Matt Niskanen: The Ultimate Equalizer

Okay, so a somewhat scary trend is starting to emerge. The Pens have gotten lit up in three of their last 4 games. I don’t know if they’re starting to grow idle a little bit, their only win came against the team that is actually the 4th best in the East (Devils), compared to their losses against the 7th ranked Senators and 13th ranked Islanders. Again I’m not necessarily worried about the Pens, but this isn’t how you expected a team this good to deal with the possibility of still possibly capturing first in the conference and maybe even the President’s Trophy.

Being realistic, a lot of this has to boil down to the defense. The Penguins have been without Matt Niskanen for all four of these games, and without Kris Letang and Ben Lovejoy for the last 2. To reiterate the talking points of every single commentator, blogger, and fan: Simon Despres and Brian Strait are going to be very good NHL defensemen. There’s even a decent chance that they will be integral parts of the NHL Penguins next season, but right now, they are both struggling pretty badly. Despres left last night’s game with an “equipment issue” after getting burned for a goal, and then never returned. I don’t know if he was benched, or if he actually got injured, all I know is that he didn’t return and that’s not good.

If there is one player I have not given enough credit to this year it has to be Matt Niskanen, and these last four games are really showing me the error of my ways. A lot of people are contending that Kris Letang is the most valuable player for this Pens team this year (even over Evgeni) because of how much better our record is with Letang in the lineup versus without. But these last few games have really demonstrated just how capable Niskanen is at filling Letang’s role when he is out of the lineup. By no means am I saying that Niskanen is on Letang’s level, but he is definitely the only alternative to Letang on this Penguins roster, and without either of them it seems analogous to when the Pens are without both Sid and Geno. You can miss one, but you simply can’t miss both.

Obviously issue #1 is the power play. But that’s hardly even worth mentioning just because you know what you’re gonna get when you put 5 forwards on the power play—if you work on it all year, and you really teach the defensive aspects to the forwards accountable for playing the point, then it can work. I can remember the deadliness of the Penguins’ PP in the late 90s when they used 5 forwards, it was a thing of beauty. But they also worked on it all season every season for probably 3 or 4 seasons consecutively. Trying to pull it out with 6 games left after like one day of practice isn’t gonna happen. So I can’t even be that mad about that side. I mean the Pens are playing with the hand they’re dealt and luckily it doesn’t seem like either Niskanen or Letang are expected to really miss any more games after tonight. That being said, I still wouldn’t be shocked to see Paul Martin playing with the top PP tonight. Tonight is a much more meaningful game than last night, and if the Pens can’t get up for this one, then we may be facing a real crisis.

The bigger issues have been when the Pens have been short-handed or at even strength (on the season, the Pens have been pretty much the best team in the league at even strength, so this tells me there is a real problem). The young guys have simply been missing assignments. If you have a healthy Niskanen or Letang, they can play with the young guys and can utilize their speed and mobility to cover up these mistakes. Unfortunately, when you are missing those two guys, the remaining defense gets a lot older and a lot slower. Basically, you can only allow so many odd-man rushes per game and expect to win, unfortunately, the Pens have been exceeding that number and have been losing.

I admit to being a little worried about MAF, he’s carried the load so extensively this season, and in the last couple of games he has not looked quite the same. Again, this probably speaks to the lack of familiarity with one third of his defensemen, but in each of the games against the Islanders he allowed what looked to be a really soft and unexpected goal. History suggests that when that happens, the Penguins as a team really struggle. Remember the beginning of last season when Fleury seemed to let in a soft goal every game for the first month of the season? I mean he pretty much got benched for a couple weeks and luckily Brent Johnson was seeing beach balls and helped to right the ship. In time Fleury got back to his game and really became the team’s MVP for last season, especially after Sid and Geno both went down. The trouble is that we don’t have a couple weeks left for Fleury to sit and get his head straight. The regular season will be over in little more than a week and the Penguins backup goalie situation is basically completely TBD. We all know that Fleury has what it takes to win the Cup, we all know that he is a truly elite goalie in the NHL, but that’s not to say that elite players don’t go through slumps. I just hope this isn’t that time.

Pens play Buffalo tonight. This is a battle of the two hottest teams since the all-star break. The Pens really need this win. It isn’t even about trying to run down the Rangers now (we’re 5 points back with the same amount of games played). It’s just about proving that the Penguins are still a dominant force, and that they have the motivation when it comes to the big games.

The last thing that I want to bring up is the line combinations. Last night marked the official return to the “status quo” lines (Sullivan-Malkin-Neal, Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis, Cooke-Staal-Kennedy). I know I have advocated for not tampering with the Kunitz-Malkin-Neal line ad nauseum, but this is something that you sort of had to expect. I have no problem with these combinations. This is probably how you have to lineup in the playoffs, and it’s better to get in a few games to build that chemistry. For what it’s worth, these combinations didn’t look horrible, if anything they just looked unfamiliar with one another, but that’s again why it was good to do so now. Further, if this does tell us anything, it’s that Sid clearly is still feeling well and that he is sufficiently “back” to be tasked with centering the scoring line again.

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