Sunday, April 29, 2012

Blass book hits the strike zone

By John Mehno
Beaver County Times
April 29, 2012

Imagine this: a successful concert pianist sits down to play. But nothing works. He can't make sense out of the keys and can only produce disjointed noise.

There's no physical problem, just a shocking mental block that keeps him from making the music that's been his life.He tries a variety of cures, but it gets no better. After two years of incredible frustration, he has to abandon his career and find something else to do with his life.
He can talk about music, he can even teach it. He just can't play it any more.

That's essentially what happened to Steve Blass in 1973, when the pinpoint control that made him one of baseball's best pitchers left him without warning.

For two seasons, Blass tried to get it back and never did. Shortly before his 33rd birthday, he retired from baseball, defeated by an enemy he couldn't even identify.

That incredible experience is recounted in "A Pirate For Life," the autobiography Blass has written with Erik Freeman. The book, published by Triumph, hits stores this week.

For those who know Blass just as the genial commentator on Pirates broadcasts who mines most situations for laughs, the book will pack a jolt or two.

Blass was coming off a 19-win season and All-Star game appearance when he suddenly lost the ability to pitch.

To borrow a Blass expression, he eventually got on the other side of the problems, but it didn't happen overnight. He went through two "regular" jobs before he got back into baseball as a broadcaster.

He learned to accept his fate, and even found the cure -- 30 years too late to help his career, but in time to gain peace of mind.

Despite his pitching problems, it's not a sad book. There are some great stories, many of them told in dugout language. He recounts his start in professional baseball when pitching coach Don Osborn told him, "Steve, just throw your (stuff) over the plate and find out if it's good enough. And if it's not, you're still young enough to go out and get a real job."

There's also the time his son told a teacher he couldn't complete an assignment to describe his father's job because, "My dad doesn't work. He plays baseball."

Blass has produced a thoughtful and entertaining book, well worth the attention of any Pirates fan.

It's been a Pirates life for Blass

Curious career of current Pittsburgh broadcaster includes stop in Charleston

Florida RB Chris Rainey selected in the fifth round of NFL Draft

By Rachel George, Orlando Sentinel
April 28, 2012

GAINESVILLE – Former Florida running back Chris Rainey was selected in the fifth round of the NFL Draft on Saturday by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Taken with the 159th overall pick, Rainey was the school's second player taken in this year's draft. Defensive tackle Jaye Howard went before him, claimed by the Seattle Seahawks in the fourth round earlier in the day Saturday.

Rainey finished his career with 19 starts in 52 games at Florida. He totaled 2,464 yards rushing, good for ninth all-time at the school, and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. The team's MVP in 2011, Rainey had 69 career receptions for 795 yards.

He was a key contributor on special teams, setting a school and SEC record for career blocked punts with six.

In Pittsburgh, Rainey joins fellow former Gators Marcus Gilbert and Maurkice Pouncey. The offensive linemen blocked for Rainey while they were still at UF.

"It will be good for him to reunite with Maurkice -- he is someone Chris has spent a great deal of his life around," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "He will do whatever he is asked and is eager to begin his professional career."

Speaking to ESPN during the draft, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made it known that he had many different plans for using the explosive Rainey's speed.

"(He'll be) in the backfield, outside the backfield, in the return game. He's an explosive player in the SEC," Tomlin said. "When you're fast on the SEC fields, chances are, you're going to be fast on the NFL fields."

Rainey's speed was what made him valuable in ESPN analyst Mel Kiper, Jr.'s eyes before the draft.
"When you look at Rainey, I think there's speed and versatility," Kiper said, "and he gives you the ability to do some things with him in this game."

Fellow ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay was equally complimentary of Rainey on Saturday.

"You can label him a running back, but he's really an offensive weapon," McShay said.

Rainey was the first Florida running back to be drafted since DeShawn Wynn in 2007. It was the first time since 1993 that UF didn't have a player taken in the first three rounds.

No word on Hampton's return, but Steelers think Ta'Amu is his clone

By Gerry Dulac
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
April 29, 2012

The Steelers think they have found Casey Hampton's replacement at nose tackle with a player who possesses some of the same run-clogging, impossible-to-move traits as their five-time Pro Bowler.

Now, they are waiting to find out if Hampton still possesses some of the traits that made him the anchor of their 3-4 defense after having a third major knee surgery.

If not, they are prepared to move on after drafting Washington's Alameda Ta'amu -- a bigger, wider version of Hampton -- in the fourth round.

"I think you have to ask Casey that," defensive line coach John Mitchell snapped Saturday, when asked if Hampton will be ready to play when the regular season begins in Denver in September. Moments earlier, the Steelers moved up 10 spots in the fourth round to draft Ta'amu, a powerful 6-foot-2 1/4, 348-pound nose tackle who once weighed as much as 390 pounds.

"I can't answer that. He was here about a week ago. He looks like Casey. I can't answer that. You have to ask Casey if he is going to be ready to play. When he shows up, I'll know."

Hampton tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the playoff loss in Denver and did not have surgery until Jan. 27. It was the second time he has had ACL surgery on his left knee, dating to his senior season at Texas. He also had ACL surgery on his right knee in 2004.

Last month, Hampton restructured his contract and agreed to a pay cut in exchange for one more season with the Steelers. But when he will be able to play remains uncertain.

That's why the Steelers wanted to find a nose tackle in the draft. Dontari Poe of Memphis was gone with the 11th overall pick, but the Steelers had Ta'amu rated the second-best nose tackle. They had a low-second to high-third round grade on him.

When he was still available in the fourth, they gave up their sixth-round pick to the Washington Redskins to move up 10 spots to get him.

Read more:

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Steelers take LB in 3rd round

By Mark Kaboly
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
April 28, 2012

The Steelers were in the market to replace inside linebacker James Farrior, and they addressed that need in the third round of the NFL Draft on Friday night by selecting Miami (Fla.) senior linebacker Sean Spence.
“We see him as an inside linebacker,” Steelers linebacker coach Keith Butler said. “Sean is a very distinctive, fast kid who is very smart.”
Butler said Spence (5-foot-11, 231 pounds) won’t be expected to contribute much his rookie year other than special teams. Butler said Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote will be the starting inside linebackers.
“You are never going to replace a guy like James Farrior with all the intangibles he brings to the table,” Butler said. “We feel comfortable with what we have.”
The Steelers plan to groom Spence to eventually take over one of the inside spots.
Spence started 39 of his 40 career games at Miami at weak-side outside linebacker and ranks 11th in school history with 318 tackles that included 10.5 sacks.
Spence is the first Hurricane to record 100 tackles in consecutive seasons. He had 111 in 2010 and 106 last year.
Spence, 21, was a Butkus Award semifinalist as the nation’s top linebacker last year.
“This is a perfect organization,” Spence said. “I am a team player, and I am going to contribute anyway I can. It is going to be great playing alongside those guys like Lawrence Timmons.”
Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

Adams a risk Steelers were willing to take

By Gene Collier
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
April 28, 2012

Among the more enduring traditions of a Steelers franchise that embraces tradition like few others is this essential all-or-nothing nature of the second-round draft pick.

Kevin Colbert has made Pittsburgh's first-round success nearly metronomic, even if the pick after the pick has remained historically adventuresome.

Well, buckle up.

Into the Steelers tradition where for every Dermontti Dawson there's a Limas Sweed on your Round 2 Menu, where for every Chad Brown there's an Alonzo Jackson, where for every LaMarr Woodley there's a Ricardo Colclough, please welcome to the great and never-ending Steelers Scrutiny Festival Mr. Mike Adams, offensive tackle, Tattoo U.

Suspended for taking improper benefits in the scandal that felled coach Jim Tressel at Ohio State, Adams failed a drug test at the Indianapolis scouting combine after telling the Steelers he never smoked weed.
"We were point-blank with him," Colbert said, "We said, 'Mike, you've off our board.' "

And having said that, they found a way to get him back on.

"He sought us out," Colbert went on. "He requested a face-to-face with me, Art Rooney and Mike Tomlin, and we presented it to him: These are the stipulations that you have to accomplish for consideration for us to draft you, which the young man did. He met our criteria, met our stipulations."

Colbert wouldn't say what they were, but you would presume Adams had to do more than just open a Costco membership and move Tomlin's weights up to the attic.

It's unusual for the Steelers to crawl that far out on a limb for a second-round talent, but even more unusual for them to be so candid about their concerns.

"Those are usually offenses that we are not going to forgive," Colbert said. "Still, we're comfortable in selecting him, but it's a day-to-day process."
Read more:

Gene Collier:

Ride of a lifetime: DeCastro's path to Steelers an odd one

By Gerry Dulac
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
April 28, 2012

Pittsburgh Steelers first-round NFL football draft pick David DeCastro, left, holds a jersey with Steelers President Art Rooney II after being introduced to reporters at the team's headquarters in Pittsburgh, Friday, April 27, 2012. (AP)

The Steelers almost never got a chance to leap as quickly as they did when David DeCastro, a tenacious, determined, tackle-mashing guard from Stanford, all but fell into their lap in the first round of the NFL draft.

In fact, the three years DeCastro spent as a starting All-Pac-10 Conference guard at Stanford almost never came about, either.

When he was 18 months old, DeCastro's parents moved back to their native South Africa because his father, Colin, wanted to pursue a law career in Cape Town, his hometown. Colin and his wife, Jennifer, had met when both were doing their undergraduate work at the University of Cape Town.

But, after five months, Jennifer, who received her masters degree from the University of Washington, received a job offer in Seattle. So the DeCastros moved back to the Pacific Northwest. And, for that, Stanford and the Steelers, are forever grateful.

"There were a lot of twists and turns," Jennifer DeCastro said Friday, less than 24 hours after her son introduced a new twist to their family life -- becoming the No. 1 draft choice of the Steelers.

"I'm absolutely thrilled; he's thrilled, too," she said. "The team has such a tremendous fan base that is as passionate about football as he is. Even last week, when people asked him where he was going, he said he just wanted to be drafted. He's very grounded, very humble, very down to earth."

DeCastro (6-5, 316) was considered the best guard in the NFL draft and projected as a top-15 pick. But, when he kept slipping, the Steelers considered trading up to draft him. They didn't have to and were ecstatic to get him with the 24th overall selection.

They were prepared to draft Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower with their pick.

"This guy plays with a passion," said offensive line coach Sean Kugler. "He's intense. He gives that little extra nasty that some guys just don't have in them. He's got it."

In that manner, DeCastro reminds the Steelers of the player to whom he will line up next to -- center Maurkice Pouncey, who started as a rookie and has been named to two Pro Bowls in two seasons.
"I can't wait to pair those two together," Kugler said.

Read more:

Gerry Dulac: and Twitter @gerrydulac.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Steelers opt for Stanford guard in 1st round of NFL Draft

By Scott Brown
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
April 26, 2012

The Steelers didn’t just address their offensive line Thursday night when they took Stanford’s David DeCastro with the 24th overall pick of the NFL Draft.
They added the player considered the best guard in the draft as well as one of its safest players.
“This kid’s an exceptional player,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “Everything you could ask for in a football player, this kid encompasses.”
The Steelers patiently waited as DeCastro, who had been projected as a top-15 pick, fell to them. They passed on a number of players who could have helped them at other positions of need, including Alabama inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
“I’m just thankful I’m going to a great team,“ DeCastro said.
Colbert said DeCastro was one of seven to 10 prospects the Steelers had identified as “sure-fire” NFL players. Colbert added that DeCastro was one of “several” players the Steelers would have considered trading up to get.
DeCastro bolsters the interior of the Steelers’ offensive line and should challenge for a starting job in his first season. Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster, both former undrafted free agents, are the incumbents at left and right guard, respectively.
“He’s a right guard,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “but we’re going to put our best men on the field.”
The Steelers have taken an offensive lineman with two of their past three first-round picks, as they selected Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey 18th overall in 2010. They used their second-round pick last year on Marcus Gilbert, who started 14 games at right tackle.
The Steelers are slated to make two more picks tonight when the NFL Draft resumes. They have one pick in the second round (No. 56 overall) and another in the third (No. 86).
DeCastro is the first guard the Steelers have taken in the first round since Kendall Simmons in 2002, and the 6-foot-5, 316-pounder has drawn comparisons to former perennial All-Pro Alan Faneca.
The Steelers have taken nine offensive linemen since 2007. That is the position they have addressed the most since Tomlin’s first season as head coach.
DeCastro started all 39 games he played at right guard, and he was one of the top protectors of Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick. He finished his career with 316 knockdowns and 68 touchdown-resulting blocks.
His consistency grade of 96.88 percent last season was the highest in Pac-12 history, and that statistic has been tracked since 1985. DeCastro had another season of eligibility at Stanford, but he graduated in four years with a degree in management, science and engineering.
Colbert and Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler worked out DeCastro at Stanford’s Pro Day.
Colbert said DeCastro performed so well during that workout that he and Kugler figured the Steelers would never have a chance at drafting him.
Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

Grading the Team's First Round of 2012 NFL Draft

April 26, 2012

Prior to the start of the 2012 NFL draft, there was much speculation as to what player the Pittsburgh Steelers were going to take with the 24th overall selection. Staying true to form, they were going to select the best available player.

Through many mock drafts, most people had players like Mike Adams, Dontari Poe, Dont'a Hightower and Cordy Glenn.

None of those names were on the Steelers' draft card, even though all of them with the exception of Poe were available when the Steelers selected.

With the 24th pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected David DeCastro, G, Stanford.

With a desperate need at guard, the Steelers were able to stay with their pick and get the best guard available in the draft.

DeCastro should be able to earn a starting spot on the Steelers' offensive line from day one.

At 6'5" and 315 lbs, DeCastro will immediately be penciled in starting at right guard and will play between former first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey and Willie Colon.

Though some people will say that the Steelers missed out on a possible replacement for James Farrior, passing on Dont'a Hightower, the need at Guard was simply too much to pass up, especially with a player like DeCastro available.

Though this is not a "pretty" draft pick, the Steelers didn't need to be pretty. What the Steelers needed was an "ugly" draft. Being able to select DeCastro is the first step to solidifying the offensive line, with three players selected in the last three years in the first two rounds.

Being able to stay with their original pick and being able to draft a player that will remind many people of Alan Faneca, the Steelers came out of the first round with a draft grade of A+.

If they can continue this success into the second and third rounds, it will help bring success to the Steelers for years to come.

The Steelers still have needs along the offensive line, and are likely to spend another pick there in the second or third round. Their other greatest need comes on the defensive side of the ball, where they will need to address the nose tackle position.

I look for the Steelers to use their second-round selection on the replacement for Casey Hampton. Possibilities include Alameda Ta'amu from Washington.

Ta'amu would have a year to play behind Casey Hampton which will help him learn behind one of the best nose tackles in the NFL.

Though Ta'amu was projected to be a mid to late second-round pick, the Steelers may still need to trade up in the second round to have the ability to select him, but even if they don't they may choose Josh Chapman out of Alabama in the third round or Nick Jean-Baptiste from Baylor.

If the Steelers do wait until the third or fourth round to address the NT position, then there is a good chance they could spend their second- and/or third-round pick on offensive linemen as well.

With so few offensive linemen taken in the first round of the draft, there is still a lot of quality available in the second round.

Players such as Cordy Glenn (Georgia), Amini Silatolu (Midwestern State), Kelechi Osemele (Iowa State) and Brandon Brooks (Miami of Ohio) all still available with second-round grades, as are Brandon Washington (Miami of Florida) and Tony Bergstrom (Utah) with third-round grades. One or more could be available with the Steelers' next two selections.

If the Steelers decide to go the route of offensive tackle, players such as Jonathan Martin (Stanford), Mike Adams (Ohio State), Bobby Massie (California), Jeff Allen (Illinois), Zebrie Sanders (FSU) and James Brown (Troy) would all be able to challenge Willie Colon to start at right tackle, or at least be able to provide much-needed depth.

With all of the available offensive linemen, the Steelers could concievably come out of the first four rounds with two new starters on the offensive line. If you put them with Maurkice Pouncy and Marcus Gilbert, that would provide the Steelers with four starters drafted in the first three rounds in the last three years.

What was once an area of weakness, the Steelers are building an offensive line that may become one of the best in the NFL.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Les Banos: Clemente friend, photographer dies

By Bob Cohn
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
April 26, 2012

Former Pirates photographer Les Banos points to a photo of Pirates great Roberto Clemente and himself in a gallery showcasing Clemente in advance of the 2006 All-Star Game. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Les Banos, a colorful and popular photographer who worked for the Steelers, Pirates and Pitt football program and claimed to have cheated death more than once, died Sunday at age 88.

The cause of death was unknown.

Banos’ favorite subject was his friend, Pirates superstar Roberto Clemente, who died Dec. 31, 1972, in a plane crash during a relief mission to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Banos, who lived in Penn Hills, often said he should have been on that plane.

That was the day the Steelers, for whom Banos worked part-time, played Miami in the AFC championship. The game was made possible by the Steelers beating Oakland the previous week on the Immaculate Reception.

If not for Franco Harris’ last-second touchdown catch, Banos maintained he would have accompanied Clemente to Nicaragua. The plane crashed shortly after taking off from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Clemente, another passenger and the crew of three died.

“Franco’s miracle catch saved my life,” Banos said in a 2006 newspaper interview, echoing comments he made in previous interviews.

On Opening Day 1973, Banos invited members of the Clemente family to his home for a screening of a film he had made.

Banos captured Clemente’s 3,000th hit in a frame-by-frame sequence, and many of his photos have been displayed in exhibitions through the years. A current collection can be seen at the Roberto Clemente Museum in Lawrenceville.

“He was a very energetic guy,” Pirates broadcaster and former pitcher Steve Blass recalled. “A good personality and a lot of fun. A good front-guy for the organization.”

Raised in Budapest, Hungary, Banos hid countrymen from the Nazis during World War II and infiltrated German SS headquarters as an Allied spy. He used his position to help hide hundreds of Hungarians. The nature of his work was summed up in his manuscript, “If They Catch You, You Will Die.”

But there were many he could not save, and he witnessed numerous mass executions. “They were shooting people like it was a shooting gallery” he said in an interview posted on WQED-TV’s website.

After the war, Banos attended Pitt and worked as a cameraman for local TV stations.

Friends will be received at the William F. Gross Funeral Home, 11735 Frankstown Road (at Rodi Road), Penn Hills from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. today.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7810

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Things to Consider When Criticizing the Pittsburgh Penguins

April 23, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 22: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins leads the line of his team as they give the traditional handshake to memebers of the Philadelphia Flyers after the Flyers defeated the Penguins 5-1 in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on April 22, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Penguins, a favourite to win the Stanley Cup, have been eliminated in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Fans and the media are quick to criticize the Penguins and their stars for not getting the job done in the playoffs. While some of the criticism is justified, it’s important to acknowledge the play of the Philadelphia Flyers and remember how the NHL seeds its playoff teams.

Give the Flyers Credit
No one should be shocked by the Flyers series win.

They are one of the only teams in the NHL who can score as much as the Penguins.

The Penguins and Flyers finished first and second in scoring in the regular season and had almost identical power play percentages. The Flyers boast a lineup full of offensive talent; they just don’t have the household names the Penguins do.

Daniel Briere leads the NHL in post lockout playoff points with 104 in 103 games. While Claude Giroux is one of the best players in the league right now, finishing with 93 points in 77 games this season. He also leads all playoff scorers with 14 points.

Scott Hartnell is a physical force, but has also left his mark on the score sheet with five points in the playoffs. Jaromir Jagr is a savvy veteran who has six assists in the playoffs and adds depth to the power play. Max Talbot adds experience to the lineup having won the Cup with the Penguins, scoring the Penguins two goals in Game 7 of the 2009 final.

Finally, young players such as Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Sean Couturier add depth to the Flyers scoring.
The Flyers outplayed the Penguins in all aspects of the game.
Their best forwards were as good if not better, than Crosby and Malkin. Their special teams were far superior to that of the Penguins, highlighted by a power play that scored on 52 percent of its opportunities.
Goaltending was shaky at the best of times for both teams, but in the end Ilya Bryzgalov managed a better performance when it really mattered.
NHL Playoff Seeding Format

Before criticizing the Penguins specifically for not making it out of the first round, consider the NHL’s format for playoff seeding. Perhaps they deserved an easier first round opponent?
The NHL’s format rewards division winners with a guaranteed spot in the top three. The New York Rangers won the Atlantic and earned the top seed (109 points), while the division winning Boston Bruins (102 points) and Florida Panthers (94 points) took the second and third seeds.
This left the Penguins and Flyers to play in the first round as the fourth and fifth seeds, even though they had higher point totals then the other division winners.
The Penguins finished with 108 points, second most in the Eastern Conference. The Flyers weren’t far behind finishing with 103, good enough for third in the East. No format should allow for the second and third best teams in the conference to play in the first round.
Take the NBA’s playoff seeding format for example. It gives division winners a top four spot by reseeding them and the next best team, based on their point totals. Essentially, it offers talented teams who play in competitive divisions the opportunity to be rewarded for their efforts.
The NHL’s format does not, as it forces the Penguins and Flyers to play in the first round. Again, even though they amassed more points playing in a tougher division than the Bruins and Panthers did playing weaker divisional opponents.
This isn’t an excuse for the Penguins, but rather another explanation why this is hardly a big first round upset.
It’s a very small upset. It was a series that easily could have been played to determine the conference champion.
The Penguins had the second best record in the East and lost to the team with the third best record. A Philadelphia squad who happened to be the one team in the NHL who can match the Penguins offensively.
The NHL’s playoff seeding format has given us an amazing first-round series.
Unfortunately, it might compromise the level of play and excitement in the second and third rounds.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Pens can't allow this trend to continue

By Mark Madden
The Beaver County Times
April 23, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 22: Evgeni Malkin #71 and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins look down after a goal by Scott Hartnell of the Philadelphia Flyers in the first period of Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on April 22, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Flyers won the game 5-1 to eliminate the Penguins from the playoffs. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

Valiant efforts are for high school teams. The Penguins accomplished zero by "battling back" from a three games-to-none deficit in their playoff series against Philadelphia. A first-round loss is a first-round loss.

Yinzer Nation acted like getting #PensIn7 to trend on Twitter would have some kind of magical effect. Admire optimism, but know history. When something happens just three times in a league's 95 years, two victories are nothing to get overly excited about.

The Penguins' core must now be considered underachievers. Losses in three straight playoff series don't lie. Final in '08, Stanley Cup in '09, but nothing close since. Too disappointing, too early, too often. The Penguins lost to Philadelphia for many reasons.

But three overwhelm:

-- The abject collapse of the Penguins' penalty-killing unit. Third in the NHL during the regular season with a success rate of 87.8 percent, the Pens' PK ranks last in the playoffs with a mark of 47.8 percent. You can't win a series when your foe's power play is 12 for 23. It's impossible. Tack on three shorthanded goals allowed, and special teams were a bloodbath for the Penguins.

--The inconsistency of Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury allowed at least one bad goal yesterday, but that loss wasn't his fault. The pace-setting first-minute goal by Claude Giroux was just a great play, and Philadelphia never lost momentum. Fleury played spectacular in Game 5. But Fleury was so brutal in Games 2 and 3 that the Penguins never had a chance in those contests. That's a deep ditch to dig.

-- The inconsistency of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Each had eight points. Those numbers were doubtless inflated by the series' high-scoring nature. Crosby netted the first goal in each of the first two games. He gave the Penguins a chance to win.
But Crosby and Malkin combined for one point over the series' final two games. Neither was ever a force for an extended period. The Penguins needed more from their two superstars. They didn't get it. As Mario Lemieux used to say after losses, "I make the most. I need to do more." That's how goats are determined in big-money sports.

The off-season is upon us. General manager Ray Shero has some hard decisions to make, especially given that the team that vanquished his blew up its foundation last off-season, peddled two of its best players, and somehow came out the other side even better. Flyers GM Paul Holmgren took big risks, but has reaped big reward.

The Penguins won't trade Crosby. He's hockey's best player and the face of the game. The Penguins won't trade Malkin. He led the league in scoring and besides, what if Crosby gets hurt again?

Jordan Staal's contract is up at the end of next season. His overtime gaffe in Game 1 aside, he was the Penguins' best player against Philadelphia. But can Shero fit him in under the cap? Does Staal want to be a third-line center forever? I would never trade Staal. But is it possible to keep him?

One change is necessary: The coaching staff needs a power-play specialist and a bad cop. The players aren't lazy, but signs of entitlement are certainly present. And there's no excuse for not molding Crosby and Malkin into a killer power play after years of inconsistency.

Hire ex-Pen Rick Tocchet. He'd provide both elements required. He'd also be a head coach-in-waiting if the Penguins further falter under Bylsma.

This is the first off-season in many where the fertilizer is really going to fly. The Penguins were coming off a Cup when Montreal upset them in 2010. They were wracked by injury when Tampa Bay upset them last season.

But now the Penguins have again lost early. They lost to their bitter rival. They're easy to play against. They have significant contracts soon coming due. They're saddled with some deals that are potentially crippling (Paul Martin, three more years at $5 million per and Zbynek Michalek, three more years at $4 million per). The further the Penguins get away from their previous coach, Michel Therrien, the more their discipline lapses and the worse Bylsma looks. It doesn't seem a team on the brink of success.

Tough questions must be asked ... and answered.

The key? Get something trending on Twitter, of course.

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

Highlights: Game 6 - Flyers 5, Penguins 1

Thursday, April 19, 2012

If Fleury is back, so are Penguins

Thursday, April 19, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 18: Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins slides over and kicks the puck away from Jaromir Jagr #68 of the Philadelphia Flyers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on April 18, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Penguins defeated the Flyers 10-3. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — Anyone doubting whether the Penguins remain alive in these Stanley Cup playoffs, no matter how faint the pulse, really shouldn`t have paid too much heed to the franchise-record-tying offense, tough as it was to miss in the 10-3 all-out annihilation of the Flyers in Game 4 on Wednesday night.

Yeah, Jordan Staal was rewarded with a hat trick after he`d been one of the few steady performers all series.

Evgeni Malkin broke through with his first two goals.

Steve Sullivan, in addition to almost singlehandedly restoring sanity to the power play, found top shelf on a rink-length rush.

And, in what I`d bet was most satisfying inside a palpably sighing locker room, Sidney Crosby essentially wrapped up the Philadelphia Daily News` cheap-shot cover – he was amateurishly photo-shopped as the "Cowardly Penguin" – and used it swat the Flyers for three points.

It was a ton of fun, all of it.

At the same time, we knew Crosby could do that.

And we knew the Penguins could score in big bunches. They`ve been doing it all along.

To me, the moment that should mean the most — to the Penguins and even the Flyers — was, of all things, a save.

I`ll wait until you check a hockey glossary for the term.

Rewind the clock to 14:38 of the second period: Claude Giroux, Philadelphia`s finest forward, darted to the left hash and — just as uncontested than most Flyers have been all series — fired a bullet for the far post.

Except this time, Fleury jutted out that big left pad, rock-em-sock-em-robots style, and got the better of the battle.

You know, like he used to.

"It felt good, I know that," Fleury said. "I`ve been giving up some goals, and it felt good to stop a player like that."

It wasn`t exactly a brilliant showing. Not with Fleury giving up three goals on 11 shots — a bad-angle Giroux stuff and two that found the five-hole — in a first period that looked as shaky as his 18 goals over three-games.

But be sure that Fleury stopping his final 14 shots and enjoying two periods of silence is precisely what the Penguins can use to turn this single staving-off into much more.

Brooks Orpik had gone out of his way to defend Fleury to wave after wave of reporters, and he didn`t stop afterward.

Citing the save on Giroux, Orpik said, "It`s nice when he only has to make one of those a game. I mean, we`ve given him five breakaways, five two-on-ones and five tap-ins every game. He hasn`t been his best, and he`d be the first to tell you that. But we`ve been terrible."

What`s funny is that Fleury might not even need to be at his best to beat Philadelphia.

Did you see Ilya Bryzgalov continuing to look like he lost his contact lenses in the ice?

Five goals, 18 shots.

And how about replacement Sergei Bobrovsky?

Five goals, 18 shots.

Bryzgalov probably will be the Flyers` choice for Game 5, despite 17 goals in four games. I don`t think they have a choice.

"He has to have confidence in himself," Jaromir Jagr said. "Nobody`s going to help him but himself. I think he`s OK."

Reassuring, huh?

Fleury`s capable of being far better than OK.

He made another eyepopping save at 5:52 of the third, snagging Braydon Coburn`s point-blank backhander, then raising it high enough for the grumbling sea of orange to see.

That`s the real Fleury.

That`s the one who flashed the boyish grin when I asked if this had lifted him up a bit.

"Well," he answered, "I`m looking forward to Game 5."

Highlights: Game 4 - Penguins 10, Flyers 3

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A confession: Jagr was right

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 13: Jaromir Jagr #68 of the Philadelphia Flyers handles the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 13, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

VOORHEES, N.J. — Jaromir Jagr was right.

For all else that will pain Pittsburgh`s passionate hockey fans once the Penguins complete their epic collapse in these Stanley Cup playoffs, either Wednesday night in Game 4 or later this week, nothing should cut deeper than those four words.

Jagr was right, and we were wrong.

Well, I was wrong, speaking for myself.

It was just last summer, amid all the fuss of "Jagr Watch" and folks staking out Pittsburgh International with dusted-off No. 68 sweaters and turtles delaying his flight out of JFK and endless nonsense from loopy agent Petr Svoboda, that I criticized Jagr once he signed with the Flyers.

In this space on July 2, 2011, the day after Jagr accepted the Flyers` $3.3 million offer over the Penguins` $2 million, I called him greedy. Called him a mercenary. Pointed out that he`d amassed $101 million over his career and still went for the extra million.

"This wasn`t about greener pastures," I wrote that day. "It was about going for the green."

I`ll say it again: I was wrong.

Oh, sure, it can never be known what would have happened had the Penguins countered with, say, $4 million. Jagr might have looked at the whole scene — renewing his bond with the franchise, the city and Mario Lemieux — in a wholly different way.

But that part about greener pastures ... well, kind of hard to argue that now, isn`t it?

The first three playoff games have powerfully illustrated that Philadelphia is the better team to this point, and there`s also no question that the Flyers have been an exemplary fit for what he needed.

I spent some time with Jagr, whom I`ve known since 1997, after the Flyers` practice here last Wednesday, primarily for the purpose of fessing up. Told him what I wrote last summer, the terms I used, the whole deal.

Not surprisingly, he laughed.

"Well, what do you think now?" Jagr came back with a chuckle as he unlaced his skates. "For me, it was never about the money. If it was about the money, I could stay in Russia and make twice as much. I wanted to come to the NHL, play with great players and have the chance to win the Cup again. I`m very happy here."

Happier, no doubt, than he would have been in Pittsburgh.

Remember when Jagr wondered if the Penguins were "serious" about signing him?

That was legit. I have no doubt Lemieux and Dan Bylsma wanted it to happen. But I also have no doubt that general manager Ray Shero, who has every right to build his roster as he sees fit, really didn`t. And Jagr acknowledged Wednesday for the first time that he sensed Shero`s trepidation during the talks.

"For sure," Jagr said. "I knew there were some people there that wanted me, others who didn`t. I know Mario did."

Remember when Jagr said he`d prefer playing with Claude Giroux over Sidney Crosby?

Oh, we howled at that one. Not anymore.

Giroux isn`t Crosby. No one is. But Giroux raised his status to one of the game`s unquestioned top five forwards with a 93-point season, shining as Jagr`s centerman. The two also became good friends.
"He`s a special player, a special kid," Jagr said.

Remember when Jagr worried he wouldn`t have a spot on the Penguins` top two lines, or the first power-play unit?

We scoffed at that, too. But what would have become of Jagr once James Neal began busting out as a 40-goal sniper?

As for the power play ...

"They can`t even have Sid on the power play," Jagr said, with the trademark devilish grin. "Where would they put me?"

Remember when we saw Jagr joining the rival Flyers as a direct shot at the Penguins?

Well, this was what he had to say about being up, 3-0, in this series against his former team and the city that boos him with each touch of the puck: "All I know is that I appreciate every time I`m on the ice. I don`t know how many playoff games I have left in my career. If I`m happy about beating Pittsburgh — if we do — it`s because they`re the best team in the league. That`s special."

Jagr is openly talking about coming back for another NHL season, and he`s told the Flyers he`d prefer to stay put. I can see that happening, especially if he goes on to play a productive-mentor role similar to Mark Recchi`s with the champion Bruins last spring.

I`m guessing No. 68 would happily take a third Cup over that statue outside Consol Energy Center.

It was the right call.

Monday, April 16, 2012

James Neal Cheap-Shots Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux

By Jason Sapunka
April 16, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 15: Braydon Coburn #5 of the Philadelphia Flyers and James Neal #18 of the Pittsburgh Penguins collide along the boards in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on April 15, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Flyers defeated the Penguins 8-4. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Penguins showed little class in a Game 3 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers that put their team one loss away from elimination.

In addition to Sidney Crosby punching Claude Giroux with a linesman between them, Arron Asham cross-checking Brayden Schenn in the throat, and Craig Adams jumping Scott Hartnell from behind, James Neal took part in two dirty plays.

The first happened with just under 5:30 to play in the third period.

Philadelphia's Sean Couturier touched the puck near the boards (which were to his left), roughly five feet into his offensive zone. He was skating up-ice to Pittsburgh's end when the play occurred. The puck went deeper into the Philadelphia zone after he touched it.

At this point, Neal was skating toward the Pittsburgh end of the ice at the blue line in the center of the ice.

Couturier glided out of his zone and looked back at play. A full two seconds after he made contact with the puck, Neal leapt into him, hitting him high in the chest and sending Couturier down to the ice.

Not only was this a very late hit, Neal leaving his feet made it dirty, regardless of where the puck was. Neal had plenty of time to avoid Couturier, but skated right at him instead.

A little over 40 seconds later, the Penguins forward went after Giroux.

Giroux was in his offensive zone at the right faceoff circle, facing across ice. Neal came from outside of the zone toward Giroux.

Neal not only aimed his left elbow at Giroux's head, but left the ice as well—again. Had Giroux not ducked under the attempted cheap shot, the Flyers could have a disaster on their hands with an injured superstar.

Giroux missed time earlier this season due to a concussion; Neal aiming at his head with an elbow is completely irresponsible.

Does Neal want the Flyers aiming elbows at the head of Sidney Crosby? Because that's the only fair way for Philadelphia to respond his cheap-shot attempt.

Hartnell told reporters after the game,

"They were going after a couple of our guys' heads. It's scary when it comes down to that level," he said. "You ask the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby, what they're thinking over there: 'That's playoff hockey?'

"For me, that's not playoff hockey, that is dangerous hockey. They were just trying to hurt people."

The Penguins were pathetically cheap in the game that may very well seal a first-round exit this year.

The NHL has been very strange in their supplementary discipline decisions this postseason (even the New York Rangers say so), but it would be absurd for the Penguins to escape this game without at least one suspension.

Jason Sapunka covers the NHL and Philadelphia Flyers. He is available on Twitter for updates, analysis and commentary.


Sidney Crosby, from Prodigy to Punk -

Crosby puts series into gutter

By Phil Sheridan
Philadelphia Inquirer
April 16, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 15: The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers battle during the first period in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on April 15, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA -- Justice may or may not come from the NHL office in Toronto. History suggests it would be ill-advised to hold your breath waiting.

The Flyers got their justice on the scoreboard Sunday, beating the surly Penguins, 8-4, and virtually assuring themselves of a berth in the second round of the playoffs.

"We've been talking about that the whole series," said Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen, who was uncharacteristically ejected for fighting. "We're not going to get any favors from the referees or league or whatever. We have to be the ones to stay disciplined. ... If they think they're going to win that way, it's not working for them."

It's a shame, really. Games 1 and 2 of this series were thrilling, memorable hockey games. There was little of the expected extracurricular idiocy, and that was something to applaud.

Then Sidney Crosby changed the channel to a WWE steel-cage match. The feeling here has always been that Crosby's reputation outside the 'Burgh is overblown, as much a product of his success as his reputed cheap shots and referee-lawyering.

But Crosby earned every epithet that has been hurled at him in the first period of Game 3. Incapable of leading his choking team to wins despite early leads, Crosby the captain resorted to leading this series into the gutter.

Crosby started a scrum behind the Flyers net by chopping at goalie Ilya Bryzgalov's glove after he had covered the puck and the whistle had been blown. Then he reignited things into a full-blown melee by flicking Jakub Voracek's glove away as Voracek leaned over to pick it up.

Timonen took exception, so Penguins defenseman Kris Letang went after Timonen.

"If he gets in a scrum, they're obviously going to be all out there," Timonen said. "They're going to make sure he's not the one [who fights]."

Except Claude Giroux made sure, this time at least, that Crosby did. The Flyers' best player dropped his gloves and engaged Crosby. If Giroux wasn't already beloved by Flyers fans, this would have sealed the deal.

It would have been one thing if that had been the end of it. But it was the start. Taking a cue from their captain, the Penguins took a series of cheap shots at various Flyers targets. Arron Asham cross-checked Brayden Schenn up high, then pounded his head into the ice. James Neal launched himself at Sean Couturier in the third period, then took another shot at Giroux.

If there is a sentient being in the Toronto offices, perhaps he has noticed that more than 1,000 former NFL players have filed lawsuits against that league for its handling of concussions over the decades. That hasn't happened in hockey yet, but it's only a matter of time.

So here's the test for commissioner Gary Bettman and his czar of discipline, Brendan Shanahan. Saturday's playoff games were marred by similar dangerous cheap shots. Now here were the Penguins, all but finished in this series, trying to disable some of the league's future stars with outrageous head shots.

Precedent is mixed. Nashville's Shea Weber skated, literally, after a dangerous head shot. Sunday, the NHL suspended the Rangers' Carl Hagelin three games for a nasty head shot to Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson.

If Asham or Neal play again in this postseason, it will appear the league considers player safety secondary to satisfying the blood lust of some fans. That's going to look bad when the class-action suits are filed.

"If you look around, the whole playoffs, it's been like that," Timonen said. "It's not just our game. I watched games last night, and it's been like that."

Let's be clear here. The Flyers aren't dewy innocents competing for the Lady Byng instead of the Stanley Cup. This is a violent game, and who knows what misdeeds they might have gotten up to had the situation been reversed? But this series had been a compelling case for hockey as a contact sport, not a cheap-shot sport, until Crosby changed the temperature.

"They've got to do what they've got to do, I guess," Giroux said.

During the long stoppages, while the referees sorted out the 148 penalty minutes, Flyers fans chanted, "You can't beat us," at the Penguins.

It was true, and it was sweeter justice than any hit the Flyers could deliver.

Don't bother showing for Game 4

Monday, April 16, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 15: The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers fight during the first period in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on April 15, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Flyers defeated the Penguins 8-4. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — Within a couple hours of maybe the most pathetic playoff performance in Penguins history, the sloppy, senseless and stupid-beyond-words 8-4 loss to the Flyers in Game 3 on Sunday, the tattered remains of this team boarded an aircraft for Pittsburgh. That`s where they`re set to practice the next two days, then return here for Game 4.

Do us a favor, gentlemen: Don`t come back.

No, I mean it.

Just fold the sweaters like you`ve folded mentally in these Stanley Cup playoffs. Pack up like you`ve packed it in, and head off to Moose Jaw or Magnitogorsk for the summer.

But don`t come back here.

Not until you`re ready to use — and keep — your heads. Not until you`re prepared to take the ice with some semblance of dignity, discipline and, yeah, maybe even a shift or two of defense.

Want to send a busload of call-ups from Wilkes-Barre?

Go nuts. It`s right up the road.

Those kids, even the full-time knuckle-draggers, wouldn`t soil the franchise`s reputation like Arron Asham did with his disgraceful stick assault on Brayden Schenn, that before jabbing Schenn while face-down on the ice. The NHL`s suspension should be fierce.

Those Wilkes-Barre kids wouldn`t waste half the afternoon petulantly chasing personal grudges, either. Kris Letang killed the Penguins` early momentum with his stupid, selfish cross-check, then saw fit to get tossed for fighting while another fight was going on. Chris Kunitz was no sharper when slashing a Flyer in the attacking zone when the Penguins again had something going in the third. James Neal`s later hit that wiped out Sean Couturier wasn`t nearly as bad as folks here fussed about, but it was well away from the puck.

Even Sidney Crosby lost his cool, inexplicably risking his health by fighting Claude Giroux — though Crosby assured me nothing landed — and whacking his way all over the rink.

Afterward, too, despite assurances that "we`re not frustrated," he uncharacteristically raised eyebrows by saying of the Flyers` mega-pest Jakub Voracek, "I don`t like him. Why? Because I don`t like him. I don`t like any guy on their team."

That`s Crosby?

These are the Penguins?

You shouldn`t wonder what Mario Lemieux was thinking. I saw No. 66 shaking his head outside the locker room like a disgusted parent, and he had every right. He speaks out for the NHL to clean up its act, and his team pulls this garbage?

And yet, amazingly, the defense was still ugliest of all.

In all seriousness, do you suppose those Wilkes-Barre kids could hold the Flyers to fewer than 20 goals in three games?

Jordan Staal — who, along with Neal, Craig Adams, a gutsy Matt Niskanen and only a couple others, performed at an actual playoff level on this day — looked me in the eye and said the effort was there. I believe him. There are 11 ring-bearing champions on this roster.

But there`s a colossal difference between working hard and working smart, and the Penguins fell laughably shy of the latter — yet again — when it came to preventing goals.

The breakdowns spanned the length of the Turnpike, but nothing stood out like Pascal Dupuis failing to dump the puck on a penalty-kill late in the second, leading to Wayne Simmonds` breakaway goal that put the Flyers up, 6-4. This after relentless reinforcement about moving forward all week.

Dupuis is smarter than that.

The Penguins as a whole are far, far better than this. Or at least they should be.

They still sound determined, minus any bold declarations.

"We`ll be fine," Staal said.

They still sound together, too, with Crosby and Brooks Orpik offering — wholly unsolicited — that there`s "no finger-pointing" in the locker room.

But none of that matters with Evgeni Malkin being outclassed by 19-year-old Couturier, with Marc-Andre Fleury fishing rubber out of his net every five minutes, with the citizenry still waiting on Dan Bylsma`s first strategic adjustment and, above all, with dumb turning dumber.

Figure it out, fellas, or save the airfare.