Pens Preview: Sidney Crosby

It’s been a while since one of these got churned out. What can I say? Life happened and these take time. It doesn’t excuse it, but it does provide at least a little perspective.

Given the layoff and the change in life style and progress that’s been made, I thought it only fitting to take a look at the season, and what can be expected, of the face of the NHL, Sidney Crosby.

 

Seen here, something that 29 other teams wish they had. Oh, and the Stanley Cup.

 

Getting the first items out of the way – The Steckel hit in the Winter Classic and the Hedman boarding. The Steckel hit has been examined nearly as much as the Zapruder film and has been debated about as much. Personal opinion? I think Steckel intended harm and the hit was intentional. I don’t think Steckel intended to clock him in the jaw, nor get the ball rolling on what amounted to an incredibly difficult brain injury, but I do feel he intended to smack into him while he wasn’t looking and give him the proverbial business. What makes me say so? In large part, the culture of the Capitals, from the owner on down. Ted Leonsis, Bruce “Fuckin’ want it” Boudreau, and just about every player has had an uncontrollable, and sometimes disturbing, fascination with all things Pittsburgh Penguins. Think of all the commercials where a stuffed penguin has been hung by a rope, or the “they’ve [Pittsburgh] got theirs” comments from the owner, Mr. Leonsis, about winning a Stanley Cup. Re-watch “24/7” and see how often coach Boudreau mentions the Pens. More specifically, look at how focused he and the team became on the Penguins during the two teams respective winning and losing streaks. The obsession over the Penguins has gone beyond normal sports rivalry. It became something bigger, something more important to Washington.

Do I feel Steckel is a bad guy who intended to end Crosby’s season? No. I do take Steckel at his post-Washington word and that he never intended to hurt Sid the way he did. I do not, however, believe it was just pure accident or coincidence. Steckel did not need to hit him at all. The play was done and the puck was away from both of them. Steckel was the body in motion pursuing the puck. Sid, however, needed to not spend as much time watching the puck and instead focus on his surroundings. Steckel could have completely avoided contact with Sid. He should have avoided contact. It wasn’t “finishing his check” or even “making a hockey play.” Steckel hit him because he could. He hit him because of the constant barrage and mindset in the Caps’ locker room that Pittsburgh must end. He hit him because he was given a juicy opportunity knowing that he would not have to answer the bell (more on this another time). He hit him because he knew he could and there would be no punishment. He hit him because he could.

We can watch it ten thousand times more. It happened. Nothing we could do about it then or now. It took until Feb. 6, over a month later, for Steckel to have to answer for the hit. And he didn’t even have to answer to Eric Godard or Jesse Boulerice or even Mike Rupp. Hell, he didn’t even have to answer to Chris Kunitz. Tim Wallace was the only player willing to throw down with Steckel. Need I remind you, Wallace wasn’t part of the team at the Winter Classic. He was busy being the Alaskan Crab in Wilkes-Barre. We’ll also note that was his first game up with the big club last season. Sadly, and it had been a disturbing trend, the Penguins were a gutless team without any heart in regards to taking care of the stars. For as gritty as they were and unwilling to quit in games, they allowed the stars to take cheap shot after cheap shot and never do anything about it. Absolute psychos like Steve Downie were effectively allowed to run roughshod over guys like Sid unchecked. The only time I remember a teammate sticking up for Sid (or Geno or Staal) was Kunitz coming after the guy who was cheap-shotting Sid (I believe that was the game in early December). And then the Alaskan Crab takes on Steckel. Bunch of gutless cowards.

Then, of course, the Hedman hit.

While a stupid play, it looked far less “damaging” than the Steckel hit. Of course, having those two hits in consecutive games will cause some serious injuries and prolonged down time. I’m not even going to get into the same level of detail about Hedman’s hit. It was a bad hit that never should have happened and he knew it. But, much like Steckel, I think part of why teams and players are willing to take the chance of laying a hit like that is because they never have to pay for it. Hedman didn’t have to fight over it. Hell, he didn’t even get the finger pointed at him by most because he’s an otherwise clean player.

Steckel and Hedman both hit the face of the NHL in the head and finished his season (now spilling into a 2nd season) and nothing was done about it. Instead we continued to see more and more hits to the head as the season progressed. Raffi Torres took out Brent Seabrook in the playoffs and nothing was done about it because it was “in a hitting zone.” This hit was made acceptable last year.

I’ve spoken, often at length, about how much of a black eye the 2010-2011 season was for the NHL. It was such a shameful display in no small part because of the work of people like Colin Campbell. The inconsistency and sometimes baffling discipline, or lack thereof, made it acceptable to end someone’s season or potentially their career. Zdeno Chara was allowed to break Max Pacioretty’s neck without any repercussion (and that’s a whole different can of worms I’m not going to open now). I don’t even think I need to mention the events of February 11, 2011 and how insulting the “punishment” levied against the Islanders was to the rest of the hockey world. If there is a God that does in fact love us and look over us, He has given us Brendan Shanahan as league disciplinarian. Colin Campbell was like the old, vested, tenured teacher who couldn’t get fired and had no control over his class, but also didn’t care. God willing, Shanahan will continue to do what he has been doing this pre-season and bring a little law and order to the NHL.

But this isn’t all about how we lost Sid for the season or about how the NHL was a shameful disgrace to the hockey world this past season. This is about what Sid accomplished and what we can expect going forward. And there will be a “going forward.”

Sid’s stat line from last season:

41 GP, 32 G, 34 A, 66 P, +20, 31 PIM, 10 PPG, 9 PPA, 1 SHG, 3 GWG, 161 S, 19.9 S%, 21:55 TOI

I don’t think I need to say or point out how insane those numbers are. 32 goals in 41 games. 66 points in 41 games. A 25-game point streak. +20 rating. 10 PPG and 9 PPA. The man was scoring on every 5th shot he took. The closest we’ll ever get to that level of success is reliably being the guy with the lampshade on his head every 5 shots.

It got to a point with Sid where we, as fans, just didn’t know what to say, think, or do. The man left us speechless with his ability to do so much with so little (at times) on the ice as well as deal with the attention of the entire hockey world every time he did something. The weight of the world rests on his shoulders and he handles it better than most of us do with less responsibility. Every time we thought “well, we’ve seen it all from him. There’s nothing more for Sid to do” he would step his game up and take it to a whole new level and do something to leave us all dumbfounded.

Looking a little closer at the stats, though, doesn’t really show anything that many of us didn’t already know. There were only two teams that kept Sid off the score sheet this season. Dallas and St. Louis did what no other team was capable. Dallas, however, still got Sid on the highlight films.

That had to be a funny reunion when Niskanen was brought in at the trade deadline with James Neal.

It didn’t matter who the opponent was. Sid found a way to get on the board against them. Maybe not every game, but the opposition just couldn’t keep him at bay forever. He was, however, a minus player overall against 7 teams. The Bruins, Stars, Canadiens, Islanders, Rangers, Flyers, and the Blues were all teams against which Sid was a minus player. It does seem a little strange that 3 of the 7 teams are Atlantic division foes. I will admit I find it a little troubling, especially given the goaltending…question marks that were the Islanders, who also brought an end to Sid’s point streak, and the Flyers.

With Sid in the line-up, the Pens went 26-15. Within those numbers, in wins Sid had 27 goals and 25 assists. Let me restate that. In 26 victories, Sid had 27 goals and 25 assists for 52 points. In victory, Sid was good for an average of 2 points. In losses, Sid was held to 5 goals and 9 assists, 14 total points. Obviously far lower, but even in losses Sid was just under 1 point per loss.

My God.

Home or away, Sid was an effective player. In 22 home games he was good for 19G and 19A. In 19 away games Sid was able to put up 13G and 15A. It didn’t matter when or where, he always came to play. As we were told this Summer, Sid is a Ferrari.

The man was able to nearly match entire seasons of goal scoring in half of a season. He was on pace for a 60 goal, 125 point season.

And then Steckel happened. Since then, it has been a roller coaster of emotion. Watching the team without Sid…then without Geno…then without Kunitz…and Tangradi…and Dustin Jeffrey…and Asham…and Nick Johnson…and Cooke…and so on and so on. But we watched. We watched. We watched. And we hoped. We hoped to hear that Sid was doing better. We hoped to hear that he was resuming practice. And it didn’t happen, at least not right away. Time marched on and more players were getting hurt and there was nothing new to report. Sid was still on the shelf and would resume practice when the doctors gave him the OK.

Then he started skating. And we rejoiced. And he skated harder and did more. And we hoped.

Then he demolished the water bottle. And we knew he’d be back for the playoffs. We just knew it.

Then the symptoms returned and he shut down again.

And the season ended. The off-season was here. And we didn’t know. We started to get desperate for news. Journalists were writing all types of reports, utilizing those “sources” they had on the inside. There were reports that Sid was going to retire. There were reports of a brain tumor. There were reports that he wanted traded out of Pittsburgh. Every report imaginable was tossed about regarding Sid’s well-being and future career. As the speculation became more and more wild it became apparent that Sid, his doctors, ownership, and management would need to say something.

And then the day came. Sid was addressing the media. Sid’s doctors were giving us the honest look at how things stood. Sadly the press conference (and deservedly so) was overshadowed by the awful tragedy in Russia (personal aside: I was driving from Pittsburgh to Fayetteville, NC that day moving down for my new job…it was surreal to listen to everything unfold on NHL Home Ice – big time respect to the NHL Home Ice radio crew for being professional but deeply emotional all day with all that happened). But we knew where Sid was in his progression. We got to hear about what he went through. We got to hear about the training and work the doctors put him through to basically re-learn spatial understanding.

Sid has been through Hell. Absolute Hell. And all the while he’s had to deal with people dogging him about timelines and retirement and so on. He’s had to deal with people telling him he was weak and needing to toughen up.The man went through Hell and has emerged with the old gleam in his eye.

The man is practicing. He’s going at 100%. The next step is getting him involved in contact drills.

Sidney Crosby will be back this season. You can count on that. When? Well, he’ll be back when it is safe for him to come back. And when he does return? Look out.

We’re all going to be nervous when he does return. That first big hit he takes will make us all cringe. The first time he scores a goal is going to cause babies to be born prematurely. It may also cause babies to be conceived.

Looking ahead, though, here is what I feel we can expect out of Sid (and, again, these numbers are not based on any formula other than gut instinct, which is to say they are based off smoke and mirrors and complete BS)

58GP, 41G, 65A, 106 P, +27, 37 PIM, 18 PPG, 12 PPA, 1SHG, 6 GWG, 206S, 19.9S%, 20:01 TOI, Conn Smythe winner, Stanley Cup champion

I am bullish on Sid coming back with an insane chip on his shoulder and bending the rest of the NHL over and giving it to them rough. Personal guess? I figure Sid will be back in the line-up around Thanksgiving, but I doubt later than Christmas. I think for precautionary and conditioning reason’s he’ll miss about 1/4-1/3 of the season.

Welcome back, Sid. We missed you.

Pens Preview: Marc-Andre Fleury

I have been known to be something of a “Fleury hater” for many years. I don’t like the term “hater” because that implies a complete and total illogical dislike of a player for reasons that cannot be logic’d or discussed. When I would discuss Fleury’s previous disappointments I would do so with facts and figures and it usually got people to either get real quiet or jump on the “well, I’m a better fan because I don’t criticize players on my team” wagon. This season was truly a tale of two players. I’m happy to say he shut me the Hell up and did his job. With that, I give you the Pens Preview: Marc-Andre Fleury.

Amazing how much leeway having your name on the Cup nets you when dealing with critics.

Do goaltenders get unjust criticism and unjust praise? Yes, they do. Much in the same way quarterbacks in the NFL get unjust criticism and undue praise (Trent Dilfer, circa 2000 Ravens, I’d like a word), but it is also part of the job and position. A goaltender has to be mentally tough. There is so little room for error and every movement and mistake is magnified because of being the only player of that position on the ice for your team. Mistakes often lead to goals. Many goals lead to losses. Thus, goaltender mistakes are the cause of losses, thus the goaltender is the cause of the loss. Anyone who watches any sport knows that very rarely can one man be blamed, wholly and exclusively for a loss. Poor goaltending is one of those areas where you can point to a specific instance for a loss.

If that doesn’t begin when I time stamped it, skip to the 8:50 mark. If you want to see a bad goal, that is a bad goal. It’s a bad technical goal because of not having his stick in position and from leaving a gaping hole between his pads and it was an atrociously bad goal because he allowed that with less than two minutes to play in a tie game in the 3rd period. A goal that should never, ever, ever be allowed by a professional goaltender is bad enough, but they happen. To allow Scott Gomez’s eyebrows to score that goal late in a game and lose in the same manner (i.e. atrocious goaltending) to the team responsible for eliminating you from playoffs the year before? Yikes. You’d think you’d be able to get up for a game like that and show you put the previous season behind you. At the start of the year? Nah, the Flower had none of that. I was one of the lone voices in 2010 indicating he was a major weakness on a lazy team and everyone called me a bad fan and how I didn’t know what I was talking about. Well, his 2011 season started off exactly as his 2010 season ended.

65GP, 62GS, 56:51TOI, 36W, 20L, 5OTL, 143GA, 2.32GAA, 1742SA, 1599SV, 918SV%, 3SO

In the first 10 games played by no. 29, the Pens went 4-6 (the team’s first win came with Brent Johnson between the pipes) and Flower allowed 28 goals on 219 shots. One of the team wins was on November 6 when Fleury was pulled after 6:56 ice time when he allowed 2 goals on 5 shots. Within the first 10 games he was boasting a killer .845 SV%. It makes one wonder how he finished with such stellar numbers and how he became THE most important player down the stretch when he started out so rough.

Thankfully the Cup isn’t awarded in October or November. Thankfully Dan Bylsma found his spine and benched Fleury as he continued to cost the team games and valuable points. Everyone made jokes and comments about the playoffs don’t start in October, but every point matters. Need I remind everyone just how crucial a few of those lost points were at the end of the season? One more point and we would have won the Atlantic division. Really, though, I feel the season and turnaround in MAF’s game came hinged on him being benched and getting his mind straight. That little win streak and Crosby’s unreal point streak helped from mid-November helped, but sometimes things come together as they need to. In this case, Flower got sat down and the team started getting together.

I will say this – I am glad that Fleury was garbage to begin the year and Johnny played out of his mind because I had the best Halloween costume I’ve ever made:

Looking at the stats, it was a pretty impressive season overall for Marc-Andre. Started 62 games, no major injuries, had excellent relief in Brent Johnson, posting a 36-20 record and, more importantly, a .918SV% and 2.32GAA. A .918SV% was good enough for 15th overall in the NHL and the 2.32 GAA placed him 9th in the NHL among goaltenders. Either way you slice it, Fleury finished the season as a top-half of the league goaltender. It is imperative to note how the defense played, too, down the stretch. Flower and his D reliably held opposing teams to 2 goals or fewer per game. Sadly, Fleury’s very, very bad start caused his stats to be a little less impressive.

More importantly, and this is never really shown in the statistics, is the quality of the saves and the importance of the saves. In 2010 MAF was known for giving up soft and poorly timed goals. To start 2011 he was also giving up the same poorly timed and soft goals. He gave up bad goals. As the season moved on he made BIG saves. He made important saves. He eliminated the back-breaking and painful goals (like the one to Gomez linked above). He made the saves that a big time goaltender needed to make. Previously he wasn’t making those (less some huge saves in the ’09 Cup run). Even though the end result was not what we had all hoped, “history stops everything.”

Sadly the Pens’ popgun offense was not enough to overcome Fleury playing out of his mind and allowing two goals or fewer regularly from about January onward. In December and January he only had one game where his save percentage was below .900 (12/26 vs OTT). Month by month, 29’s SV% was as follows:

October: .863

November: .931

December: .931

January: .942

February: .899

March: .916

If you are partial to seeing things in action instead of on paper (or on a computer screen), just take a look at this:

And the Shootouts. How could we ignore the shootouts? Everyone joked about the Pens going to so many shootouts as the season went on, but the goaltender is the most important part of the shootout. By record, MAF was 2nd best in the NHL in Wins in a shootout (with 8). Overall in the SO, Flower had an .842SV%, facing 38 shots and allowed only 6 goals. A truly, truly astonishing feat, considering how the modern shootout is stacked against the goaltender. And, of course, we can never forget that we got to see some of the flourish that goes into the shootout preparation. Roll that beautiful bean footage:

Overall, Flower performed statistically better at home, but had a disproportionate amount of losses (largely due to the early season) compared to road games. At home, 29 showed a .924SV% and a 2.17GAA. On the road he posted a .911SV% and 2.51GAA. In overall wins, he posted a .940%, whereas in losses he posted a .880%. The old adage of “the team that scores more goals wins,” but the goaltender plays a vital role in that bearing true. If Fleury was having a bad game, there was typically a loss attached to it. When looking at save percentage with regard to days of rest between games, Fleury showed to be much better as an active goaltender than one with substantial time between games. When playing two games back to back he averaged a .925%; with 1 day of rest he posted a .915%, but with 2 days of rest he kipped up to a .938%, but with 3 or more days off he dropped terribly to .894%.

Statistically, it was a very good year. 143 goals allowed was the fewest he’s allowed when playing 50 or more games. Likewise, 2.32 is the lowest GAA he’s ever had in his NHL career. It was also his best save percentage (again with a minimum of 50 games). The only area where he was a “disappointment” was only having 3 shutouts on the season, which was an uptick from last season when he only had 1, but a drop from the two seasons prior, both in which he had 4 shut outs.

It truly was a magical year for Marc-Andre. He started off poorly, got benched, took his benching like a man, earned back his starting job and then kept the team in so many games. I fear there will be a little bit of a drop off next season, but I’m hopeful he can play consistently, as that has always been an issue until this year, and keep doing what works for him. It is so hard to really evaluate a goaltender just by looking at a stat line because, as mentioned above, there are intangibles surrounding the quality and timeliness of saves and making a big save to swing momentum or deflate another team. This year, MAF had “it.” The element to his game that had been missing was rediscovered and hopefully he doesn’t lose it again. Looking ahead to next season, here’s how I see the major statistics breaking down:

67GP, 65GS, 57:03TOI, 38W, 17L, 4OTL, 136GA, 2.41GAA, 1715SA, 1579SV, .911SV%, 5SO.

I expect a good year out of MAF. I fear he may have a little bit of up-and-down play. He’ll tick those SO numbers up because he’s got an all-world defense in front of him most of the night, but I think will have a very slight fall off from this season’s numbers because he’ll have a little more offense in front of him and he can gamble on things like the pokecheck and/or getting off his leash and attempting to play the puck (Marc, please stop – stay in the crease, don’t try to play the puck. Hextall and Brodeur you ain’t).

Oh, how silly of me, I forgot the most important stat: 1 B-Boy pose

Let’s go Pens.

 

 

 

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