Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Fleury has the look of Cup winner

By Rob Rossi 
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Published: Monday, April 29, 2013, 11:27 p.m.

Marc-Andre Fleury can hear the noise.
He's the question mark for these Stanley Cup-or-bust Penguins, or so say his skeptics, a group that includes many of the franchise's most diehard fans.
Keep talking, everybody.
Fleury has more than hockey on his mind.
“When hockey goes well, life is a lot easier for anybody; when life goes well, that helps, too — a lot,” Fleury said.
“When you have a little baby at home, that's a big plus.”
Estelle Fleury was born last Friday. She's the first child for Marc-Andre and Veronique Fleury, teenage sweethearts who were married last summer.
Fleury, a former No. 1 overall pick and the Penguins' go-to goalie for the past six postseasons, acknowledged he's in a different place mentally for his seventh crack at the playoffs.
“When you go on the ice, it's the same,” Fleury said. “But when you go home, there's other stuff to worry about. You don't think about the stuff said or the bad goal. You can clear your mind easier. You have something really important at home.
“It's a good feeling.”
The Penguins open the playoffs against the New York Islanders on Wednesday at Consol Energy Center, and their goalie has them feeling good about their chance to reclaim the Cup.


Fleury is the same netminder whose previous reputation as a big-game goalie was erased over the past three playoffs, including a historically bad loss to Philadelphia last spring.
“He just seems like he's more ready,” Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said of Fleury. “There's a different feel about him. He's just on top of things.”
Fleury played a pivotal role for the Penguins in their run to the 2008 Cup Final and their title the next year. He produced a 2.20 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in those 37 playoffs games.
He has appeared in only 26 playoff games since — and his 3.12 GAA and .880 save percentage are, fairly he said, viewed by many people outside the organization as the reasons the Penguins have won only one postseason series during that span.
Teammates, with captain Sidney Crosby and defenseman Brooks Orpik at the front, have lined up to defend Fleury, who was worked over for 26 goals in a six-game series loss to Philadelphia last postseason. Awful defensive play — from forwards to defensemen — too often left Fleury needing to make use of all his wow-gosh athleticism against the Flyers, teammates said.
Fleury said — in fact, he adamantly swore — that neither the Flyers nor previous playoff disappointments occupy his thoughts these days.
“Anyway, you can't put last playoffs on ‘Flower,' ” Penguins right winger Pascal Dupuis said. “You just can't. None of us did our jobs. We didn't help him.”
Coach Dan Bylsma doesn't dispute that assessment, but his plan to help Fleury shake off any residue from the Flyers flameout was to push for providing his franchise goalie with an unusual form of support. Within weeks of the Penguins' opening-round loss last postseason, veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun was acquired and signed to a two-year contract.
Another way of looking at that: Fleury, a few weeks before his wedding, learned his backup was a goalie with more NHL wins and shutouts and better overall statistics.
“A lot of goalies, that could have killed them,” Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche said. “You could easily second guess yourself, and you can't ever do that as a goalie because staying confident is half the battle.
“Marc-Andre handled it better than anybody could have.”
Fleury and Vokoun, who share an agent, had only a few phone conversations before training camp opened in January after a four-month NHL lockout. They never went to lunch and discussed their roles, never offered unsolicited advice in practices or after games.
Dupuis said he liked the way Penguins coaches managed Fleury, who appeared to wear down after playing in all but four games over the last three months of last regular season.
Fleury played 33 times, won 23 games and recorded a 2.39 GAA and .916 save percentage.
Vokoun played in 20 games, winning 13 and recording a 2.45 GAA and .919 save percentage.
“We just played when we were supposed to, and I think that is why is worked so well,” Vokoun said. “It also helps that you had two veteran goalies.”


Veteran is a word not often applied to Fleury, who's childlike amusement often makes Penguins outsiders forget that he is the club's second-most tenured player and, at 28, the second oldest among the Cup nucleus of Crosby, Orpik, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
Veteran goalies benefit from perspective, Vokoun said.
He added that the same is true for new fathers.
“I lived it this year,” said Letang, whose first son, Alexander, was born during the lockout.
“I try to come to the rink earlier so I can spend the rest of the day with my family. Your family makes you forget about everything at the rink.”
Actually, Fleury's teammates don't want him to forget too much.
They still remember their “Flower” blooming in the 2008 and '09 playoffs, and they see signs that this version of Fleury is more like that goalie.
“He was focused, he was ready and he wants it,” Dupuis said. “He did before, but right now, it's all clear in his head.”
The day after Estelle Fleury arrived, Letang spied her father in a private moment.
Marc-Andre Fleury, smiling, looked at Letang, took a deep breath and then simply sat still at his locker stall.
“I know that feeling,” Letang said. “That is why I have a good feeling about him.”

 Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib

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Pressure won't get to these Pens

By Mark Madden 
Special to The Beaver County Times | Posted: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 12:12 am

Unbeatable is a poor word to use within the context of the uncertainty of sports.
A three games-to-none edge looked unbeatable in 1975.
A 3-1 lead in the third period looked unbeatable in 1982.
A team with 119 points and two straight Stanley Cups looked unbeatable in 1993.
But David Volek and John Tonelli will not dress for the New York Islanders tomorrow night. Chico Resch will not be in goal. History will not repeat itself.
These Islanders are like the Penguins in 2007. Young, talented and promising, but not ready for prime time. It’s their first time in a long time, but it will be a short time, not a good time. The Penguins will win in five, perhaps four.
Unbeatable doesn’t just apply to the Penguins in this series. They look to be unbeatable for the entirety of the Eastern Conference playoffs. In their respective halves of the draw, the Penguins and Chicago seem as heavy as favorites can be.
The Penguins went 22-3 against Eastern Conference playoff teams. They went 9-0 against seeds 2-4. Predicting anything shy of 12 wins is crazy talk.
That means pressure. Lots and lots of pressure.
Every team says Stanley Cup or bust. But that’s really the case with the Penguins.
GM Ray Shero crafted his team with precision and attention to detail worthy of Michelangelo. All the ingredients are there. The depth is mind-boggling. Only a series of grievous injuries would provide a logical excuse for an early exit.
The Penguins must at least make the Stanley Cup final. Only the Blackhawks are a truly worthy foe.
If the Penguins fall short, it raises questions. After four-plus years of Dan Bylsma, do they need coached by a disciplinarian? Is the two-superstar model working? Should Shero engineer an overhaul? The cap mandates steady change anyway.
This team was designed to win multiple Cups. This won’t be their last shot. But the Penguins will never have a better shot. This might be their best team during the Sidney Crosby era. But there is only one way to validate that.
They will. It’s not a lock. But it’s certainly the way to bet.
Quote chapter and verse about the Penguins’ talent, depth, solid systematic play, cohesion, physicality and grit. Go up and down the lineup. Count the stars. There are lies and damned lies, but you can’t deny the Penguins statistics. The Penguins are as advertised, every bit as good as people say and maybe even better.
But the Penguins’ intangibles are what have me convinced. Seeing this team go about its business, I know the Penguins won’t flinch. Ego is absolutely minimal. They never get bored, never get tired of winning. They don’t take anything for granted. The Penguins have the perfect playoff mindset.
Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow have upped that ante. Iginla is 35, Morrow 34. Both have been in a Stanley Cup final. Neither has a ring. Each knows this may be his last, best chance. Their desire is tangible. It drips from their pores.
Add men like that to 11 players who drank from the Cup in ’09, and that’s a perfect mix. The assembly thereof should get Shero a psychology degree.
Picking the Penguins to beat the Islanders in five games is too easy.
Penguins in 22 sounds about right. Two five-game series, two six-game series. That’s the prediction here: Penguins in 22.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Andrew McCutchen needs a wingman

Pirates' star center fielder can't do it alone. So who's going to step up?

By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com
April 27, 2013

Maybe it was the euphoria of winning a big series on the road or the result of a cheesesteak-induced buzz, but Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle decided to go all-in with a historical comparison this week in Philadelphia.
The topic du jour: The Pirates' ongoing quest to develop a nucleus of players to take the pressure off Andrew McCutchen, their marquee center fielder, franchise player and resident WAR machine. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez seems like the perfect candidate to fill the bill as McCutchen's trusty sidekick, but first he needs to address his high strikeout totals, low batting average and the challenge of hitting left-handed pitching.
Hurdle is convinced Alvarez has the work ethic and ability to be an All-Star, and he cites as an example a former Philadelphia Phillies third baseman who hit .196 as a rookie before building a Hall of Fame career one home run trot at a time.
"There's a guy the people in Philly almost ran out of town, and then they bowed to him,'' Hurdle said. "I see a lot of similarities between Michael Schmidt's first three years and what Pedro has gone through here. When you have that much raw power, it takes some time to develop the consistency. The hot streaks, they're there. The cold streaks, they're there. With time and experience, Mike Schmidt was able to shorten the cold ones and lengthen the hot ones. We're very optimistic Pedro is going to be able to do that, too.''
[+] EnlargePedro Alvarez
Joe Sargent/Getty ImagesIn 340 major league games, Pedro Alvarez has a .233 average with 54 homers and 405 strikeouts.
A check of the record book reveals that Schmidt led the National League with 36 homers and made his first All-Star team at age 24. But he hit .249 with 180 strikeouts the following year, so there were some stumbles along the way.
The effort to surround McCutchen with a talented supporting cast is one of the most pressing questions that general manager Neal Huntington and his front office team are facing, along with, "When are you going to call up Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon from the minors?'' Gaby Sanchez made an All-Star team in 2011, Russell Martin is a solid veteran catcher and Garrett Jones hit 27 homers last year despite minimal production against lefties. But if the Pirates plan to break the .500 barrier and produce a postseason contender, their aspirations could hinge on four current and former prospects who have to decipher some riddles before maximizing their potential.
The foursome in question: Alvarez, Neil WalkerStarling Marte and Travis Snider.
Difficult as it might be for Pirates fans to exercise patience after 20 straight losing seasons, the light bulb clicks at different times for young players. Consider Baltimore's Chris Davis, who blossomed as a 30-home run hitter at age 26 and is off to a tremendous start this season. The Texas Rangers knew they were taking a risk when they traded Davis to the Orioles in July 2011. Lo and behold, he sure looks like the real deal.
"The challenge is always to recognize where these guys are in their career path,'' Huntington said. "Everyone expects instant success now, and that's only been heightened with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. But when you look at most All-Stars, they weren't All-Stars their first or second or even their third season in the big leagues. We have a handful of guys on this team in their 24-26 year-old seasons that are on the right side of their primes. The goal is to help them all reach their potential. The reality is, that's going to be a challenge. We show up every day to help these guys be as good as they can be.''
As every player, manager, coach or front-office person loves to remind us, baseball is a game of adjustments and counter-adjustments, and big leaguers who are malleable, coachable and self-aware enough to adapt stand a far better chance of having successful careers.
Jay Bell, Pittsburgh's new hitting coach, had a weakness for chasing high fastballs early in his career until he learned to be more selective and lay off balls at the letters. Bell eventually made two All-Star teams and amassed almost 2,000 hits over 18 seasons. He credits Chili Davis, a former Kansas City teammate, with teaching him the importance of plate discipline and strike zone management. Like many hitting coaches, Bell stresses carving the plate into manageable chunks rather than trying to digest the entire 17-inch span in one overwhelming bite.
"There's not one person who's ever played this game, including Ted Williams or Barry Bonds, who has ever been able to fully cover the [entire] strike zone,'' Bell said. "As a player, you have to learn to control the at-bat. Control an area of the plate until you have two strikes, and then you expand.''
Some numbers provided by Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information entering Pittsburgh's weekend series in St. Louis help illuminate the task that awaits Bell and assistant hitting coach Jeff Branson as they try to assist McCutchen's four aspiring wingmen in reaching the next step:

Neil Walker

He's a local boy-made-good, a community pillar and a reliable, switch-hitting second baseman who's built a nice résumé for himself at age 27. From 2010-12, Walker ranked fourth among MLB second basemen in RBIs (218), seventh in batting average (.282), eighth in doubles (92), 10th in hits (421) and 12th in homers (38).
Walker's kryptonite is the high strike, especially when he swings from the right side. In at-bats ending with a pitch in the upper third of the zone, he's hitting a career .152 with a .469 OPS right-handed. Almost two-thirds of those pitches have been fastballs. Walker hits .272 with a .907 OPS against high fastballs from the left side.

Starling Marte

Marte, a 24-year-old Dominican, has made a positive early impression with his speed, athleticism, energy and superior glove work in left field. His list of admirers includes McCutchen, who has already found that Marte takes a big burden off him in the pasture.
"We pick each other up out there,'' McCutchen said. "We know we don't have to run as hard for balls in the gap. If one person is committed, we know that he can go get it and there's not going to be anything in between. It's gonna be easier on both of us."
Marte has only played 69 big league games, so we're talking about a small sample size, but it's instructive nevertheless. He has a .680 OPS versus righties compared to a 1.077 OPS against lefties. He chases 33 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, well above the MLB average of 26 percent, and that helps account for his high strikeout totals. If Marte is going to develop into a 100-run, 30-steal leadoff man, a solid two-strike approach will have to be part of his evolution.

Travis Snider

Baseball America ranked Snider as Toronto's No. 1 prospect in 2009, and the Blue Jays liked him enough to summon him to the big leagues for a look at age 20. But Snider's star gradually dimmed in Toronto, and the Jays shipped him to Pittsburgh for reliever Brad Lincoln at the July 2012 trade deadline. Now he's 25 and looking for a fresh start.
"He's another young player who had some scars,'' Hurdle said. "I think we've been able to help him with some plastic surgery. He's having fun again.''
Snider has a fluid swing and a calm demeanor in the batter's box, but he still has to learn how to turn on the inside fastball. He's hitting .179 against the inside heat since 2009.
Although Snider is homerless in 59 at-bats this season (and has 32 long balls and a .416 slugging percentage in 1,129 big league plate appearances), the Pirates are taking pains not to force the issue. He has seven doubles this season as a result of using the entire field.
"I'm worn out with people asking me, 'Is Travis Snider going to hit with enough power?''' Huntington said. "Travis Snider is a good hitter. If he works counts and gets into fastball counts, he's going to hit with power. When a young hitter tries to hit with power, he's not a very good hitter. It's always a question of, 'What comes first, the chicken or the egg?' The good hitter comes first.''

Pedro Alvarez

Alvarez, 26, received a $6 million signing bonus from Pittsburgh out of Vanderbilt as the top pick in the 2008 draft. Bell envisions him as a 40-50 home run guy one day, and Russell Martin said fans are in for a treat if Alvarez ever takes part in a Home Run Derby.
Said Hurdle: "When the man finds his rhythm and timing at the plate, there's not a ballpark he can't shrink and a club that he can't carry.''
Not surprisingly, Alvarez's biggest issues have been against breaking balls on the outer-third of the plate or off the edge -- a malady otherwise known as "Ryan Howard-itis.'' He has a career average of .146 in at-bats ending in those pitches, and it dips to .111 against lefties. More than half of the 150-plus outs in that sample have been strikeouts.
This season, Hurdle has inserted Alvarez's name into the lineup against Clayton Kershaw,Hyun-Jin Ryu and Cliff Lee while sitting him against Wade MileyPaul Maholm and Cole Hamels. It appears the Pirates will be content to pick their spots. Alvarez homered against lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo on Wednesday and singled twice against Lee the following day, so he's had his moments.
"The only way you get better at hitting lefties is by facing them,'' Martin said. "He's going to go through his peaks and valleys, but the key for him is to keep battling and have the same feeling at the plate whether he's facing a righty or a lefty. Guys make pitches sometimes, and power hitters will strike out. I saw Curtis Granderson strike out a whole bunch in New York. But he still goes up there hacking and keeps the same approach. And if they make a mistake, he makes them pay.''
Alvarez is fortunate to have an empathetic manager in Hurdle, who can relate to the burdens and self-imposed pressure that bonus babies encounter. In 1978, Hurdle appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in a Kansas City Royals uniform next to the headline, "This Year's Phenom.'' As Hurdle's career 32 homers and .259 batting average attest, he knows how it feels to fail.
"I have conversations with Pedro throughout the season, just to be a sounding board,'' Hurdle said. "He has a tremendous desire to be a third baseman -- not a first baseman -- and he works his backside off every day. He hits appropriately. It's not mindless hitting or anxiety hitting, which you'll see young players do when they're not doing well. They hit and they hit because they can't sit in front of their locker and relax. And he's well-spoken and reserved with his thoughts. He thinks things through before he opens his mouth.''
This is the way life works for most young players: Put in the time, quietly learn the league, make the necessary strides and hope you wake up one day and hear people praising your game because you finally "get it.'' That's the task that awaits Alvarez and his fellow Pirates -- grinding it out the old-fashioned way in an instant-gratification, Mike Trout-and-Bryce Harper world.