Saturday, April 21, 2012

Pressure Mounting In Philadelphia

 Quick Turnaround/ Discipline Key to Game 6

      When the Penguins and Flyers meet for their pivotal Game 6 match-up at Wells Fargo Center today at noon, one thing will surely be different from their previous contest - timing.

       Friday's Game 5 began at 7:38 p.m., a regular start-time for most NHL games.  Sunday's Game 6, however, will be an early afternoon battle.  It will be interesting to see how each team handles not only another change in venue, but a quick turnaround as well.

      Some, myself included, believe the short layoff between Games 5 and 6 will only serve to help a Penguins team who's riding high and remains in a must-win situation.

      The Penguins Game 5 victory proved many truths on Friday night.

      For one, the Penguins proved they could beat Philadelphia in a meaningful game at home.  An ability that could prove important for the Penguins, but lets not get ahead of ourselves.

      Secondly, center Jordan Staal continued to proved that he's not only one of the best defensive forwards in the league, but that his scoring touch and rocket of a shot are sharper than ever.  In the previous three games, Staal has put up a playoff-leading six goals.  His nine points place him second in playoff scoring behind only the Flyers Claude Giroux.  If there's one part of Staal's game that's changed this season it's his willingness to fire the puck.  Similar to his rookie season in which he scored 29 goals, Staal has been deploying a shoot-first, ask questions later type of mentality, and its working.  Make no doubt about it, the play of Staal will be critical to the Penguins success today.

      Next, Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury emphatically proved that he is still an elite backstop in the NHL.  The poor performances he turned in for the first three games of the series, allowing 17 goals, were nearly forgotten after his incredible play in Game 5.  Fleury played aggressively and held nothing back on Friday night - he played with instincts, the way his game is meant to be played.  The Penguins will need him to be a fortress in the net again today to have a chance at extending the series.

      Lastly, the Penguins proved Friday night that they are the superior 5 on 5 team in this series.   The Flyers have been lights-out on the powerplay, scoring a staggering 11 of 20 with the man-advantage, including 2 of 5 in Game 5.
      The Flyers last even strength goal?

      The 19:33 mark of the third period in Game 3 in Philadelphia - nearly 140 minutes of hockey have been played since then.  

      The Penguins can do themselves a huge favor in Game 6 by staying disciplined, and at all costs, staying out of the penalty box.  Some of the Penguins, Evgeni Malkin and Tyler Kennedy, specifically, took undisciplined and untimely penalties in Game 5 that led to golden Flyer opportunities.  

       The Penguins will need to be more focused between the whistles today and not allow the Flyers agitating tactics to get the better of them.  

-Burgh Boy   

side note :  Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 24 of 26 shots Friday night, a .923 save percentage - neither team's goaltenders had managed a .900 save percentage until that performance.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Friday's Flowers in Full Bloom

       Forty-four minutes of scoreless hockey.
       That's what the Penguins should hold on to as they soar into Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series against the Flyers tonight at Consol Energy Center at 7:38 p.m.

       The Penguins not only managed to tie a franchise record with 10 goals in Wednesday night's thrashing of the Flyers, but they also showed us the team we all thought we knew heading into these playoffs.
       Aside from the early scare, that is.

       The Penguins fell behind in Game 4 by scores of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2.  From there, however, the Flyers lamp was lit up so much the rink manager had to change the bulbs.  The Penguins rattled off eight straight goals to close out the Flyers in embarrassing fashion.

       The Penguins team that played Wednesday night employed what head coach Dan Bylsma loves to call "Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey."

       They were strong on the fore check, they created turnovers, played sound defensively and they used a quick strike transition game to bury the home team.

      Young Guns Deliver

       #47 Simon Despres and #25 Eric Tangradi both put on impressive displays in their first post-season action of 2012.  Despres consistently won puck battles in the corners, sometimes against multiple defenders, and moved the puck with authority.  In 60 minutes he proved himself much more valuable than the highly inconsistent, and in my opinion, soft, Paul Martin.  Tangradi on the other hand provided much of the same.  He was a force on the fore check.  He dislodged Flyers from the puck with his physicality, and managed to shuffle a puck out of the Flyers crease to a wide-open Jordan Staal for Staal's first of three tallies on the night.

       Consistency Imperative 

       Early in this post-season, Director of Player Safety, Brendan Shanahan, has already been forced to make tough decisions.  He's dolled out suspensions for more than half a dozen players and been forced to review several questionable plays already in this young post-season.  It's hard not to respect the guy, not only was he fantastic player, but he's done an incredible job in his first year as player safety czar.  However, not suspending #36 Zac Rinaldo for his incident with #4 Zybenek Michalek on Wednesday night was a travesty.Not only did Rinaldo admit he wasn't in any way provoked by Michalek. But video replay clearly shows after Rinaldo initially boarded Michalek, driving him face-first into the glass, he also crosschecked him several times before finishing him off with a shot to the face as Michalek began to get up.  The puck was long gone.  Michalek did nothing to retaliate. Rinaldo's intent was what?  Shanahan showed no problem suspending Aaron Asham,4 games, or James Neal, 1 game, for questionable plays in Game 3, so why did he fail to call a spade a spade in the hours following Game 4?

       Unsung Hero

       #2 Matt Niskanen wins the unsung hero award for game 4, hands down.  Not only has he shown incredible grit and toughness in coming back from a legitimate shoulder injury, but he's proven that he's an integral piece of the "Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey" machine. He played soundly on the back end, but also provided a spark to our offense (1G,1A) that was lacking in recent games with an accurate point shot.  No offense to Kris Letang, but I believe he's at his best when he's joining rushes and creating odd-man chances down low.  Not Niskanen.  His point shot is a weapon, not only for himself, but his hungry teammates waiting for rebounds down low.

     Trust In Fleury

       Up until game 4, Marc-Andre Fleury looked helpless.  Every puck that wandered his way went in, every tic-tac-toe pass the Flyers could create found the back of his net, and every opportunity he had to make a big save he squandered it. 

       That's all changed Wednesday night.  Credit the defense, for sure, but make no doubt about it, the Flower found his game again.

      After three powerplay goals from the Flyers in Game 4, Marc-Andre Fleury didn't fold.  He played 44 minutes of shutout hockey, something unprecedented in this scoring bonanza of a playoff series.  Fleury challenged shooters, aggressively coming out from his net to cut down angles and prevent calculated plays.  He controlled rebounds and used some of them to his teams advantage, kicking Flyer shots out to his teammates and sparking the quick and deadly transition game of the Penguins.

       If the Penguins want to send this series back to Philadelphia, they will need much of the same from the Flower tonight.  There is no room for error left for the Penguins in this series - they appear excited for the challenge.

       Side note :  The last time the Penguins scored 10 goals in a game : April, 25, 1989.  Think about it knuckle heads.

- Burgh Boy

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Time to Flip the Script

Pens Must Win to Stay Alive

       The Penguins know this much - In order to participate in a Game 5, let alone advance towards Lord Stanley's Cup, they must win tonight against the Flyers at the ever-hostile Wells Fargo Center in Philidelphia. 
What the Penguins don't know, to this point anyway, is how to crack the resilient Flyers game.

       The Penguins are staring at possibly the worst post-season collapse in their franchise's history. A loss tonight, in whatever fashion, would catapult this team into the Penguins record books for all the wrong reasons.  Most remember the '75 Penguins as the team that truly unravelled in the post-season, taking a 3-0 series lead against the New York Islanders, only to squander the series with four straight losses.

       Ten days ago, these same Penguins were a 4-1 Vegas favorite to win it all.  They were healthy for the first time in nearly three years.  They had the regular season scoring champion and near shoe-in MVP in Evgeni Malkin.  Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, and Jordan Staal had career years.

       Now, every fan and analyst from here to Tucson are asking themselves "what happened to these Penguins"?

       It's simple really - They've been outplayed.

     The Flyers have won nearly every concievable statistical category in this series, and it no fluke.  They've owned the special teams battle.  They've scored at will on their powerplay, and somehow managed three short handed goals of their own. They've had numerous odd-man break/ breakaway scenarios.  They've stood toe-to-toe physically with the Penguins, and have consistently stolen their momentum away with timely responses to every push. 

       How often in a Pens/Flyers series have we been able to say the Flyers are skillful, speedy, executing at a high level, and staying disciplined?

       These Flyers are different.  These Flyers have not follwed the same self-defeating script that they have become noted for as a franchise.  They have jumped all over every Penguins mistake, and have limited their own gaffes significantly.  Time after time in this series, the Flyers have made the Penguins pay, and pay dearly. 

       Sunday's Game 3 was a microcosim of that analysis - and the outcome was decided well before the final whistle blew. 

       Game 3, aside from acting as another crushing and lopsided Penguins defeat, also showed what can happen when emotions boil over and control is lost.  Sunday afternoon was not only an embarassment for the richly proud Penguins franchise, but it stood to make their very leader and co-owner, Mario Lemieux, look like a jerk.  He has spoken out adamently on numerous occasions for eliminating the very play his team ennacted on Sunday afternoon.

      Accordingly, repercussions from Sunday afternoon came down hard on the Penguins.  They will be without the services of James Neal, Craig Adams, and Aaron Asham for Game 4 of the series because of incidents during Sunday's game.

      Simply put, Game 4 means more to these Penguins than an opportunity to play another game.  They must not only find a way to stave off elimination, but more importantly, they must restore the class and integrity to their franchise name.

- Burgh Boy

       Side note : #47 Simon Despres was called up this morning from the Penguins AHL affiliate in Wilkesbarre, Scranton to possibly replace the now injured Paul Martin.