Thursday, April 17, 2014

Penguins stick with it against Jackets

Down two goals against plucky Columbus, Pittsburgh's experience pays off


April 17, 2014

Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins makes a save in the third period against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game One of the First Round of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 16, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Penguins defeated the Blue Jackets 4-3. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins spent the first half chasing Game 1 of the 2014 playoffs, conjuring up images of last spring's series loss to the Boston Bruins.
But the Penguins finally caught up to the game, and the result was a 4-3 victory over the plucky Columbus Blue Jackets.
Now it falls to a Columbus team that is new to the business of playoff hockey to ensure it doesn't end up chasing the entire series against the more talented, more experienced Penguins.
In spite of trailing 1-0 and 3-1, the Penguins rallied for the win on a hard Brandon Sutterwrist shot midway through the third period. It was the only time in the game the Penguins led, which is kind of how the playoffs work if you're good.
The victory ended the Penguins' four-game playoff losing streak dating back to last year's Eastern Conference final against the Bruins, when they were swept, scoring just two goals in a series loss that in some ways still hangs over this team.
For much of Wednesday's Eastern Conference quarterfinal opener, you wondered whether the streak would go to five.
The Blue Jackets used their speed and took advantage of Pittsburgh's miscues to score first, with Jack Johnson jumping into the play and putting home a nice Brandon Dubinskypass before the first period reached the midpoint.
After the Penguins knotted the game at 1-1, the Blue Jackets opened up a two-goal lead with a goal late in the first and another early in the second, a short-handed marker byDerek MacKenzie.
For a moment, all of the wondering about the Penguins' psyche, the questioning of whether they are still a Cup contender in spite of their talent and the thinking that they were missing some crucial part of their former championship DNA bubbled to the surface.
The sold-out Consol Energy Center was stunned into silence.
But that silence lasted less than a minute as Beau Bennett cut the deficit to 3-2 with a power-play goal and, less than a minute later, Matt Niskanen tied it at 3-3 with another man-advantage marker.
"It was good for everyone to stick with it," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said.
"It felt like we probably had more chances in the second half," he added. "I don't feel like [we] sat back at 3-3. I thought we generated some good chances.
"I think those two goals that quickly [to tie the game at 3-3] really allowed us to kind of get settled and really play the rest of the game the way we wanted to."
The storylines in this series have been clearly identified.
Where are the Penguins five years after winning the Stanley Cup in 2009? Is some sort of window closing on this talented squad?
On the other side of the ice, what kind of challenge can the Blue Jackets mount as they take part in in the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history with a largely inexperienced squad that included 11 players on Wednesday night taking part in their first NHL playoff game?
"They've [Penguins] been through this. That's a team that's won over there. They answered on their power play. Their power play's been good for them all year. It gave them life. It got them back in the hockey game," said former Penguin Mark Letestu, who was traded to Columbus in the fall of 2011.
"This is a learning experience. It's a good team -- you get a 3-1 lead in their building, get a power-play goal, a short-handed goal, that's got to give you some momentum. But [we] took two penalties and they capitalized. Again, that's a team that's won. They know what it takes. We'll probably learn from that," said Letestu, who scored the Blue Jackets' second goal, a man-advantage marker with 2:02 left in the first.
It is a fine line this Blue Jackets team walks now.
Their inexperience is what it is. They must work diligently to keep it from becoming a defining element in how this series is decided, or more to the point, they must guard against letting their lack of experience become a fallback position in explaining why things went wrong.
Coach Todd Richards acknowledged before Wednesday's game that there was an element of the unknown confronting his squad.
"I think there was a lot of anticipation of what's going to happen and what's the game going to be like, what's the atmosphere, what's the crowd, playing against a very good team, and sometimes that anticipation can be draining," Richards said.
"I'm hoping that we got our feet wet now, we know what to expect, we know what the environment's going to be like."
But Richards was quick to try to quash the notion that the Blue Jackets are merely here to take notes for a test that will be administered in the future.
"It is learning. But we're here to win. And that's the big thing. The learning is through the process, but we aren't here just to go to school. Our guys are competitive. I know that they believe. So we're here to win. The learning comes through the experiences, and that's what I take away from it. There's disappointment in losing, because we all come in here expecting win and it didn't happen," Richards said.
The Blue Jackets departed Pittsburgh for the short trip back home after Wednesday's game and will work out in Columbus before returning for Game 2 on Saturday night.
There is much to be pleased about.
They took their first lead in a playoff game.
They outhit the Penguins 48-27.
Dubinsky was a thorn in Crosby's side much of the night, and Boone Jenner seemed to get under Evgeni Malkin's skin a number of times.
But unless those elements can be built upon to come up with a way to be at least one goal better than Pittsburgh on Saturday, they will have little meaning.
"I don't think that they surprised us at all, so I'm not sure if we learned anything other than what we know already, which is they got a good team and they're going to make you pay for taking penalties and having turnovers," Dubinsky said.
"I thought our compete level was good. We've got to continue to build on it. The games are just going to get harder, they're going to get tougher, and we just got to be prepared for it. Like I said all year, I like our group, I like our character, our resilience. I know our guys will be prepared and ready on Saturday."

Bylsma's moves — yes, moves — pay off


By Dejan Kovacevic 
http://triblive.com/sports
Published: Thursday, April 17, 2014, 12:09 a.m.


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Just imagine the field day the Philly headline writers would have had with it …

PENGUINS WIN ON CROSBY DIVE

Am I right?

Would have been hilarious, too.

Alas, one must conceive one's own drama when opening the Stanley Cup playoffs against the completely drama-free Columbus Blue Jackets, whose next postseason victory will still be their first after the home side held on, 4-3, Wednesday at Consol Energy Center. This opponent isn't much fun to beat, you know. And being extra candid here, it doesn't look to be any more of a threat to take this series now than 24 hours ago.

The Flyers they ain't.

And yet, there were the Penguins in the waning seconds, fighting off one last Columbus flurry with a Fleury of their own — Marc-Andre stopped all nine shots he faced in the third period and 31 pucks in all — when Sidney Crosby executed a virtuoso headfirst dive to poke a puck past Jack Johnson and safely beyond the blue line.
“We got it done,” the captain said.

Fun stuff. Not exactly a blast, but it did represent the first time that the now-standard, holding-their-breath Pittsburgh playoff crowd could exhale.

And that should tell you something: This all remains a work in progress.

“There were some areas I'd say we were happy with, especially coming back,” Dan Bylsma said. “But there are areas where we need to improve.”

Chief among them, as Bylsma noted, was the play of the first defensive forward back, known as F3 in team lingo. Lapses by the F3 led to most of the early breakdowns, even if the defensemen might have appeared responsible.
There also was a — wait for it — lack of discipline. Kris Letang's retaliatory slash brought one penalty, his offensive-zone interference another. He wasn't alone. Other players pushed back when they should have skated away.

And Bylsma never cited this, but there also was a failure at what had been the Penguins' much-discussed objective No. 1: Hit Johnson. In fact, Johnson was exactly the dynamo they'd feared, registering a goal, an assist and three jarring hits, one so potent — and clean — that it sent Craig Adams' stick flying almost as far as his body.

To rewind to the morning, this was the plan, as expressed by Tanner Glass: “Johnson's a big, physical guy. He logs a lot of minutes. Anytime you can hit him, it makes those minutes tougher.”

It hardly happened, and that's got to change. Wearing down the other team's best defenseman isn't optional.
That said, there also was much to like from this. Even from the most embattled of anyone on the Penguins' side entering this postseason.

Bylsma coached a good game.

There. Someone had to say it.

He removed Letang from the power play right after Letang's giveaway led to a short-handed goal — No. 58 had quite the evening, you'll gather — then took James Neal off a later power play to keep two defensemen at the points.

He didn't like what he saw of Crosby's line early, so he moved Beau Bennett to the third line and Brian Gibbons to the first. Bennett would set up Brandon Sutter's winner in the third period, and Gibbons “gave us more speed, more pressure that we were looking for with Sid's line,” Bylsma said. Crosby concurred.

Bylsma even tried to get Crosby away from Columbus checker — and on this night, cheap-shotting slew-footer — Brandon Dubinsky. Bylsma could have done even better in that regard, but he said the staff was “more concerned about the defensive pairing Sid would face,” and Crosby concurred there, too.

It all worked out.

And while there wasn't any strategic shift, even after Columbus had taken the 3-1 lead early in the second, there were points of emphasis relayed on the bench and in the locker room, most powerfully the one to simplify the game and get pucks deep.

“There were some things between the coaches and the leaders in the room,” Joe Vitale recalled. “They just talked about us needing to settle down.”

In the end, Bylsma shortened his bench and went with seven forwards, no matter how bad it might have looked that Bennett was limited to three shifts.

“We just went with guys that we, in that situation, wanted,” Bylsma offered unapologetically.

Yeah, that meant sitting Letang some more. He logged only 3:55 in the third.

None of that's revolutionary, of course, and it won't erase Bylsma's many playoffs in which he's been repeatedly, often embarrassingly, outmaneuvered.

But it's an encouraging start to what simply must be a transformative spring for this coach. Even if he's making moves that some won't like — and I can tell you I'm no fan of Gibbons on the top line — it's better than just taking up space on the bench while the other guy pushes all the buttons.

To reiterate, this will take time. That's only fair with a group that's been together for … what, just this game?

Evgeni Malkin had two assists, but his timing was a bit off. He'll be better.

Letang looked nothing like he had since returning from the stroke, so one can hope he'll be better, too.

Fleury conceded a couple point-blank goals and a breakaway, but otherwise looked like he might have broken away from some demons.

Rob Scuderi … well, there are other defensemen to take his place.

That's the beauty of being open to change, you know?

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.


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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Five years later, Crosby wants another Cup win


By Josh Yohe 
http://triblive.com/sports
Published: Tuesday, April 15, 2014, 11:00 p.m.


He isn't really Sid the Kid anymore.
Of course, he hasn't touched the Stanley Cup since he was a kid.
Sidney Crosby, now 26, will attempt to cap a dream season by claiming the Stanley Cup for the first time in five years.
Another Olympic gold medal was his in February. He won the Art Ross Trophy in a runaway, and the Hart Trophy almost certainly belongs to him in June.
There is another trophy awarded in June.
“I've learned to appreciate the opportunity that the playoffs present,” Crosby said.
Last man standing
The early portion of Crosby's prime years has been dominated by serious injuries. He missed the 2011 postseason because of a concussion, wasn't 100 percent during the 2012 postseason because of lingering concussion problems and never displayed dominance in the 2013 postseason because of a broken jaw.
Now Crosby enters the playoffs healthy.
“I'm happy for him because I see him work in the summer, and I see the dedication he has to being the best player in the world,” right wing Chuck Kobasew said. “He's the best on and off the ice, and I'm happy to be on the same side as him when the playoffs start.”
Unlike their Stanley Cup team in 2009, these Penguins are not deep. The third and fourth lines have been a revolving door of unproductiveness. Center Evgeni Malkin, right wing James Neal and defenseman Kris Letang have struggled to stay in the lineup.
Through it all, Crosby took the NHL scoring lead in his fifth game of the season and never relinquished it, becoming the only player to eclipse 100 points. Such consistent dominance from the Penguins' captain almost certainly will be required for the Penguins to win a championship this spring.
“Yeah, there's pressure,” said Crosby's former right wing Bill Guerin, the Penguins' player-development coach. “But I never bet against him when there's pressure. He's been dealing with it since he was 12. It has never stopped him.”
New and improved
Crosby still produces points at prodigious levels, still provides highlight-reel material and universally is regarded as hockey's finest player.
Guerin sees something more.
“What's different now,” he said, “is that Sid isn't just the best player now. He's in control of the game now. There's a difference.”
Guerin, who skated with Crosby when the Penguins claimed the Stanley Cup in 2009, expects a spectacular spring.
The Penguins aren't as deep as in previous seasons, but Guerin insists Crosby's refined game, his physical prime seems to be meshing with experience and wisdom — gives them a chance for postseason glory.
“I see things now that I never saw before,” Guerin said. “Just little things. He's so much more calculated now. He knows what's at stake, and he's so smart. See, he knows he has to be at his best in the playoffs. Great players always understand that. They time it. He's been preparing himself for this postseason for a while.”
A growing captain
Crosby was named Penguins captain at 19, and the Penguins never have missed the playoffs during his tenure. Growing evidence suggests he has emerged as more of a vocal leader than in previous seasons.
Rookie Olli Maatta said one of the biggest reasons for his immediate impact on the Penguins is traceable to Crosby.
“I still remember my first few games and the way Sid talked with me,” Maatta said. “He always wanted me to be at my best. He made that really clear to me. Especially in my first 10 games, he would pull me aside on the bench and tell me what my options were, what I did well and maybe what I could have done better. It was a great help.”
The time is now
Crosby joked during the NHL lockout in 2012 that “maybe I'll be like a race horse who gets better later in his career” because of the injuries that had robbed him of playing time.
Four postseasons in his 20s remain, and while Crosby's legs might be fresher than most his age, he sounds hungry to pounce on another championship.
“Each year you get banged up more and more,” he said. “You appreciate how hard it is to win it all. It's not easy. It really isn't.
“I just want to make the most of a chance like this. I like this team. We got pretty close last year. But expectations here are higher than that.”
Crosby, when reminded he hasn't lifted the Cup in five years, said no one should be shocked.
“It's hard,” he said. “Look around. Look at Boston, San Jose, Chicago, St. Louis, Anaheim, Los Angeles. There are a lot of great hockey teams.”
But there is only one Crosby. And while he's hardly one to boast, he sounds inspired to make a splash in these playoffs.
“I won't be able to say when I was at my best until later in my career,” Crosby said. “But I know one thing: I feel pretty good right now.”
Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

Playoff scoring
All-time NHL playoff points per game (minimum 50 games):
1. Wayne Gretzky 1.84
2. Mario Lemieux 1.61
3. Sidney Crosby 1.28
4. Mark Messier 1.25
5. Bobby Orr 1.24
6. Mike Bossy 1.24
7. Evgeni Malkin 1.17
8. Jari Kurri 1.16
9. Gilbert Perrault 1.14
10. Peter Forsberg 1.13
Source: NHL.com


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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

First-round preview: Penguins - Blue Jackets


By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com
http://espn.go.com/nhl
April 14, 2014

Marc-Andre Fleury Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins knocks the puck away from Matt Calvert #11 of the Columbus Blue Jackets during the second period on March 28, 2014 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins knocks the puck away from Matt Calvert #11 of the Columbus Blue Jackets during the second period on March 28, 2014 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

If all you looked at was the regular-season series between these two geographic rivals -- thrown together in the same division this season thanks to realignment -- then you'd presume the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins will have their way with the underdog Columbus Blue Jackets after winning all five regular-season games. And it might yet turn out that way, but I don't think so.
No team has highlighted the disconnect that can sometimes exist between regular-season success and a long playoff run than the Penguins in recent years. They were swept last spring by Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, which was the first time they'd advanced beyond the second round since their magical march to the 2009 Stanley Cup. At the crux of whether the high-scoring Pens (fifth in the league, second in the Eastern Conference in goals per game and second overall on the power play) can return to contender form starts in goal with Marc-Andre Fleury. His recent playoff hiccups have become the stuff of legend. But in some ways, perhaps being somewhat off the "contender radar" for the first time in years will work in the Penguins' favor.
The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, are entering just their second playoff tournament and have never won a postseason game, although they are coming off a season during which they established franchise records for wins and points. The offense is deceiving, as they ranked 13th in goals per game, they have one of the hottest young stars in the game in Ryan Johansen and have the defending Vezina Trophy winner in Sergei Bobrovsky.

Spotlight On

Penguins: Marc-Andre Fleury
Let's begin and end with Fleury. The former No. 1 overall pick had 39 wins -- second in the league -- and was for the most part excellent for a team that was the league leader in a landslide in man games lost to injury. But he was given the hook after four playoff games last season in favor of Tomas Vokoun and never started another playoff game. There is no safety net this season, with Vokoun just now recovering from surgery to deal with blood clotting issues and backup Jeff Zatkoff in his first full NHL season. The Pens will sink or swim with the man who won 30 postseason games between 2008 and 2009.
Blue Jackets: Inexperience in postseason
When the Blue Jackets take the ice Wednesday night, 13 players will be stepping into their first playoff competition. The rest of the roster has only modest playoff experience, as the only player with a Stanley Cup ring, Nathan Horton, is out of action having undergone surgery for an abdominal injury. Horton's loss might be more symbolic than real, given his injury-plagued season (he played in only 36 games), but the challenge for head coach Todd Richards, who got his pro start with the Penguins' organization and actually hired Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma as an assistant with the team's AHL franchise, will be keeping his team on task, especially in the first couple of games, where emotions will be high and the Penguins can be expected to try to get to the inexperienced Blue Jackets early on.

Hero In Waiting

Penguins: Kris Letang
To say this season has been an emotional roller coaster for defenseman Kris Letang would be a gross understatement. Uneven play kept last season's Norris Trophy finalist off the Canadian Olympic team, and then he suffered a stroke at the end of January that threw his career into doubt. But Letang returned late in the regular season and has played well in the two games in which he appeared, averaging almost 23 minutes in ice time and picking up a goal and two assists. He did not have a good playoff a year ago, turning the puck over with alarming regularity, but has the potential to be a difference-maker for the Penguins.
Blue Jackets: Boone Jenner
Ryan Johansen was the team's leader in goals and points by a wide margin, and it's clear the Penguins will be focused on limiting his chances to continue his offensive dominance, which is why the Blue Jackets will have to find other sources of offense. Well, what about big Boone Jenner? The 20-year-old, 6-foot-2 center has been a catalyst to the Blue Jackets' late-season surge. He had three goals and three assists in his last five games and has been a dangerous presence around opposing nets at crucial times in recent games.

Fatal Flaw

Penguins: Defense
Although the Pens finished a respectable 10th in goals allowed per game, the reality is that they have a penchant for going sideways in terms of their defensive structure. Now, part of that is a function of having missed important defensive pieces Paul MartinRob Scuderi,Brooks Orpik and Letang at various points, which means rookies such as Olli Maatta have had to take on roles they might not otherwise have filled. As we mentioned, Fleury is key to keeping the puck out of the net, but he has to have help from his comrades in terms of not making egregious turnovers, not being careless with the puck in their own zone and picking up opposing shooters.
Blue Jackets: Offensive star power
Johansen led the team with 33 goals and no one else on the Blue Jackets' roster had more than 22. Can an offense by committee work? Sure. But that means the committee has to be engaged and take advantage of the opportunities presented, whether that's on the power play, which ranked 10th, or 5-on-5, where they were 15th in the league. If not, well, this one could be over in a hurry.

Prediction

The Blue Jackets are one of the feel-good stories of this season and the response from the local fans has been tremendous. We're expecting this to be a tough, entertaining series. But we think Fleury will steady the ship and the Penguins will simply be too much for the playoff newbies from down the road. Penguins in 6

Monday, April 14, 2014

Crosby wins NHL scoring title for second time


By Wes Crosby - NHL.com Correspondent

April 13, 2014


PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby wrapped up his second Art Ross Trophy on Sunday despite sitting out the Pittsburgh Penguins' season finale against the Ottawa Senators.
Sidney Crosby
CENTER - PIT
GOALS: 36 | ASST: 68 | PTS: 104
SOG: 259 | +/-: 18
Crosby led the NHL with 104 points, the third-highest total of his nine-year career and the most since he had 109 during the 2009-10 season. His other scoring title came in 2006-07, his second season, when he had a career-high 120 points.
With Crosby winning again, 15 of the past 26 NHL scoring titles have been won by a member of the Penguins. The Los Angeles Kings have the second-highest total during that span with three.
"I'm not sure we know how fortunate we have been to have leading scorers and MVPs here in Pittsburgh for a long time," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
Crosby's 17-point margin over Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf is the largest since then-Penguins forward Jaromir Jagr won the title in 1998-99 by 20 points over Teemu Selanne. The Penguins own the four largest margins of victory since 1996-97.
"I'm not sure how that happens," Bylsma said. "Sid, to get over 100 points, to have the lead over Getzlaf as he does, there's so much more to his game than just scoring. But it is pretty amazing to see how much he's put behind him -- some great players, great goal scorers, point-getters for their team and in such a huge fashion.
"I think it's pretty amazing just to even fathom that he is 17 points ahead of the next-best guy, and I have a lot of respect for Ryan Getzlaf."
Crosby tied teammate Evgeni Malkin for the third-most scoring titles in Penguins history with two, four behind Mario Lemieux and three behind Jagr. He played in 80 games this season after playing in 41 or less in the each of the previous three, including 36 during the shortened 2012-13 season.
The 26-year-old also led the NHL with 68 assists. He finished with 18 multi-assist games, including four games with three assists.

Playoff Matchups Important For Penguins

Refreshing playoff notes! A short trip to Coumbus. A short series will follow.
- The Penguins can’t beat Boston and probably wouldn’t beat Philadelphia. The Penguins aren’t as good as they were last year. The Bruins are better than last year, when they beat the Penguins in four straight. The Flyers may have permanent residence inside the Penguins’ heads: 9-1-1 at Consol Energy Center. Boston and Philadelphia are both grittier and more physical.
- If the Penguins do play Boston or Philadelphia, the last thing they should do is try to out-hit either. It’s also exactly what they will probably try.
- If the Penguins play Columbus, the New York Rangers and Montreal in consecutive playoff series, they will make the Stanley Cup final. And that could very easily happen. It’s all about matchups.
- If the Penguins lose and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is perceived as responsible, he gets traded in the off-season. Otherwise, he gets a new contract.
- Fleury’s recent playoff past is bound to make fans flinch once the postseason starts. Allowing a shaky overtime goal to Philadelphia Saturday didn’t help.
- It doesn’t matter who the backup goalie is. If Fleury gets hurt or falls apart, the Penguins can’t beat a good team. Tomas Vokoun couldn’t. Jeff Zatkoff can’t.
- If the Penguins make the Stanley Cup final, the current model will remain largely unchanged. If the Penguins fall short of the Eastern Conference final, major adjustments will be made. If the Penguins lose in the conference final, what happens is anybody’s guess.
- If Evgeni Malkin is unavailable for the first round, the Penguins could lose to Columbus.
- If Malkin is unavailable past the first round, the Penguins won’t beat anybody.
- Brandon Sutter has played well for the best part of a month. That must continue. He needs to be the Penguins’ third-line rock.
- Rob Scuderi has had a subpar season, one fraught by injury. Scuderi must regroup and be that classic defensive defenseman needed to win in the playoffs.
- Brooks Orpik is already playing how he needs to. Orpik struggled for part of this season, but he knows what time it is. If these playoffs are Orpik’s swan song with the Penguins, he’ll serve as the team’s conscience throughout. Like always.
- Robert Bortuzzo is a playoff-style defenseman. But who gets scratched to make room?
- If Malkin and Sidney Crosby don’t produce at their usual level, the Penguins won’t win. That’s been proven. The bottom-six forwards offer no unlikely heroes.
- James Neal is streaky. Entering the playoffs on a tear is invaluable.
- Is the Penguins’ breakout too complicated? It can take three passes to move the puck 10 feet. The Penguins definitely fudge too many clearing attempts.
- The Penguins’ bottom-six forwards can’t be on the ice for goals against. They pose little offensive threat. If you can’t help, don’t hurt.
- The Penguins need a Plan B. Last year’s demise was fueled by stubbornness and an unwillingness to adjust. Over a best-of-seven series, the Penguins are too easy to draw a bead on.
- For the Penguins, last year’s playoffs were a failure. They eliminated the postseason’s two worst teams and never got totally untracked against either. They got swept out by Boston. There is no way to rate that as anything besides unacceptable. The Penguins had a loaded team.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Letang back in form

By Joe Starkey 
http://triblive.com/sports/
Published: Saturday, April 12, 2014, 10:10 p.m.

Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins moves the puck in front of Wayne Simmonds #17 of the Philadelphia Flyers on April 12, 2014 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Kris Letang returned to the Penguins' lineup.

On Saturday, he returned to form — thanks to a visit from the Philadelphia Flyers.

“It was good for me to play a team like that,” Letang said after what some might consider one of the best losses in franchise history: a 4-3 overtime defeat that meant the Penguins will avoid the Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

I get the feeling Letang would welcome a return engagement as soon as possible. Barely 10 weeks removed from a stroke, he looked like the wild-man Letang that Penguins fans have come to love and dread.

You know that Letang — the helmet-off, hair-flying, hit-making, risk-taking, faster-than-anyone-skating Letang. Say what you will about his chancy play, the Penguins need an energized Letang if they are going to get where they want to go.

You should have heard teammates raving after Letang played 23 minutes, 42 seconds (second on the team), scored his career-best 11th goal, assisted on another, nearly won the game on a 3-on-3 overtime breakaway and mixed it up with the ever-popular Scott Hartnell (more on that in a minute).

“His skill set, and the way he jumps up into the play and can shoot the puck ... he was all over the place,” said winger James Neal. “That's the way we like him. He's back to himself.”

Back to himself two games into a return from a stroke?

It really looked that way.

“It's unique,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “And it's a spectacle. I mean, the way he skated up to the net in overtime there with what could have been the game-winning goal (before Ray Emery stopped Letang's backhander) … It's pretty awesome to see him back playing at that level.”

Nobody seemed to like it much when Hartnell knocked Letang down from behind in the middle of the third period, breaking up a scoring chance. Letang angrily confronted him. Hartnell hissed back (but did not bite Letang, which was an issue in a long-ago confrontation, you'll remember). The two went off for roughing, and the crowd went nuts.

Letang didn't seem to mind any of it.

“It's part of the game,” he said, smiling. “I got hit from behind, and I turned around. It was not really a shock.”

Just seeing the Flyers' orange and black was good for his spirits.

“Different team, more emotion in the game,” Letang said, comparing it to the Detroit game. “It felt pretty good to get hit a lot.”

Bylsma made waves when asked whether the Letang-Hartnell confrontation caused him any “pause.” After saying “a little bit” and recounting the play, Bylsma joked that Hartnell was “a guy picking on a guy who had a stroke.”

It came off as ill-timed because of the subject matter but also as tongue-in-cheek. To make sure, I asked Bylsma after his news conference, and he said the comment “absolutely” was made in jest. He was in no way incriminating Hartnell.

Bylsma acknowledged that while he is concerned for Letang the way a father might be for a son, Letang is fair game if he's on the ice.

The Penguins did not feel the need to go overboard in protecting Letang, either, and why should they have? It was two guys doing what hockey players do.

Sidney Crosby was asked whether there is an instinct to protect Letang more than usual, given what he has been through.

“Not more than usual,” Crosby said. “We do know he's a guy they're going to target. You stick up for teammates, of course. And you're aware of the fact that teams might target him even more. But we know he's OK now.”

People outside the locker room will make a big deal about such things. Inside, the Penguins know the big story from this game was seeing wild-man Letang back in form.

“He's our most talented defenseman,” fellow blue-liner Matt Niskanen said. “He helps with some of the things we've been struggling with. Getting out of our zone quick is one of the biggest things. Some of (the solution) is breaking out with the puck on our stick clean. Some of it is ending plays quickly. Kris is a pretty good defender. He manhandles people in the corners, grabs the puck and heads the other way.

“We've missed that a little bit.”

Quite a lot, actually.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.


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