Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Penguins' midseason report card is in

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 28: (L-R) Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and team Chara kneels on the ice with Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and team Alfredsson during the 2012 Molson Canadian NHL All-Star Skills Competition at Scotiabank Place on January 28, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Penguins endured quite a rollercoaster ride during the first half of the season. There was a four-game winning streak, which was followed by a six-game losing streak, which was followed by the team's current seven-game winning streak.

There was The Return.

Then came the news release that changed everything, when the Penguins announced Dec. 7 that Sidney Crosby's concussion symptoms had returned.

There were plenty of disappointments, countless injuries and a brief stint removed from the playoff picture.

Evgeni Malkin reminded everyone that he is a superstar, and James Neal became one.

Kris Letang won a game 20 minutes after sustaining a concussion. Crosby may have played eight games without knowing his neck had recently been broken.

The first half of this season was truly unlike any other. Here are some grades for the Penguins, who begin the unofficial second half of their season Tuesday night at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs.


Evgeni Malkin, A+: Completely recovered from ACL and MCL surgery last season, Malkin is the game's greatest player and has carried the Penguins this season. He is on pace to land his first Hart Trophy as NHL MVP.

James Neal, A+: Has evolved into a legitimate star, and isn't just a great goal scorer. Neal plays a well-rounded game that blends perfectly with Dan Bylsma's system.

Jordan Staal, A: Before he was injured, was on pace for 35 goals. His game has evolved. The Penguins won't last long in playoffs without a healthy Staal.

Chris Kunitz, A: The Penguins' most steady performer. Plays well with stars, terrific on the power play.

Pascal Dupuis, B+: Scoring touch not always consistent, but has enjoyed an excellent season. Invaluable two-way player.

Steve Sullivan, B-: Hasn't been great in five-on-five situations, but is steadying influence on power play.

Richard Park, C+: When healthy, has scored a couple of big goals. Perfectly solid fourth-line center.

Joe Vitale, C: Plays hard, physical game. Needs to produce a bit more offense.

Matt Cooke, C: Great start, and deserves credit for cleaning up game. But hasn't scored a goal in 19 games.

Craig Adams, C: Never going to produce much offensively, but penalty killing remains elite.

Arron Asham, C: Handled enforcer role well, just can't stay healthy. Usually produces in playoffs.

Tyler Kennedy, D: Not close to last season's production or level of play.

Eric Tangradi, D: Hasn't been given chance to play on top lines, nor has he done anything to warrant such an opportunity.

Sidney Crosby, Incomplete: Producing 12 points in eight games speaks for itself. So does the fact that Crosby only played in eight games. His health will likely determine how the Eastern Conference playoffs unfold.

Dustin Jeffrey, Incomplete: Shows great potential.

Steve MacIntyre, Incomplete: Hard to grade a fighter who no one will fight.


Kris Letang, A: One of the NHL's five best defensemen; he was sorely missed during seven-week absence.

Matt Niskanen, A-: Along with Neal, the team's most improved player. Strong all-around game.

Deryk Engelland, A-: Rarely makes mistakes. Physical. Knows his limitations. Solid as a rock.

Simon Despres, A-: No reason to think he won't be a very good NHL defenseman.

Brooks Orpik, B: Not having his best season, but has been very good during past month. Remains indisputable voice of team.

Ben Lovejoy, B-: Full body of work pretty good. When he does have a bad game, it's noticeable.

Paul Martin, C-: Improved lately, but needs to be way better.

Zbynek Michalek, C-: See Paul Martin.


Marc-Andre Fleury, A: No question he is one of the NHL's five best goaltenders.

Brent Johnson, C-: Needs to be much better in second half. Fleury will need a break soon.


Dan Bylsma, A: Has fixed power play impressively and again showcased ability to keep team competitive despite injuries to so many stars.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Without Crosby, Malkin takes over for Penguins

By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
January 29, 2012

OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 29: Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Team Chara poses prior to the 2012 NHL All-Star Game at Scotiabank Place on January 29, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

OTTAWA — The only appearance Sidney Crosby made at the NHL All-Star Game was on the scoreboard screens. During a break Sunday at Scotiabank Place, there he was in a Gatorade commercial. The slogan? “Prime. Perform. Recover.”

That last part, of course, can be tricky.

The news that Crosby had a neck injury along with a concussion overshadowed this marketing event, along with other doom-and-gloom stuff like the future of the Phoenix Coyotes, the financial problems of the New Jersey Devils and the looming labor negotiations.

But if there is a silver lining, it is this: Even though the Pittsburgh Penguins don’t have the best player in hockey, they still have the best player in hockey.

His name is Evgeni Malkin.

Remember him? He once won a scoring title and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player. He finished second for the Hart Trophy as the regular-season MVP in back-to-back years.

He’s healthy for the first time since 2009, seems more comfortable in the spotlight and right now is the favorite to win another scoring title and his first Hart Trophy. He leads the NHL in scoring with 58 points. He went on a tear before the break, racking up nine goals and 13 points in six games. That helped turn a six-game losing skid into a seven-game winning streak, lifting the Penguins from ninth in the Eastern Conference to fifth.

Asked if he could win the scoring race, Malkin pointed out he wasn’t injured anymore and said: “Why not? I have great confidence now, and I try.”

Crosby hopes to come back this season, at least for the playoffs. The Penguins are cautiously optimistic. Maybe he will, and maybe he’ll pick up where he left off as he did Nov. 21, when he ended a 10-and-a-half-month absence with a two-goal, four-point performance. If he does and the Penguins’ other injured players return to full strength, Pittsburgh should have the best team in the league.

But Crosby has played only eight games in more than a year’s time now. Maybe he won’t come back, or maybe he won’t be the same when he does. We just don’t know. Hell, we don’t even know what his injury problems really are anymore, let alone the outlook.

What we do know is that Malkin is capable of carrying a team.

“It’s not easy, but he can,” said the Detroit Red WingsPavel Datsyuk, a fellow Russian and a teammate at the All-Star Game. “He’s so hungry now, you can see. Every game, he have points, he have good plays.”

Malkin had them Sunday – a goal and an assist. In the first period, he finished a give-and-go with Jarome Iginla even though Iginla passed the puck into his skates. Malkin kicked the puck to his stick in close, then chipped it over the left shoulder of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist on the short side. He made it look ridiculously easy. He said he didn’t even look where he was shooting.

“I think nobody understand how I got the puck in,” Malkin said.

It’s one thing to do that in a half-speed event like the All-Star Game. But Malkin does things like that at full speed. You don’t need to know anything about hockey to know if Malkin is on his game. Just grab your remote.

“You can see from even watching the game on TV that when he’s playing his game, he’s got the puck all the time,” said Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen. “Some way the puck finds him, and he’s coming through the middle.”

Vancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin – who won the scoring title and the Hart Trophy in 2009-10 – said he and his teammates often catch the Penguins’ 4 p.m. ET faceoffs.

“Pittsburgh’s the one team we like to watch, because they’re a good team,” Sedin said. “We watch them quite a bit. He’s got everything. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s got a great shot. He makes the players around him better. I think he’s the whole package.”

Timonen said Malkin was probably the best player in the league right now. So did Sedin. So did several other all-stars. It was almost unanimous at media day on Friday, with some honorable mentions for guys like Datsyuk and the Flyers’ Claude Giroux.

“Obviously everybody knows he’s right now the best player in the league,” said the Chicago BlackhawksMarian Hossa, a former Penguins teammate, who is five points behind Malkin in the scoring race. “You can see the points, but also when you look at his game. He just dominates most of the games, if not every game.”

Remember that Malkin won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year in 2006-07. Remember that he didn’t miss a game the next two seasons, when he put up a combined 82 goals and 219 points – winning that scoring title and that Conn Smythe, almost winning those Harts, lifting the Cup over his head.

He played 67 games in 2009-10, dipping to 28 goals and 77 points. He played only 43 games last season, fading to only 15 goals and 37 points. He had shoulder, knee and conditioning issues, and then he suffered torn knee ligaments Feb. 4.

“I have big surgery and tough work in summer,” Malkin said.

But that tough work paid off. Before the season, Malkin told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review not to call it a comeback, because this was a new Malkin, a recommitted Malkin, not the one who was admittedly “lazy before.” He reported to training camp in top shape. He said his “motivation is now very good.”

His English isn’t very good yet, but it’s getting better. Malkin started a Twitter account. He started doing more interviews. He allowed some of his sense of humor to come out during All-Star Weekend, goofing around with reporters and teammates.

“What people don’t know about him, he likes to joke,” Hossa said. “When I was [in Pittsburgh], he just liked to joke around. Maybe you couldn’t understand everything he said, you know, but it was just fun to be around him.”

Crosby’s absence continues to cast a shadow over the NHL. If and when he does come back, he will be monitored shift to shift. He might be for the rest of his career.

But the Penguins still have to play no matter what happens, and even though their injury problems have gone deeper than Crosby, they have not lowered their goals at all. They still have Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal and company. They still will have Jordan Staal when he returns from a knee injury.

“I want Crosby be here,” Malkin said. “I know fans miss him, of course. But we play very well now, and we try do best without Crosby.”

Their best means only one thing.

“With the lineup we have, the expectation is always high,” said Letang, who came back from a concussion and played in the All-Star Game. “We don’t see anything less than the Cup.”
Even with the injuries?

“Even with the injuries.”

Especially if Malkin can lead the way like this.

“I don’t worry what people think about Pittsburgh,” Malkin said. “I know we can do it. We can win the Stanley Cup.”

Nicholas J. Cotsonika is a hockey writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Nicholas a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

How do you miss a broken neck?

Monday, January 30, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 5: Sidney Crosby(notes) #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins controls the puck as Zdeno Chara(notes) #33 of the Boston Bruins gives chase in the third period on December 5, 2011 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Boston defeated Pittsburgh 3-1. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

One can choose to study the Sidney Crosby injury saga through the maddening prism of its particulars. One could dissect every detail of every visit to every doctor to what now might be every state in our union, and that's to say nothing of possible paddle-boat excursions to see medicine men in the jungles of Brazil and Burundi.

Just wait till those hit the Canadian tabloids.

But, honestly, I'm as weary of all the minutiae as most Pittsburghers. It's becoming increasingly difficult to make sense of the big-picture perspective.

So let's try something simpler and focus solely on two dates.

On Jan. 1, 2011, Crosby was blindsided in the head by Washington's David Steckel during the Winter Classic. The Penguins' captain crashed to the ice and was, by his recollection ... well, actually, he had no recollection.

"I couldn't even tell you what happened," Crosby said that night, his dazed eyes visible to most of us in Heinz Field's news conference room. "The puck was going the other way, and I turned. Next thing I know, I'm down. So I can't really comment."

Crosby went on to say he felt some "neck soreness." That soon became the official diagnosis.

On Jan. 28, 2012 — that was Saturday — the Penguins commented on reports swirling around the NHL's All-Star festivities in Ottawa that Crosby had sustained a neck injury. The Tribune-Review's Rob Rossi reported that this injury consisted of cracks in his two uppermost vertebrae, the C1 and C2.

Sticking with the simple theme, that's what we commoners call a BROKEN NECK.

This was the Penguins' statement, not attributed to any individual: "The diagnosis of Dr. Robert S. Bray, a neurological spine specialist based in Los Angeles, is that Sidney Crosby had suffered a neck injury in addition to a concussion. Dr. Bray reports that the neck injury is fully healed. Those findings will be evaluated by independent specialists over the next few days. The most important goal all along has been Sidney's return to full health, and we are encouraged that progress continues to be made."

Well, that's reassuring.

But, hey, if it's all the same to that unnamed soother of souls, I've still got a couple of small questions based entirely on the two events just cited:



Fractures do get missed, even in the high-stakes world of sports medicine. Last summer, for example, the Pirates took embarrassingly too long to diagnose first baseman Derrek Lee and outfielder Jose Tabata with hairline fractures of the wrist.

But after the athlete complains on a global stage about "neck soreness?"

If Bray's findings are correct, the various people assembled by the Penguins and Crosby to treat his ailment have some serious explaining to do.

2. Fully healed?

The Penguins' statement specifies that Bray deemed the vertebrae "fully healed," which means he either peered back into Crosby's past to determine they once were cracked, or the BROKEN NECK was found in the same week that it mystically healed itself in the California sunshine.

It's understandable that the Penguins want other specialists to confirm a retroactive diagnosis.

But it's telling, yet again, that the team and Crosby clearly still aren't in sync on the issue of his health.

Even with regard to the $8.7 million question as to whether Crosby sustained a concussion Dec. 5 when elbowed by Boston's David Krejci, there remains a fundamental disagreement: The Penguins have stated repeatedly that Crosby is out with "concussion-like symptoms." But Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson, was quoted by Canada's CBC network as saying Crosby did, indeed, sustain a second concussion. Brisson later denied saying that.

This sort of thing has been going on for several months now, and it must change.

It's very much the intent of team owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, as well as general manager Ray Shero, to sign Crosby to a long-term contract before the current one expires in summer 2013. I believe front office personnel when they say that, just as I believed Crosby when he told me a couple weeks ago that he loves Pittsburgh and wants to stay. It's the right move, even with Crosby's health questions.

But all concerned would benefit from a come-to-Mario moment right about now, and the word Sunday that Lemieux and Crosby watched the All-Star events on TV at Lemieux's place might be an encouraging precursor.

If nothing else, it could be a sign that Crosby doesn't blame the Penguins for failing to diagnose a BROKEN NECK.

Friday, January 27, 2012

End of an era for Steelers defensive line

By Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
January 27, 2012

Brett Kiesel, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith (Duane Reider/Whirl Magazine)

PITTSBURGH — Although it wasn’t a full-blown retirement dinner, Chris Hoke couldn’t have asked for a better farewell meal.

Not only did Hoke break bread with team president Art Rooney II and coach Mike Tomlin, but also seated at his cafeteria table at Steelers’ headquarters Thursday were a trio of veterans sure to be remembered as three of the finest at their positions in the franchise’s proud history.

Aaron Smith. Casey Hampton. Brett Keisel.

Over the past several seasons, those three provided excellence on the defensive line. They comprised the second-best defensive front in the team’s first 79 years of the existence.

The “Steel Curtain” of the 1970s is one of the most famous front fours in NFL annals. But the Smith, Hampton and Keisel collaboration has been special, too.

Smith and Keisel, defensive ends in the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme, have each played in one Pro Bowl. Hampton, the burly nose tackle, has played in five NFL all-star games. They’ve been part of three Super Bowl experiences, including two won by the Steelers.

However, that trio will probably never play together again.

Smith will likely follow Hoke’s lead.

Hoke, the 35-year-old back-up nose tackle, announced his retirement Wednesday. Like Hoke, the 2011 season ended prematurely for Smith because of a neck injury that required surgery. Hoke cited his health reasons for calling it quits.

Smith, who turns 36 in April, should do the same. After all, he’s missed 33 of the last 48 regular-season games with injuries. His body is clearly breaking down.

Hampton, who’ll be 35 in September when the Steelers open the 2012 season, has no intentions of retiring. However, there are no guarantees he’ll be back. He’ll have surgery Friday to repair a torn knee ligament. That doesn’t bode well for a man of 350 pounds or so who’s had trouble making weight in recent years.

Plus, Hampton is due to make $4.89 million next season. With the Steelers close to $20 million over the proposed cap of $125 next season, Hampton may be cut for financial reasons.

Keisel, who’ll be 34 in September, has job security for at least one more year. But as just as Ziggy Hood replaced Smith this year, Cameron Heyward is destined to take away Keisel’s starting job in a year or so. After all, Hood (2009) and Heyward (2011) are former first-round draft picks.

And although it’s a bit early to say who the Steelers will draft in the first round this year, there’s a chance it could be Dontari Poe, a mammoth defensive tackle out of Memphis.

“History will look back very fondly on that group of guys,” Hoke said at his retirement press conference Thursday while Smith, Hampton and Keisel stood by his side in a show of support.

“You have these guys ... Casey, Brett and Aaron ... all they did was go out and work every day. They did their jobs. They will be compared and be in the same class as those (“Steel Curtain”) guys in the 70s.”

After the press conference, those four defensive linemen who bonded so well on and off the field for so many years, headed to the cafeteria.

It may have been their last lunch together.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Unflappable Malkin leads surging Penguins into all-star break on a high

The Canadian Press
26 January 2012

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 11: Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins brings the puck up the ice against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on January 11, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Dan Byslma isn't a doctor, even though the Pittsburgh Penguins' coach sometimes sounds like one while running down his team's lengthy injured list.

So forgive Bylsma if he can't say for certain whether star centre Evgeni Malkin is fully recovered from the torn ACL in his right knee that prematurely ended the Russian's 2010-11 season.

Malkin's entertainingly broken English doesn't lend itself to adjectives, anyway. Ask Malkin how he's feeling and the Russian just smiles and says "good."

All Bylsma knows is what he sees. And at the moment he sees the 25-year-old all-star playing arguably the best hockey of his career, heady territory considering Malkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy while helping the Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup.

"I don't know if he's going to have another couple levels to get to 100 per cent," Bylsma said. "(If so) in six more months it's going to be really scary."

It already is.

Two weeks after Pittsburgh's season seemed on the brink of unravelling in the midst of a six-game slide, the Penguins have turned things around in the blink of one of Malkin's slap shots.

Pittsburgh enters the all-star break riding a seven-game winning streak, the franchise's longest since ripping off 12 straight in November-December 2010.

Yet that run came with the team nearly at full strength, before Sidney Crosby's odyssey to recover from concussion-like symptoms began following a pair of hits last January, before Malkin's season ended abruptly with knee issues.

This run has come with Crosby out indefinitely—again—as the symptoms returned in early December. It's also come without forward Jordan Staal, likely out another month with a knee injury.

It has come mostly on the strength of the top line of Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz, who have been nearly unstoppable in the last two weeks.

The trio has scored 16 of Pittsburgh's 24 goals during the run, with Malkin's nine over the span propelling him into the NHL's points lead.

He's scoring in a variety of ways. If he's not rifling slap shots from his favourite spot in the right circle, then he's weaving through traffic or posting up in front of the net to slam in loose rebound after loose rebound.

"He's controlling the game so well right now," Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin said of his countryman. "He knows that without Crosby (their) team is good, but not that good. He's handling it well."

So well Malkin's barely batting an eye at the massive amount of ice time Bylsma is throwing his way. Malkin has played more than 20 minutes in each game during the streak, including topping 25 minutes twice, a remarkably heavy workload for a forward.

Part of it is out of necessity—he's easily the team's best player with Crosby sidelined—and part of it is out of luxury.

"There are times when he's probably gotten a lot of ice and he's still ready to handle more," Bylsma said. "He's demanding the ice time by his play."

For proof, Bylsma pointed to a pair of hustle plays by Malkin last week that helped preserve the winning streak.

In a 5-4 shootout victory over Montreal last Friday, Malkin went to the ice to block a shot, a rarity for him during a regular-season game. He preserved the tie, then won it by scoring the only goal in the shootout.

He was just as fresh in the third period against Washington on Sunday, picking himself up after getting checked, then chasing down the puck and fending off three Capitals before feeding Neal for the game-tying goal. The Penguins would eventually win in a shootout.

"The way he's playing right now, it doesn't look too much like he's getting overtaxed," Bylsma said. "There's not a cheat in the effort in those 25 minutes, and that's what you see in his game on both ends of the rink."

It's the kind of on-ice leadership the Penguins needed following a miserable stretch at the beginning of the month in which a team considered a Stanley Cup contender two months ago looked like a veritable pushover.

Six mostly lifeless losses dropped Pittsburgh to the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, with goals becoming scarce and whispers about Crosby's silence leading to questions about his commitment.

Crosby joined the team for a three-game swing through Washington and Florida, even donning his skates for the first time in over a month during a couple of light practices.

While his teammates point to the captain's presence as encouraging, they also know they couldn't wait around for No. 87 to swoop in and save the day.

Defenceman Brooks Orpik says a well-timed team meeting just before playing at Washington on Jan. 11 served as a turning point.

"I hate using the word soft, but at times we'd become easy to play against," he said.

With Crosby out of the lineup, the Penguins were so focused on trying to manufacture goals, they forgot about the other parts of the game, namely checking.

"We may not go out and fight every night but teams are going to feel like we forecheck and bounce pretty well," forward Matt Cooke said. "I think we got away from that."

Though the Capitals won 1-0 the next night, Orpik noticed a change.

"If you ask (Washington), I think they'd tell you it was one of the harder games they'd played all season," Orpik said. "When you're missing (defenceman Kris) Letang, Crosby, Staal, there's not going to be a lot of goals scored. You've got to find other ways to be hard to play against and get better in certain areas."

Lopsided wins in Florida and Tampa Bay followed, and the Penguins haven't looked back. Letang is in all-star form since returning last week, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been exceptional.

The optimism inside the dressing room has returned, led by the hottest player on the planet.

"I have great confidence now, you know?" Malkin said. "I just am enjoying the game, you know? And having fun."

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Arians' firing makes little sense

By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times
January 23, 2012

Is Art Rooney II qualified to run a football team in any way that goes beyond his birthright?

That doesn’t matter. The birthright does.

That truth was held to be self-evident this past week as the Steelers president, after doing a round of media self-promotion, decided to use his thunderbolts to smite Bruce Arians, relieving the offensive coordinator of his duties.

The Steelers say Arians retired. That’s a lie. The Steelers decided to not renew his contract.

Head coach Mike Tomlin wanted Arians back, having reportedly told him that since the playoff loss at Denver. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is an Arians supporter and friend, having saved his job two years ago, and is said to be miffed that Arians got dismissed. Can’t wait to hear what Roethlisberger has to say at the Pro Bowl (where Arians and his wife will be Ben’s guest).

So, who’s left? General Manager Kevin Colbert? Colbert wouldn’t overrule Tomlin in this situation.

It looks like Rooney, after saying it was “Mike’s decision,” dropped the guillotine.


The Steelers’ red-zone efficiency was dismal at Denver, leaving lots of points on the table in the first quarter. But the Steelers’ defense was pathetic all day, adjusting not one bit as Tim Tebow carved them to ribbons. Arians is the scapegoat. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is Teflon.

Looking at the regular season, the Steelers were 12th in the NFL in yards gained, just 21st in points. Not a good contrast. But the Steelers’ offense was doubtless hurt by a defense that collected just 15 takeaways, fewest in the league. The offense didn’t get many short fields, or easy points.

Receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown each caught over 1,000 yards worth of passes. Roethlisberger threw for over 4,000. The Steelers sent four offensive players to Pro Bowl. That hadn’t happened since 2004.

You can’t knock the running game, either: It averaged 4.4 yards per carry, the best mark since 2001.

Looking at Arians’ five-year tenure, his offense helped the Steelers get to two Super Bowls, winning one. His successor will not have done that, or do that. Guaranteed.

Arians hasn’t always had the best players to work with, particularly on the line. When it comes to excellence, the Steelers spend on defense first. You can’t cook gourmet meals when half your ingredients are from 7-11. All things considered, Arians did fine. Overachieved, even.

So why was Arians fired? For a few debatable play calls? Why not fire Tomlin for consistently poor clock management? Or LeBeau for the debacle at Denver?

Or why not leave pretty good alone? An early playoff exit aside, 12-4 is an excellent season.

This is bizarre. This seems like a decision made by a talk-show caller. Knee-jerk. Hasty. Against the grain.

In 2010, Rooney said that he wanted the Steelers to run more. This season, they ran on 43 percent of their offensive snaps. Is that enough? Arians is the man who minimized Steelers’ icon Hines Ward. Perhaps that didn’t sit well with upper management. Word is the Steelers may bring back Aaron Smith despite injuries that sidelined him for most of the last three seasons. Tradition counts.

Maybe it counts too much.

Maybe Rooney wants to pay Roethlisberger $102 million to hand off more.

Maybe Rooney wants to pound the ball on the ground, just like granddaddy’s team. According to ESPN.com, sources say Arians was canned with an eye toward shifting “the offense back toward its blue-collar identity of years past, in line with the desires of Steelers president Art Rooney II.”

Anybody got Jerome Bettis’ number?

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Crosby staying the course as Olympic glory fades

By WILL GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
January 21, 2012

Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby skates during practice in Sunrise, Fla., Friday, Jan. 13, 2012. Crosby skated with his teammates for the first time in more than a month on Friday but still has no idea when he'll be cleared to practice, let alone see action in a game. (AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP)—Sidney Crosby’s overtime shot to win the 2010 Olympic ice hockey final was supposed to be the last step in an ascension that seemingly began the second he laced up skates in Nova Scotia as a toddler.

The Canadians were Olympic champions. Order to the ice hockey world had been restored with one brilliant flick of Crosby’s wrist.

Sitting on the U.S. bench after the 3-2 loss, defenseman Tim Gleason watched Crosby be swarmed by his teammates and did his best to put his disappointment aside and drink it in.

“That kid is Hockey Canada, so it was almost like a too-good-to-be true story that he scored the goal,” Gleason said.

Flash forward two years. The roars have quieted, replaced by questions the ever-patient 24-year-old has grown weary of answering.

The truth is, Crosby doesn’t know when the concussion-like symptoms that have limited him to eight NHL games over the last 12 months will abate.

He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to practice at full strength, let alone play in a game. While he remains certain he’ll return to the NHL, until he’s cleared by doctors his routine will continue to consist of occasional tests, light exercise and watching the Pittsburgh Penguins fight for a playoff spot without him—then going to bed wondering how he’ll feel in the morning.

While the Penguins spent the week trying to right their season following a six-game losing streak—the team’s longest in two years—Crosby was in Atlanta visiting the chiropractic neurologist who successfully treated the 2009 NHL MVP for lingering concussion-like symptoms in mid-2011.

Crosby didn’t intend to become the league’s model on the need for increased player safety and the nexus for a harder stance on shots to the head. Yet here he is more than a year after taking a pair of vicious hits in consecutive games last January, still limited by a frustrating and frightening injury.

It’s not the way Crosby wanted to spend his prime. It’s an exquisite kind of torture.

“It’s got to be really hard on him,” Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “That’s something that people have got to know about him. I mean, at home he watches other hockey games. It’s always hockey. To take hockey away from him has got to be a lot harder on him than most of the other guys in the league.”

It’s part of the reason why Sid the Kid has become Sid the Ghost.

Though blessed with unique talents and a nearly unmatched work ethic, even in good times Crosby could be a reluctant superstar. Polite and accommodating to the last, Crosby is keenly aware of his status as the face of the NHL and all that that means.

Orpik likes to tell a story about the day after the Olympics ended, when the two Pittsburgh teammates were sitting on an airplane, Crosby with a gold medal, Orpik toting silver as a defenseman for the U.S.

Throughout the flight other passengers came up to Crosby, congratulating him and asking to see the latest addition to an already overflowing trophy case—a collection of honors that includes having his name on the 2009 Stanley Cup. Crosby wouldn’t do it. Not because he wasn’t proud, but because he didn’t want to show up his teammate.

“He’s so conscious and so worried about what people think of him he’s really careful,” Orpik said. “He didn’t want to rub it in my face … he would never be the kind of guy that would do that.”

That’s just not Crosby’s way.

He technically doesn’t even have concussion, having passed the IMPACT test administered to detect head injuries.

And there’s the problem. He looks healthy. At least on the outside. He doesn’t limp. He doesn’t need crutches. He doesn’t wear a special helmet.

He looks fine, even if he’s not.

Crosby’s not ready to call it a season much less a career. There are still nearly three months to go before the playoffs. On his good days, it doesn’t seem that far away.

Crosby won’t go out on the ice, however, unless he’s 100 percent healthy. The standard he’s set for himself is impossibly high. He won’t play if he thinks he can’t live up to it.

He needed only three shifts to put any doubts about his ability to rest during his last comeback, scoring a spectacular goal in his season debut against the New York Islanders on Nov. 21, part of a four-point night in which he showcased that yes, indeed, he does still have it. He rolled up 12 points in eight games before getting jostled around by Boston on Dec. 5 and going back to square one.

He’s running out of ways to say that he’s frustrated. He remains adamant his condition can be manageable and understands whenever he returns he could be one hit away from putting more than his career at risk.

Still, he presses on. Rumors and snarky tweets from detractors who insist on calling him “Cindy” aside, Crosby remains as popular as ever. His black No. 87 jersey is the top-seller at the Penguins’ arena. The second most popular jersey is the blue No. 87 jersey he wore at last year’s Winter Classic.

Crosby’s return against the Islanders was the second-highest rated Penguins regular season broadcast ever, only outdone by Mario Lemieux’s comeback in 2000. He finished sixth in the All-Star game voting among Eastern Conference forwards despite playing just two weeks all season.

When the league’s luminaries gather in Ottawa next weekend for the annual midseason showcase, the NHL’s brightest star will continue to hide in plain sight back in Pittsburgh, waiting for the day when the doctors tell him he can get back to being Sidney Crosby.

When Sid the Ghost can become Sid the Kid again, order to his life will be restored

Malkin mania puts Ovechkin in the shadows

Sunday, January 22, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 19: Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins reacts after scoring a goal against Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers during their game on January 19, 2012 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Alex Ovechkin's relationship with Evgeni Malkin has ranged from brotherhood to belligerence, from Olympic roommates to NHL rivals. But the Washington Capitals' falling star has no trouble reaching the consensus these days regarding his Russian countryman.

"He's the top player in the league," Ovechkin said Saturday at Consol Energy Center.

Ovechkin's tone was that of admiration.

"Malkin," he said, "right now dominates."

Almost eight years following one of the most top-heavy drafts in NHL history, the first two players selected are moving in opposite directions. Malkin, chosen No. 2, has jumped into the NHL scoring lead and is a leading candidate for MVP honors. All the while, Ovechkin's star has faded.

"The stats aren't important to me," Malkin said. "I don't worry about that. I just want to win games."

Entering Saturday's games, Malkin led the NHL in scoring and points per game. Ovechkin led the league in no categories -- except theories about his inexplicable descent. His 36 points ranked 43rd in the league, and his points-per-game average is down more than half a point from his career average.

"It does startle me," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "I am surprised that his numbers aren't there."

Bylsma said Ovechkin looks the same on the ice, but maybe that's the problem. Consider defenseman Kris Letang's assessment: "I don't think he's any different. I think that's why his numbers went down a little bit. It's always been the same. Always been the same move, same spots on the ice. I think teams watch him through the years and kind of notice and pay attention to everything that he does."

There also are whispers in Washington that he parties too much and doesn't work out during the summer. Whatever the case, the dynamic efforts that once defined his game are a thing of the past.

Ovechkin, 26, who claimed two Hart Trophies as MVP and an Art Ross Trophy as scoring leader during his first six seasons, hasn't scored more than two points in a game all year. He has two goals and one assist in the past eight games, all of which he played without his regular center, Nicklas Backstrom.

Ovechkin averaged 6.7 shots per game during the 2008-09 season. He is averaging 3.6 this season.

"He's not cheating offensively as much," Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "I think he's playing more of a well-rounded game, and it's taking away from his offense."

Malkin's game has been well rounded, too, but nothing is stopping his ability to score. He has eight goals -- including two game-winners -- and is 2 for 2 in shootouts in his past five games, all victories. He has six third-period goals in his past four games, and highlight-reel tallies have become common.

"We are all spectators," right wing Pascal Dupuis said, "of the 'Geno Show.' "

Even Ovechkin, who roomed with Malkin at the 2006 Olympics before they had a temporary falling out, admitted this is the best he has seen his countryman play.

"I think he's playing great right now," he said. "Last year (when he missed the second half of the season with an ACL tear), he missed hockey a lot."

The hockey world misses Ovechkin, and no one knows when or if his dominance will resurface. Times have changed since 2004 when, the day before the draft, almost every reporter gravitated to the charming Ovechkin. Malkin, who remains shy, essentially was left alone.

He's still alone today -- at the top.

"Watching him right now, he's been so impressive," Penguins center Dustin Jeffrey said. "He sees things out there, does things out there, that no one else can do. He's been unbelievable."

Josh Yohe is a McKeesport Daily News staff writer and can be reached at 412-664-9161, via e-mail or on Twitter.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Steelers wants more from offense than Arians gives them

By Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
January 19, 2012

Last week when I saw Bruce Arians at Steelers headquarters, I asked if he'd be back in 2012.

"Yeah, I'll be back," he said.

But as it turns out, it doesn't look like he will return. There's growing speculation that Arians is being forced out. His five-year run as offensive coordinator is all but officially over.

Word is that either team president Art Rooney or coach Mike Tomlin - or perhaps both - have told Arians he must resign or be fired.

So it appears that all those Arians critics, and there sure are plenty of them, will get their wish. That won't have B.A. to bash any more.

If indeed Arians is done, it will be interesting to see Ben Roethlisberger's reaction.

They are very close friends. They golf together. They play cards together. They even own homes in the same golf course community near Atlanta, Ga. They are so close that Roethlisberger is taking Arians and his wife Christine to Hawaii next week for the Pro Bowl.

To be sure, there have been some prolific offensive performances under Arians' watch.

Roethlisberger set franchise records with 32 touchdown passes and a 104.1 passer rating in 2007 and 4,328 passing yards in 2008.

Willie Parker led the NFL in rushing in 2007 before breaking his leg in the 15th game of the season.

Rashard Mendenhall's 1,273 yards in 2010 rank fifth on the team's all-time rushing list.

Twice under Arians, the Steelers had a pair of wideouts who both racked over 1,000 yards in receiving yards (Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes in '09, and Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown this season).

And don't forget that the Steelers did play in the Super Bowl twice in the past four years and won one of them.

However, the Steelers have never been an dynamic high-scoring offensive machine under Arians.

Only once under Arians have the Steelers ranked in the top 10 in total offense (No. 9 in 2009). Only once have the Steelers ranked in the top 10 in scoring offense (tied for ninth in 2007).

And this year, the Steelers only averaged 20.3 points per game. That's their lowest point production since 2003 when they averaged 18.8.

Granted, the Steelers seem to always had issues on the offensive line. That certainly was the case again this season. But ultimately, the coach is man who's most accountable.

That's why someone with authority is forcing Arians out. Either Rooney or Tomlin or both want more from the offense.

Arians, who's 59 and a prostate cancer survivor, did consider retirement a year ago. But he was talked out of it by Roethlisberger.

Last February, Arians didn't even join Tomlin and the other Steeler coaches in Indianapolis for the NFL Combine as he spent time deciding whether or not to return for the 2011 season.

This year, it appears he has no say in the matter.

Mike Bires can be reached online at mbires@timesonline.com or by phone at 724-622-4284

Steelers' NFL offensive rankings under Bruce Arians


2007=17th=tie 9th (24.6 ppg)

2008=22nd=20th (21.7 ppg)

2009=7th=12th (23.0 ppg)

2010=14th=12th (23.4 ppg)

2011=12th=21st (20.3 ppg)

Highlights: Penguins 4, Rangers 1

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Malkin-Neal-Kunitz line best show in town

By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
January 18, 2012

Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (71) celebrates with Chris Kunitz (14) and James Neal, right, after scoring in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012. (AP - Gene Puskar)

Semi-desperately seeking their first home victory of the calendar year, the Penguins brought back to Pittsburgh the highly accommodating Carolina Hurricanes, the previous team they were somehow able to beat at Consol Energy Center, should you happen to remember late 2011.

Pitt should try this very thing in basketball by putting in an emergency call to Saint Francis (not the actual saint, although that couldn't hurt), as Saint Francis is the most recent team Pitt beat in town, there, or anywhere.

I hesitate to drag Pitt into this, and it's really only because the Penguins missed so many open nets Tuesday night it just reminded me so acutely of Pitt's inside game.

Through two periods, the only Penguins player who didn't miss was the again resplendent Evgeni Malkin, who caught Eric Staal's clearing effort in his skates near the bottom of the right faceoff circle and flicked it over the near shoulder of Carolina goaltender Cam Ward at 18:38 of the first period.

All that did for the moment was erect a 1-1 tie that would persist all the way to the other side of overtime, but it also buttressed the swelling notion that the best show in Pittsburgh at the moment and probably in all of hockey is the spectacle of Malkin skating with James Neal and Chris Kunitz.

Theirs is deep-zone, high-precision, connect-the-dots hockey at its perspicacious best right now. Each of them seems to know without visual evidence the exact location, direction and intention of the other two, backhanding the puck blindly to coordinates programmed into their hockey intelligence.

Or something.

"It's amazing," Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said of No. 71 [Malkin] after the morning skate, "how long he can carry the puck."

For all of that, the Penguins more resembled the team that left town last week with six goals in its previous six games, not so much the one which whipped two teams on two Florida coasts in three days and scored 10 times in the process, the final three off the blade of Malkin.

Still, when they fought off back-to-back-to-back Hurricanes power plays, the latter one on a suspect interference call against Brooks Orpik as he leveled Carolina's Jeff Skinner, the looming shootout brought nothing remotely ominous, only the raging confidence with which Malkin and Neal and Kunitz are currently electrifying this team.

"[Tuesday night Carolina] had a matchup line and an [assigned] defensive pairing against them," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said, "but when they play like there are, they're scoring goals on the forecheck, playing very physical and playing with the puck, it's very hard to totally keep them away from the puck. The way Geno can do that it's hard to keep him out of the offensive zone.

"That's just a tough matchup anyway you look at it. That's a challenge."

The challenge would eventually fall to Ward, generally one of the Penguins' established net-minding nemeses; he was 11-5-2 with a 2.41 goals-against average against the Penguins when the puck dropped Tuesday night, but when the shootout started, he was at the exclusive mercy of Malkin, Kunitz and Neal in that order.

Malkin took the first turn, carrying the puck in a long languid loop to his right and then back between the circles, from where he drew Ward into his web and beat him with a backhand. Jussi Jokinen evened things with an almost identical victimization of Fleury, and then Kunitz and Skinner failed with wristers that thumped into pads.

To the spotlight came Neal, or actually to extreme stage left, as he started his approach almost 180 feet away in his own left circle. Like Malkin, Neal swung wide right in the offensive zone, floated back toward the middle and buried it. That put Fleury in position to win it if he could stop Staal, whose backhand he smothered in front of the goal line.

Malkin said there was nothing premeditated about the circuitous routes he and Neal took to the goal cage in the shootout, but it was only further proof that they seem to telepathically compatible as the overall Penguins profile has begun to right itself.

"It was not a game plan, we were just using our speed," Malkin said in a game he pulled even with Vancouver's Henrik Sedin for the NHL scoring lead with 52 points. "That's long to not win at home [since Dec. 27] and we always play a hard game against Carolina."

Unfortunately, much like Saint Francis, Carolina has other commitments. The Penguins now must visit Madison Square Garden in New York, where on Thursday night the Rangers will provide a much more comprehensive test of their viability.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com. More articles by this author

Neal's All-Star snub a misfire

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Pittsburgh Penguins' James Neal gets the game-winning shot past Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward during the shootout in an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012. The Penguins won 2-1. (AP - Gene Puskar)

As James Neal dashed down the ice Tuesday night for the decisive shootout try, having started from what seemed like another ZIP code, he had a singular thought once he finally sized up Cam Ward in the Carolina crease.

"I usually pick what I'm going to do," Neal recalled. "I usually have something in my head."

He did this time, too, but adjusted at the last second.

"I just kind of switched up at the end."

You'd never have known by its smoothness. The Penguins had been aiming at Ward's glove all night, but Neal neared, then swept across the slot — no pause, no hitch — and buried a forehand flick past the blocker side to seal a 2-1 victory at Consol Energy Center.

That's what goal scorers do. They can have a plan, but ultimately, they simply take what's there.

That led to my own singular thought: This guy's an All-Star.

In every sense except the one that counts.

It's hardly earth-shattering news when the NHL makes any boneheaded decision, but the one by the league's hockey operations department to omit Neal from the All-Star Game on Jan. 29 in Ottawa still staggers the imagination.

There are snubs, and then there's leaving out a player who:

>> Is tied for second in the NHL with 24 goals. (That stayed the same last night, as shootout goals don't count.) Steven Stamkos has 30, and Phil Kessel and Jonathan Toews each have 24. All of those players, plus Marian Gaborik and Milan Michalek — each with 23 — are All-Stars.

>> Leads the league with 192 shots, including a half-dozen more last night. And these aren't blue-line flicks or cheapies from the boards. More often than not, he's powering his way through the circles or slot.

>> Ranks seventh with 64 missed shots. I love this one. It looks like a negative, but any good youth hockey coach preaches to his forwards that, as long as you're getting chances, you're playing well. Add up Neal's shots and misses for a total of 247 attempts, and no one in the NHL generates more.

>> Leads the league with 12 power-play goals.

>> Has yet to net a hat trick, a glowing sign of his consistency accompanied by producing at least a point in 30 of 45 games.

>> Still hasn't benefited from an open net.

>> Is clutch as clutch gets: Eleven of his 24 goals have come in the third period, including six tying or winning goals.

I could do this all day.

Bottom line: This terrific young player, the Penguins' most dangerous winger since Jaromir Jagr and a native of Whitby, Ontario, eminently deserves to be in his nation's capital with the game's best.

It's been nearly a decade since anyone who finished among the NHL's top three in goals was snubbed from that season's All-Star Game. That was in 2002-03, when Milan Hejduk led the league with 50 but inexplicably was left out. The previous year, Bill Guerin and Glen Murray finished tied for second with 41 goals, and both were left out. But there's been nothing of the kind since.

Neal wanted this, too. As the season's gone on, he's spoken in more confident terms about his ability, about how he would handle the additional glare of the spotlight. And he's backed those sentiments with production.

"I know there will be expectations," Neal told me Dec. 23 in Winnipeg, "and I'm OK with that."

I asked Neal yesterday if the snub — rosters were announced last Thursday — was still on his mind.

"I've kind of put that behind me," he replied. "Really, I'm not thinking about that at all. We've got too many things right here to be focused on."

Is he playing on a level with the announced All-Stars?

"I hope I am. I feel good out there. I'm getting my chances to score every night, shooting the puck, and it's so great to be part of a team like this."

As if on cue, fellow winger Pascal Dupuis, at the next stall, jumped in: "Stay home! Rest up!"

The man had a point: Neal is playing on a fractured foot, one that's probably causing him more pain than one might guess from watching his play of late. Still, there is no lighter version of hockey on this planet than the All-Star Game, and Neal could beg off the tougher aspects of the skills competitions.

Be sure the Penguins would love to see Neal honored that way, should a current selection withdraw. This is a player they'd love to see appreciated, locally and broadly, as a rising star. General manager Ray Shero acknowledges he's done his share of lobbying, but he also recognizes that Phoenix's Radim Vrbata (22 goals) and Philadelphia's Scott Hartnell (20) are in that mix, too.

You'd have to think Neal is atop that list.

If not, you'd have to think that suddenly something has become more important in hockey than scoring goals.

Highlights: Penguins 2, Hurricanes 1 (SO)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Penguins GM on temporary captain with Sidney Crosby out: ‘I’m saying that would never happen’

By Greg Wyshynski | Puck Daddy
January 16, 2012

Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby skates during practice in Sunrise, Fla., Friday, Jan. 13, 2012. Crosby's recovery is back in the hands of chiropractor Ted Carrick. The Pittsburgh Penguins announced Monday that their captain will meet with Carrick this week. Crosby spent a week getting treated by the father of chiropractic neurology in August and credited him with helping accelerate his return from a concussion earlier this season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Alan Diaz

Mark Madden's fun. The Pittsburgh WXDX radio personality/hockey columnist interviewed Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero on Monday and gleaned some interesting information: Like the fact that Shero expects injured defenseman Kris Letang to return to full practice on Tuesday.

But the juiciest stuff was, naturally, the Sidney Crosby stuff. Shero said Crosby is visiting Ted Carrick — that chiropractic neurologist that "Sid's a big believer in, [so] so are we," according to Shero — to correct some balance issues related to his concussion protocol.

Will he play again this season?
"I think so," said Shero. "Whenever he comes back, we'll have a spot for him and he'll be a huge addition."

There was also the matter of that players' meeting regarding Crosby's absence from the lineup; a meeting reported by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, seconded by Madden prior to the interview and denied by the Penguins.

After a joke about his having led the meeting, Shero also denied its existence. But even if the Penguins had met about a temporary captaincy, Shero explained why it would never happen.

To reset: Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote an incendiary column about Crosby's recovery last Friday, that included news that "a group of players held a 45-minute meeting to discuss a temporary captaincy."

Here's Shero and Madden from Monday on WXDX:
SHERO: "Here's my take on this whole thing Mark, which I think is … Dejan wrote the article, and I only started dealing Dejan this year. I follow his stuff because I'm a big baseball fan and he was covering the Pirates, so I have a lot of respect for him. I don't think that meeting ever took place [in] our locker room. You know, I've been here six years. I know our players. I know our room. I don't think that would ever happen. But Dejan had somebody or some people tell him that a certain thing and he wrote something …

MADDEN: "I'm not gonna lie to you: I've had a lot people tell me the same thing. That the meeting did take place. It was a more informal gathering to talk about the need for captaincy, not as sinister as a full meeting [in the locker room.] But it seems to me something did happen."

SHERO: "My information tells me that it didn't.
"Irregardless (Ed. Note: Ugh.), Mark. No. 1, for any of that to ever be executed, in terms having an interim captain, it would have to be my decision. And I'm just saying that would never happen. And No. 2, I'm going on the information I got from our players and … this has nothing to do with Dejan or anything like that. I had a nice conversation with him on the weekend for about 45 minutes, went through everything.

"… We've moved forward. Pour team's moved forward. Our guys had a lot of fun with it on the weekend — everybody wearing the 'C' and Geno wearing the 'K'. I like our room a lot, and I've said that many times.

"We have a few A's [on the ice], whether it's Kunitz, Orpik, Malkin. These guys are leaders.

"The only thing I can say is that if I actually went to any of these players and said, 'I have an idea. I've been talking to coach, and we should have a temporary captain while Sid is out,' I'm telling you, because I know our team, there's that not a guy that would want to do it because it's Sid's team. It wouldn't happen. Which is why when the report came out, I didn't really give it much credence or much thought until I had to. We're 100 percent behind Sidney being our captain and our leader."
So there you go. The 'C' stops with Shero.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Highlights: Penguins 4, Panthers 1

Crosby Deserves Better

Friday, January 13, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - FILE: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins waits to take a face off against the Boston Bruins on December 5, 2011 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Want the truth about Sidney Crosby?

OK, you'll have it.

Let's start with three critical things you should know about the Penguins' captain, based upon conversations I've had the past few days:

1. He isn't fine.

Not yet, anyway.

He's still experiencing trouble with balance, and he isn't sure why. He doesn't even know if it's related to a concussion. More than anything, he's exasperated by a lack of answers.

2. He desperately wants to play.

It's preposterous to even type such a thing, but sadly -- and stupidly -- there are people accusing Crosby of skipping out on playing, both in the public and in the Penguins' locker room. Ray Shero actually felt the need to address it Thursday, saying, "This is a player that's not medically cleared to play."

Let me take it further.

How dare anyone question Crosby's desire, much less teammates who should know him best?

Has everyone forgotten so quickly who this extraordinary athlete is, about his passion — no, obsession — for the game?

How about silently playing a month on a broken foot in 2007?

Or that magical return against the Islanders?

Come on.

3. He loves Pittsburgh.

Loves the people, the city, the team and its fans. And he would dearly love to spend his whole career with the Penguins. I'm not guessing at this. I've heard it from his mouth again very recently.

This is someone who recently bought a house in the area, only to scrap it and begin building a new one more to his liking.

Does that sound like someone ready to bolt when his contract is up next summer?

The only thing more absurd than the notion that Crosby doesn't want to play hockey is that he's conspiring to get out of town.

It's dead wrong.

You're going to hear some of this stuff Friday when Crosby faces reporters at about noon in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But let me lay this out now: The Penguins, the public and, yes, Crosby all need to learn how to handle this situation better in the future.

That begins with the locker room.

A few, certainly not all, of Crosby's teammates are of the mind that he's been symptom-free for a while, though they have no medical basis for that. Some think he should be playing. Some simply think he should be doing more to communicate, or at least be as visible as concussed defenseman Kris Letang.

Last week in Pittsburgh, according to three sources, a group of players held a 45-minute meeting to discuss a temporary captaincy. Another source disputed that any such meeting occurred.

If it did, were those players kidding?

Look, I get that the players are feeling the heat during this six-game losing streak. They're used to thinking about championships, not squeaking past Winnipeg for eighth place. I also get that when they see James Neal and Craig Adams tough out injuries, it highlights everyone who isn't doing likewise.

But moaning about who's wearing the "C?"

If the Penguins are serious about turning it around, they should focus on attacking the Florida Panthers on Friday night with the same energy they showed Wednesday in the 1-0 loss at Washington. There are plenty enough viable leaders in that room right now who should be holding themselves accountable for this losing streak.

Then there are the tales of tussles between management and the so-called Crosby camp.

Crosby's father, Troy Crosby, and his agent, Pat Brisson, do keep close tabs on him, and that rubs some the wrong way. But my understanding is that the divide between those men and the team have been hugely overblown. Or at least they have been since some bickering over the Penguins' bungling of the original concussion a year ago. Communications are fine, and relationships are fine.

That's as it should be.

Crosby's contract expires in summer 2013, and it's imperative that it gets extended. No one associated with the Penguins, from the front office to the fourth line, could possibly think they'd be better off without him. He's the best player in the world. He's the franchise.

And I'll repeat: He wants to stay in Pittsburgh.

Crosby, too, must do his part.

He's 24 years old, and it's time he applies his trademark maturity toward handling adversity a little better and calling more of his own shots. He's lifted a Cup, he's won Olympic gold, and he's represented our city and his native Canada on a grand scale. He's an extraordinary young man, one eminently capable of this.

But for right now, this is someone going through the toughest time of his life. And the Kid could use an assist, a helping hand when he's down.

Stop kicking already.

It's not what we Pittsburghers do to one of our own.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Steelers’ final grades

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The combination of 12 wins, a playoff appearance and a gallant effort in the Wild-Card round would constitute a successful season for many franchises.

Not this one.

The standard here, as you may have heard, is considerably higher.

Injuries or no injuries, a season that ends without a parade is deemed a disappointment at Steelers headquarters. One that ends without a playoff win is considered a flat-out failure.

Which is at it should be, for what is true in the classroom is true on the football field: High expectations create the environment for high achievement.

No franchise sets the bar higher. None owns as many Super Bowl trophies.

With that in mind, it's report-card time. Let's start with an explanation of the grading policy, in hopes of avoiding angry calls from parents.

Several injured players got incompletes. Grades are based on reasonable expectations coming into the season:

A — Far exceeded expectations

B — Exceeded expectations

C — Met expectations

D — Fell short

F — Stunk

So if a star player gets a C and Isaac Redman gets an A, it simply means the star met high expectations while Redman exceeded moderate ones.


Let's get to it ...


Ben Roethlisberger, C- Typically good numbers. Tons of courage. Gave his team a chance. But his last-drive magic has been missing in two straight postseason games.


Rashard Mendenhall, D Had him pegged for his best year. Didn't happen. Tiptoed too much, though he was coming on before tearing ACL.

Isaac Redman, A Delivered in short yardage, and when his name was called in playoffs.

Mewelde Moore, C Huge in Indy, New England wins. Quiet otherwise.


Mike Wallace, C- Drew more defensive attention. Numbers dropped from 2010. Has 141 total receiving yards in four playoff games.

Antonio Brown, A Set franchise record for all-purpose yards, became Ben's favorite target.

Hines Ward, D Decline was coming one of these years for franchise legend. As with Marvin Harrison, it came quickly.

Emmanuel Sanders, C- Salvaged up-and-down campaign with stellar playoff.

Jericho Cotchery, C Produced when called upon.


Heath Miller, C As always, dependable receiver and blocker. Not built in mold of sleek modern tight end. Just gets job done.

David Johnson, C- Decent lead blocker. Franchise will survive if not re-signed.

Weslye Saunders, B Played more than anticipated, early candidate for breakout in 2012.


Max Starks, A Nothing was expected because he was sitting around in Arizona when his phone rang. Stepped in admirably.

Marcus Gilbert, A Ticketed for rookie backup duty, forced into action. Showed enough promise to make you wonder if he could protect Ben's blind side.

Chris Kemoeatu, F Penalties, pass-blocking issues cost him starting job. Worth $4.4 million cap hit in 2012?

Doug Legursky, B Versatility helped. Errant snap in Denver hurt.

Ramon Foster, B- Quietly performed.

Maurkice Pouncey, C- Less dominant than in 2010. Warning: Do not inform him of this grade via Twitter.


Ziggy Hood, C- Wanting more from '09 first-rounder.

Brett Keisel, B+ Easily led club in combined QB hurries/pressures.

Cameron Heyward, C+ Showed flashes.

Casey Hampton, C- No longer dominant, $7 million cap hit next year.

Steve McLendon, B+ Who thought he'd even play?


Lawrence Timmons, D For the money ($10M cap hit next season), way more splash plays required.

James Farrior, C+ Avoided Hines-like slippage in reduced role.

James Harrison, C- Nine sacks in 11 games, but Ryan Clady owned him last Sunday.

LaMarr Woodley, C- Quiet at first, then torrid, should have rested hamstring until playoffs.

Jason Worilds, D Unlike, say, Gilbert, Worilds failed to fully seize opportunity.


William Gay, B- Fans didn't want him. Won job, fared OK.

Keenan Lewis, C Was projected to contribute and did.

Ike Taylor, C- Aced every test until final, which he failed in historic fashion.

Troy Polamalu, C- We've come to expect superhuman feats. He delivered again, though not on level of 2010.

Ryan Clark, B+ Had his best year, first safety to lead Steelers in tackles.

Ryan Mundy, C+ Solid backup.


Shaun Suisham, C Do not doubt The Mighty Suisham, who came on late and had perfect playoff.

Jeremy Kapinos, A His job now.


Mike Tomlin, D Led banged-up team to 12 wins but only one of high quality (New England) before perhaps worst playoff loss in franchise history. Questionable late-game management against Baltimore, Denver. Usage of injured stars Roethlisberger (leaving him in late at San Francisco and Cleveland), Woodley (came back too soon) and Pouncey (kept him in all game against Cleveland?) was ill-advised.

Bruce Arians, D The Steelers didn't score enough again, largely on account of more mediocre red-zone play. However, I'm giving Arians a pass on the playoff game. Nine of 11 drives should have resulted in points, except for player malfunction (dropped passes, errant snap, Ben's fumble/sack on final drive, etc.). The players were the problem, not the plan.

Dick LeBeau, D Regular-season ranking (1st overall) was great, but this unit did not attack passers, produce turnovers or stop the run near to the level of LeBeau's best. The Denver game was a mile-high meltdown, one where LeBeau and Tomlin stubbornly dared Tim Tebow to beat them even after he repeatedly proved he could.

So he did.

Highlights: Capitals 1, Penguins 0

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Signs from Penguins all negative

By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
January 11, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 10: Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins attempts a backhand shot on goal as goaltender Craig Anderson #41 of the Ottawa Senators dives to make the save on January 10, 2012 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Ottawa defeated Pittsburgh 5-1. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The company line coming from the Penguins' room Tuesday night was surprisingly upbeat. It sure seemed as if coach Dan Bylsma told the players to keep things positive despite the ugly 5-1 home loss to the Ottawa Senators, the team's fifth consecutive defeat. The players talked of liking their effort but hating their execution in key spots. They came across as lying through their teeth. Bylsma did his part, talking mostly about "some serious gaffes" that led to a couple of early Ottawa goals that made for a long night.

It really was a crock.

The effort stunk.

It's one thing to lose a big game at home. It's something inexcusable to not show up. The Penguins weren't ready to play at best and didn't seem to care at worst.

Shame on 'em.

Going in, Bylsma talked of the game having almost a playoff feel even though it marked the official halfway point of the Penguins' 82-game season. They started the night in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Only the top eight make the playoffs.

Certainly, Bylsma coached the game as if it were that important. He called his timeout at 14:03 of the first period -- after a goal by Bobby Butler put Ottawa ahead, 2-0 -- and gave his team the business on the bench. He pulled goaltender Brent Johnson at 1:15 of the second period -- after a goal by Jason Spezza nudged the Senators' lead to 3-0 -- and replaced him with Marc-Andre Fleury.

Nothing worked.

Maybe it was that early 2-0 deficit that put the Penguins in a funk. Defenseman Brooks Orpik had talked of the team wilting in the face of adversity after its 3-1 home loss to the New Jersey Devils Saturday. Now, that was truthful, painful as it was for Bylsma and a lot of the other players to hear.

The same curling up and quitting happened in this game.

The 2-0 hole must have seemed deep and dark for a hockey club that had scored two, one, one and one goal in the first four games of the losing streak.

Another injury couldn't have helped, either. Young defenseman Simon Despres left early in the game with a lower-body problem and did not return. It seems like a different player is going down every day.

But enough with the excuses.

A good team doesn't check out the way the Penguins did.

A playoff-caliber team continues to fight.


We have come to take a playoff spot for granted for the Penguins. It is hardly a lock this season.

Sure, there still are 41 regular-season games to play, beginning with another big one tonight in Washington against the Capitals, who trail the Penguins by just two points in the standings. A lot of good things can happen between now and the second week of April.

But, really, what are you seeing from these Penguins that makes you think those good things are going to occur?

It's fair to think the Sidney Crosby issue finally is catching up with the team. Many of the players wondered privately why he took so long to get back in the lineup this season from his concussion-like symptoms. They had watched him in practice for weeks before his return against the New York Islanders Nov. 21.

Now that he's out again after playing just eight games, a lot of players -- just like a lot of us -- are wondering if he's going to play again this season. Crosby hasn't spoken publicly since Dec. 12. That has left his teammates to try to answer questions for him. Know this: That gets very old for the guys in the room.

"You cannot replace a guy like Sidney," Ottawa defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. "You cannot replace a guy like [Kris] Letang. They miss them big-time."

Gonchar should know. He played with Crosby, Letang and the Penguins when they won the Stanley Cup in 2009. Letang, an All-Star defenseman, has been out since Nov. 26 with his own concussion-like symptoms. Bylsma talked Tuesday night of him making progress and "hopefully [being] back at practice soon," but his return to the lineup doesn't seem imminent. As a sad topper, valuable two-way center Jordan Staal injured his left knee Friday night against the New York Rangers and is expected to be out four-to-six weeks.


We're back to the excuses.

No one wants to hear 'em.

"We can't wait for anyone to get back," Orpik said Tuesday night. "This group has to pull us through. The guys in this room."

Making sure it happens is Bylsma's biggest challenge since he's been the Penguins' coach. His 2009-10 team lost five games in a row near midseason, but four were on the road. Four of the five losses during this woeful streak were at home.

For sure, the Penguins need a big effort tonight against the Capitals.

A legitimate effort.

What they gave against the Senators was a joke.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author