Feb 3, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray (30) makes a save against Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Nick Foligno (71) during the second period at the PPG PAINTS Arena. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
The Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks played Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena in a game that could be a preview of the Stanley Cup Final.
Both teams entered with 103 points. Difference is, the Blackhawks are positioned to earn the top seed in the Western Conference, and the Penguins were in third place in the Eastern, behind Washington and Columbus.
Which makes the Penguins' road to repeat as Cup champions a particularly brutal one, given the oddities of the NHL's playoff format.
Instead of being rewarded for having the second- and third-best records in hockey, the Metropolitan Division-rival Blue Jackets and Penguins appear headed for a first-round matchup, with the winner likely to play the NHL-leading Capitals in the second round.
If that isn't the dumbest way to reward the NHL's top three regular-season teams in the postseason, I don't know what could be worse.
No wonder Penguins coach Mike Sullivan kept a stiff upper lip when asked about it.
“My feeling on it is, the format is what it is. We can't control it, so we're going to just play and that's what our team does,” Sullivan said. “In order to win the Stanley Cup, you've got to beat good teams to get there, regardless of what the format is.”
That's the cliche response you would expect from an NHL coach who faces the daunting task of having to beat Columbus and Washington in back-to-back series to reach the conference final.
Inside the Penguins dressing room, the players are a bit more candid about the NHL's playoff format, which changed with realignment before the 2013-14 season.
“I think you're a little bit frustrated by it,” Penguins center Nick Bonino said. “You should be rewarded for your play, but at the same time, they went to (this format) to promote first-round matchups that people want to watch. If that's what's intended, it's working. ... We've come to terms with it. It's good for other divisions.”
Especially those in the Atlantic, where first-place Montreal (95 points) likely will play the New York Rangers (97 points) in the first round, making the division champion an unlikely underdog.
Which makes finishing fourth in the Metro seem more beneficial than placing second or third. Not only are these regional matchups bad for TV ratings, but they are counterproductive because they eliminate some of the top teams early.
It makes you long for the days when the NHL seeded its teams from each conference Nos. 1-8 for the playoffs. If that were the case, the Penguins likely would play Ottawa instead of Columbus.
The Penguins sound resigned to their fate, knowing they can't change the format.
“We'll try to give ourselves the best seed we can and hopefully give ourselves the last change for as long as we can,” defenseman Ian Cole said.
“There's a lot of good teams in the NHL and a lot of good teams in our division and our conference, so to win the Stanley Cup it's always going to be a long, hard road. We know that, no matter what path you take, it's going to be a tough one.”
NBC analyst Eddie Olcyzk calls himself “old school” when it comes to the NHL playoffs, and he said he prefers a format that would do away with conference matchups, let alone divisional meetings.
“I would love to see 1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15, 3 vs. 14...,” Olczyk said. “Then you have the opportunity to have a Pittsburgh-Washington final. You have a chance to have a Chicago-St. Louis final. You've got a chance to have an L.A.-Anaheim final.”
As much as the NHL playoff format appears to be punishment for the Penguins, the opposite could be true.
There's a flip side, and it's that the past three Stanley Cup champions have not been the teams with the easiest road. Since the change in the playoff format, the Cup champions have finished third (Los Angeles Kings), third (Blackhawks) and second (Penguins) in their respective divisions. Another reason for optimism: The Penguins of the Crosby-Malkin era haven't lost a playoff series to the Blue Jackets or the Capitals.
That doesn't excuse the NHL for its pathetic playoff format, but it should make you feel better about the Penguins' chances to win another Cup.
Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, center, stands behind his bench during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, March 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Most of coach Mike Sullivan's speech to the Penguins at the end of Tuesday's practice at PPG Paints Arena reached only his ice-level audience, but one particular phrase carried into the stands of the empty venue.
“We have enough,” Sullivan firmly repeated during a message about the team's chances of competing down the stretch.
Outside the organization, whether the Penguins have enough healthy players to rise above Washington and Columbus in the Eastern Conference standings or to even reach the playoffs with positive momentum, is a debatable matter.
Seven regular-season games remain for Sullivan's team, including Wednesday's 8 p.m. showdown against Western Conference leader Chicago. Seven lineup regulars — Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Carl Hagelin, Jake Guentzel, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey — are injured, and Conor Sheary and Chad Ruhwedel could move that total to nine.
Washington holds a three-point lead in the standings with eight games left. Columbus sits in a tie with the Penguins and has an additional game at its disposal.
Consecutive days without a game will not come the Penguins' way again before the season's end.
Those are big-picture problems. Sullivan, not one to pity himself for challenging circumstances, believes attention to little details is a solution that can catapult the Penguins back into the role of Cup favorite. That's why he continued to teach rather than simply tend to his herd at Tuesday's practice, just the second to follow a day off since the start of March.
“Our experience has been that you don't just flip a switch and turn it on,” Sullivan said.
“As long as our focus stays on those (details), then our team will be in the optimal frame of mind here going down the stretch.”
At one point during the practice, he stood next to the crease with a half-circle of players around him and exhibited how he wanted defensemen to box out skaters. Then a box-out drill ensued.
For Brian Dumoulin, the opportunity to watch Sullivan offer hands-on instruction conjured memories of college, when far more of a week went to practicing and improvement than game play. Asked to anchor the Penguins defense with Letang out, Dumoulin has found opportunities to stop and concentrate on improvements few and far between during his second full NHL season.
“You've got to take advantage of those days,” Dumoulin said of Tuesday's fine-tuning session. “There's no winding down right now.”
A season ago, the Penguins peaked at the end of the regular season, and all of the players recognized it. During their final 25 regular-season games, they generated more five-on-five offense than any team in the league and ranked in the top five in even-strength shot and chance suppression.
This season, their offense is elite, but they're struggling to slow opponents. Yet they hold out hope for a rebirth of that dominant two-way play they experienced a year ago.
“We have our identity. That's established,” Bryan Rust said. “But I think guys are always looking to improve that little bit in one area of the game or another. … During the year, it's more the gradual things, the little tips you take here and there from guys on the team or coaches. You try to take all of that and keep building. For me personally, there's never been that one big (revelation) moment during the season.”
Carter Rowney has grabbed Matt Cullen on the bench to quiz the veteran on faceoff techniques. Justin Schultz has met with Sergei Gonchar between periods for quick blueline lessons. Studiousness happens even when the schedule abounds with games.
Recent days off gave Dumoulin, Rowney, Rust and the Penguins other former college players chances to catch the NCAA hockey playoffs on television, and while nostalgia for simpler times arose, none considered their current team's grind too much to bear.
“You look at (college hockey), and you've got to win four wins to become the champion,” Dumoulin said.
“You've just got to get streaky at the right moment. In the NHL, you've got to be the better team to move on.”
Andrew McCutchen heads to the clubhouse after a game in February. (Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH – Considering the way the last six months have gone for the Pittsburgh Pirates, simply playing meaningful games should provide a measure of relief.
Let longtime franchise cornerstone Andrew McCutchen field balls in right field instead of talking – and talking and talking – about the way the team very publicly put him on the trading block in the offseason, then told him the 2013 NL MVP he needed to slide over to right from center to make way for Gold Glover Starling Marte.
“This was more like, ‘This is something you have to do.’ It wasn’t an ask,” McCutchen said. “It wasn’t something I was ready for or something I wanted to do. But, as I’m saying that, I’m talking about myself. I had to not be as selfish and just accept that’s what I have to do and move over to right.”
The latest wrinkle for a franchise in flux, as the players who helped restore some the team’s luster make way for the next wave. Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon, A.J. Burnett and Neil Walker have moved on. At some point this season, McCutchen may follow them out the door. Just not yet. The star is eager for a bounce back performance after hitting a career-low .256 and he overcame a slow start during the World Baseball Classic to help lead the United States to the title, doubling home two runs in an 8-0 romp over Puerto Rico in the championship.
McCutchen called the experience “amazing.” If the good vibes spill over into the regular season, then maybe the drama will subside and Pittsburgh’s modest downturn in 2016 after three straight playoff appearances will be more of a blip than a flashing red light.
Some other things to look for as the Pirates try to rein in the World Series champion Chicago Cubs and the rival St. Louis Cardinals in one of baseball’s most top-heavy divisions.
Taking the fifth: The Pirates knew they needed help in the rotation after the staff ERA rose from 3.21 in 2015 to 4.21 last year. While they re-signed Ivan Nova to a modest three-year deal, the team is relying on internal solutions to figure out the rest of the rotation behind Nova, Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. Chad Kuhl has the fourth spot locked up while the fifth spot remained unclear as opening day approached as no one from the foursome of Tyler Glasnow, Drew Hutchison, Steven Brault and Trevor Williams put together a lights out spring training designed to make things easy on manager Clint Hurdle.
Freese frame: Third baseman Jung Ho Kang remained in South Korea waiting for his visa issues to be worked out following a DUI conviction in February that threatened his status. David Freese will handle most of the duties at third base, perhaps on a permanent basis if Kang doesn’t return. Freese, the 2011 World Series MVP for the Cardinals, hit a steady .270 with 13 home runs and 55 RBIs last season. If those numbers tick up a bit, Kang’s absence could be largely mitigated.
The kids are alright: First baseman Josh Bell showed a judicious eye for the strike zone and a bit of pop in 45 games last season, hitting three home runs and driving in 19 runs. He’s still in the process of making the transition from outfield to first and will platoon with John Jaso early in the season but will be given plenty of opportunities to wrest the full-time starting gig from Jaso with a quick start. Adam Frazier also showed the kind of versatility and pluck (.301 average in 66 games) to help take some of the sting out of the departure of utilityman Sean Rodriguez.
Outlook: Pittsburgh’s erratic 2016 was the first substantial setback since manager Clint Hurdle took over. The relentlessly optimistic Hurdle remains bullish, but his team’s margin for error is small if it exists at all. Chasing down the Cubs could be impossible, but if the pitching looks more like 2015 than 2016 and McCutchen returns to his All-Star form, Pittsburgh could stay in the hunt for a wild card spot come September.
FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2017, file photo, Pittsburgh Penguins' Scott Wilson (23) reacts following an injury during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C. From Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Quick to Henrik Lundqvist and almost the entire Penguins defense, significant injuries have altered the NHL playoff chase since the fall. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)
How much is too much to overcome when it comes to injuries for the Penguins?
They have done a masterful job of weathering the storm to this point in the season, but might have hit a breaking point in the past three games. They’ve allowed 10 goals, scored only six and are 0-1-2 over that span.
“Is it catching up to us?” goalie Matt Murray said. “I don't know, but we can't let it either way.”
No one can blame the Penguins for burden of trying to offset the losses of Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, Jake Guentzel, Tom Sestito, Ron Hainsey and Conor Sheary, who was knocked out of action again on Sunday.
Letang and Malkin are among the most talented players in the league, and many of the other absences were key contributors to the team’s run to the Stanley Cup last spring.
To put those losses in perspective, consider this: Penguins players had missed 81 man games to injury on Jan. 8, just as their bye week had ended. Since then, that number has almost doubled, reaching 161 in the past 37 games.
Minor league players were called up to take on expanded roles. Carter Rowney found himself centering the team’s second line when the puck dropped ahead of their 6-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday.
That's also pushed veteran players to their breaking points with guys like Justin Schultz, Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino and Chris Kunitz forced to play more minutes than they would under regular circumstances.
Sidney Crosby, who is likely to take the ice without regular linemates Guentzel and Sheary against the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday, could be watching a scoring title slip away as part of the fallout.
For as frustrating as that must be, the Penguins’ captain wouldn’t complain.
“It’s something that we’ve been faced with for a while,” he said. “That’s the way it’s going so we’ve got to find ways to win games. We can’t control who’s in and out, but we’ve got to be able to make sure that our effort is there and we didn’t give ourselves much of a chance tonight.”
Crosby is pointing to his team’s effort Sunday.
His team opened up a 1-0 lead before allowing Philadelphia to reel off the next four goals. While the effort could have been better, there is no denying that the lineup and those who were absent had as much to do with the outcome as anything anyone in the lineup did or didn’t do.
While the team has started to show some wear and tear, it was refreshing to hear one newcomer talk about the mental toughness of the team.
Cameron Gaunce, who made his way back into the lineup a couple games ago, said that for all the visible fatigue caused by a busy March and the injuries, he’s impressed by the mental toughness he's seeing in the locker room.
“Oh I think for sure,” Gaunce said. “This team’s played almost every other day for a long time and you got some guys like a Justin Schultz playing almost 30 minutes a night, hard minutes. That’s tough on the body and it’s tough mentally. It’s draining but I think these guys, there’s a reason why they won it last year, because these guys are strong mentally every night.”
There has been a lot of talk about how these injuries might be a blessing in disguise. They've allowed some players to rest, while others gained valuable experience. That is just a little too clichéd to be accurate, but it is worth noting that a little adversity -- or in this case a lot -- goes a long way toward revealing the character necessary to make a sustained playoff run.
That said, having to play without their second (Malkin), fourth (Sheary), seventh (Letang) and 11th (Guentzel) leading scorers has made it tough to compete.
In light of losing three straight games -- two in a shootout -- they are still tied with Columbus for second in the Metropolitan Division and only three points behind the Washington Capitals for the top spot in the division and the league.
There is no word on how long Sheary will be out of the lineup with his latest setback, though he’s been listed as day-to-day, but there could be some reinforcements on the way.
Letang, Guentzel, Hainsey, Maatta, and Daley all skated ahead of practice on Sunday. Essentially all but Carl Hagelin could be nearing a return to the lineup, which would be a significant boost.
It's something to look forward too, but in the meantime, coach Mike Sullivan said they need to find ways to win in less than optimal circumstances.
“We're hopeful that we're going to get some guys back here fairly soon, and that's certainly going to make us more competitive,” Sullivan said. “In the meantime, as I've said all along, we believe we've got capable guys that can help us win, and they've done that over the course of the last month. We're going to have to find a way to get back in the win column.”
The Chicago Blackhawks have won 17 of 21, so ESPN’s Sarah Spain tweeted thusly about ‘Hawks captain Jonathan Toews: “Name a person you’d rather have leading your team than Toews - taking into account talent, leadership, quality of person. Is there anyone?”
My initial response: Is this a joke?
My subsequent response: Sidney Crosby, obviously.
Spain is a Chicago fangirl. It you want to call me a Penguins fanboy, I’ve certainly been called worse.
But Spain’s tweet is further proliferation of the myth of leadership. Intangibles are the great equalizer when what’s tangible doesn’t add up the way you want.
The myth of leadership helps further the myth of Toews, a real good hockey player but not remotely comparable to Crosby. Heck, Toews isn’t even the best player on his team. Patrick Kane is.
But leadership, though...
The myth of leadership often gets used in haphazard fashion.
In 1987, Mario Lemieux scored the winning goal for Canada in the Canada (now World) Cup final against the Soviet Union. Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier also played for Canada, and had won three Stanley Cups with Edmonton.
In that tournament, the story goes, Gretzky and Messier showed Lemieux how to win. A book got written on the topic. Credit for Lemieux’s subsequent accomplishments is thus visited, to some degree, upon Gretzky and Messier.
But Gretzky left Edmonton following another Cup win in 1988, and never won another. Messier won two more, another with the Oilers and one with the New York Rangers. So maybe Messier showed Gretzky how to win. Then Gretzky joined Messier on the Rangers, and Messier stopped winning. Messier, for whom the NHL’s leadership award is named, didn’t even make the playoffs in any of his last seven seasons. Did Gretzky show Messier how to lose?
Few players have tangibles on their side like Gretzky and Messier. They don’t need propped up artificially.
But the Penguins didn’t start winning because Lemieux was anointed by Gretzky and Messier. The Penguins won because Lemieux matured still further as a player, and because he got a better supporting cast. Kevin Stevens > Terry Ruskowski.
But leadership, though...
On his career, Crosby is averaging 1.32 points per game, Toews (coincidentally) .87. This season, Crosby has 41 goals and 40 assists in 66 games. Toews has 20 goals and 34 assists in 64 games.
Fantasy-league culture has overwhelmed sports. Numbers uber alles. Except when it doesn’t fit your argument.
Crosby is a captain of some repute, too. Crosby and Toews both played on Canada’s championship teams in the 2014 Olympics and 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Crosby wore Canada’s “C,” not Toews.
Crosby would be considered the NHL’s best player no matter what team he played for. If Toews played for Arizona, he’d be in witness protection. He’d be Shane Doan Jr.
Of the NHL’s 30 GMs and 30 coaches, 90 percent (maybe more) would choose Crosby over Toews, intangibles duly noted. That’s no knock on Toews. He’s great, and proven.
But I’d rather have Crosby. Hope that answers your question, Ms. Spain.
Part of this column is a direct lift from a column I wrote in 2007. You can’t plagiarize yourself. John Fogerty proved that in court.
Crosby > Toews. Kane > Toews. Connor McDavid > Toews. Evgeni Malkin > Toews. Conor Sheary isn’t as good as Toews, but he’s scored one more goal than Toews, and in 12 less games.
When it comes to hockey’s true elite, Toews isn’t even really in the conversation. He’s tied for 36th in the NHL in scoring, 23 points behind Crosby.
But leadership, though...
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
PITTSBURGH – In a bit of a recurring theme, the Steelers signed a player in free agency on Tuesday who will add depth to their roster. The biggest difference between Tyson Alualu and the three other outside free agents the Steelers have signed to date is that the former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive lineman brings considerable pedigree.
If Alualu’s name is vaguely familiar it’s because he is the former 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft.
Propelled by a strong combine showing, the former Cal star was the third D-linemen selected, after Ndamukong Suh (second overall) and Gerald McCoy (third). While Suh and McCoy have combined for nine Pro Bowl selections, Alualu has been a bit of a disappointment in his seven seasons with the Jaguars given his draft stock.
The 6-foot-3, 295-pound Alualu has 17.5 sacks and 177 solo tackles in 110 career games (88 starts). Signed to a two-year, $6-million contract prior to the 2015 season, Alualu was hardly a lock to make the Jaguars’ 53-man roster last season. Still, Alualu is a solid, durable player who should fit the Steelers’ need for him as a backup to Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargave.
In addition to his pedigree and experience, Alualu provides position flexibility. He played both on the end and in the interior with Jacksonville.
If nothing else, Alualu, signed to a two-year deal, is an upgrade for the Steelers who were in desperate need of D-line depth last season. With free agent Ricardo Mathews now unlikely to be re-signed, Alualu should be in the mix with fellow reserves Dan McCullers, L.T. Walton and Johnny Maxey for playing time.
Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores with one hand on a breakaway as Zach Bogosian #47 of the Buffalo Sabres tries to defend during the first period at the KeyBank Center on March 21, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- After losing a pair of front teeth, Sidney Crosby wasn't available to discuss the highlight-reel, one-handed goal he scored in helping the Pittsburgh Penguins clinch their 11th consecutive playoff berth.
Crosby's teammates had plenty to say about it following the defending Stanley Cup champions' 3-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night.
Starting from inside his blue line, Crosby picked up a head of steam through the neutral zone and weaved past all four Sabres defenders before lifting a one-handed backhander into the top right corner to open the scoring with nine seconds remaining in the first period.
"The play that everyone screws around doing in practice, and he does it in games," Nick Bonino said.
"The sea parted for him there, only 15 seconds left, and he turned it on," Bonino added. "I mean, there's nothing I can really say that nobody has. He does some pretty amazing things."
"I think most goalies in the league are going to read he's going to pull that back to his forehand," said Lehner, who stopped 31 shots. "Probably one or maybe two guys in the league who can score a goal like that."
Crosby was not in a position to speak after being high-sticked in the face by Evander Kane with 1:25 remaining while attempting to score into an empty net. Crosby went down in the corner clutching his face before eventually getting up and leaving the ice.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan would only say Crosby lost a couple of teeth. Kane was issued a double-minor for high-sticking.
Early in the first period, Crosby got away with a slash from behind in which he struck Buffalo forward Ryan O'Reilly between the legs.
Bonino scored the go-ahead goal on a broken play with 5:29 remaining, andConor Sheary scored 1:58 later. Matt Murray stopped 29 shots, and the Penguins (46-17-9) improved to 8-1-1 in their past 10 games.
With 101 points, Pittsburgh vaulted ahead of Columbus into second place in the Metropolitan Division and remained a point behind the NHL-leading Washington Capitals, who defeated Calgary 4-2.
Injuries continued to mount for the Penguins, who are already playing without seven regulars, including four defensemen and center Evgeni Malkin, who missed his third game with an upper-body injury.
Forward Jake Guentzel sustained a concussion about nine minutes in when he was blindsided by defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, who was issued a five-minute major and ejected for interference. Guentzel was crossing his own blue line when he lost the puck and turned his head just as Ristolainen hit him.
"I don't like the fact that he got ejected," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said of losing his top defenseman. "It's an unfortunate hit."
Sam Reinhart scored for a Sabres team that is sputtering on offense. Coming off a 2-1 win at Detroit on Monday, Buffalo has just five goals in regulation in its past five games.
The score would've been more lopsided if not for Lehner, who foiled Tom Kuhnhackl and Chris Kunitz on a pair of breakaways in the opening three minutes of the second period.
Bonino's go-ahead goal came after Penguins defenseman Ian Cole had the puck poked off his stick while driving into the left circle. Bonino followed up and snapped a shot through a crowd to beat Lehner just inside the left post.
Sheary scored 1:58 later on another fortuitous bounce. Breaking in on the left side, Sheary took an initial shot that was stopped by Lehner. The rebound caromed into the slot and went in off the skate of Buffalo's Zemgus Girgensons.
Pittsburgh improved to 11-0-1 over Buffalo in a string dating to April 23, 2013.
The players were still buzzing about Crosby's goal, his sixth in three games. He leads the NHL with 40.
"He's always been lethal with two hands on his stick, but now with one hand over the goalie works too," Kunitz said. "It's pretty special to see."
Crosby also continued his dominance over Buffalo, upping his total to 16 goals, 35 assists for 51 points in 34 career games.
Game notes Bylsma said forwards Kyle Okposo(ribs) and William Carrier (knee) have resumed skating and have an opportunity to return within the next week. ... Malkin skated at Pittsburgh earlier in the day but missed his third straight game with an upper-body injury. ... Frank Corrado became the 14th defenseman to suit up for the Penguins this season. Called up from the minors Monday, Corrado made his Penguins debut after being acquired in a trade with Toronto on March 1.
LAS VEGAS -- I wish there was some way to write a classic Chuck Berry intro to these refreshing sports notes. Dancing and humming a rock 'n' roll melody...
*Matt Murray has allowed 15 goals in his last five games. Marc-Andre Fleury has conceded eight times in his last five games. Just sayin'...
*Phil Kessel never goes down to block a shot. Kessel has played 599 consecutive games. Evgeni Malkin hurt his shoulder blocking a shot at Calgary last Monday. Malkin has missed the Penguins' last two games. Kessel has got it right. Memo to Malkin: Let your goalie make the save, or somebody else block the shot. Don't put premium talent at risk doing generic work.
*Coach Mike Sullivan is experimenting with Kessel at left wing. Perhaps that finally makes room for Jarome Iginla at right wing. Some wingers can switch easily from side to side. Kessel isn't likely one of those, if only because he's so rarely tried.
*The Sidney Crosby-Conor Sheary-Jake Guentzel line clicks on so many levels. But most amazing is its ability to control play down low despite nobody being taller than 5-foot-11. Kenny the Kangaroo must be smiling. Sheary and Guentzel have high hockey IQs, allowing them to think the game at Crosby's level. Close enough, anyway.
*Nobody has ever played better below the hash marks than Crosby. Nobody has ever played better on his backhand than Crosby. Sunday's hat trick serves notice to the other participants in the NHL points, goals and MVP races.
*Friday's Penguins-New Jersey game provided a microcosm of the inconsistency so consistently displayed by NHL referees: Kessel and the Devils' Taylor Hall were fouled in almost identical fashion on second-period breakaways. Kessel got a penalty shot. Hall did not; a minor penalty was awarded instead. Watch the replays. It's inconceivable that differing calls were made. But they did.
*I'm sorry I missed the Jaromir Jagr tribute video and subsequent standing ovation at yesterday's game. All-time great player. Good man. But I know, in my heart, that Jagr would want me to be in Las Vegas.
*GM Jim Rutherford made deals for two legit NHL defensemen before the trade deadline, yet the Penguins' tidal wave of injuries had Derrick Pouliot and Chad Ruhwedel in yesterday's lineup. "Spumoni! Spumoni! How many times do I gotta say spumoni?"
*Watching NCAA men's tournament games in Las Vegas is unique. Eighty percent of those watching react to the spread, not the actual score. That produces unique reactions that would be non sequiturs anywhere else.
*Northwestern University making the NCAA men's tournament for the first time was a great story. We know that because the plentiful amount of Northwestern grads working in sports media reminded us over and over. It was the most sustained instance ever of rooting in the press box. Northwestern lost in the second round, and thank God.
*In 2012, Duquesne University fired men's basketball coach Ron Everhart, who went 99-89 in six seasons (89-70 over his last five). His replacement, Jim Ferry, went 60-97 in five years before getting sacked. It's a prime example of not understanding your program's ceiling, and sabotaging it via indulging pie-in-the-sky optimism. Duquesne won't get a better coach than Everhart, and can't do appreciably better than he did. (Pitt athletics didn't invent this scenario, but have certainly perfected it.)
*Such is the state of college basketball in Western Pennsylvania that the Pittsburgh region is rallying around West Virginia University.
*UConn won, 116-55, in the first round of the NCAA women's tournament. That is a grotesque parody of competition, and has zero entertainment value. You'd have to be a moron to watch that for more than 10 seconds. At least the Harlem Globetrotters toss a bucket of confetti once in a while.
*The Baylor women won, 119-30. From bad to worse.
*NBA fans and media are outraged because Cleveland and Golden State aren't using their stars for select road games by way of resting them for the playoff grind. But there's absolutely no way to legislate against that. League administration can't dictate lineups. If the NBA doesn't want LeBron James, Steph Curry, etc. disappointing some kid in wherever and/or ruining a nationally-televised game by sitting out, make the schedule less debilitating. Perhaps 72 games, not 82. But no sports league will ever protect the players at expense of revenue.
*The Penguins would be wise to follow that lead, but won't. Hockey players and coaches aren't wired that way. Also, NBA stats are compiled on a per-game basis, while hockey uses the raw numbers. Missed games equal lower digits.
*Linebacker Dont'a Hightower used the Steelers and New York Jets to up the ante at New England. He never intended to leave the Patriots. It was a dog-and-pony show. Vintage NFL free agency. The Steelers have zero to be embarrassed about, though cornerback Davon House re-signing with Green Bay in the middle of his visit with the Steelers certainly made eyes roll.
*Those criticizing the Steelers for re-upping backup quarterback Landry Jones have no grip on the dire nature of the QB position in the NFL. Who should the Steelers have replaced Jones with? As backups go, Jones is OK, and he knows the Steelers' system. Most NFL teams don't have quality starters, let alone good backups. Life without Ben Roethlisberger looms in the not-too-distant future, and it will be a cold, hard slap to the face of Pittsburgh football fans.
*How could the New York Giants give defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul a deal worth $62 million? After blowing off part of his right hand via fireworks idiocy in 2015, Pierre-Paul has missed 14 of 33 games. He had seven sacks in 11 games last year, but 5 1/2 of those came in two games against jabronis Cleveland and Chicago. It's insane to believe somebody with 7 1/2 fingers can maintain any level of excellence when his job is tackling, let alone $62 million worth.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
Florida Panthers' Jaromir Jagr (68) and Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) skate during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, March 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH -- A moment of reconciliation more than 15 years in the making allowed the Pittsburgh Penguins to pay tribute to an important part of their past.
Then Sidney Crosby and the precocious kids who play alongside him provided a thrilling reminder of just how good the defending Stanley Cup champions have it in the present. And most likely the future.
The captain poured in a natural hat trick during a 10:45 span between the second and third periods -- all three assists coming from linemates Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel -- as the Penguins pulled away for a 4-0 victory over the Florida Panthers on Sunday.
The Penguins aired a video in the first period to salute Florida star Jaromir Jagr on the day he became the fourth player in NHL history to skate in 1,700 games. Jagr even received a standing ovation from the sellout crowd, a rarity in a place where he spent the first 806 games of his career while helping the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992 as a free-wheeling, fabulously mulleted 20-something who remains the second-leading scorer in franchise history behind mentor Mario Lemieux.
At least for now. Crosby inched closer after his 10th career hat trick gave him 1,018 points in his career. He almost certainly won't pass Jagr's 1,079 with the Penguins until next season, though it's hardly something Crosby is keeping tabs on. Keeping the Metropolitan Division lead within arm's reach is more than enough for now, particularly with Evgeni Malkin out while dealing with an upper-body injury.
Malkin missed his second straight game on Sunday. The Penguins haven't missed a beat thanks in part to the game's best player. Crosby has poured in five goals during Malkin's absence to move into the NHL lead with 40. His 80 points are tied with Edmonton's Connor McDavid for tops in the league.
"He knows he's got a little more weight on his shoulders and he takes care of that," Sheary said of Crosby.
Patric Hornqvist added his 18th for Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 21 shots for his 44th career shutout as the Penguins inched closer to an 11th straight playoff berth and is one point behind division co-leaders Columbus and Washington with three weeks to go in the regular season.
"We know the situation we're in," Crosby said. "We know there's a few teams fighting for that No. 1 spot. We'll see what happens but I think we're trying to give ourselves a chance down the stretch with the situation we're in."
Jagr joined Gordie Howe, Mark Messier and Ron Francis as the only players in NHL history to play in 1,700 games, but the Panthers saw their fading playoff hopes take another hit. James Reimer finished with 24 saves but received little help from those in front of him. Needing a spark to salvage his team's dwindling prospects of making the playoffs, Jagr instead had to settle for a long overdue token of appreciation from a fan base that's taken great pride in lustily booing him ever since he forced a trade to Washington in July 2001.
"It was pretty nice, but I would've rather won the hockey game," Jagr said. "That's the only thing I was concentrating on."
It never materialized as Pittsburgh held the Panthers to 11 shots below their season average then let Crosby, the 24-year-old Sheary and the 22-year-old Guentzel do the rest.
The line contributed three goals -- two by Crosby, one by Guentzel -- in 6-4 victory over New Jersey on Friday. They kept at it against the Panthers, though the two-time MVP doesn't get credit for the most inventive goal of the day. That came in the first period when Phil Kessel found himself behind the Florida net and flipped a pass in the air over the net to the front of the crease that Hornqvist knocked out of the air and by Reimer like something out of batting practice.
Fleury kept the lead intact long enough for Crosby to take over. His first came on a wrist shot from the left circle 14:15 into the second. His second came less than two minutes later when he pirouetted in traffic and flipped a backhander past Reimer. When the Panthers left Crosby alone just outside the crease five minutes into the third, he fired it by Reimer to send a torrent of hats onto the ice.
This is the second time in Crosby's career he's reached 40 goals. He posted a career-high 51 in 2009-10. ... Linesman David Briesbois left in the first period after getting accidentally run over by Hornqvist after dropping a face off but returned. ... Both teams went 0 for 4 on the power play.