Tuesday, April 22, 2014

After sixty minutes, the Pens got the result they deserved; Pens win, 4-3

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

In the NBA, great players win championships.  In the NHL, great teams win championships; having great players makes it more likely that you'll have a great team, but doesn't guarantee it.  The Pens are a long way from being a great team, but they're getting offensive production from guys they haven't been able to count on during the season -- Paul Martin has 6 assists, Sutter has 2 goals, Bennett has 4 points, Gibbons has 2 goals, and even Brooks Orpik pulled off a sick toe drag and buried one.  You can win a lot of playoff games with Crosby, Malkin, Neal, and Kunitz scoring power play goals, and the Pens are going to need that sooner rather than later.  But if you want the Pens to win multiple playoff series and maybe even the Cup, it's critical that they win games even when those four aren't scoring.  The Pens are up 2-1 in this series and their four best players have no goals yet.  If you actually root for the Pens to win games (rather than being one of those "Pens fans" who openly root against Crosby and Malkin), this should make you happy.

More thoughts below the podcast.


Listen to the podcast above or check out our Spreaker page. To download the podcast directly from iTunes, click here.  Or you can download, listen, and subscribe via the Spreaker app on iTunes by clicking here, or on Android by clicking here.


- A pretty perfect description of the game from misterjamo in the comments section of our latest podcast:
It's taken me a long time to come around on the advanced statistics, but last night's game is a pretty strong case study in their usefulness. The Pens attempted 73 shots to Columbus's 42, and from the (admittedly) little I was able to see Pittsburgh was the better team by many miles. And when you consider that CBJ's third goal and the Penguins' fourth goal came on arguably fluke redirections on shots that weren't on goal when they left the original shooter's stick, it's a pretty strong argument that firing the puck in the general vicinity of the 6'x4' is a good strategy. 
The problem with Sid is that he's the best player in the world, and four assists in three games for the best player in the world will get your "hunger" questioned. Consider that Sid attempted 8 shots (second only to Neal's 9), started a whopping 80% of his shifts in the defensive zone and still managed a relative corsi-for of +22% (best on the team last night) while his QoC was a rather insane 30.9%.

Yeah, Sid is paid $8.7 million to score and when he doesn't questions are going to be asked. But the way he was deployed last night made that awfully difficult.

If you'd have told me that through three games the Pens PP was 3 for 17 (and 0 for their last 12) with Crosby, Malkin, Neal, and Kunitz with zero goals between them and Fleury sporting a.899 save percentage I'd have told you the Pens were down 3-0 and probably outscored 12-2. But the Pens have turned into a really respectable possession team (with some obvious lapses) playing their best even strength hockey of the year. If they eliminate the asinine penalties and make better decisions on the power play, this series is a laugher.
- A few other interesting tidbits from the shot charts.
- Total domination at even strength by Malkin-Jokinen-Neal.  The combined 5-on-5 shot differential for those three was 42-6.  Jokinen was not on the ice for an even strength shot against (12-0). 
- Crosby was on the ice for one even strength shot against.  It went in. 
- It has ceased being fun for me to slam Sutter, and I'm not doing this to slam him again, but I have to point out that the even strength shot differential when Sutter was on the ice was 13-2 in favor of Columbus.  If you factor in special teams, Sutter was on the ice for 17 of Columbus' 20 shots on goal.  And he only had 13:35 of ice time.  In other words, Columbus had 17 shots in the 13:35 that Sutter was on the ice.  They had 3 shots in the other 46:25.  3!!!
Sutter did score a huge goal, though.  For what the Pens have needed against Columbus, he's been adequate.  But if the Pens advance and go on the road against teams who can match lines with more skill than Columbus, a Sutter-Megna-Bennett line is going to be highly exploitable defensively.  Bennett, especially, has a long way to go to clean up his play in his own end.

- Pens were 0-for-6 on the power play last night and didn't revert back to four forwards until late in the game.  The concern with giving up shorthanded goals is real, but it's overblown.  CBJ's shorty in Game 1 was purely Letang's fault and had nothing to do with having four forwards.  The shorty in Game 2 happens sometimes.  Big deal.  The Pens had the number one power play in the league and Columbus had the 14th ranked penalty kill unit.  Letting the BJs dictate who you use on your PP is a big mistake.  Crosby and Malkin are already playing too far away from the net; putting PMPM out there instead of James Neal just spreads everything out even more.  Put Kunitz in front, Neal in the high slot, get everyone closer to the net, and tell them not to give up shorthanded goals.  This strategy will work.

This glove thing got pretty annoying pretty quickly, didn't it?
- Positioning Marc-Andre Fleury as one of the main reasons the Pens won Game 3 and are up 2-1 in the series is taking the positive spin a tad too far.  The more accurate way to put it is that Fleury was the main reason the Pens almost lost -- but didn't lose -- Game 3.  The first goal he allowed was especially bad, and its technical terribleness was compounded by its untimeliness.  Giving up a goal in the first few minutes of playoff games has become Fleury's hallmark, and it's easy to point to these goals as the root cause of many meltdowns by the Pens in the playoffs over the past few years.  A team can come into a game totally prepared and with a perfect game-plan, but without a baseline level of competence in net that can all go out the window immediately.  Credit to Fleury, I guess, for not giving up more than two bad goals.  But much more credit to the Pens skaters for making his job relatively easy for the rest of the game by only giving up a total of 20 shots and continuing to stick to a game-plan that definitely didn't include, "Step 1: Go down 2-0 on two soft goals."

"Let's go boys, come on boys, pick it up boys."
I get the value and importance of Fleury bouncing back from the two bad goals.  I'm just not willing to settle for that as his best attribute.  The Pens can get away with going down 2-0 early to Columbus because the Pens are better and Columbus can't stop taking dumb penalties.  But giving up two softies early to the Rangers or Bruins isn't going to fly.

- The Pens won a tight Game 3 against the Islanders last year, but allowed the Isles to get back in the series with a pretty brutal Game 4 loss.  The Pens can't do that this year because there's no Tyler Kennedy to come to the rescue in Game 5.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Podcast: Team Effort. Pens win Game 3, 4-3

Big team effort for the Pens tonight to pull out the W when things looked very perilous.  It's the GTOG Podcast.

Listen to the podcast above or check out our Spreaker page. To download the podcast directly from iTunes, click here.  Or you can download, listen, and subscribe via the Spreaker app on iTunes by clicking here, or on Android by clicking here.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Is there any reason Kris Letang shouldn't dress as a winger in Game 3?

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

Kris Letang has been a big liability for the Pens over the first two games, but rather than pile on, we want to bring him into our embrace and help him find his way back to being the "perennial Norris Trophy nominee who will never actually win the Norris and who is equally prone to dynamic brilliance and horrifying mistakes" that we've all come to love.  Here's an out of the box idea that will limit the damage Letang can do to his own team and might actually help shore up another team weakness.

Letang should play wing in Game 3.

Here are several hastily compiled reasons:

- Letang has been the Pens' worst defensemen in the first two games.  He's passing the puck directly to the other team with regularity and he's taken some terrible penalties (including one that led to the tying goal in Game 2).  Would Bortuzzo, Engellend or Despres be worse than Letang has been over the first two games?  It's hard to imagine.

- There is no reason to expect -- or wait for -- Letang to play his way out of this slump.  Sure, it's possible that his struggles are due to lingering effects from his stroke, but if that's the case: 1) are these lingering effects really going to go away any time soon?, and 2) the Pens don't have time to wait.  If Letang plays equally poorly in Game 3, but all of the sudden reverts to his 2011 form before Game 4, it might be too late.

- Brian Gibbons is listed as day-to-day and the Pens have no one appealing waiting in the wings.  Jayson Megna?  He's ok, but skating 8:34 between Joe Vitale and Craig Adams is more likely to ruin Megna's career than help the Pens win Game 3.  Taylor Pyatt is the worst player in the league.  Those are the options.

For all his struggles, Letang is a million times more talented than Megna or Pyatt.  And, as described above, Engelland or Bortuzzo can probably play at least as well as Letang has played in Games 1 and 2.  (NOTE: We are not expecting Engelland or Bortuzzo to play very well if they dress in Game 3).  Letang at forward, where his turnovers will put his team in less immediate peril, is a better option than Megna or Pyatt.

- Let's say Gibbons is fine and plays in Game 3.  Tanner Glass is the second worst player in the league and, as we discussed in our recap, actively hurts the team by only being able to play 11 minutes in an 81 minute game.  Letang at winger, even if he's never played wing before, is better than Tanner Glass.  And he can play more than 11 minutes.

- Letang might actually be OK at forward.  As Gibbons showed, speed matters, and Letang can skate like the wind.  He also has offensive talent and he's a right handed shot.  A Crosby-Kunitz-Letang line could absolutely keep Columbus on their heels.

- This will prevent the Pens from dressing Taylor Pyatt, and we're all better for that.

- Letang can always take a few shifts at D or play the point on the second PP.

- Deryk Engelland has gotten some time at wing this season, but let's be real: Letang would be a better winger than Engelland (and, as discussed above, Engelland should at least be equivalent to the Game 1 and 2 version of Letang).

- This would be a huge blow to Letang's ego.  First, who cares?  Second, maybe he could use the humbling.

- Finally, the Pens need to try something different.  The team just feels a little stale, a little off.  If Letang pumps in a goal while skating on Sid's right side, that could be a huge burst for a team desperately in need of something ... different.

Your thoughts?

Sometimes teams lose games; Pens lose to Columbus, 4-3

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

If you picked the Pens to win this series in anything more than 4 games it means you knew the Pens were going to lose a game.  This was not a meltdown, this was not a choke-job.  It was a flawed team losing a game in large part because of its flaws, which we all knew existed for the past 7 months.  If you have herpes, don't act surprised when you have a breakout.  There is no doubt that the Pens are going to lose many games in these playoffs, so all we're going to worry about is whether they can win 3 of the next 5.

- Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin did not have particularly good games (and I thought Crosby was the worse of the two).  They will need to be significantly better next game, but put the shovel down for a moment and hold off on the burial.  Crosby had two points -- yeah, they were secondary assists, but if it's so easy to get secondary assists, why doesn't everyone do it?  On his first assist, he maintained his balance behind the net and got it to Niskanen.  On the second, he made a backhand pass that only he makes.  It's not a coincidence that the Pens scored when he was on the ice.  If one is of the mindset that Crosby was some extra-special kind of awful last night, it means he needed to have at least three points for this to be considered a good game for him.  Does that say more about Crosby or about the team?

- As bad as 87 and 71 were for their standards, kudos to them for maintaining their composure.  Brandon Dubinsky is going out of his way to be a dick, and he was doing such a good job that he got in his own head and took two really stupid penalties.  I don't know whether than makes Dubinsky the worst troll ever or the best troll ever.  Regardless, this is where the Pens lost the game -- the four straight power plays in the second and third period.  This is a team that relied on the PP all year.  When it fails, it looks really ugly.

- Speaking of the PP, the shorty Columbus scored in Game 1 spooked Dan Bylsma into playing two defensemen on the PP, and the shorty last night seemed to basically cement the philosophy that the Pens need two defensemen on the PP to protect against a shorthanded goal.  This is a mistake.

Since 2011-12, James Neal is second in the entire NHL in power play goals (trailing only Ovechkin, and despite missing a lot of games).  It is too big of a sacrifice to keep him (or Kuntiz) on the bench in favor of Paul Martin in an effort to prevent a shorthanded goal that you really should have no problem preventing anyway.  PMPM is playing tons of minutes.  He doesn't need to play 9:31 on the PP.

- On the subject of ice time, a close examination of the time-on-ice stats clearly shows an underlying problem with this team -- the inability to roll four lines.  In an 81 minute game (played mostly with only 11 forwards), Tanner Glass and Craig Adams played only 11:26 and 11:31, respectively.  If you have a decent fourth line, they should be around that number in a regular season game.  They are nothing but designated penalty killers at this point.

- And a deeper look at the ice time numbers shows a possible explanation for why Crosby and Malkin looked off last night -- they are playing tons of minutes.  In an 81 minute game, Crosby played over 30:34 and Malkin played 29:01 -- that's a lot of time for a forward, especially ones who are targeted like they are and, particularly in Crosby's case, have to take on significant defensive responsibilities as well.  Only Paul Martin (34:07) played more than them.  No forward on Columbus even played 24 minutes.

The other OT games so far in these playoffs provide a nice comparison.  Montreal/Tampa Game 1 was over 78 minutes long -- Plekanec (24:26) and Stamkos (27:31) logged the most minutes, respectively.  St. Louis/Chicago Game 1 was over 100 minutes.  Toews (32:37) was the only Blackhawk with more minutes than Sid played last night.  For St. Louis, Steen (35:33), Sobotka (30:34), Schwartz (33:15), Ott (30:53), Backes (33:33) all played longer than Sid, but Sid would have dwarfed those numbers if the game went another 20 minutes.  And in Minnesota/Colorado Game 1, which lasted over 67 minutes, Parise (23:09) and Landeskog (25:56) were the only ones who would get close to 30+ minutes if that game had gone to a second OT.

When you're the best and highest paid players, you are expected to play tons of minutes and play them well, so 90% of me says "tough shit" and gets mad when they have bad shifts.  But the other 10% of me could understand their frustration if they wanted a little more help from their friends.

- If you want something to worry about, worry about Kris Letang.  He's been the Pens' worst player over the first two games (including Tanner Glass) and it hasn't been particularly close.  Doctors say he's healthy, and there's no reason to doubt that.  But he's playing like ass.  Pierre McGuire sounds like he wants to jump onto the Pens' bench, grab Letang by the shoulder, shake him and scream, "KRISTOPHER LETANG!!! GET IT TOGETHER KRISTOPHER!!! LOOK AT THE WAY MATTY IS PLAYING!! PLAY MORE LIKE MATTY!!! KRISTOPHER!!!!!!!!"

- Another reason to potentially worry: if Brian Gibbons is out next game.  The Pens have no margin for any forwards to be out.  But a bigger worry than that would be if Taylor Pyatt dressed as a replacement.  If that happens, then it will be clear that Shero and Bylsma have lost it.  Gibbons' solid play over a game and a quarter showed that it's more important to have one elite skill than it is to be huge and have no skills whatsoever.  Gibbons is tiny, but at least he can skate like an NHL player.  Pyatt has no skills.  Not a single one.  If the Pens are forced to bring in another forward, it has to be someone who can at least do one thing well.  That should probably be Megna because he can skate.  The second choice would be Engelland because he can eat up some minutes on defense and (CRAZY IDEA ALERT) shift back to defense full-time when the Pens finally realize Letang is killing them on the blueline and move him up to play forward on the 4th line.

Wait.  That's not that crazy of an idea.

Ultimately, everything that's happened so far -- good and bad -- is consistent with how this team is built and how it's played all year (with a sprinkling of off night for Sid and Geno on top).  If you're panicking now, it just means you haven't been paying attention.

Go Pens.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

PODCAST: Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But only for a little. Pens win, 4-3

Pens win 4-3. This was a big win. We discuss.

Listen to the podcast above or check out our Spreaker page. To download the podcast directly from iTunes, click here.  Or you can download, listen, and subscribe via the Spreaker app on iTunes by clicking here, or on Android by clicking here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tale of the Tape, with a podcast: Pens vs. Blue Jackets

By GTOG Staff

Listen to the podcast below or check out our Spreaker page. To download the podcast directly from iTunes, click here.  Or you can download, listen, and subscribe via the Spreaker app on iTunes by clicking here, or on Android by clicking here.

OK everybody, time to wake up. Let's go, people! Attention, please. We don't blame you for dozing off after six weeks of meaningless games spent wondering just how Brian Gibbons might mesh with Jussi Jokinen and trying to convince yourself that it's important for the Penguins to play THE RIGHT WAY in front of Jeff Zatkoff when Crosby, Kunitz, Sutter, Maatta and Orpik are all out with upper bodies. Now it's time to buckle that chin strap a little tighter and re-focus. So what if the regular season is 20 games too long and the new playoff format only highlights the problem? That's enough out of you. It's playoff time, and the Pens are heading for a showdown Wednesday--not against Philadelphia or Detroit thank you lord--but against the least intimidating team in recent playoff history (God is so good) a new arch nemesis: the Columbus Blue Jackets. Once again, GTOG brings you the Tale of the Tape.

1. Obstacle Overcomeability

This is always the most important category, because obstacles abound in the NHL playoffs. Down a goal late in the game? That's an obstacle. Missing a top forward? That's an obstacle. Is your goalie shooting and scoring on himself again? Obstacle. The Penguins have plenty of experience in this regard, and they've overcome some obstacles while slamming face-first into others. We know little about how these Blue Jackets will respond in the face of adversity. The promise of elite goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky and a playoff coming-out party for Ryan Johansen can overcome a lot, but here's the dispositive question: can the Penguins win this series even with Jeff Zatkoff in net? You bet.

Advantage: Penguins

2. Emergeability

Determining which team has more Emergeability is a two step process.  First, you have to ID the potential Emergers.  Then, you have to evaluate their chances of actually Emerging.

The Pens have only a few potential Emergers, with Beau Bennett being by far the most promising, followed by Olli Maatta (he's already sort of Emerged), Brian Gibbons, and Jayson Megna.

Columbus has Ryan Johansen, who has already Emerged, but might still have some Merge in him that could take him to truly elite status.  Boone Jenner is twenty years old, which is much scarier to us than if he were 27 (hockey is a young man's game).  Matt Calvert (24 points in 56 games) could be OK, though we have absolutely no idea.  We're probably missing some people but, newsflash, we don't watch a lot of Columbus Blue Jackets games.

A lot of people might give the edge to the BJs here because the Pens are the much more established team, but this is a very close call.  The Pens are on notice of how good Johansen is, and Boone Jenner is playing over 17:30 a game -- they're going to be the focus of the Pens' defensive gameplan (to the extent the Pens have one) whether they deserve it or not.

But Beau Bennett is a different story.  He lurks in the shadows behind much more established superstars, which is the perfect place from which to emerge.  Bennett was squeezed out of the lineup in the playoffs last year, but it finally seems like he's going to be given a meaningful opportunity.  Our expectations for Bennett are tempered by the reality of his production (3 goals in 21 games), but that's looking in the rear view mirror.  The real question is whether you could score 4 goals in his next 6 games, and the answer to that question is definitely yes.

Advantage: Even

3. Underdogability

Pens' fans (including us) spent the majority of the season complaining about the obvious flaws in this team, an exercise that is part-tradition among a notoriously pessimistic fanbase but was also partly a subconscious attempt to lower expectations for this team so they could finally go into the playoffs as something other than an overwhelming favorite.

It was working, but then Columbus got the #7 seed.

Nothing against Columbus, but there is no way for even the most pessimistic, expectations-lowering Pens fan to view the Pens as anything other than a prohibitive favorite against the BJs.  And then if the Pens win -- as is expected -- it will be very difficult to put the expectations back in a bottle.  You can save the expectations game until the Pens -- if they win -- face what will be a daunting opponent in New York or Philadelphia.  (See, we're already playing).

Columbus, on the other hand, has every hallmark of an underdog.  They're middle-of-the-pack in most categories, have solid players but no singularly great performer, and don't stand out in any particular category.  They're like Ottawa last year, but not as stingy defensively.  It's not that they can't beat the Pens, it's just that they're a huge underdog when it comes to beating the Pens 4 times in 7 games.  And sometimes that's a good thing.

Advantage: Columbus.

4. Sex Appealability

The Foligno Smolder
The Passion of the Bobrovsky 

Woman on the right has seen this too many times.
Hugs babies that aren't even his.
Advantage: Penguins

5. Coiffability

 Joel Quenenville had a powerful mustache. Darryl Sutter has waves.  Claude Julien is bald but owns it.  We're not saying you can't win the Cup with bad hair, but we are saying that neither Bylsma nor Richards has great hair.

Advantage: Even

6. Game Breakability

We often obsess about the Penguins' lack of third line punch, reasoning that any elite team can effectively check two lines. It's that third line that separates great teams from the very good ones. Apply this logical and time-tested reasoning to Columbus, and you will quickly realize that--leaving aside for the moment the issue of a third line--the Jackets feature a second line of Brandon Dubinsky-Matt Calvert-Cam Atkinson. Yes, they have a Bottom 9.

Advantage: Penguins

7. Bottom Sixability

Just how bad is the Pens Bottom 6? Not as bad a few weeks ago, when it featured a third line of Brandon Sutter-Taylor Pyatt-Tanner Glass. But as much as we enjoy the totally competent Lee Stempniak, he's not carrying Sutter, Glass, Pyatt, Craig Adams and Jayson Megna/Joe Vitale to anything approaching suitability. Here's the only question: would we swap the Pens' bottom two lines for these guys?

Derek Mackenzie
Artem Anisimov
Jack Skille
Corey Tropp
Mark Letestu
Jared Boll

We know Anisimov is big, skilled, and a bit of a Penguin killer. Corey Tropp is exactly the kind of little shit-disturber who can get under a superstar's skin and swing a series. No idea who Jack Skille is, but he sounds like a guy who played in the 1920s and had a trophy named after him. Mark Letestu is sort of like having Brandon Sutter as a third line center, but Mark Letestu is a fourth-line center making $1.25M. The rest of those guys CANNOT POSSIBLY BE AS BAD AS TAYLOR PYATT.

So, yes?

Advantage: Columbus

8. Boy Band Nameability

We covered this in comments to previous posts, but the Pens have a serious problem when it comes to their players' first names.  Lou Pearlman, founder of Backstreet Boys and NSync, is definitely a Pens fan. Look at this:


That's not a hockey team, that's the manifest at the maternity ward at the UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica.  The Pens seem like runaway winners in this category.

Not so fast.

The Blue Jackets have Boone Jenner, a name that combines the worst of weird Texas oil man names with the worst of yuppie Los Angeles names.  We're trying to come up with a more perfect combination, but are falling woefully short.  (T. Madison McCombs? Red Pinkett-Smith?).  Throw in AVN Performer of the Year Nikita Nikitin on defense, and this is actually a landslide the other way.

First line center.
Advantage: Columbus

9. Meltdownability

The Blue Jackets have nowhere to go but up. The Penguins feature the Ill-timed Infraction Line ("ILL") of Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, and Jussi Jokinen, a defenseman who once cross-checked a referee (and it wasn't even that surprising), and a goalie who observers cannot appraise without the qualifier "none of this matters if he melts down again in the playoffs."  We think they have this category pretty much nailed down.

Advantage: Penguins

10. Intangibility

We understand the advanced stats, but we aren't going to throw out puck possession percentages, yell into the Internet ether about the Maple Leafs, and then circle up with everyone else doing the same thing so we can all pat each other on the back.  There's a place for that, and it's called Twitter.

The Pens are a better team than Columbus.  We can try to talk ourselves into being terrified of Ryan Johansen, but he had fewer points than Chris Kunitz and two more than James Neal (in 23 more games).  He's not Pavel Bure.  We can worry about Bobrovsky, but why force it?  We can worry that the Pens bottom six is terrible, but if that ends up costing the Pens this series, then something else is terribly wrong.

What worries us more than anything is the lingering feeling over the last 5 years that under Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.  That's a lack of Intangibility.

We'd comment on Columbus' Intangibility, but who knows?

Advantage: Columbus

Final tally: 4-4-2

That makes it look like an even series, but we're talking about Lou Pearlman and coaches' hair.  And while there's no doubt that hair matters, Crosby and Malkin matter more.

Pens in 5.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Reason for optimism after Pens beat Winnipeg? Plus a Brandon Sutter GIF.

By GTOG Staff (follow Finesse and Artistry on Twitter)

The Pens clinched the Metro division last night and officially eliminated the Winnipeg Jets from playoff contention.  The Jets were unofficially eliminated from playoff contention when the Atlanta Thrashers drafted Ondrej Pavelec in 2005.

Is this cause for optimism, or can we bury this win in the Meaningless drawer along with many of the Pens' most recent losses?

Read on...