Pittsburgh Penguins' Pascal Dupuis, middle, is helped off the ice by teammates Matt Niskanen, left, and Chris Kunitz after colliding with teammate Sidney Crosby while taking on the Ottawa Senators in the first period of an NHL hockey game in Ottawa, Ontario on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Sean Kilpatrick)
The NHL is on holiday break, but hockey joy can still be spread via refreshing Penguins notes. All I want for Christmas is Shawn Thornton’s two front teeth!
- Ottawa systematically targeted Sidney Crosby with cheap play and late hits last night. The evidence keeps mounting: The Penguins need a bona fide enforcer.
- If Pascal Dupuis is out for a while, James Neal should skate on a line with Crosby and Chris Kunitz until Evgeni Malkin returns. All the eggs would be in one basket, but the Penguins have no more top-six contenders, only pretenders.
- Jussi Jokinen has one goal in his last 22 games. If he’s an option to jump on Crosby’s line, he’s not a good one. Ideally, Jokinen is a third-line player. He’s been unproductive despite a decent dollop of power-play time.
- If Olli Maatta keeps progressing and the Penguins have a disappointing playoff, GM Ray Shero might see trading Kris Letang as the way to affect a shakeup. Letang’s new deal and limited no-movement clause don’t kick in until July 1. Maatta won’t be better than Letang. But he’s a more conventional fit.
- With the Penguins’ top four defensemen all hurt, call-ups from their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton affiliate have done admirably on the blue line. But Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson have struggled recently, perhaps feeling the strain of lots of high-tempo hockey packed into a short stretch.
- The Penguins want their regular lineup back ASAP. But Dan Bylsma might actually feel more comfortable coaching limited players who don’t deviate from the system. Crosby is a rare superstar. He paints by the numbers as the situation dictates. Crosby is the perfect cherry on top for the current group.
- Credit where it’s due, Part 1: It’s taken a while, but the last month has seen Brandon Sutter become the player it was hoped he’d be after coming to Pittsburgh in the Jordan Staal trade. Sutter hasn’t been statistically overwhelming, though he has goals in three of his last five games as well as a shootout winner at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers this past Wednesday. Sutter is just showing a knack for emerging when needed. In short, he’s playing like a Sutter.
- Credit where it’s due, Part 2: Joe Vitale gets every benefit of the doubt from Bylsma. But for a bottom-six forward, he’s having a breakout year. Injuries have elevated Vitale from fourth-line center to third-line wing, and he’s done fine. He’s winning an incredible 61.7 percent of his draws. His skating is fast and furious, better suited for wing than center. Vitale is getting better. That’s all you can ask.
- Credit where it’s due, Part 3: Vitale’s wife, Brianna, drops pucks for Joe all summer in the driveway of the couple’s St. Louis home so he can practice faceoffs. I’m not sure Nathalie Lemieux ever did that.
- As far as the Penguins are concerned, Russia beating Canada in the final would be the perfect ending at the Sochi Olympics. Malkin would resume NHL play on a high. Crosby would have a chip on his shoulder. Win-win. Reverse that result and Crosby still plays motivated. But Malkin goes into a funk.
- The notion that perennial dog Rick Nash (among others) is an automatic choice for Canada but Kunitz is not just reflects the probability that Canada picks a set of hockey cards, not a properly constructed team. Nash has two goals in 16 NHL playoff games. When Nash was in Columbus, he needed to be on a better team. Now that he’s a Ranger, he needs to be on a still-better team. Nash leads the league in excuses. Kunitz is tied for fifth in goals.
- If Canada’s Olympic team isn’t picked on performance, what’s the criteria? IQ? Education? Eye color? Should Kunitz fill out a job application? Actually, it’s all about preconceived notions. It’s not what you do. It’s what somebody thinks.
- Las Vegas odds have been set on the likelihood of Crosby scoring an empty-net goal. He’s 100,000-1. Jeff Zatkoff is 500-1. Mario Lemieux is 25-1. The ENG was Mario’s specialty. It’s Crosby’s Kryptonite. No big deal. Crosby is usually the reason the Penguins have a late lead in the first place.
- Crosby probably isn’t pleased that a microphone caught him dropping F-bombs and chirping Toronto’s Nazem Kadri on HBO’s latest 24/7 series. But he should be. Crosby’s final frontier, PR-wise, is regular-guy territory. That’s how regular guys talk. Crosby and Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf could play Las Vegas. Solid banter.
- Zatkoff signing a two-year extension worth $600,000 per is well-earned. But that’s third goalie money. He won’t be Marc-Andre Fleury’s backup come playoff time. The Penguins will, and should, get a veteran No. 2.
- Last night’s loss to Ottawa ends a seven-game winning streak. The Penguins have 12 wins in their last 14. All circumstances considered, that’s beyond amazing.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).