The Gripes: Down The Stretch

The Pittsburgh Penguins are headed down the home stretch of the 2011-2012 season, with just 20 regular season games remaining. After 62 games, the Pens sit in 2nd place in the Atlantic Division, and their 77 points are good enough for 4th place in the Eastern Conference. As of this day, that would set them up to have home ice advantage for their first round playoff series, a series that would likely be against their hated cross-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers.

However, that conference positioning is extremely volatile, especially when you look at their upcoming schedule. You have looked at the schedule, right? No? Too busy worried about what the Pens might have done at the trade deadline? No matter. That’s what the Gripes are here for. This week, an exploration of the last quarter of the Pens’ schedule: by the numbers, and with some of my own spin on what you’d expect the Pens to do as they head into the playoffs.

To start with, here are the Penguins’ opponents, in order (CAPS indicate home game, @ indicates road game):

February: 29- @Dal

March: 3- @Col; 5- PHX; 7- TOR; 9- FLA; 11- BOS; 15- @Nyr; 17- @Nj; 18- @Phi; 20- WIN; 22- NSH; 24- @Ott; 25- NJ; 27- NYI; 29- @Nyi; 30- @Buf

April: 1- PHI; 3- @Bos; 5- NYR; 7- PHI

In terms of the breakdown, there are 11 home games and 9 road games on the schedule. There are three back-to-back sets of games. Four of the games are against the Western Conference. And nine of the games are against the Atlantic Division.

To get in-depth, though, let’s look at the strength of this schedule. Doing some quick calculations, the 20 remaining Penguins’ opponents have acquired 1460 out of a possible 2502 points on the season, making for a .584 points percentage. Comparing them to their three division rivals, this is what we see:

Pittsburgh (20 Games): .584 (1460/2502)
New York (21 Games): .557 (1471/2642)
Philadelphia (20 Games): .567 (1421/2504)
New Jersey (20 Games): .572 (1438/2514)

While not a massive difference, there is certainly a difference that exists between the teams as they head down the stretch. The Penguins will have a slightly more formidable challenge in their remaining games, which will make it more difficult for the Pens to not only catch the Rangers for the division title, but to also hang on to their spot in the conference, which may force the Penguins on the road for the first round of the playoffs.

No big deal, you say? Well, this season, it’s important for the Penguins. Just looking purely at wins and losses, the Penguins are 20-10 at home, and 16-16 on the road. That matters over the course of a seven-game series in the playoffs. Home ice matters, to a sizable extent.

I’m crazy, you say? Why wouldn’t the Pens want to drop to 6th in the conference, where they can take on a weaker team that wins the Southeast Division? I never want to see my team purposely aiming for a lower playoff spot. What happens if Ottawa stays hot, as well as Philly and New Jersey, and instead of getting 6th, the Penguins end up falling all the way to 7th? Well, what happens is that the Penguins will be staring down the barrel of the defending Stanley Cup champions from Boston in the first round. The Bruins will just beat the Penguins up for between 4 and 7 contests. Even if the Pens somehow get through that series, survive and advance, the physical toll taken on them will never allow them to get to the Stanley Cup. Be careful what you wish for, Penguins fans.

So, what do I think will happen in these last 20 games? If the Pens stay healthy, they can survive this rough schedule. I don’t think the schedule will allow for them to catch the Rangers, but the Pens should land in the 4 vs. 5 matchup. The #4 seed has served the team well in past seasons. I like their chances if they land there in April.

Tiptoe, softly.

Wow. It’s been a wild 20-or-so days since I last posted.

Outside of a truly embarrassing loss to the Sabres, the Pens have been playing pretty solid hockey. James Neal has been signed to a long-term deal at a reasonable cap hit, especially in years 4-6 (operating under the assumption of small increases in cap limits going forward). I have my concerns that Neal is starting to slow down. I made mention of this in my Pens Preview,but there is the possibility of the Gary Roberts Effect at work. What that means – Neal trains with Roberts during the off-season and Roberts’ regimen is so strict and grueling that players tend to fall off as the season drags on. Funny to criticize a 30-goal scorer, but he may also just be in a little bit of a lull/slump. When all is said and done, I think Neal will slightly over-perform my projections on offense, but will under-perform my projections on defense (he’s not going to end up +15 given he’s a neutral +/- right now). Neal has been an absolute beast on the PP, though, far outpacing my projection. I’ll be interested to see where he ends up when game 82 rolls around.

In other news…

As something of a follow-up to the last post – my continual search for a partner in this world continues. Things ultimately didn’t work out with the last girl, and that sucked, but it happens. There were no hard feelings or ill will. Honest and true, I wish her well in life and hope she finds what she’s looking for.

The world, however, continues to turn. And I continued my search. As luck would have it, I met someone else. Someone who may yet be a better fit for my lifestyle and outlook. I don’t wish to put too many eggs in one basket/count the chickens before the hatching/insert other cliché or idiom here, but I really dig this girl. It’s really, really, really hard to find someone who is almost as insane about hockey as I am down here in North Carolina. I found me a hockey fan. Granted, she supports the Hurricanes, but that’s OK.

I am genuinely excited and slightly fearful of seeing where things go. When meeting new people, especially those I am trying to impress and/or not make run screaming, I find it hard to strike the balance between being invasive and non-existent. I often fall into the trap, when I invest myself in something, of being overbearing. I don’t normally do things half-assed. If I am going to put the time and effort into something, I give it my all. Sadly, when dealing with people, I can be a little intense. It truly is a charming quirk of mine, but also is a little intimidating and hard to deal with at first, but is certainly something that can be cherished down the line.

Striking that balance, however, is difficult. As such, I must tiptoe, softly.

If, over the course of this weekend, I need a break from work I plan on writing about Kathleen Edwards’ new record, “Voyageur.” It’s a shame it released so early in 2012 because it such a magnificent album that it will be overlooked for a “best of 2012” list or award. Look for the review to come soon, but it truly is a wonderful record. If you liked her previous works or are a fan of artists like Neko Case, Sarah Harmer, etc., you owe it to yourself to purchase this album.

Work has been…trying. I love my job and, generally, I like all the people I work with, but I have some concerns about the future and the direction the school is heading. I see some major problems going forward. The semester has been going smoothly, but I am so effing happy for Spring Break. Next week is the last week before break and it’s going to be Hellish. It is going to be non-stop, but that’s OK. If nothing else, the week will go by quickly.

I am excited to come back to Pittsburgh, too, over break. I’ll only be in town for a week (really, a little less than a week), but it will be nice to just get away from NC for a little while.

And this Summer? Pft. Not even going to think about it. Total nightmare scenario between conferences and this and that. Not sure if I’ll even be able to make it back up. I’ll worry about that later. God willing (likely won’t happen), I can make it up to Pittsburgh later in June and get tickets to the NHL draft.

It’s been a wild ride, though. I am ultimately glad I took the gamble to come down here, but I have been missing Pittsburgh lately. It could be because of the weird weather of a southern Winter or it could be that I still don’t really know many people down here, but I’m really looking forward to being in an area where snow is likely. The last two days have been beastly. I’m talking north of 80 degrees. I’m just not used to that, certainly not in FEBRUARY. Oi.

But that’s life. And I tiptoe, softly.

Imitation of Life

Uncle Walt checking back in.

It’s been a long while since I last wrote. In that time, the Pens managed to get their act together and play up to their potential. Reeled off a giant winning streak, lost one, and came back to defeat the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. Evgeni Malkin is completely on fire. The level at which he is playing is truly something that must be seen to be believed. He’s everywhere. He’s scoring goals, he’s playing great defensively, he’s stickhandling through entire teams. I’m terrified that he’s going to burn out, but he’s doing the opposite. He keeps getting better. At some point his production will trail off a little, but…my God.

An alarming trend that is returning in the NHL, and this is something Jesse Marshall at Faceoff Factor has spoken about, is the system some teams are playing against the Pens (among others). That system? Slightly hold up the forecheck in the neutral zone and then collapse around the goaltender, keep all shots to the outside, and wait for an opportunity to spring someone.

It’s horribly boring hockey that takes ALL skill out of the game. Remember how magnificently boring (and therefore horribly tense) the 2010 series vs. MTL was? I don’t even want to think about that series, let alone see it Jesse does a great job of breaking down the how-and-why the system is troublesome, especially for teams like the Pens. Totally worth the read.

Continued after the break…

Continue reading “Imitation of Life”

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