Thursday, January 31, 2013

Penguins have issues

Penguins MVP center Evgeni Malkin skates during practice at Consol Energy Center Jan. 15, 2013. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
About Joe Starkey
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Freelance Columnist Joe Starkey can be reached via e-mail or at 412-320-7848

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Published: Wednesday, January 30, 2013, 11:04 p.m.
Updated 7 hours ago 

OK, maybe it's too early to shake up the Penguins.
It's not too early to think about it.
General manager Ray Shero has to be considering the possibility as he watches his seemingly joyless, often-lifeless club putter along. How could he not? After the 4-1 loss to the Islanders on Thursday, his coach flatly admitted the players lacked energy and spirit. Again.
This is becoming a theme, and it's somewhat troubling. You'd have thought no team would be hungrier than the Penguins this season.
Do they look hungry to you?
Does it look like anybody's having fun?
What, exactly, is this team's personality?
Seems a little stale around the Consol (Palpable Lack of) Energy Center these days — and that magical Stanley Cup run seems like an eternity ago. The core of the team remains essentially the same, without anything to show for the past three seasons. They do not look significantly different this year, other than missing the considerable presence of Jordan Staal.
The 3-3 record is no big deal. It's more the vibe. And this isn't happening in a vacuum. It's happening in the wake of a shockingly swift dismissal from the playoffs.
Shero isn't going to change coaches anytime soon — nor should he — so the question becomes, what does he do with this collection of players?
He can't afford to wait around if things don't improve quickly. A week from Saturday, we'll be a quarter of the way through the season.
Of all the issues, let's start with the most surprising one: scoring. Secondary production is nonexistent. The power play suddenly stinks. Evgeni Malkin has one goal.
One idea would be to reunite invisible Chris Kunitz with Malkin and James Neal. Of course, it would then be time to renew the interminable search for Sidney Crosby's winger. Shero has some assets on his blue line, notably Simon Depres, if he is willing to try again.
But that would still leave the elephant in the room, the power play. It's an elephant because the primary issue is a sticky one: Crosby and Malkin still do not display much on-ice chemistry. They are like two powerful elements that mysteriously diminish when combined.
I asked Malkin after practice if it's difficult because both like the same spot.
“Yeah, you're right, we both like the boards,” Malkin said. “It's tough, you know? We try to change: Sometimes I play boards, sometimes he plays boards. … We just want to do what works.”
Already, Bylsma is making changes. Neal will move down low Thursday night, and Malkin will move back to the point.
“We need to change,” Malkin said. “If we play four forwards, Sid playing the wall and Nealer playing lower is better, because Nealer likes playing lower. We'll see. I'm OK. I think I'm a good playmaker, and I can pass to Sid or Tanger, and they have both one-timers.”
The main shooters should be Malkin and Neal. Kris Letang is struggling at quarterback. The whole unit is attempting too many fancy passes. Too much Globetrotter stuff.
Ad-libbing just isn't the recipe, and as Kunitz said, “We're ad-libbing once we get to the red line.”
Bylsma could give Crosby and Malkin each his own unit, as he did briefly in the playoffs, but it's inevitable one would feel slighted.
Malkin's take on splitting the two: “I don't know, I like playing with Sid … Just play simpler. Play simple and score a couple of goals, and we have more confidence.”
Crosby's take: “We've had success together, so I don't know why you'd (split them). There's no need for that. We're going to make it work.”
It's a conundrum, and Bylsma's future as Penguins coach may ultimately rest on whether he can maximize the elite talent on his power play.
Finally, the spirit. It's hard to detect much. Everybody just stood there when Ben Lovejoy got his head rammed into the boards the other night.
Maybe the Penguins need a troublemaker, if Matt Cooke no longer is able/willing to play that role.
Maybe they need another significant blue-line presence.
Maybe all of this is an overreaction to a slow start in a weird season. But if I'm Shero, I'm not waiting around much longer.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at

Copyright © 2013 — Trib Total Media

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why the Yankees will miss Russell Martin

By Andrew Marchand
January 27, 2013

1.) MODERN-DAY THURMAN MUNSON: That's not my opinion, that's the GM's. The Yankees felt that Martin was "Munson-like." They thought he was that tough behind the plate.

2.) GAME PLANNING: Joe Girardi likes a defense-first catcher. He prefers guys who understand the game plan and stick to it. From all signs, Martin was a guy Girardi warmed to because of these reasons. This is inside-baseball stuff, but to the manager it means a lot. Girardi believes it translates to better pitching.

3.) NOT ONLY HOMERS, CLUTCH HOMERS: Martin hit some big homers. In Game 1 of the ALDS against the Orioles in October, he nailed a solo shot that gave the Yankees the lead in the ninth. He hit 21 homers in the regular season and it is in question if Francisco Cervelliand Chris Stewart can even combine for half that many. Martin's .211 average will be something that can be matched, but there is no doubt he was still a bigger threat at the plate than Stewvelli will be. In September/October of '12, Martin had an .OPS of .886 and was one of the team's best hitters.

4.) GOOD MEDIA GUY: "Who cares?" you ask. Well, this isn't the biggest deal in the world, but there is a reason that New York, Boston and Philly are different than other cities. It is not the aggressiveness of the media -- though that is part of it -- it is the sheer volume. Martin was a go-to-guy in the Yankees clubhouse, which takes a lot of pressure off of other players. It does help that the catcher can act as one of the team's spokesman. This attribute is worth something in terms of clubhouse dynamics over a very long season. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Neal is the real (two-way) deal

About Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Sports Columnist Dejan Kovacevic can be reached via e-mail
The Penguins' James Neal celebrates his first-period goal against the Ottawa Senators with teammate Evgeni Malkin on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa, Ontario. (Getty Images)

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Published: Sunday, January 27, 2013, 10:39 p.m.
Updated 8 hours ago 

OTTAWA - Five games into this 48-yard dash of an NHL season, these Penguins remain very much a team trying to find itself.
They're talented, sure.
But they're scoring only sporadically, turning over the puck at a troubling rate, stumbling with power-play setups, wondering what if anything is there with some of these fringe players, and - let's come right out and say it - still waiting for the best they'll surely end up getting from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Oh, they've both been good, even with Malkin's maddening mismanagement of the puck. But if they're only good, then the offense won't often fare much better than the five goals it has squeezed out in the past three games.
As Crosby worded it, perhaps delicately, after this 2-1 shootout win over the Senators, "I think it's still a work in progress."
Right. Let's go with that for now: Work in progress.
Here's what isn't: James Neal.
In fact, I'd venture to say that, if all of the Penguins were performing at the same pace and with the same productivity as big No. 18, this team would have made a lot more out of that season-opening scorching of Philadelphia and New York than simply salvaging a trip.
The guy is just flying right now.
Forget the team-high four goals, even his one-timed beauty from the right circle for the Penguins' lone regulation score Sunday.
Forget the shootout backhander he shoved through Ottawa's Craig Anderson, fitting right in with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in that 3-for-3 slam dunk.
Forget the other numbers, too, notably the wickedly misleading zero assists and minus-4 rating. When Malkin resumes working to get open rather than pouting when a pass doesn't come his way - as he did several times Sunday - all of that will improve.
Forget it all about Neal, really, except what your eyes tell you.
Watch how he's scoring from all points of the rink, unlike any Penguins winger since the prime-time Alexei Kovalev. He's done it from the power-play point (handling that duty better than a lot of us thought he might), he's done it from behind Malkin on that faceoff play (nearly pulled it off again Sunday), and he's done it from in tight.
"James is dangerous from anywhere," Bylsma said. "That goal tonight, he gets a sliver of an opportunity to get that shot off. I think you could teach a lesson with getting open and releasing just from what we've seen this year from James."
Watch how he backchecks. And again, forget plus-minus, hockey's dumbest stat.
Some forwards retreat with a huff, as if mopping the floors after making a five-course meal. Not Neal. He did it last year, but he's even better now, more aware, more in the flow. In this game especially, he was back as a normal course of his skating, as if one led to the other.
As if he actually likes it.
"James was backtracking the puck all night," Bylsma said.
Watch how he finishes checks. His five hits Sunday matched Craig Adams' team high.
"Worked hard away from the puck, too," Bylsma continued.
To hear Neal tell it, all of that string is intertwined.
"That's the way we've got to play as a team," he said at his stall. "Look, we're going to have chances if we're good in our zone. We have to know that. If we take care of the puck back there, we can jump the other way. It's got to be the first thing we think about. Really does."
He's right, of course. But it's still neat that such maturity comes not only from a 25-year-old but also from a 40-goal guy.
Let's face it: How often have you seen someone score a ton, then double down on their defensive game?
The way it usually unfolds, said sniper starts cheating, content to let others do the grunt work. That's true from the NHL to mites and midgets.
Neal's still the grunt, but he's still getting the goals.
It won't be 40 again, not with this schedule. But no one would see this season as anything other than a significant step forward should he keep raising his all-around bar like this.
What would Neal consider such a step?
"To me, I feel like my next level is just a constant learning process of being with players like Sid and Geno. That helps, hopefully, not only to get to the next level faster but to want to be there. When you're around those guys every day, playing with them ... you enjoy it, you know?"
Yeah, it shows.

Copyright © 2013 — Trib Total Media

Friday, January 25, 2013

Crosby, Canada work in progress

Sidney Crosby celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal in overtime for Canada in the men’s ice hockey gold-medal game against the United States in the Vancouver Olympics on Feb. 28, 2010. (Getty Images)
About Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Sports Columnist Dejan Kovacevic can be reached via e-mail

By Dejan Kovacevic 
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Published: Thursday, January 24, 2013, 10:26 p.m.Updated 9 hours ago 
WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Ever stepped into minus-27 degrees?
If not, here’s a tip: Don’t.
No matter how well you think you’re clothed, it doesn’t take a minute before your skin tingles, your fingers clench, your eyeballs feel like they’re calcifying and ... OK, I’ll come clean: That pretty much sums up my 3.5-block walk from the hotel to a coffeeshop late Thursday afternoon.
The cab ride back wasn’t nearly as bad.
It’s a cold place, Winnipeg. Coldest big city in the world, actually, with a population of about 700,000 hardy souls and an average winter temp that’s a mathematical match for all the tourism revenue it reels in.
And yet, it’s also one of the warmest places.
“These are some of the friendliest people you’ll find anywhere,” Tanner Glass, the Penguins’ newest winger, was saying. He should know. He was raised in neighboring Saskatchewan and spent last season with the Jets. “They’re tremendous hockey fans, too.”
Sounds like an ideal mix for Sidney Crosby’s debut in this city Friday night, right?
A packed house of good-hearted, passionate Canadian hockey fans welcoming a favorite son on home soil?
It does to me, anyway, but ...
Glass: “Honestly, I have no clue how they’ll be with Sid.”
Brandy Ellerbrock, a Jets season-ticket holder: “We’re all excited to finally see him, but I’m not sure if he’ll get the typical Winnipeg boos for the other team’s best player or cheers.”
Gary Lawless, veteran columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press: “They’ll cheer him early, then get on him.”
No one seems to have a firm feel for it.
And maybe that’s telling in and or itself.
We’re almost three years to the month since Crosby’s crowning achievement as a Canadian, the golden overtime goal to beat the United States at the Vancouver Olympics. It was celebrated unlike any event I’ve ever covered, inside and outside that throbbing building.
And Crosby, the pride of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was king of Canada.
For about a week.
Before long, he was booed in Ottawa, taunted in Toronto and, really, he still hasn’t been elevated anywhere near the status once enjoyed by Wayne Gretzky or, later, Mario Lemieux.
Much of it, I’ll tell you, is the Canadian sports media’s love affair with Gretzky that lingers still. No one can ever touch the Great One in their eyes.
Not even Lemieux. Mario had three strikes: He was a French speaker, wasn’t nearly as fond of cameras, and his ascent past Gretzky didn’t sit well with those who’d already done the anointing.
Still, Lemieux was mostly treated with respect in his home country, especially after his own national triumphs in the Canada Cup and Olympics.
With Crosby ... it’s just not the same.
He’s the consensus best player in the game, as those two were. But it’s far more difficult to detect that same glow out of Canada. Not in the press, not in endorsements and not in crowd adulation, the area that’s easiest to quantify.
There’s a definite like there, but love feels like it’s still on the horizon, at best.
One explanation Lawless offers is that “Gretzky did all his winning for a Canadian team. Crosby has helped keep the Cup out of Canada.” He means Gretzky’s famed Oilers.
Hard to argue that.
“Also, Sid’s dominance is more subtle. He’s never been far and away the best, having Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin to contend with. When 99 was the best, it wasn’t close. Same for 66 when he took over the stage. But that being said, I think Sid’s about to enter a new stage of his career and take his rightful place in Canadian hockey royalty.”
Be sure that would matter to at least one guy.
I asked Crosby, with the Penguins’ trip taking them here and on to Ottawa, if he finds it important to be embraced by Canada.
“Yeah,” he answered. “I’m Canadian. A proud Canadian. And I definitely appreciate, if I hear cheers on the road or things like that, it’s nice.”
Maybe he will Friday at the MTS Centre, loudest building in the league. It should be fascinating to find out.
Might be fun, too. The fans here make a game of teasing opponents’ stars. Sometimes they boo with each touch. Other times, they’ll chant that a comparable player is better. When the Hurricanes’ Eric Staal visited, they’d chant, “Jor-dan’s bet-ter!” Did that for Ovechkin, too, with a “Cros-by’s bet-ter!”
What if now it’s Malkin being “bet-ter?”
“Hey, that’s OK,” Crosby came back with a grin. “At least they’ll be on our side.”
All politics is local, eh?

Copyright © 2013 — Trib Total Media

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Move over Toronto: It's our game

George Armstrong cradles the Stanley Cup in 1967 as the Maple Leafs gather round to celebrate. Hockey Hall of Fame
About Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Sports Columnist Dejan Kovacevic can be reached via e-mail

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
Updated 10 hours ago 

Minutes before the Penguins‘ intrasquad scrimmage a week ago, a security officer outside Consol Energy Center‘s main entrance broke the bad news to about 1,000 fans gathered near the glass.
“Doors closed! Sorry, folks, that‘s it!”
Almost immediately, one youngster shouted that his buddy heard they were still letting fans in through the Centre Avenue entrance on the opposite side.
And so, they ran.
Several hundred of those fans bolted on an uphill sprint around the old church, through the grass, over a fence, whatever it took.
To try to get into a glorified practice already populated by a capacity crowd.
Now, imagine the real thing.
Imagine when the NHL finally, formally returns to Pittsburgh on this fittingly wintry Wednesday night, with the Penguins playing host to the Maple Leafs amid the game‘s two brightest stars, 18,387 of its most dedicated fans and about a half-million more near local TV sets.
If you ask me, it‘ll look like hockey‘s coming home.
Not just our home.
The sport‘s new home.
See, with all due respect to our Ontarian visitors in town, I dare say it‘s now plenty safe to posit that this golden little triangle, this most fortunate magnet to four of the greatest talents in NHL history … this is hockey‘s new Mecca.
Bon voyage to that ship. The two dozen Stanley Cup banners of the bleu, blanc et rouge might fly untouched forever. But the old Forum is as much of a ghost as those that once haunted it, and the Habs are a shadow of their former selves, not having reached a single final since last winning it all in 1993.
Where have you stormed off, Patrick Roy?
Well, that‘s the consensus choice across Canada, but let‘s be real: It‘s based on black-and-white footage. The Leafs haven‘t won the Cup since 1967, the sport‘s longest such streak, or even reached a final. Just one division title in all that time, too. No playoffs since 2004.
Personal favorite: No scoring champion since Gordie Drillon in 1938.
Yes, that Gordie Drillon.
Look, don‘t misunderstand. The Toronto metro area is three times our size, and its passion for pucks is unrivaled. The Maple Leafs are the NHL‘s most lucrative franchise and, fact is, the league could put a second franchise there and it would be the second-most lucrative.
But sorry, no road to Mecca can have four decades of failure and Phil Kessel at the other end.
There has to be a marquee.
There has to be some magic.
I‘m not sure any of us can fully process what‘s happened to hockey in Pittsburgh, from the three championships to the 14 scoring titles in 24 years to the various events — some as bizarre as they were blessed — that led to the confluence of Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
But here we are …
· A 255-game sellout streak.
· A season-ticket waiting list of 9,500.
· Higher local TV ratings than any U.S.-based NHL team and higher than any NBA team.
· Greater popularity than the Steelers among the younger crowd — ages 18-29, per a statewide poll in 2011 — and greater popularity than the Pirates overall. The only other market where the NHL team is bigger than its Major League Baseball counterpart is, of course, Toronto.
· Ranking No. 1 in merchandise sales the past five years.
· Record amateur hockey registrations across Western Pennsylvania.
· Placing four locals on the U.S. national team that just won the World Junior Championships, an event Canada once owned. One of them was the tournament MVP, goaltender John Gibson of Whitehall.
The Penguins aren‘t just a phenomenon. They‘re a freak. They‘re scaling heights of popularity no American team has known.
Yeah, I can hear the uninformed cynics repeating the same tired refrain about how they had the NHL‘s worst record and lowest home attendance in 2003-04.
Save it.
I was on the beat that winter tailing Dick Tarnstrom and Company, and what I know, from the inside and outside, was that ownership had dug too many holes too deeply over too many years, the team was terrible, the building was ancient, the NHL‘s pre-cap economics were a mess, and the bill came due.
It was rock bottom.
Even then, that season was capped by one of the most moving ovations I‘d witnessed at the Civic Arena, as that sorry bunch was serenaded by a standing, roaring crowd after its finale simply for having given an honest effort.
Those of you who were there know what I‘m talking about.
Even then, Pittsburgh never stopped loving its Penguins.
And the cold truth, as those hardy fans who eventually were squeezed into last week‘s scrimmage can attest, is that it‘s all been an uphill sprint ever since.
To the very peak.

Copyright © 2013 — Trib Total Media

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Penguins poised for decade of dominance

By Ken Campbell
The Hockey News
January 21, 2013
NEW YORK – For each and every road game this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins will have one of their own team doctors in tow. With a roster this valuable and this prone to serious injuries, they obviously want all their medical angles covered by someone they trust.

Because here’s the thing with the Penguins: As good as they’ve been the past couple of seasons despite long stretches without their best players, they’re downright scary when everyone is healthy. Case in point, there were stretches during their 6-3 win over the New York Rangers Sunday night when you might have been convinced you were watching a Harlem Globetrotters-Washington Generals game.

With a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup, which the Penguins hope they’ll have in 2013 for the first time in about two years, it’s easy to have visions of Stanley Cups dancing in your head. But with the kind of depth the Penguins boast at every position, it becomes something that’s expected. And it will be for a long time. The Stanley Cup window for most teams doesn’t stay open more than a couple of years, but with a cast of core players in their mid-20s, the Penguins figure to be fixtures as serious contenders for at least another decade. Crosby, 40-goal scorer James Neal and rising Norris candidate Kris Letang are just 25. Malkin is 26, Brandon Sutter is 23 and, if goaltending history is any indication, 28-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury could be entering the most productive years of his career.

So how does an organization manage expectations when both the immediate and long-term futures look so retina-burning bright? You don’t, according to Penguins GM Ray Shero, who sees that sort of thing as just a bunch of white noise.

“It doesn’t mean a goddamn thing to me,” Shero said. “I don’t think as a group, as a team, as a coaching staff, we ever look at expectations. It’s just somebody’s opinion. I don’t think our group pays any attention to it. If someone says the Rangers are the favorite to win the Cup, does it bother our group? It doesn’t bother them at all.”

Plus, it’s easy to carry the weight of expectation around when you’ve already accomplished so much with what you have. This is not an upstart here. It’s a group of players that is experienced far beyond its collective age and the ones who haven’t been at the top of their craft are on their way there. With Malkin’s talent and the kind of chemistry he has with Neal, it’s easy to envision the latter as a future winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy. And as far as Letang is concerned, he was well on his way to making a run for the Norris last season before he was injured.

“He’s definitely got all the tools to be one of those guys,” Crosby said of Letang. “You look at a guy like (2011-12 Norris winner Erik) Karlsson and they look pretty similar out there, the way they skate and handle the puck. He’s right there, but we don’t want to put too much pressure on him.”

There is little doubt Letang and his game have matured in the past couple of seasons. Not only has Letang refined his play at both ends of the ice, he has developed into a reliable, minute-munching defenseman who can play in all situations. The reason he could top 25 minutes a game this season for the first time in his career is because the Penguins know they can rely on him to carry a heavy load and play the most difficult minutes, whether defending a lead or playing shorthanded.

“He’s strong and he has to be one of the best skaters in the league,” Shero said. “And he takes his defensive game seriously. He’s a guy, you watch him below the hashmarks, he’s a prick. And that’s good for us.”

You get the sense that the Penguins will be a prick in the balloon of many teams’ playoff hopes this season. And for a good number of years to come.

Penguins jump out to early head start with wins over rival Rangers and Flyers

By Nicholas Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports
January 21, 2013

NEW YORK – So the pundits are picking the New York Rangers to win the Stanley Cup, and Madison Square Garden is rocking for the home opener, and coach John Tortorella sends out tough guy Arron Asham for the opening faceoff, and Asham lines up next to the guy filling his old role on his old team.
The Penguins capped a successful opening weekend with a feisty victory over the Rangers. (AP)"Want to do this?" Asham asks.
"Sure," Tanner Glass says.
And so they do it. They drop the gloves and fight two seconds in, trading punches, swinging away. They do it for a good, long time right in front of the benches, as the fans roar even louder, and it sets the tone all right – for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Pens score on the power play less than two minutes later, and they walk out of MSG with a 6-3 victory Sunday night, and though no one should read much into anything two days into this crazy lockout-shortened season, look at this:
First, the Pens went into Philadelphia and beat the Flyers, the team that eliminated them in the first round of the playoffs last year. Then, they went into New York and beat the Rangers, the team that seems to be everyone's darling this year. They chased Henrik Lundqvist, the reigning winner of the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender, who hadn't been chased in almost two years.
Twice in two days, they pacified a loud, hostile arena – and they turned MSG against the Rangers, drawing boos and shouts and Bronx cheers.
That's back-to-back road wins against Atlantic Division rivals. That's an immediate four-point lead over both, thanks to the Rangers' loss at Boston on Saturday night and the Flyers' loss at Buffalo on Sunday. And that's all while captain Sidney Crosby, playing only his 29th and 30th games in more than two years, was quiet.
"Extremely big wins for us," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.
Again, these are not even the equivalent of preseason games. The players aren't starting from the same point as they would have been in September. They have been playing and practicing in different places, and they are in different degrees of fitness and sharpness. They had only six days of training camp before the puck dropped this weekend. No one should draw any long-term conclusions.
Still, at the same time, these games actually mean even more than normal regular-season games, simply because there are fewer of them, and this is counterintuitive, even though the Penguins match up well with the Rangers. They've won five straight against them by a 22-7 margin and eight of their last 10 at MSG.
If you had to pick the top two teams in the East, you'd probably pick the Rangers and the Penguins (with a nod to the Boston Bruins). But if you had to pick which of these two teams was best suited to start strong under these conditions, it would probably be the Rangers.
The Penguins chased Henrik Lundqvist out of the Rangers net. (AP)Why? Because the play will be sloppy until the NHL finds its rhythm, and the Rangers' identity is a simple, gritty, defensive game, while the Penguins are famous for their flashy skill with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company.
But the Rangers don't look like the Rangers yet – that's a big "yet" – while the Penguins are showing once again that they have depth, grit and structure as well as flashy skill.
"I think we got away a little bit from the way we were playing last year – the hard-nosed style, in your face," said Rangers captain Ryan Callahan. "I think it starts with that, and it trickles from there into our systems."
The Rangers will be fine. Callahan is still setting the example, blocking shots even during a two-man disadvantage while trailing by three. Newcomer Rick Nash looks strong, driving to the net with the puck. He scored his first goal for the Rangers on Sunday night, shorthanded. If anything, this reinforces that they can't just show up and succeed after their trip to the Eastern Conference final last season. They have to keep working for it.
"How this team has played in the last couple years, it's not there yet," said Rangers center Brad Richards. "It's a responsibility to go out there and take care of those things. Right now no one else cares if people think we're better or we're supposed to win. It's going to make them play harder."
Thing is, the Penguins can play much better, too, and now they have a head start. Malkin and James Neal put up numbers on the NHL’s opening weekend – Malkin four assists, Neal three goals. Defenseman Kris Letang looks confident with the puck. Role players are contributing, like Tyler Kennedy with his two goals. What happens when Malkin really hits his stride? One experienced observer saw him sucking wind, not in an out-of-shape way, but in a back-from-the-KHL way. What happens when Crosby gets going? Letang said it would take about 10 games before this team really starts to show what it can do.
While the Rangers face a tough schedule – another game against the Bruins and two against the Flyers in their next four – the Penguins have a chance to pad their early lead. Their next four games are against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders before they come back to MSG on Jan. 31. They have a chance to pull away from the pack before the league settles down and the competition tightens.
"I've been on that side too many times when we were chasing teams, and it hardly ever works," said Penguins goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who signed to be the backup on an elite team after too many frustrating seasons elsewhere. "We're starting after a long layoff. You don't want to be in the 12th spot and saying, 'Now we've got to win four games in a row.' "
Much better to meet the challenge and get the fight out of the way early.

This 1-2 punch begins in goal

Penguins goaltender Tomas Vokuon makes a first period save against the Rangers at Madison Squarter Garden Jan. 20, 2013. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
About Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Sports Columnist Dejan Kovacevic can be reached via e-mail

By Dejan Kovacevic 
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Published: Sunday, January 20, 2013, 11:20 p.m.Updated 19 hours ago 
NEW YORK -- Even on a purely vindictive level, there was so much for the Penguins to treasure from this 2-0 weekend whirl up I-95 that, honestly, it‘s hard to know where to start.
A small but necessary slice of revenge against the Flyers?
James Neal arranging that devilish three-stars twirl?
How about boos raining from the Madison Square Garden blues all through the 6-3 slashing of the alleged Stanley Cup favorite Rangers on Sunday night?
Or for-real Vezina Trophy goaltender Henrik Lundqvist getting yanked?
Or John Tortorella calling Brooks Orpik‘s sensational open-ice hit on rookie Chris Kreider “clean” and using it to admonish his own team by saying, “Maybe we need to get whacked around a little more” with a straight face?
Ah, yes. Hockey is back, and in the best way a Pittsburgher could imagine.
Sure, it‘s just two games. But not only can the Penguins skate into their home opener by reveling in the misery of two detested divisional rivals — the Flyers and Rangers are a combined 0-4 — they also can build off a couple of strikingly sound all-around performances.
“We took care of our end, stayed in our roles and got the job done,” Tyler Kennedy was saying. “That‘s a nice feeling for all of us.”
Undoubtedly. But from this vantage point high atop both events, what mattered most to the Penguins in these two games was this simple 1-2 equation:
1. Marc-Andre Fleury was really good one day.
2. Tomas Vokoun was just as good the next.
Yeah, that was the backup coolly stopping 31 of 34 shots, including a wild first period in which the Rangers flung 13 pucks and countless bodies his way.
The three goals?
A 5-on-3 rebound, a point-blank tip and a Rick Nash breakaway.
No shame there.
“Tomas was strong,” Dan Bylsma said. “The puck was bouncing a lot, and we know they‘re a team that gets pucks into that blue-paint area. He had to stand strong, and I thought that was key for us.”
Not remotely surprising.
And you could gather as much from how Vokoun reacted, too.
“You never know how you‘ll feel after a long time off like we‘ve had,” he said, “but I felt like I was prepared. It was pretty good.”
I couldn‘t help but ask if a goaltender who‘s spent so much of his career facing so many pucks — no one in the NHL saw more in the past five years — might actually have welcomed that opening foray by New York.
“Yes, I think so.”
Translation to all that: The man knows what he‘s doing.
You can see it with a cursory glance at the resume. Games played over his past nine NHL seasons: 69, 73, 61, 44, 69, 59, 63, 57 and 48. Cumulative goals-against average: 2.55, and never higher than 2.68 in any of those seasons.
That‘s a workload that would even make an old keeper like Eddie Johnston blush.
“This guy, he‘s a horse,” E.J. was saying the other day. “He‘s really going to help us.”
I believe that, too, largely because Vokoun is visibly willing to take on a helping role.
It would be easy — and not all that uncommon — for someone with such a background to big-league everybody upon showing up in Pittsburgh. You know, act like being a backup is beneath him. But there‘s been nothing of the kind. He‘s hung around well after practice. He‘s been vocal — pretty loud, actually — during drills. And most important by far, he‘s let it be known — to the Penguins and the public — that he knows his place.
As Vokoun told the Trib last week, “Listen, there is never going to be a controversy.”
Funny, but the broadest smile in the locker room might have belonged to Fleury, dressing right next to Vokoun.
“The guy‘s pretty good, huh?” Fleury beamed. “That‘s going to be huge for us.”
Right. Because Fleury still represents the Penguins‘ best chance at a fourth Stanley Cup. And Ray Shero‘s smart addition of Vokoun represents the best chance of Fleury entering the playoffs fresh for a change.
That‘s why I‘d expect the coach will — and should — go right back to Vokoun again next weekend, either in Winnipeg or Ottawa.
Either 1 or 2.
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

Copyright © 2013 — Trib Total Media

Friday, January 18, 2013

Crosby eager to make up for lost time

Sidney Crosby could be primed for a career year. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)
About Josh Yohe
McKeesport Daily News Penguins Reporter Josh Yohe can be reached via e-mail or at 412-664-9161 x1975
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By Josh Yohe 
McKeesport Daily News

Published: Thursday, January 17, 2013, 10:08 p.m.
Updated 8 hours ago 

For the Penguins, it became the enduring image of the NHL lockout: Sidney Crosby skating nets to their respective resting spots before practice at a near-empty Southpointe.
He did that daily, unsure when the lockout would end.
The crowds — and stakes — are about get a lot bigger.
The lockout‘s resolution didn‘t just save a hockey season. For Crosby, it saved a season of his prime. He‘s 25, a time when hockey‘s all-time greats almost always feast on the competition.
Crosby‘s concussion issues, along with other injuries, have conspired to rob him of 140 regular-season games. Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux — no stranger to the trainer‘s table — missed 107 games by age 25.
“I was trying to not think about what I was missing,” Crosby said.
The lockout has eliminated 34 more games from his career.
But finally, it is showtime.
Consider what some of hockey‘s all-time greats have done at age 25:
• Mario Lemieux led the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup.
• Wayne Gretzky set the all-time record with 215 points.
• Guy LaFleur scored the most points of his career.
• Jaromir Jagr won the second of his five scoring titles.
• Evgeni Malkin produced his finest season and won his first MVP.
Other legends such as Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe notched vintage seasons at age 25.
So what will Crosby accomplish this season?
“You can‘t even imagine,” Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “I mean, I‘ve been around him for a few years now. He‘s never been this fast, never been this strong. You can tell he‘s all the way back. ... He‘s pretty much impossible to keep up with.”
Even the defending MVP and scoring champion appears in awe.
“Sid is (the) best player,” Evgeni Malkin said. “I just try (to do) the same thing as him. He will come back (and) be the best player.”
Finally healthy, Crosby craves action even more. The memories from the darkest periods of his concussion ordeal, when he wasn‘t certain he would return, never go away.
“It was a scary time,” Crosby said. “One day I would feel good, the next day I wouldn‘t. I remember being on the beach in Florida while I was out with the concussion. … All I could think about was how much I missed hockey.”
Crosby is hardly one to feel sorry for himself, but those close to him emphasize just how frightening the past two years were for the world‘s most recognized hockey player.
His agent, Pat Brisson, is among those eager to watch Crosby return for an entire season.
“It‘s hard for me to explain exactly what all Sidney has been through during the past two years,” Brisson said. “When he was dealing with all the concussion problems, it was the worst time of his life. People don‘t even know what he went through.”
Like Niskanen, Brisson believes Crosby‘s finest hockey remains ahead of him.
“There is no doubt in my mind that he‘s going to be better than ever,” Brisson said. “An athlete, a hockey player, usually hits his peak play between ages 25 and 29. Sidney hasn‘t scratched the surface. He has more experience now. This season is going to be fun.”
Crosby can attain a second scoring title, MVP and Stanley Cup, but he doesn‘t think about his legacy or what he could‘ve lost had the season been canceled.
He only thinks about Lord Stanley.
“Maybe someday. Not now,” Crosby said. “Right now I think about winning another Cup. And I think about how the average professional career is three or four years. There‘s a small window for a lot of guys to become an NHL player.”
Crosby essentially lost two seasons because of injury, and a third was shortened because of the lockout.
Few athletes of his stature have lost three golden years like these. Muhammad Ali (boxing ban because of refusal to join military during Vietnam War), Ted Williams (World War II) and Mike Tyson (rape conviction) are iconic athletes who missed three consecutive years in their mid-20s.
“Maybe missing all this time,” Crosby said, “is good for my legs. Maybe it‘s giving me a rest so I‘ll be fresher than I would have been down the road.”
The image of Crosby pushing a net up and down an empty ice rink just four months removed from his 25th birthday endures.
So does his hunger.
“I just want a chance to play,” he said. “Honestly, I haven‘t felt this good in a long, long time.”
Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

Copyright © 2013 — Trib Total Media