Monday, June 3, 2013

Pens-Bruins Game 1 Fall-Out: Room for Improvement

Dynamite reactions from the fans along the boards.  Kudos to Beard Kid and Pointing Lady.
Saturday night's game gave us a taste of what the Pens are in for in this series: they won't be shut out in every game, but they will have to work for every inch of ice and every scoring chance, game after game.  We knew that the Bruins were no joke, and now we've seen how hard it will be to play against them.  It's not likely to be a very fun series, but let's not jump to conclusions and liken this to Pens-Flyers last year, as I heard a few people do.  The Bruins weren't in the Penguins' heads, and the Pens didn't unravel; they were outplayed by an elite team, showed some frustration, and tonight we'll see how they respond.  Some notes and observations from Game 1 after the jump.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Previewing Pens-Bruins: It's About Time

Gee, it seems like only a month ago that the Penguins were dispatching the Ottawa Senators.  I hope you all made as good use of your eight-day layoff as I did - I got engaged, so you probably didn't, but that's okay - and are well-rested headed into the Conference Finals.  The only thing standing between the Pens and a shot at the Cup are the Boston Bruins, a match up that just seems right.  You've got Jarome Iginla facing the team he spurned at the trade deadline, and you've got Jaromir Jagr hoping to torment his former team, but - beyond the tale of two Jaroms - you've got the cream of the Eastern Conference going head to head.  There will be no Cinderella story this year (like last year's Devils), only two heavyweights sizing the other up.

After the jump, my three questions and three statements for the Pens-Bruins series, and my predictions for the series.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Game 4: Checking in on Pens-Sens


A few thoughts on a Pens-Sens series that has started to get interesting:
  • It's weird to say this, seeing as it was a fairly heartbreaking loss, but Game 3 might have been my favorite game of the playoffs thus far.  The Pens played an outstanding game, the terrible lapse on the Alfredsson goal in the final minute of regulation notwithstanding, and for the first time we got to see a true goaltending duel.  Vokoun was great, and Craig Anderson was better.  We knew that Anderson would likely steal at least one game, and the Pens deserve some kudos for almost stealing that one from the thief, Ocean's Twelve style.  These games happen in the playoffs - in fact, they're what make the playoffs so great - and this is the kind of loss that you just pray won't shift the tides in the series.  Certainly the Sens will get a little confidence boost, but the Pens shouldn't be hanging their heads.  We'll see tonight if that extreeeeeemely long two days off stems the momentum that Ottawa might have seized.

  • Speaking of that Alfredsson goal, it's been picked apart all over the internet, but boy, was it hard to watch the team play such a strong defensive game for 59-plus minutes, only to flush it down the toilet.  I don't mean to pile on, and it's easy to criticize in retrospect, but it was hard to look at Bylsma's choice of line to protect a one-goal lead and not feel befuddled: Sutter (okay), Kunitz (um), and Malkin (zuh?).  Pascal Dupuis, for one, simply needs to be out there.

  • Malkin has shouldered much of the blame for the breakdown on that goal, but that should in no way overshadow the game he played.  We shouldn't need reminding at this point, but when Geno is on his game, it is absolutely majestic.  In a game like Sunday's, you notice early on that Geno is dancing, and you just sit back and appreciate.  His double move in overtime was one of the most jaw-dropping I've ever seen, and the fact that he did it in overtime of a playoff game, while making it look effortless, only enhances the effect.  Props to Anderson for making a huge save, because if he had scored on this play, I would have gone out myself and carved a statue of it:

  • Another standout player in Sunday's game, and throughout the playoffs, has been Paul Martin.  He received a lot of attention for his bounceback regular season, but I'm guessing I wasn't alone in feeling just a little bit nervous that he would falter in the playoffs.  Exactly the opposite has happened, as Martin has been the best Pens defenseman, bar none.  He is a completely different player than we saw last year, playing a completely different game.  He's been full of surprises: just when you expect him to try and carry the puck past a forechecker, risking a pokecheck and a chance the other way, he breaks out a gorgeous spin move that puts him out of harm's way, and leaves his man checking air.  Times last year where he would have forced an early, and dangerous, cross-ice pass to his partner in the defensive zone, he's now holding onto the puck, skating to open ice, and scanning the rink for the best pass.  He's scoring a point a game and logging 27 minutes a game - including power play and penalty kill - against the best of the opposition.  He's pulling a Gonchar, basically.

  • The above paragraph is why we need to be throwing garlands at Ray Shero's feet.  It's been overshadowed by his big trades but his decision before this season to keep Paul Martin (and instead trade Zbynek Michalek) was probably his ballsiest move to date.  Pens fans were calling for Martin's head on a platter, and when the Michalek trade was announced, it was widely assumed that Shero had been forced to give Z away for next to nothing because Martin was untradeable.  Instead, we learned that Shero had asked Martin if he wanted to be traded, and when Martin said no, Shero redoubled his investment in Martin - now he's reaping the reward.  Meanwhile, we might never hear from Zibby ever again.  Shero is one of the best GMs in the league not for the easy decisions he's made, like trading for Jarome Iginla, but for the unpopular ones.

  • Word is that Jussi Jokinen will be back in the lineup tonight, which I think is good news for the Pens.  Juice can be very useful against a team like the Senators: we need his help in the faceoff circle and on the power play especially.  The Penguins struggled in Game 3 on the man advantage, not because they weren't generating quality chances, but because the Senators - and Craig Anderson in particular - seemed to know what was coming.  Jokinen likely won't get much PP time skating with the second unit, but he's a creative playmaker who brings something different to the power play from the center position.  Methinks he'll have us feeling kinda....
  • Methinks also that the Pens bounce back and get a win tonight.  The Sens simply haven't been able to produce offense consistently, and as I forecast in my series preview, the Penguins look absolutely comfortable playing this team.  The defense - especially the top four of Letang, Martin, Orpik, and Niskanen - has been outstanding, and the collective seizure they seemed to have against the Isles has subsided in the face of a slower, more predictable opponent.  And methinks that Crosby and Malkin methodically manhandle Methot en route to victory.  And yes, I've been itching to make Methot puns all series long.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Pens-Sens (Hey, it Rhymes!): Series Preview

The Pens survived a tougher-than-expected series against the Islanders thanks to a gritty performance by backup goalie Tomas Vokoun and timely goals from surprising sources: Paul Martin, Doug Murray, Tyler Kennedy, and of course Brooks Orpik, whose Game 6 OT winner was the best playoff moment Pittsburgh has known since Crosby lifted the Cup.  The Islanders series will ultimately fade from memory, but it was important test of the team's mettle, and that the Pens were able to hold on by the skin of their collective teeth is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you ask. 

For the glass-half-full crowd (myself included), the series was a much-needed gut check, a necessary spot of adversity that will keep the Penguins humble and committed to improving.  And hey, a playoff series win can never be taken for granted - we've learned that the last three seasons, when our playoffs were ended by teams we were "supposed to beat."  The pessimists among the Pittsburgh fan base, which seems to comprise ever single person I talk to, are concerned that the Pens showed a litany of weaknesses that just didn't seem to be there in the regular season.  The Islanders series should have been an ass-whupping to announce the team's championship intentions, and instead they showed their vulnerability and lack of composure.  To these minds, any positive things that were accomplished in this series were outweighed by turnovers, mental mistakes, and an inability to close the door.  These people are also very concerned about what we'll do with Marc-Andre Fleury, what's wrong with Evgeni Malkin, and whether Dan Byslma's the right  man for the job.

The second round series between the Pens and Sens, beginning tonight at Consol, will likely exacerbate these concerns and add new ones to the pile.  I've got three statements and three questions going into Game 1, as well as predictions at the end of this post.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Conspiracy Theories: Why is Vokoun REALLY Starting?

This week, two major events shocked the city of Pittsburgh: the Penguins decided to bench their highly-paid starting goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, in favor of backup Tomas Vokoun, and the film Jack Reacher (2012) was released on Blu-ray and DVD.  What a coincidence that these two seemingly-unrelated things would happen so close to one another.

Or is it?

Let's look at the facts: Jack Reacher is set, and was shot entirely, in Pittsburgh, and stars Tom Cruise.  Tonight's Game 5 between the Penguins and Islanders will also take place in Pittsburgh, and will star Tomas Vokoun.  TOM Cruise?  TOMas Vokoun?  Come on.

Digging a little deeper, we find that Tom Cruise's birthday is July 3.  Tomas Vokoun's birthday?  July 2.  Oh, and what's that famous Tom Cruise film?  Born on the Fourth of July.  Is this sinking in?

Tom Cruise has long been associated with the Church of Scientology, a recently-created religion based in Florida that boasts hundreds of thousands of followers, but which remains veiled in mystery to the general public.  Vokoun was long associated with the Panthers, a recently-created hockey team based in Florida that boasts tens of dozens of followers, but which remains veiled in mystery to the general public.

Of course, Vokoun is from the Czech Republic, and Tom Cruise is as American as apple pie pizza, so it looks like my theory falls apart.  UNTIL you realize that the first Mission Impossible film, which Cruise produced and starred in, used Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic as a location - and whose idea was it?  Just guess.  According to the New York Times:
Mr. Cruise, whose movie is the first big Hollywood production to come here...wanted to to use Prague as contemporary Prague, an idea he thought would appeal to the Czechs, too. His fancy was caught by the Lichtenstein Palace, a newly renovated froth of curlicues and ornaments with a phalanx of elegant windows. 
Suuuuure - the Lichtenstein Palace caught Tom's fancy, not a 6-foot goaltending prospect who had just been drafted to the NHL a year prior.

According to the same article, Cruise was furious when Czech bureaucrats tried to gauge the production unit by jacking up location costs at the last minute.  Rumor has it he vowed never to return after that experience.  So imagine my surprise when the fourth installment of the Mission Impossible franchise, Ghost Protocol, featured scenes shot in none other than Prague.  What an amazing change of heart!  It's almost like Cruise had a reason to go back to the Czech Republic.  Maybe to confer with a certain netminder?

Could the Mission Impossible films be a front for the covert machinations of a Tom Cruise-NHL partnerships?  No, I'm sure they keeping making them because the public just keeps clamoring for a new Mission Impossible film. 

But back to Jack Reacher (out now on Blu-ray and DVD).   Here's the plot description, courtesy IMDb:
In an innocent heartland city, five are shot dead by an expert sniper. The police quickly identify and arrest the culprit, and build a slam-dunk case. But the accused man claims he's innocent and says "Get Jack Reacher." Reacher himself sees the news report and turns up in the city. The defense is immensely relieved, but Reacher has come to bury the guy. Shocked at the accused's request, Reacher sets out to confirm for himself the absolute certainty of the man's guilt, but comes up with more than he bargained for. 
Hmmm..."five are shot dead by an expert sniper."  That one's pretty easy: the expert sniper is John Tavares, who scored the game-winning goal for the Islanders (the team's fifth) on Tuesday - his shot basically leaving the Pens for dead.  The police (Pens fans and media) quickly identfy a culprit (Fleury), but Jack Reacher (Vokoun, natch) is called in to right the situation.  But not only that, he came to "bury the guy" - that's right, Vokoun is "gunning" (action movie term) for Fleury's job!  You couldn't script it any better - unless, of course, someone did script it.

According to the description, Reacher gets "more than he bargained for."  I haven't personally seen the film, so I can't guess what that entails.  But for Vokoun, couldn't more than he bargained for mean a contract extension?  That would probably only happened if he somehow usurped Fleury's role in net and led the Penguins to a deep playoff run.  I know what you're saying: that's the kind of thing that only happens in a Hollywood movie.  My point EXACTLY.

Jack Reacher's budget was estimated around $60 million dollars - right around the Pittsburgh Penguins' payroll this year.  The film grossed over $216 million worldwide.  Seems like a lot of money, but for Cruise, it was something of a bomb, one of his lowest grossing films of the last decade.  Four months after Jack Reacher's disappointing opening weekend - just enough time not to raise any eyebrows - the Penguins traded for Vokoun.  A good way for a movie to boost its receipts is to launch a successful home video campaign.  A good way to do that is to have a tie-in with another story that catches the public's interest.  And a good way to do that is to orchestrate a complicated goaltender controversy on one of the NHL's most visible teams, pretty much guaranteeing a successful crossover into that most coveted of demographics in Hollywood: American hockey fans.  "But Old Top," you whine, "to pull off something so convoluted and nefarious you'd need to have unlimited resources!"  Oh, like the kind of resources available to the world's highest paid movie star, who also happens to have the support of a religion estimated to have become a multi-billion dollar industry?  THOSE kinds of resources?

When Tomas Vokoun joined the Penguins, he switched his number from 29 to 92.  He claimed it was because Fleury had already claimed 29, and he decided to reverse the number.  What he didn't mention is that 1992 is his favorite Tom Cruise movie, A Few Good Men, came out in theaters.  You can call me a conspiracy theorist all you want, but maybe it's YOU who CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

I'm buying the Jack Reacher DVD today, and synching it up with Mike Lange's call for Game 5, just to see what kind of hidden messages I can find.  And to you, the American public, I recommend that, after watching Vokoun's inspiratoinal performance in net tonight, you go out and buy Jack Reacher on Blu-Ray or DVD.

Like you even have a choice.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Game 4 Fallout: Playing the Blame Game

All photos courtesy Getty Images and AP Photo

Game 4 was the sum of all fears for the Penguins and their fans.  A team that looked bulletproof in the regular season, and, after a dominating performance in Game 1, ready to shake off the playoff flame-outs that have afflicted them the past few years, is now looking extremely vulnerable.  Pens fans are having uncomfortable flashbacks to last season's Flyers series, which we all vowed had hardened us; no more overconfidence, no more taking anything for granted, and above all, no more living and dying with each up-and-down playoff game.  We were going to be as calm and determined as our battle-tested, veteran team.

All of that has gone out the window, as the Penguins seem hell-bent on forcing us to relive the Philly series we so desperately want to forget.  Each game since the first has been a track meet, with the Pens' take-a-penny-give-a-penny approach to scoring resulting in blown leads in every game (including two last night) and a total of 14 goals against.  With a chance to take a stranglehold on the series last night, the Pens instead played like had learned nothing from the previous two games, like there were no improvements that needed to be made, like the team that we watched all year was some carefully-orchestrated mirage designed to piss off Pittsburgh residents.  Well, it worked, and today, fingers are being pointed every which-a-way.

So, ignoring the fact the the Pens are now engaged in a best-of-three against a team that they are still expected to defeat, let's talk about who is to blame for reminding us why liking sports sucks.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Pens-Isles, Game 2: Who We're Watching

While all eyes will be on the usual suspects tonight - Crosby (I think he comes back), Malkin (always threatening to do something breathtaking), Fleury (how will he fare once the Isles start getting comfortable playoff hockey?), Tavares (will he have a mental breakdown before this series is over?) - here are some people to watch in tonight's game.

Mark Eaton

Eats plays such an understated style that it is almost impossible to find photos of him in game action.  While Douglas Murray's hits and Kris Letang's offense were grabbing all the attention, Eaton put up the following line: 1 assist, plus-2, 3:44 of shorthanded TOI (second only to Martin), and 8 blocked shots in 19 minutes of ice time (third among defensemen behind Letang and Martin).  A sporadic healthy scratch since his return to Pittsburgh, Eaton showed on Wednesday night why he will be one of our most relied-upon defensemen in the payoffs.  With Orpik's injury and the lack of playoff experience among our lower-pairing D-men, Eaton's steadiness and patience are much needed, and he should be given a lot of credit for limiting the number of tough saves that Fleury is forced to make.  Eight blocked shots is nothing to sneeze at, and let's not discount the fact that Eaton has a pretty firm grasp on the Islanders' offensive tendencies, having played on the Isles the past two seasons.  Take a moment from watching Malkin's Superman act to appreciate the Penguins' Clark Kent.