Gameday #28: @ Toronto Maple Leafs

penguinsvsleafs

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS @ Toronto Maple Leafs

Air Canada Center, 7:00 PM, Root Sports

This is a very understated game for the Penguins: maybe they don’t have to win, but again, the Leafs aren’t going anywhere and getting wins against future playoff teams is a good way to gain confidence and relevancy.

All of a sudden the Pens are looking better in their defensive zone. The Penguins have only allowed three goals in their last six periods and perhaps most impressively they only gave up 16 shots all game against the Bruins. No doubt that the Bruins were content to dump and chase and didn’t forecheck after the first period, but still, the first step to good defense is to limit the opponent’s zone time, and that’s what the Pens have done in the last two games.

Mike Colligan opened your minds and poured his massive load of hockey IQ into it again earlier today. He breaks down the magic of POP, Pass off Pads in the Penguins’ offensive zone success so far this year. There’s no secret that the Pens purposefully aim for the goaltender’s pads on a 2 on 1 rush, what you might not understand is the advanced statistical reasoning behind it. Epic read right there.

On the flip side, the guys at Maple Leafs’ blog Pension Plan Puppets think that the Leafs are breaking apart at the seams. They dropped their most recent game 5-2 to the Jets and they no longer seem to have any of the flash that they did through the first two months of the season. If you want to see what it’s like to root for a beleagueared franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in nearly a decade (and forgot about the Pirates) just look at the Leafs:

The Leafs will continue on with Death March when they play the Pittsburgh Penguins again Thursday night. To make the playoffs, the Leafs’ performance will need to improve, as they could be on the outside looking in by as early as next Monday (edit: As Mirtle points out, it could be as early as Saturday night).

Apparently it’s cool to name your team’s month of March after something, “Death March,” “March of the Penguins,” okay that’s all I got but you get it.

No idea if Engo or Despres will be in the lineup tonight for the Pens, we’ve been rough on Engo but he had a rock solid game on Tuesday and really made the play that set up the first goal for Kun. We expect to see Fleury in net again tonight because it should seem like a given that Vokoun will get the nod against the Rangers on Saturday. No changes are expected at the forward positions (have you noticed that the Pens don’t really have ANY extra forwards at this exact date? You think they may be looking to make a move and are trying to save every penny they can?).

Pens are rolling, but this is exactly the time not to get too far ahead of ourselves, the Leafs need to get back on track, they have a lot of big, physical thumpers, and the Pens (unfortunately or otherwise) are due for a letdown after coming from behind in 4 of their current 6 game winning streak.

In other league news, Dan Rosen wrote an incredible apology for the Flyers today, and it made it to the front page of NHL.com.

Corey Perry was suspended for 4 games for a “meh” hit on some slub from the Wild. In all honesty, you have to wonder if that couldn’t affect his market value at the trade deadline or if he would hit the open market in free agency? Whether I think the hit was good, I hope that will serve as incentive for the Pens to keep their distance, he’ll be too expensive and the Penguins have enough wingers with occasional short tempers (ahem, James Neal) already. Hard to believe but the trade deadline is less than a month away now, that’s sweet.

Cause a panic. Go Pens.

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Gameday #25: @ Toronto Maple Leafs

penguinsvsleafs

 

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS @ Toronto Maple Leafs

Air Canada Centre, 7:00 PM, Root Sports, NHL Network (local blackout), CBC (Hockey Night in Canada)

Along with the Canadiens the Maple Leafs are officially the most pleasantly surprising team in the Eastern Conference this year. They have the fourth best overall record and if the season ended today the Leafs would be the number 5 seed. The first time they would be in the playoffs since 2004. And it shouldn’t really come as a surprise, the Leafs have a gritty defense led by captain Dion Phaneuf and a surprising amount of speed and skill at forward led by Phil Kessel and the finally freed Nazem Kadri. Coming into the season goaltender seemed to be the only open question (hence the insane amount of Bobby Lu to the Leafs rumors), but Ben Scrivens and James Reimer have been perhaps the finest tandem in the league so far this year.

The key for the Penguins tonight is to exploit the youth and inexperience of the Leafs, their defense can hit, but if Phaneuf is any indication, they can be beaten with hard skating.

The Pens need to play disciplined defense and frustrate the point of release for the Leafs. They have some shooters but the gritty net crashers on the Leafs aren’t exactly Kevin Stevens-like.

For the Penguins tonight Simon Despres looks to be back in while Mark Eaton looks to be getting a break. Nothing wrong with that, he deserves it after that monumental shot block in Thursday’s game.

eaton-block

Looks like the Pens are going to continue to roll with Dustin Jeffrey as the fourth line center over Joe Vitale. Doesn’t really make sense to me. Jeffrey is a third liner with occasional second line flash whereas Vitale is all heart, soul, and passion: perfect for the fourth line. I’m not saying I don’t like Jeffrey a little more, but I think the Pens are better with Vitale on the fourth line. Don’t have a really good feel for the goaltending situation but it looks like MAF is getting the nod. If MAF hadn’t been pulled in Philly this would have been an obvious Vokoun start: on the road, the first of a back-to-back, and so on and so forth. Whatever, I’m going to tomorrow night’s game against the Islanders and its been years since I saw a game where Flower was the starting goaltender, only seems right I guess.

This isn’t exactly a must win game but the Pens could really send a strong message to the rest of the league if they can find a way to win without giving up 800 goals tonight. A nice 4-2 game against a good opponent could do a lot of good right now.

The Mecca of Hockey? Go Pens.


Gameday #3 Recap: v. TOR, Pens Lose: Suck it Phil Kessel

The Penguins were never going to go 48-0 this year, and you could just feel that a letdown was possible following the big time wins against the Rangers and the Flyers over the weekend. Unfortunately it had to happen in the home opener. The Penguins were listless, but not nearly as bad as the crowd. If either would have shown up this would have been a totally different game. The Pens travel to Winnipeg on Friday, hopefully CEC season ticket holders will learn a thing or two from that crowd. Get the full recap after the jump…

First Period

First play of the game and Paul-Mart made a mistake. It looks like he’s mortal after all. Nothing came of the chance but Kessel showed something: if you’re quick you can frustrate the Pens D pretty easily.

Gratuitous Eric Tangradi comment: I’m not hallucinating or lying when I say he’s honestly getting stronger and more skilled each game. On his first shift he had a solid hit. A couple shifts later he had a 2 on 1 with Geno, he tried to delay to fool Reimer into thinking he would shoot. It didn’t work but it showed heads up thinking.

Engo with one of the all-time great heavyweight battles against Colton Orr. These two have gone toe to toe several times and they never disappoint. This was at best a draw and Engo bore the brunt of it. I wouldn’t be mad if Engo never fought again, he was able to come back, but the Pens defense is based on rolling all three pairings, having Simon Despres interrupting the other pairings isn’t going to work.

Pens PK is absolutely stellar, they’re just so in control right now. They don’t even allow a lot of pressure.

A couple of borderline boarding calls: refs definitely calling some tighter games so far this year.

The Pens benefitted on one of those bad calls: Geno picking up change. 1-0 Pens. At this point Pens are 5 for 10 with the man advantage. Neal with a huge hold on the point to keep the play alive.

Second Period

Tangradi: two little steps forward, one bigger step back. He looked strong coming up the ice but then made a bad, easily intercepted pass. Toronto comes back the other way. Tied ball game 1-1.

Toronto is definitely getting better. Big, fast forwards, hustling all over the ice, JVR with a hustle goal. Ice is tilting, Pens look a little perplexed, first time they’ve trailed all year.

Just when you start to doubt, Crosby comes through with a huge goal. He got behind Phaneuf (not that hard to do) and corralled a bouncing, uncontrollable puck (very hard to do) and put it past Primer. Tied ball game 2-2. I feel like this goal is characteristic of the power of Crosby, it was an unimpressive shot on an unimpressive breakaway but knowing who was bearing in on him Reimer was helpless, Crosby had a very nice game.

Just as the momentum was turning back to the Pens, the Pens literally took all the penalties. They took 5 straight including 2 5 on 3’s. But guess what they were all killed , easy.

game3penalties

 

EASY.

EASY.

Just as all the PK’s had ended Geno made an I’ll conceived pass across the D-zone. JVR with the interception and goal. 3-2 Leafs. As the period ended, Leafs with all momentum.

Third Period

Pens didn’t want to let it get away. Controlling plays in the offensive zone. They earned the PP, but for the first time the PP just looked ineffective, Leafs were clamping down around Reimer, no shots getting all the way through.

After the PP, the Leafs got a chance in the Pens zone, Bylsma started shuffling around the second line trying out TK, Cooke, and Sutter at different points. I believe TK was out when the bad bounce happened, 4-2 Leafs. This was an insane bounce but the second line turned to even more mud when Bylsma started changing things. Are there any teams falling out of competition yet? If they can’t trust Tangradi for even three games, then the Pens need to find someone ASAP to play full time on that line, not to pick and choose and destroy the third line.

Late in the game the Pens took a too much man penalty. Sid and Geno got tweaked about it, Sid got an unsportsmanlike and Geno got a game misconduct. The Pens may have lost but its really exciting to see the leaders stand up against what was really bad officiating last night.

During the 5 on 3 the Leafs got one more. Game.

Thoughts/Notes

  • Crowd sucked. People were too busy slamming hot dogs in their pie holes. Really a let down for everyone.
  • The “Hey” song is back, thank the maker.
  • PK looks incredible: Toronto has some shooters and only in the last seconds did they get a single PP goal. Further the Pens are just making it look easy, like they’re fully in command on the PK.
  • Another quietly excellent game for Niskanen.
  • Couldn’t sustain the forecheck on the corner boards, that’s why they lost.
  • Here’s a BOLD prediction: the Leafs are going to the playoffs this year, although apparently Joffrey Lupul broke his forearm yesterday and will be out for weeks.
  • The refs sucked: apparently it’s a boarding penalty when you hit someone and they happen to hit the boards, regardless of how your positioning is.
  • Sometime during the offseason MAF learned to handle the puck. He let in 5 on 24 shots (not good) but he had some really nice poke checks and outlet passes.