have considered themselves blessed to have a team so solid down the middle throughout the entire lineup. But consistency and talent like that comes with a price.

Both Staal and Crosby are heading into the final year of their contracts and Malkin is heading into the next to last year of his. Both Crosby and Malkin are making $8.7 million and both could be seeking raises considering how outstanding they have been. But the same can be said about Staal, and he’s making $4.7 less than both of them. He could easily command first-line center money somewhere else and if he is thinking what’s best for him, Staal may go where he gets first-line time for more cash.

And yes, Staal has been quoted that he would love to stay in Pittsburgh, but if that stands in the way of his becoming a first line guy and making first-liner coin, he may want to consider other options. Whether he stays in Pittsburgh or not rests on Staal just as much as it does on the Penguins.

As much as Pittsburgh loves Staal and as good as he’s been for the Pens, there’s a chance he could be leaving soon. I’m not saying they should trade him, but if he’s going to be leaving once his contract expires anyway, the Pens might as well get some good value for him (which they absolutely would).

One scenario that has been brought up recently is a potential deal with the Edmonton Oilers.  Over the weekend, Dave Staples wrote a column at the Edmonton Journal that brought up the question: Should the Edmonton Oilers consider trading the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Staal?

The Oilers certainly would love to have a young center like Staal that can bring just as much defensive help to a team as he can offense and right now, the primary need for Edmonton is players that can help keep the puck out of their own net.

On the Penguins side, it could also make sense considering they haven’t been able to draft particularly well in the past few years because they have been in the tail end of the draft order. They have some great young talent at defense, but their depth at forward is scant when you look beyond the NHL roster. If they were to receive the No. 1 pick, they could pick up an NHL-ready player like Nail Yakupov and they wouldn’t have to worry about paying him big bucks for a few years after his rookie deal.

Right now, it’s just food for thought and speculation about a potential deal with Edmonton is just that, speculation. Edmonton has not expressed any interest in Staal whatsoever. But if Staal were to leave, regardless of where he goes, Pens fans need to be able to cope with it. Change is a part of hockey and if your team isn’t winning championships with the kind of talent Pittsburgh has, then maybe that change is necessary.

Game 16 of Remaining 29: Pittsburgh at New York Rangers

Pittsburgh Penguins: 42-21-5 (89 points)

4th in the Eastern Conference

VS.

       New York Rangers: 44-18-7 (95 points)

1st in the Eastern Conference

 

 

 

 

 

For the Pittsburgh Penguins, there hasn’t been a bigger game this year. A win will put them within four points of the first place Rangers. A loss will send them back back eight points from the Rangers. Catching the Blue Shirts would probably be an insurmountable task if they lose this one. But let’s remember, this game marks the return of Sidney Crosby. All-star blueliner Kris Letang may also be coming back for this game. If I had known these details, I may have picked this game differently 16 games ago. However, I didn’t. I’m picking the Pens to LOSE in this one, well at least I did back then. I really hope I’m wrong, but all I can do is wait and see.

My final 29 record: 6-9

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