The Gripes: First-Round NHL Playoffs Preview

The most exciting two months in sports gets off and running in short order. Sounds like a perfect time for The Gripes to give you a quick preview of each series, before putting on the prognostication hat and telling you who I think ends up surviving round one. Away we go:

Western Conference-

#1 Vancouver vs. #8 Los Angeles: These two teams have done battle in the past in the postseason. I originally predicted this to be the Western Conference Finals matchup. Jonathan Quick could absolutely steal this series for the Kings, but I don’t see that happening. The talent for the Canucks will prevail.

Prediction: Canucks in 6

#2 Saint Louis vs. #7 San Jose: The Blues overachieved in the regular season. The Sharks underachieved in the regular season. For the Sharks, though, the postseason is all that matters. If they had put themselves in a better position in the standings, maybe I could see them doing damage in the playoffs. But they are running into a disciplined team with a strong system. It won’t be pretty, but the Blues will find a way.

Prediction: Blues in 7

#3 Phoenix vs. #6 Chicago: The Blackhawks have been here and done it before. But Jonathan Toews’ injury concern puts their scoring into doubt. The Coyotes have been here but haven’t done it in the postseason. They have the hottest goalie in the league right now, though, in Mike Smith. I can’t guarantee that he’ll carry them through the playoffs. But he’ll do enough in this series to get the Coyotes to round two.

Prediction: Coyotes in 7

#4 Nashville vs. #5 Detroit: The Predators went for it this season, and sure look like the hottest team in the West coming into the playoffs. The Red Wings limp into the playoffs, looking older and less ready for a tough series. Detroit would love nothing more than to prove everyone wrong once more. They’d have to prove me wrong, too. I’ll take the hot team.

Prediction: Predators in 7

Eastern Conference-

#1 New York vs. #8 Ottawa: This was an unexpected last-minute matchup. The Rangers pretty much led the East from December on, getting to leave it in cruise control for most of the second half. The Senators threatened to steal the Northeast Division title from the Bruins, but fell back at the end. Craig Anderson has shown flashes of brilliance in the playoffs before, but Henrik Lundqvist is the best goalie in the league still. Lack of scoring depth may hurt the Rangers, but not yet.

Prediction: Rangers in 5

#2 Boston vs. #7 Washington: Boston was surely expecting to face the Senators in round one. The Caps managed to sneak into this matchup with a strong final week. Tim Thomas may be on fumes at this point, and if he stalls out, the Bruins are done. I think they survive this series, though, because the Caps are weak in goal, and they can’t take enough advantage of Boston’s weaknesses.

Prediction: Bruins in 5

#3 Florida vs. #6 New Jersey: The high-scoring Devils take on the tough-minded Panthers. Don’t sleep on this series, although that will be your inclination. Florida’s Island of Misfit Toys has a fair amount of playoff experience, so they will hang in. But the depth of scoring in New Jersey will prove to be too much for Florida to handle.

Prediction: Devils in 6

#4 Pittsburgh vs. #5 Philadelphia: The cross-state rivals will be meeting for the third time in five playoff years. Both teams have firepower, both teams have experience, both teams have solid defense. The difference? One team has a proven playoff goaltender. The other has a potential head case that has massively struggled in past playoff seasons. That’s enough reason for me to go with the flightless birds.

Prediction: Penguins in 6

This should be a strong first round, with no series that looks likely to be over in four games. I hope it lives up to that high expectation.

The Gripes: The East, In Review

The NHL regular season is over, and the Gripes has returned to look back at how well (and poorly) my predictions went for the 2011-12 season. I already weaved my way through the West. This time, a look back at the East.

Eastern Conference

15. Montreal Canadiens (78 Points, 5th–Northeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 12th in East, 4th in Northeast

Why I Didn’t Go Far Enough: I knew the Canadiens were due for a downturn. I just didn’t know the downturn would be on an epic scale. Everything went wrong. Carey Price didn’t play well enough, the team couldn’t get consistent goal-scoring, and the defense was never able to come together. Off the ice, things were a mess, too. An assistant coach was fired right before a game, the head coach was fired, the GM pulled a player from a game (in the middle of it) to trade him, and then finally the GM himself was let go. It’s a messy situation, to say the least. The new broom coming in will sweep clean, but it was too late to fix them this season.

14. New York Islanders (79 Points, 5th–Atlantic Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 9th in East, 4th in Atlantic

Why I Was Too High On Them: I knew the offense would be there. I knew the defense would be average at best. I just happened to think that the goaltending situation would be figured out quickly, mainly due to the inevitable Rick DiPietro injury. The injury happened, but Evgeni Nabokov was hurt for a time, and that made the team struggle too much. It also didn’t help that the four teams from their division finished with 100+ points each. It’s a tough division for a team like this one, and that led to their downfall in the standings.

13. Toronto Maple Leafs (80 Points, 4th–Northeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 10th in East, 3rd in Northeast

Why I Overrated Them: I mistakenly thought that the Maple Leafs would finally figure things out in goal. That is the big reason why this team fell apart down the stretch. They had the scoring, and played serviceable defense. The goaltending never gave them a chance, though. And this will be a weakness for a while for them, it appears. It would also help if they could get a couple decent centers. But that isn’t what killed this season for them. The men between the pipes did that.

12. Carolina Hurricanes (82 Points, 5th–Southeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 7th in East, 3rd in Southeast

Why I Was Dead Wrong: The team struggled mightily right out of the gates. Paul Maurice was fired (again). The team continued to struggle. They never could find consistency in any aspect of the game. Nothing very exciting to talk about with this squad. Moving on.

11. Winnipeg Jets (84 Points, 4th–Southeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 13th in East, 4th in Southeast

Why I Was Right, Sorta: The Zombie Thrashers ended up close to where I expected them to, but got there in a very unexpected way. I expected them to struggle all season long, never get it together, and finish in the bottom of the standings. Instead, they played amazing at home (especially early), and a lot of early-season home games got them up the standings for a long time. Eventually, the team’s play started to slip, too many road games caught up with them, and they plummeted out of playoff contention. The team’s home ice advantage will help them in the future. But it didn’t help them enough this season.

10. Tampa Bay Lightning (84 Points, 3rd–Southeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 4th in East, 2nd in Southeast

Why I Was A Freaking Idiot: I thought that the team’s goaltending would hold up. Big surprise that 97-year-old Dwayne Roloson and career backup Mathieu Garon couldn’t get it done. Stamkos and St. Louis got it done for them, but they couldn’t prevent pucks from going in their own net. This is a team that could recover quickly, but they need to fix the massive hole in goal.

9. Buffalo Sabres (89 Points, 3rd–Northeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 5th in East, 2nd in Northeast

Why I Was A Freaking Idiot Again: This team just could not right their ship until it was far too late. This team was in last place in the conference in the middle of February. Miller couldn’t lift up the team when he was healthy. The high-priced acquisitions struggled to assimilate. And the best players on the team didn’t play like the best players. They made a late charge, and nearly made the playoffs, but they didn’t deserve that, honestly, and they just fell short.

8. Ottawa Senators (92 Points, 2nd–Northeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 15th in East, 5th in Northeast

Why I Must Hang My Head In Shame: Ottawa actually slid back at the end of the season. They would have made me look worse otherwise. The team really came together, and did so quickly. Craig Anderson played well early, the offense provided enough scoring, Erik Karlsson became a household name, and the Sens rose to the top of the East early on. They started to slide down the standings as the season went on, though. This may be leading to a quick exit from the playoffs. But they earned their spot in the playoffs.

7. Washington Capitals (92 Points, 2nd–Southeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 1st in East, 1st in Southeast

Why I Might Want To Quit Predicting Things: The Caps struggled early in the year, leading to a coaching change. And removing Boudreau for Dale Hunter actually proved to be a terrible decision, because Hunter has proven not to be an NHL coach. The team has had struggles and injuries, especially in goal. It also didn’t help that Nick Backstrom was out half the season, and Alex Ovechkin had a massively inconsistent season. They pulled it together to make the playoffs, and ultimately, their performance in the playoffs will dictate whether the season is a success, but they definitely haven’t put themselves in a position to win in the playoffs.

6. New Jersey Devils (102 Points, 4th–Atlantic Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 11th in East, 5th in Atlantic

Why I Really Suck: I felt like Martin Brodeur was done. I was wrong. He played well enough, with a good defense in front of him, and the Devils got a ton of offensive support. This isn’t your older brother’s Devils team. Kovalchuk, Parise, Clarkson, Elias, and Sykora all scored more than you expected, and Adam Henrique made a huge impact in his rookie season, filling in for an oft-injured Travis Zajac. All of this led to a strong showing for the team, and a record that would have landed them in first place in the other two divisions.

5. Philadelphia Flyers (103 Points, 3rd–Atlantic Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 8th in East, 3rd in Atlantic

Why I Kinda Missed, But Kinda Didn’t: I felt like the Flyers hurt themselves a bit short-term in the offseason, trading away proven players for a younger and deeper team in the future. The future happened to be right now. This is a good team, especially offensively. So many players that are capable of scoring up and down the lineup. The defense, however, is thin, which could create a problem. And the biggest problem has been in goal. They spent a ton of money to bring in Ilya Bryzgalov, and he has been inconsistent, at best. He needs to get his act together for the team to go anywhere in the playoffs. In the meantime, he did enough to get the team into 5th spot in the East, which is nothing to look down at.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (108 Points, 2nd–Atlantic Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 2nd in East, 1st in Atlantic

Why I Just Missed: The Penguins played well for most of the season. Any team that finishes with 108 points doesn’t get there by accident. Malkin and Neal played well together all season. Fleury had a great year between the pipes. And Kris Letang would have been a Norris finalist, if he was healthy all season. Add in Sidney Crosby at the end of the season, and the team is a huge threat going into the playoffs. They only fell short of the top of the division because the team ahead of them ran away and hid with the lead.

3. Florida Panthers (94 Points, 1st–Southeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 14th in East, 5th in Southeast

Why I Missed By A Mile: The Island of Misfit Toys found a fit together in south Florida. They did it by committee, and it worked. Well, it worked well enough to get them the championship in a weak division. I don’t know that it will work in the playoffs. I don’t know that it will work next season, but this year, Kevin Dineen’s team found their way to the playoffs.

2. Boston Bruins (102 Points, 1st–Northeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 3rd in East, 1st in Northeast

Why I Was In The Right Church, Wrong Pew: Boston looked like the best team in hockey during the month of December. That allowed the team to coast to a division title. They did not look great all the time, though. And without Tuukka Rask down the stretch, due to injury, Tim Thomas proved to be human, and an old human at that. This may not bode well, long-term, both in the playoffs and in future seasons. But for this year, the #2 seed is a good place to be.

1. New York Rangers (109 Points, 1st–Atlantic Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 6th in East, 2nd in Atlantic

Why They Exceeded My Expectations: I thought they would be decent, with a good defense, and very good goaltending. Instead, they ended up great, with a great defense, and fantastic goaltending. Lundqvist will win the Vezina. McDonagh and Girardi played at a high level. And the team got enough scoring. They will need more scoring in the playoffs, but for the regular season, they got enough.

So, what have we learned from looking back at the East? I got very little right. I maybe should give up on this predicting stuff.

Screw that. I’ll see you next season.

The Gripes: The West, In Review

Six months ago, yours truly stepped up to the keyboard and boldly predicted the way that the NHL’s conferences would shake out over the course of 82 games. Now that everything has played out, has Mr. Gripes proved to be a prognosticator extraordinaire? Or will Mr. Gripes be hanging his head in shame? Let’s find out, first looking out to the West.

Western Conference

15. Columbus Blue Jackets (65 Points, 5th–Central Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 15th in West, 5th in Central

Why I Was Correct: Things started off rough for the Jackets, and they never got better. James Wisniewski’s suspension at the start of the season really hamstrung the defense, getting the team off to a slow start. Steve Mason proved to truly not be the answer in goal for the future. Jeff Carter proved to be a horrible fit in Columbus. And with the things that occurred at the trade deadline, Rick Nash appears to be on his way out in weeks. This franchise sure looks like a mess going forward. No surprise that they finished DFL this year.

14. Edmonton Oilers (74 Points, 5th–Northwest Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 13th in West, 5th in Northwest

Why I Was (Mostly) Correct: The Oilers’ deficiencies and strengths were as predicted. They struggled in goal, got inconsistent play on defense, and had decent offense that was streaky at times. The youth of the Oilers, especially on the front end, keeps gaining experience, and they looked brilliant at times. At other times, they looked overmatched. This could be a good team, if they get the defense and goaltending figured out, but since they haven’t yet, the bottom of the standings is where they continue to land.

13. Anaheim Ducks (80 Points, 5th–Pacific Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 7th in West, 3rd in Pacific

Why I Was Wrong: Plain and simple, they were the worst NHL team west of Columbus for the first half of the season. They dug themselves a massive hole, and it cost Randy Carlyle his job. Bruce Boudreau came in, and the team had a massive turn-around in the second half. But the massive hole couldn’t be un-dug. So, the team landed here, and they have a lot of work to do in the offseason to fix the issues that exist.

12. Minnesota Wild (81 Points, 4th–Northwest Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 9th in West, 2nd in Northwest

Why I Was Right AND Wrong: I knew the Wild would fall short of the playoffs this season. But I expected them to contend much longer than they did. At the same time, I never expected them to be the top team in the league in late November. So, basically, the Wild were better AND worse than I expected them to be. I don’t know what to make of them because of it. No clue at all. But if they get Zach Parise in the offseason, look the hell out.

11. Colorado Avalanche (88 Points, 3rd–Northwest Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 12th in West, 4th in Northwest

Why I Was Fairly Correct: The Avalanche hung in there the entire season, but they could not get over the hump and stay in the playoff race at the end. And they truly just fell short. They couldn’t get enough scoring, enough defense, nor enough goaltending to elevate the team into the postseason. There are a lot of positives that the team can take out of the season, but they will need to grow as a team to take it to the next step next season.

10. Dallas Stars (89 Points, 4th–Pacific Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 10th in West, 4th in Pacific

Why I Nailed It: They were actually a little better than I expected, in terms of their point total. But they probably could have used one more scorer in the lineup. It was the concern coming into the season, once Brad Richards moved on to the New York Rangers. Kari Lehtonen played well throughout the season, and the defense was decent. One more offensive talent may have made the difference.

9. Calgary Flames (90 Points, 2nd–Northwest Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 11th in West, 3rd in Northwest

Why I Was Close (But No Cigar): I knew Kiprusoff would play too much. I figured Iginla wouldn’t be able to score enough. But I didn’t expect them to get nearly enough support from the team’s roleplayers. Kipper played well, but the fatigue did show at times. It didn’t help that his backup was out with an injury for a very long stretch. But this team may be stuck in this rut, because they don’t have a lot of cap space (assuming there still is a cap after this offseason). It will be extremely tough to fix things, short of a major roster overhaul.

8. Los Angeles Kings (95 Points, 3rd–Pacific Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 2nd in West, 1st in Pacific

Why I Swung And Missed: This team had all the talent to win their division (and in fairness, they were only two points short of winning it). But they clearly had big struggles in reconciling talent with performance. It just never happened for them on the ice, at least not for long enough stretches. They have been coming on of late, making them a potential playoff threat. And with Jonathan Quick, the team absolutely could get rolling if he is playing well. But in a purely regular season sense, the team was an underachiever.

7. San Jose Sharks (96 Points, 2nd–Pacific Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 4th in West, 2nd in Pacific

Why I Was (Mostly) Wrong: San Jose decided to flip the script on me. Usually, they sit at the top of the conference all season long, finishing impressively. They typically follow that up with an underwhelming playoff performance, typically leading to an early exit. This season, they instead ended up struggling in the regular season, sitting on the wrong side of the playoff cutoff line very late into the year. They managed to pull it together, finding their way to the #7 seed ultimately. But they definitely did not look good doing it. Antti Niemi especially has not engendered confidence, despite a decent stat line. The real test for this team has always been the playoffs. Maybe starting their playoff run in an abnormally low spot will propel them to a big run.

6. Chicago Blackhawks (101 Points, 4th–Central Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 5th in West, 2nd in Central

Why I Just Missed: Chicago never really threatened in the conference this season, due to struggles in goal, health issues for star players, and maddening inconsistency. When the Hawks played to their talent, they were able to beat any team, and they most often did just that. But when the goaltending struggled, or when Toews, Kane, and Sharp were out with injuries, the team struggled against just about any team. Despite all that, they finished 3 points short of gaining home ice advantage in the playoffs.

5. Detroit Red Wings (102 Points, 3rd–Central Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 3rd in West, 1st in Central

Why I Was (A Tad Bit) Wrong: It’s hard to say that the Red Wings underachieved. They set a record for most home wins in a row. They looked like one of the best teams all season long. They were mediocre on the road, but a lot of good teams play well at home and a little less well on the road. The reason why I was a little off had much more to do with two teams that overachieved (ones that will be discussed shortly). The Red Wings are still one of the best in the West, and they showed it throughout the season.

4. Nashville Predators (104 Points, 2nd–Central Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 6th in West, 3rd in Central

Why I Was A Little Off: I expected the Predators to play well this season. But not quite this well. They played well early in the season, and at some point, GM David Poile decided to go for it. And that meant bringing in Andrei Kostitsyn to play with his brother Sergei, bringing in Hal Gill to shore up the defense, and bringing in Paul Gaustad to add more depth to the team. That helped the team climb up the standings, nearly into the top spot in the division. It also helped that they have Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, and Pekka Rinne, all making it very tough to score goals against them. The real test for them will be in the playoffs (as they really went all-in this season). But yet again, Barry Trotz has brought his team to a high level, higher than even I expected.

3. Phoenix Coyotes (97 Points, 1st–Pacific Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 14th in West, 5th in Pacific

Why I Couldn’t Have Been More Wrong: The team overachieved massively throughout the season, in just about every phase of the game. Dave Tippett’s coaching certainly had a big influence, but the forwards played above their heads, allowing the team to finish in the top half of the conference in goals per game. The biggest overachiever, however, was between the pipes. Mike Smith took control of the goaltending situation for the team, and never looked back. He really finished the season strong, catapulting the team into the top spot in the Pacific Division. If his strong play continues, the team may continue its strong play well into May.

2. Saint Louis Blues (109 Points, 1st–Central Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 8th in West, 4th in Central

Why I Didn’t Go Far Enough: I felt I was bold in suggesting that the Blues would make the playoffs. Turns out, I was far too conservative. Ken Hitchcock was installed as coach early in the season, and once he came in, the team sky-rocketed up the standings. Hitchcock’s defense-first philosophy fit in well with the roster of the Blues, and it certainly helped the goaltending tandem behind them. Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak had career seasons in their platoon roles. This may cause problems for the playoffs, for obvious reasons, but it brought out the best in the goalies during the season, and that helped the team stay ahead of worthy challengers from Nashville, Detroit, and Chicago.

1. Vancouver Canucks (111 Points, 1st–Northwest Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 1st in West, 1st in Northwest

Why I Got This One Right: Short and sweet on this one. Vancouver has the most talent, top-to-bottom, in the conference. Their division isn’t very good. They played the most consistent of any team in the league. No surprise, the cream rose to the top.

So, what have we learned from this look at the West? Some teams made me look like a genius. Others made me look like a blithering idiot. The biggest lesson: Don’t try to make money picking teams’ finishes in the NHL.

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”

Message Received

By now nearly everyone has read the article from Dejan Kovacevic. If you haven’t, here’s the short version:

Sid loves Pittsburgh and wants to play but is not cleared.

That wasn’t what people, including the folks at Hockey Night in Canada, were talking about. They were, instead, talking about the other odds and ends in the article. I don’t want to say these parts were hidden, but they were NOT the main purpose of the article. Kovacevic noted that some players, and the locker room as a whole, were sort of lost at sea. The locker room had become troubled by Sid’s absence and a few players held a private meeting about naming a temporary captain while Crosby recovers.

Thus the fallout began. Hockey Night in Canada tackled this, among other outlets, but the whole story is not being told. We’re never going to get the ugly, stinky details of it. And it isn’t OUR business to know who said what. We are not a member of the Penguins organization, no matter how entitled we feel. We will never know, with any degree of certainty, about who was in this alleged meeting, when or where it took place, etc.

As far as we know, Craig Adams came out and said no such meeting ever took place and that’s all we need to know.

I love Craig Adams as much as the next guy (and none can love that man more than Griggsy), but he’s doing his job here. He’s a respected member of the team AND is the team’s representative for the Player’s Association. The last thing the PA, especially Donald Fehr, wants going into the back half of the season prior to CBA negotiations is talk of disaster and turmoil in a marquee franchise locker room. The league and PA both need Sidney Crosby and the team, even the image of the team, undermining Sid or his leadership is bad messaging going into labor negotiations.

By no means am I a tried and true journalist. I’ve had a long history with “New Media” journalism, but even that has been touch and go. I do know enough about how the industry works, though. Kovacevic is not some hack writer or some blogger looking for hits. He’s a legitimate sports journalist with a long history of good, reliable reporting. There is a process a story must go through and many hands must touch it before it finally goes live. I am certain that Kovacevic disclosed all of his anonymous sources to his editors and various supervisors and everything was checked thoroughly. He is allowed to withhold those names. He doesn’t OWE us anything.

He is protecting the individuals. Perhaps it was a lapse in judgement by the players who held the meeting, but that doesn’t mean Kovacevic gets to play the role of public avenger. Imagine he runs the story with the names of those players. Everyone turns against them and it creates a bigger problem. Then the team becomes more insulated and allows fewer and fewer press in the locker room. Those players who held the meeting are outsiders on the team and must be traded before the cancer grows. Will other teams take a chance on a “locker room cancer?”

Just because we want to know every dirty little secret about this team doesn’t mean we’re going to get it. If you want Kovacevic’s head on a plate for running the story I think you need to take off those rose-colored glasses for a few minutes.

This meeting happened. They can deny and say all the right things, but this meeting happened. Deal with it. It happens to everyone. Last I checked, the Pens were a pretty God-awful team for a few weeks and completely shot themselves in the foot during that stretch. This meeting was needed, if for nothing else than to maybe light a fire under a few people (not Sid).

So, the story runs and the players do what in response? They ALL wear the Captain’s C at practice. They do something as a team, showing support. They all get it together. The fans all place C’s on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. The team and fans have come together again. And the Pens start winning again.

For better or worse, the team may have needed that crisis moment. For as bad of a team as they were for weeks prior, this Pens team just showed what it means to be a -good- team. They faced adversity and used a teachable moment to rise up to the challenge. Maybe it’s only temporary, too. We’ll just have to wait and see how things go, but it looks like the message was received.

Griggsy’s Gripes- The Pittsburgh Penguins: A Season on the Brink

It’s been a while since I’ve hurt your eyes and your sensibilities with my writing. But now is as good a time as any to burst back into your lives. Today, the Gripes sets its sights on one thing and one thing only: The Pittsburgh Penguins, A Season on the Brink….

To say the Penguins are struggling would be an understatement. At the halfway point, the Penguins find themselves in 8th place in the Eastern Conference, with 46 points. They are 12 points back of the New York Rangers for 1st place in the Atlantic Division (as well as the Eastern Conference). They sit precariously one point ahead of Winnipeg and two points ahead of the Washington Capitals for that final playoff spot. To break things down further, let’s divide things into three categories….

The Good:

—>The Penguins are one of five teams in the conference with a positive goal differential. The Bruins, Rangers, Flyers, and Maple Leafs also are on the plus side, and those teams are also currently holding playoff spots. Usually, teams on the positive end of goal differential for the season are doing well, and find their way into the post-season.

—>James Neal has been a massive contributor to the team offensively. After a hot start in October (a common feature of a Neal season), many feared that he would cool off as the season wore on (also common for Neal). While his goal-scoring pace has dwindled some, he is still in the Top 10 in goals, as well as being the top power play goal-scorer in the NHL. For a team with notorious power play struggles, Neal’s success with the man advantage has been so important.

—>Marc-Andre Fleury is (at worst) in the top 5 of goaltenders in the NHL, and his play has kept things together defensively (more on that in a moment). His positioning continues to improve, which has made his fundamentals very strong. He also still has the athleticism to make the big saves at key times, even when a goal seems so likely for the opposition. His puck-handling still could be better (even though he’s much better than the average fan gives him credit for), but overall, MAF has been nothing short of stellar between the pipes.

—->Matt Niskanen has made a huge leap in the last 11 months. During his first couple months here, Niskanen struggled greatly at times, leading to many wanting to run him out of town in the off-season. Fortunately, Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma were patient with the defenseman, and that patience paid off in a big way. Niskanen is only behind an injured Kris Letang in defensive scoring, he has the top plus/minus stat on the team, he’s replaced Letang on the top power play unit with no shakiness at all, and has taken on more minutes per game, handling that workload increase with little difficulty. In the last handful of games, Niskanen has been less noticeable, but considering how bad things have looked lately for the entire team, being unnoticed is a positive thing.

—->Also worthy of note: Pascal Dupuis had a great start to the season, with very high point totals, especially in October and November. While Dupuis has faded into his usual secondary role lately, Evgeni Malkin has come to the forefront once again. He has found his way into the Top 10 in points in the league, and continues to be a consistent threat despite being the “last man standing”, in terms of the three well-known centers in the Pens’ lineup.

The Bad:

—->On a macro level (and I am an Economics major, so this is how my brain works), the biggest problem is the lack of consistency. And I don’t just mean game to game. Sometimes, it’s period to period. Sometimes, it’s shift to shift. On occasion, it’s even a problem during shifts. This is mostly a focus and concentration problem, it seems. And that’s a rather large issue, in my eyes. It means that both the coaches and players are failing. The coaches haven’t absolutely hammered home the need to play the same way every time that the players get on the ice. And the players haven’t felt the need to play the same way every time they get on the ice. The most frustrating part of this is that there have been long stretches where the team has looked like the best in the league. Back to back performances against Buffalo and Chicago showed that they have that capability. And there have been other times where they looked just as good, if not better. But then there have been stretches that are so awful, you wonder if this team is capable of making the playoffs. Consistency needs to be the goal. And that goal needs to be achieved.

—->When he was re-signed over the summer, there was an expectation that Tyler Kennedy would get chances as a top 6 forward, and he would deliver on those chances like he showed he could last season. It just hasn’t happened for Kennedy. He missed 11 games early in the season due to injury. When he has played, however, he has not had nearly the same impact he did last season. Only 5 goals in 30 games isn’t nearly acceptable. Zero power play goals, that’s nearly unforgivable. He has had chances, playing with Jordan Staal for most games. Staal has had a great impact, scoring 15 goals on the season. Kennedy’s impact hasn’t been large enough, and due to injuries, his impact needs to increase.

—->Paul Martin’s contract is one of the highest-paying on the Penguins. With that paycheck, the responsibility is very high. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he has to be piling up points, nor does it mean that he has to be a big hitter and shot-blocker on the defensive end. But what it does mean is that he absolutely must be consistent defensively, in sound defensive position, and most importantly not making the big mistakes that lead to goals. Unfortunately, if you’ve watched him play this season, you know that Martin has struggled with that list. Inconsistency is a common theme for Martin. He has missed seven games due to injury/illness, but in the 34 games he has played, he has the worst plus/minus rating on the team. He also has looked lost defensively at times, and has lacked strength on the puck. His defensive partner, Zbynek Michalek, also hasn’t played up to his capabilities, but Martin’s been just horrendous at times, and when you make five million dollars per season, you need to be close to the best defenseman on the team, not close to the worst.

—->Marc-Andre Fleury is a fantastic goaltender, but he can’t play every single game. MAF’s backup is Brent Johnson, and in previous years, he’s been one of the best backup goalies in the NHL. At one point last season, he took over the #1 job from Fleury, and was holding onto it quite capably. This season, however, is a completely different story. Johnson has played in 9 games to this point, and has put up some horrifying statistics. 2-5-2 for a record, with a 3.47 goals against average, and a save percentage of .876, which are hideous numbers. But those don’t even fully capture Johnson’s struggles. He looks like he is flailing at pucks at times, and appears to be off his angles on far too many occasions. The Penguins need Johnson to get them points in the standings when he is between the pipes. Right now, he has only gotten them 6 out of 18 possible points. It’s not nearly good enough. And it might be time for the Pens to move on with a better backup, whether it be Brad Thiessen or an option from outside the organization.

The Ugly:

—->There is only one thing in this category, and it’s the only thing that fits right. It’s the injuries. The Penguins were plagued with bad health last season, with Crosby, Staal, and Malkin only playing 2 games together. And those two games featured Crosby’s first concussion issues. The Penguins thought they had moved on from all their injury woes as they moved ahead to the 2011-12 season. Not so fast, though.

The following is a list (in no particular order) of every Penguins player who has missed time this season due to injury/illness: Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Letang, Niskanen, Asham, Engelland, Martin, Orpik, Kennedy, Park, Michalek, Lovejoy, Despres, Jeffrey, Bortuzzo, Strait.

That is seventeen players. Yes, you read that right. Seventeen. Nearly an entire team worth of skaters. Including the highest-paid, most important skaters on the team. It’s very tough for a team to win games with all those players out. And it’s no surprise that the team is clawing and scratching to get a playoff spot, instead of comfortably sitting in a spot that allows for home-ice in playoff series.

So, with half the season in the books, the Pittsburgh Penguins are closer to last place in the Eastern Conference (10 points in front of the New York Islanders) than they are to first place in the Eastern Conference (12 points behind the New York Rangers). Things appear to be at a breaking point, especially if you read reports regarding the uncertainty surrounding Sidney Crosby at the moment. This could be a complete collapse for the Pens. Or they could rally and find a way to win the division. Or anywhere in between. I honestly think you could sell me on any scenario at this point.

Where do I think it goes from here? I’m usually a realist in my outlook on everything. But I’m an optimist when it comes to the Penguins. So, I’m seeing things finally falling into place. Players get healthy, scoring finally returns, MAF continues to play at his stellar level, and the Pens climb back into the East’s Top 4. If that happens, the rest of the East needs to look out in the playoffs.

In reality, though, the Pens will probably continue to struggle, but will find a way to sneak into the playoffs, then will exit quietly in the first round. All while the Rangers and Flyers make deep runs. And that’s where I take my leave, before I end up vomitting all over myself….

The Penguins Are A Bad Team

Here’s usually where the wheels come off and people start spewing things like “BAD FAN!” at me. I’m just going to say it.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are a bad team.

I discussed, at length, the problem the team is facing with injuries right now. I had posed the question to Twitter (from my personal account) after the Rangers game and got mostly the same responses as always. I asked “what is the expiration date on the injury excuse?” That has been sitting in the fridge for a year now. It has to go bad at some point, right? Unless that excuse is made of the same material that Twinkies are made of, the excuse has gone stale and is no longer valid.

We’ve hit that point.

It is time to throw the injury excuse in the bin and come to terms with the fact that this team is grossly, grossly underperforming. Do I deny that injuries have played a role in this underperformance? No, I don’t. The dangers of hockey are vast and injuries happen. They happen to everyone. Yes, the Penguins now lead the NHL in man games lost (I believe it was 210 as of last night), but they have a great team in the minors and a wonderful pool of young talent to rely on to fill roster spots for 10-15 games.

I understand that there’s no player who can fill Sidney Crosby’s spot, except for maybe Evgeni Malkin, but the team has done relatively well without Sid. For the sake of comparison, last season’s team went without Sid or Geno (or many others) from February onward. The team from last spring played with undying heart and grit. They weren’t a skilled team, but they never, ever quit playing. They never looked defeated, no matter the obstacle. They continued to play through the injuries. They went into every game knowing that they had to keep goals against to two or fewer. They knew they would have to win puck battles and fight for every inch and every opportunity.

Where’s the grit and determination with this squad?

If you could play last season’s team vs the team we’ve seen for the last month, I’d lay good money on last season’s team winning a 7 game series.

After last night’s embarrassment to the New Jersey Devils, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen had finally had enough and spoke up (all credit on quotes goes to Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette).

Orpik had the following to say:

“The accountability in this room has to be a lot better. We aren’t reacting to adversity very well right now. You can’t feel sorry for yourselves.”
“One goal’s not going to do it. You can pick apart every goal they get, but one goal isn’t going to do it. Don’t care if we got 50 or 60 shots on net. One goal isn’t going to do it.”

“I thought the energy was actually great last night. Once they scored a couple of goals on us, our attitude changed. You can’t hang your head and feel sorry for yourself like that. It won’t get you anywhere.”

“No accountability. We gave up another short-handed goal. We give up breakaways. Another dumb penalty. The accountability has got to be a lot better.”

“We give up a couple of goals, and everybody’s attitude [stinks] afterward. You can see on the ice, our energy starts out great, then they score a couple of goals and instead of getting [angry] and battling back, we just come out flatter and kind of feel sorry for ourselves, hang our heads.”

“We start taking stupid, lazy penalties and start getting off our game plan and doing whatever we want.”

Matt Niskanen:

“It felt just like the night before. It’s really deflating. We were in control of the game, then I hit the post on a power play. It was just a huge momentum swing.”

So, by the metrics exhibited by many Pens fans over the course of the last year, saying those things make Orpik and Niskanen bad teammates and bad fans. I know that I don’t always have the most popular opinion, but this is going to ludicrous levels. After Orpik’s comments came out I heard numerous people (we’re talking double digits)  saying that Orpik shouldn’t say such things; the team has too many injuries, what more can they do?; Orpik has no business talking about accountability because he’s made mistakes; Orpik hasn’t had a phenomenal year so he has no right to criticize anyone.

Let’s get something straight, people. The Penguins are a bad team right now. If you are saying different, you need to take the rose colored glasses off for a few minutes and look at the team again. Just because the team is bad doesn’t make you less of a fan to say so. I know a lot of people were fans of the God awful X-Generation teams, but that doesn’t mean you were a “bad fan.” Hell, most people use attendance to games involving Ouellet, Koltsov, Fata, etc as a sign of true fandom.

Why must it be a continual pissing match with everyone over who the better fan is?

I’m going to channel my inner Orpik now and do a little calling out of things that just need to stop.

1. Jokes/Insults about people leaving a game early to “beat traffic.”

The jokes are tired and unoriginal. People paid for their tickets (presumably). They can do with them as they wish. If they want to walk through the gate and turn around and leave they are entitled to do exactly that. Grousing about the people leaving early has become a diversionary tactic to ensure we don’t talk about the on-ice product. It has also become another feather in the cap of the “true fans.”

2. The arena is too quiet.

While I agree in principle, I would also like to remind everyone how there’s no happy medium with the people who bitch and moan about this. They complain that Montreal is too loud. They complain that people in Detroit never sit down. They make fun of Washington for being prompted to cheer. There’s no winning with these people about this topic. CEC could crumble to the foundation from fans going nuts and these people would complain that it was too much celebration.

3. “Everything is wonderful”

No, it isn’t. While not everything is doom and gloom, refusing to see that the team is not playing well is as bad as saying they’ll never win another game. Is there some sort of 12 step program for some people? They need to get around to admitting there’s a problem before they can attempt to fix it. Ignoring glaring weaknesses indicates one of a few things. It shows the person as blindly ignorant or so wrapped up in the dogma and bullshit of true “fandom” that the truth is a malleable item that can be twisted to fit their needs.

It is possible to criticize the team and still be a fan. It is possible to WANT the team to win, but know they don’t have the chops TO win. Last year’s playoffs were the start of the schism. I wanted to see the Pens pull out a win in game 7, but I had the gall to say *gasp* on the internet that I didn’t think the Pens had what it took to win game 7. I was called a fairweather fan, a bad fan, that I had no faith in the team. I was told to turn in my fan card and that I shouldn’t be allowed to wear a Penguins jersey ever again.

So, does that mean every player on the Pens fits in that category, too, because they lost a 1-0 game 7 at home and didn’t fit into the expectation and mold created in your superfan mind?

Get real.

The Penguins are bad right now. There’s been a complete lack of leadership until last night, when Orpik finally had enough. Josh Yohe also reported that the team would be practicing this morning. Clearly coach Bylsma has had enough, too. The team ALWAYS had the day after back-to-back games off. Not only is the team practicing on a Sunday (a rarity), but they are practicing on a Sunday after back-to-back games.

If I were Bylsma I would simply say “Well, in a combined 120 minutes of hockey you’ve scored 2 goals, allowed 6, and played a total of about 25 minutes competitive hockey. Get skating. You should have plenty of energy and legs to skate for a few hours.”

Hopefully Orpik’s comments serve as a wake-up call. I don’t mind the team losing (not that I enjoy it) if they at least were in the game and competitive. What I do mind is this bullshit we’ve seen for the last 4-6 weeks.

Since Black Friday, the Pens are 9-9. The Pens have managed wins again Ottawa, Montreal, Washington, Carolina (twice), New York Islanders, Buffalo, Chicago, and Winnipeg. They have lost to New York Rangers (twice), Boston, Philadelphia (twice), Detroit, Ottawa, and New Jersey (twice).

Of those victories, only 1 came against a team that was in the playoffs when being played against (Chicago).

Explain to me how a team can be amazinggreatwonderfulnothingiswrong when you cannot win against teams currently in playoff position? How is a team so perfect if they’ve managed to go from 1st place in the entire league to 18th overall in about a month’s time? How did they go from 1st in their division to 4th if they are so magnificent?

Right now the Pens are barely in the playoffs. They are the 8th seed with 46 points. Winnipeg has 45 and Washington has 44. This is a team dangerously close to falling out of playoffs and digging themselves into such a hole that they cannot climb back out.

Good teams beat bad teams. Bad teams get beat by good teams.

The Penguins are a bad team. At least for now. And they’re running out of time to fix it.

The Penguins Problem: Injuries

What in the name of sweet baby Jesus is wrong with the Penguins?

I’m not saying it to be a troll or being ironically detached from things. I’m saying it because I legitimately don’t know what is wrong with this team, nor do I know if there is any way to “fix” what ails them. There are a number of avenues to explore, and I don’t know if any are correct, let alone defining one as singularly accurate. This is my attempt to sort out my thoughts and get some things out there in the hopes that it generates some discussion. By all means, feel free to disagree with every single thing I say and give me an alternate argument. I am no Andy Sutton, I’m just going off what I can see and what I know from my own life experiences.

Injuries.

Yes, we’ve been down this road before. There is no “fix” for injuries. They are a part of sports, especially hockey. Unfortunately guys get hurt. It does appear that the Penguins have been hit extra hard by the injury bug over the last few seasons. Collectively, I feel, this is due to a few major factors, including, but not limited to: coach Bylsma’s grinding system, ineptitude of league offices/on-ice officials, and the sense of wild west justice in the NHL.

I do feel Bylsma’s system is more demanding, physically, on the players which puts them in more contact and breaks down the body a little quicker/harder. It isn’t a direct one-to-one comparison, though. Bylsma’s system results in more short-term injuries or needing a game or two off to rest. The Penguins have been dealing with major, profound injuries to important players (and some role players, too).

Sidney Crosby was hit twice in the head and missed nearly a full calendar year. Was under every microscope in the world and, as the face the of the NHL, (fairly or unfairly) needed to be protected a little bit. Returns to game action to all the fanfare deserving of someone of that caliber…and then gets clocked in the head by David Krecji’s elbow and Krecji doesn’t even get penalized. Sid goes back on the IR.

Kris Letang gets absolutely leveled by Max Pacioretty. There was no penalty on the play. Even by the most liberal interpretation, it was a violation of Rule 48. Letang returned to game action and scored the OT winner, but has since been on the shelf with concussion symptoms. Pacioretty was eventually suspended 3 games and then proceeded to go on TV and bitch and moan about “the way the wind is blowing” in the NHL. Apparently he doesn’t agree with the wind blowing in the direction of not hitting a guy who isn’t looking in the side of the head. Go figure. I wonder if he has an opinion on not letting up on a hit in/around the stanchions?

Robert Bortuzzo, much like Letang, was hit in the head by a renowned sack of monkey shit, Zac Rinaldo, and there was neither a penalty on the play NOR supplemental discipline from the all mighty office of Brendan Shanahan. Bortuzzo, thankfully, has finally recovered and been returned to Wilkes Barre-Scranton as of January 7, 2012.

I want you to remember, there were no penalties called on those hits. These are not the type of injuries that are the result of Dan Bylsma’s system. These injuries are the direct result of neither players nor officials policing the game. If ever you need an example of just how poorly managed the game can be, look at the Penguins-Islanders brawl from Feb. 11, 2011.

I completely understand that there will always be a human element to the game, especially when it comes to officiating. It’s an unenviable job. Much like the weatherman, you never really hear about what a great job a referee does. The negative is what one hears about. However, it has become so bad on a night-in-night-out basis with the on-ice officials that it truly has made me miss the days of Bill McCreary’s mustache. At least you knew what you would get with McCreary (let them play until late, then make yourself the center of attention by calling some bullshit). Is it so hard to err on the side of caution and call penalties on plays like those? If you keep penalizing the offending teams they will eventually stop doing it (or, at worst, those players will no longer get ice time).

Matt Cooke was vilified, justifiably, for playing recklessly and putting his team at a disadvantage. He has since changed his playing style and has been hit in the head with cheapshots multiple times this season, all have gone unpunished.

The wild west system of justice the NHL has doesn’t work. If you hit a guy cheaply you had to answer the bell. Now? Well, it’s hard to say. You need to have guys on the roster who can play. You can’t have a Steve MacIntyre or Eric Godard on the ice regularly because they are a hockey abortion on skates. The role of the enforcer is gone. When Brian Burke has finally given up and demoted Colton Orr (not without wailing lamentations about truculence and the direction of the NHL) you know times have changed.

Now you have players of all levels running around and taking liberties with others because there is no accountability. There’s no way to tell what will or won’t be penalized. There’s even less idea about what hits will and will not be reviewed and disciplined further. If I were a player I’d take every opportunity I got to weaken an opponent by taking out a star. Even if you do get penalized, the notion of a “make up call” and ebb-and-flow officiating effectively renders penalties non-deterrents. Brendan Shanahan was given the keys to the castle and given a mandate to clean up the league and put his foot down. He may, in a sense, actually be worse than Colin Campbell. At least we all knew Colin was completely incompetent and had his wheel of justice. We have no idea what to make of Shanhan. Make a stink about a hit on TSN and he might look at it. Play in a non-traditional market or employ a demon like Cooke and it’s apparently free rein on cheapshots against you.

If you can’t protect your own players/teammates with a tough guy you need to be able to count on the league holding psychos accountable. The league is not doing their job.

As it stands now, I fully support Donald Fehr and support a work stoppage if it means the NHL gets serious about player safety and subsequent discipline for violations. These are not the injuries that occur because of Dan Bylsma’s system. These are the injuries that occur because of the systemic failure of the league to protect its most valuable assets: the players.

With the injuries have come numerous other problems. The injuries can be overcome by replacing players. Sure, there’s no true way to replace a Crosby or a Letang, but when you have Malkin and young studs like Simon Despres (who can fill in and get some invaluable NHL experience) you can maintain. What you cannot do, and I fear this is what is happening to the Pens, is allow the seeds of doubt and inevitability to germinate in the brain. From what some of the players have been saying over the past few weeks, I am deeply concerned this is a team that has given up on themselves. Starting with the Flyers (three games ago) the Pens have looked like a team completely incapable of competing, let alone winning. They looked like a competent team for the first 10 minutes against the Rangers and then fell apart.

After Deryk Engelland was suspended for his hit on Chicago’s Marcus Kruger (a dirty hit, but no less of a hit than what Niklas Kronwall does nightly) Brooks Orpik was asked about his opinion on the NHL’s discipline. His response: “I think we have strong opinions, but they aren’t going to change the suspension.” While Orpik may not have an objective opinion of things, he also carries weight with the team and often speaks the truth when none other will.

Likewise, Matt Niskanen had the most telling quote after the Pens 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. When asked about the injuries that keep happening (in this case, Pascal Dupuis and Arron Asham), Niskanen replied “I can honestly say that I’m not surprised. That’s the way it’s been going. We’ve just had some really, really bad luck.”

If ever there were two quotes you didn’t want to hear, those would them. Those are the thoughts of a team that is up against the wall and admitting defeat. They are morphing into a “can’t win, don’t try” mentality.

Last season’s team was ravaged by injuries, even worse than this current team, and the 2011 Penguins would annihilate the 2012 Penguins if they played one another. Last season the team lacked skill, but they stayed in games with pure determination and will. This squad? They look disinterested and demoralized. They look like a team that knows they’re outmatched. Last year’s squad knew they were outmatched but refused to let up. This squad routinely takes a period (or more) off each game.

But how do you fix it? Do you change coaches? No. This isn’t entirely a coaching problem. Bylsma has them playing and then something happens and they quit. Do you make a blockbuster trade? Maybe, but there’s no promise that works and you may end up doing more harm than good. Do you bench players or make a stink in the press? Possibly, but then you come across as petulant and the agenda-driven NHL will ensure you never are the benefit of the doubt regarding penalties and player safety.

I’m no Andy Sutton, but I don’t see a fix for this, and certainly not an easy fix. This team has not been able to compete with top-tier teams this season and there’s no reason for it. Yes, they were decimated on defense by injuries, but that doesn’t excuse only being able to generate 4 goals combined in the last three games.

Malkin and Neal have been playing their collective balls off. Kunitz, too. These are top line players. Having them play 1st line minutes is not having them play above their level. Pascal Dupuis has been the surprise of the season and has been filling in admirably. Jordan Staal, too, has been having a phenomenal offensive year. Kennedy has missed time with injury, but is generating chances. Steve Sullivan has been relegated to 3rd line duty, but is still a heads-up type player. Joe Vitale has never, ever quit on a shift. Neither has Adams or Cooke.

This is not a popgun offense, but it sure looks like one.

Can you really point the finger entirely at Letang missing time? I agree that he may be the most valuable player on the team (who does not get the proper recognition he deserves), but can we really make that case? The Pens generate offense from the defense and with the defense in complete shambles…perhaps.

These are dark times. No idea how this team can ring up 8 against Buffalo, 3 against the Blackhawks, 4 against the Jets, and 4 against the Hurricanes…and then 2 against the Flyers, 1 against the Devils and 1 against the Rangers.

There is no fix to a problem that cannot be identified. And there certainly isn’t a fix to a mental problem.

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