Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spring Flower Blooming...

Its been a while since I've blogged, and even longer since I could fully absorb the Pens season from after New Years. Boy, it seems I missed the best story for the Pens - long-term.
Its so easy to focus on the major injury woes as a negative and the WBS Baby Pens call-ups as such a positive that I lost sight of how great of a season Marc-Andre Fleury is having in net. In fact, it never really struck me until Mark Madden pointed it out on his 105.9 D.J. Blog today. He makes an ironclad argument for "Flower" as NHL Most Valuable Player (MVP).
I recall Sunday afternoon during the Player Awards Ceremony thinking..."Pens MVP? Ok? Are they going to have Sid down there on the ice in a suit to get the award?". When I heard Fleury, I kind of grimaced and thought..."I guess" as I imagined softies floating past him in October. Well...
Since November 12: 35-15-5...928 save percentage, 2.09 goals against; just staggering.
I have recently been thinking, as I have actually been processing the season, "wow, this team can lock it down on defense. They can beat anyone with their commitment to defense and clutch players. With a healthy Sid they can demolish anyone in a 7-game series".
Flower is the main reason this has been on my mind, although I didn't know it until today. I previously thought it is the emergence of our defense (exactly how did Zybaynek Michalek not win Defensive Player of the Year award on this team?). He has been lights out, essentially eliminating other team's top forward (Ovechkin included), Letang has a one-of-kind skill set in the League right now, Orpik is business as usual. Martin is so complete as a player. In other words, I'd take our top 4 Defenseman over anyone this year - any team - Chicago's Top 4, Boston's Top 4, Philly's top 4...I could go on.
But out of all of these guys on Defense...Fleury has the highest ceiling; he was the #1 pick overall in the draft, typically ordained for Franchise Saviors like Lemieux or Crosby. I can still remember sitting in Clarion in 2003 watching this scrawny 18-year old kid with BRIGHT ASS pads thinking to myself that he was being absolutely thrown to the wolves by one of the top 10 worst NHL teams of all time. Then he went out opening night and made 46 saves in a terrible 3-0 loss that could have been 8-0 easy. His talent blew me away. Think about it; I am citing a game from 7 years ago that I'd rather forget, believe me. It looks like the Flower is finally in full bloom...it just took me until spring to realize it.
To contextualize it further. I glanced back at the Pens best goaltending seasons in team history (goaliesarchive.com). Their inaugural season of expansion, 1967-68, Two goalies allowed 2.92 goals per game, which is unreal actually?!?! The early 90's had what appeared to be awful regular season goaltending, even in the astounding 1992-93 regular season in which the Pens handily won the President's Trophy for top record. In the heart of the dead puck era, the 1997-98 Pens, with Tom Barrasso in the "fully receded hairline/peak Masshole arrogance" stage of his career, Ken Wregget, and Peter Skudra (?) all playing at least 15 games allowed only 2.25 goals a game. Barrasso (63 games - 31 wins and a .922 save %) and Skudra (.925 save %) standing out. Barrasso, Skudra, Tugnutt, and J.S. Aubin (!) had a .900 save % combined in 1999-00. Other than that...not a single goaltending season with a .900% or better save percentage or a cumulative goals against better than 2.25 GAA (Barrasso did have a 2.07 GAA in 1997-98).
That all changed when Fleury came in as a 21-year old in 2006 for his second real season as an NHL starter. Every season since then has had an above .900 save %. Of course, defense matters in this equation, but this is a great indicator that Flower is already the best goalie in franchise history - even if he trails Barrasso in Stanley Cups 2-to-1. This surprises me as I write it. I guess we've been so blessed (and maybe blinded?) as Pens fans to have a century's worth of offensive stars in 25 years.
I felt a bizarre gravity to the scoreless draw between Fleury and Brodeur the other night. It seems like Flower bested Marty in the shootout. I know, hokey to say that over a "skills competition". But there was something to it, he just took the French-Canadian goaltending title belt from him in spirit. Of course, Brodeur is past his prime and Luongo is thought to be "the #1 guy" right now...but its never felt to me as if he took it from him directly; lets not forget it took Brodeur melting down in Vancouver for Luongo to even sniff the crease. Team Canada also seemed to win in spite of him; he didn't totally dominate.
With five .900 + save percentage seasons already, a Stanley Cup ring, and at age 26, it seems like Fleury has jumped to conversation from "will he be really good enough for us to win more cups" to "are we watching an NHL Hall-of-Fame Goaltender for the first time as Pens fans?". Its a legit question to ponder. I think I know the answer now. With most of our defensive corps locked up, the Pens are never out of a game right now. I think we are never out of a 7-game series right now, even without Sid. I think we are not out of a Stanley Cup march this year, even without Sid. We are watching a championship-level defense in front of our eyes, from the net out, night after night. Yes, the shootout wins lately...how many of those games, translated into playoff OT mode, do you see the Pens losing in the past few weeks? They don't win big...but they don't need to. Its what the Pens have always needed for a second dynasty. Now...will it come to fruition? We'll see.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Recap: Games 72-75

screencap courtesy of thehockeywriters.com

Games: vs. NYR (L 5-2), @ DET (W 5-4 SO), @PHI (W 2-1 SO), vs. NJ (W 1-0 SO)

Notable Highlights:

-6 of 8 possible points. The team is 2 points behind Philly for the division and conference lead, but at this moment have played 2 more games. If a division/conference crown is still within reach, it will take some help. If not, the Penguins seem relatively settled in the #4 spot. Currently Tampa Bay holds the #5 spot, trailing the Pens by 7 points. They have played 1 less game. A first round matchup against the 'Ning would be very exciting if it comes to be.

-I've felt for a few months that Philly will be the team to beat in the east. Seeing the Pens shut them down was very encouraging. One game does not a 7 game series make, but it's good to see the guys get in to that "do what it takes" mindset that is necessary against tough teams in April and (hopefully) May/June.

-Sid contines to work out and by all accounts the pace and intensity of these sessions have been increasing. "Symptom free" continues to be the best news any Pens fan can hope for. Not to turn in to a complete nerd (as if blogging isn't bad enough), but the video of him snapping a wicked backhander to the top of the net in practice 3/25 definitely got an audible response out of me.

-RW Arron Asham returned to the lineup against Philly, logging 9:15 TOI. He was also on the ice for 7:41 against the Devils. In the Devils game, C Mike Comrie also returned to the lineup for the first time since his hip surgery. He logged 8:07 TOI.

-Tyler Kennedy scored his 18th goal of the season against the Flyers. According to Bob Grove of the Pens Postgame Show (105.9 The X), he leads the team with 10 goals in the 27 games that Sid and Malkin have missed.

Ghastly Lowlights:

-You can probably chalk it up to the rivalry, but giving up a 4-0 lead to the Red Wings really stuck in my craw (whatever that is). I wouldn't care if the Pens were playing without sticks once they got up that much, you can't quit on good hockey teams at this time of year and expect to win. They got it in the shootout, but it's of little consolation to me. That type of crap just doesn't fly in my eyes.

-I don't know if anyone ever thinks about it aside from hardcore hockey fans and the GMs, but I think the shootout has run its course. 3 of the 4 games in this stretch were decided in the shootout. Personally, I don't get much enjoyment out of them anymore. I would much prefer going to a 3-on-3 porition of overtime until someone scored. With that much space on the ice, I find it hard to believe there'd be many marathon games during the regular season.That space would also lead to more creative plays and more excitement than the shootout can muster up at this point as well.

-C Mark Letestu continues to be out of the lineup and C Dustin Jeffery joined him on the shelf. He was the victim of an awkward fall in to his leg against the Flyers. It looks very similar to the play that ended Malkin's season, but no word has come from the Penguins on the extent of Jeffery's injury.

-Isn't it great to watch the brand of hockey the Devils play? 0-0 after 65 minutes of hockey, a lot of standing around in the neutral zone, minimal offensive chances. I have said it before and will say it until the day I die, hockey is meant to be fast paced and back and forth. NO MORE TRAP!

-It didn't take long after the Pacioretty hit for the focus to shift right back to headshots. Thank none other than Pens villain Matt Cooke for it. His early 3rd period elbow of Ranger defenseman Ryan McDonagh was uncalled for, wreckless, detrimental to the team, and deserving of every bit of the suspension he received. The NHL handed down a suspension that puts Cooke out for the rest of the regular season AND the first round of the playoffs, regardless of length.

Pens GM Ray Shero was in full support of the suspension. He added, "The suspension is warranted because that's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game. Head shots have no place in hockey. We've told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message."

Cooke's timing for this stupidity couldn't have been any worse on a few fronts. Injuries to Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffery again have the team scrambling to shuffle guys in and out of the lineup to fill forward spots. From a legislative standpoint, the GM meetings concluded in Florida with the intent to crack down harder on illegal hits, yet stopping short of creating a new rule specifically for such instances. This time the NHL got it right, but let's not pat them on the back too hard. This is the NHL equivalent of a multiple time violent offender getting out on parole and gravely and intentionally injuring someone in front of a police officer. Let's see what the NHL does with players that don't have Cooke's cringe worthy name recognition. Yes, Matt Cooke is a dirty player. You can't dispute that. But what happens the next time a star like Dany Heatley throws a blatant elbow as he did 3/15? That's where the NHL can really take control of the situation. As I've said time and time again, I won't hold my breath for them to do the right thing...but I sure am hoping they will.

Forward Recaps:

-James Neal had the shootout winner against the Red Wings and Devils. He continues to battle hard and had a great pass to set up a Jordan Staal goal against the Rangers. Both Ranger Dmen went to hard to the wall and Neal made them pay by setting Jordo up at the blue line.

-Chris Kunitz had what seemed like a huge shorthanded goal in the 3rd period against New York. At the time, it gave the Pens a 2-1 lead. The goal was his 21st of the season.

-Pascal Dupuis scored 2 goals against the Red Wings (12, 13). One of them was shorthanded.

Defenseman Recaps:

-Orpik will return to the lineup 3/27 against Florida. I expect Matt Niskanen to be the odd man out/scratch.

-The reason I think Niskanen will sit is a combination of his overall stale play combined with the increasing confidence and potential that Ben Lovejoy is showing. Benny has become very comfortable with the puck and his decisions and is minimizing his d zone mishaps. As with any young defenseman, there will be lapses, but with the other dmen on this team the Penguins can afford to let Lovejoy find his place. There are plenty of vets to support him and hopefully bail him out when times are tough.

Goalie Recaps:

-Marc-Andre Fleury looked awful against the Rangers. He played very well against the Flyers with 19 saves, and the Devils lacked punch, yet Fleury managed to get the shutout by stopping 21 shots against the Devils. In one of the stranger stats you'll ever see, MAF has recorded a shutout the past 4 times he has played on March 25th.

-Brent Johnson got the start against the Red Wings. All in all, he didn't play terrible in stopping 37 of 41 shots. I blame the entire team for the collapse in this one. BJ has been scratched the past 2 games with what has been called an "upper body" injury.

-Brad Thiessen was called up from Wilkes-Barre Scranton to serve as the backup to MAF for the past 2 games. I'm hopeful that he will get the start against Florida on 3/27. Thiessen has earned it with his AHL play this season, posting a record of 32-7-1. Consider his play down there even more impressive then the record would indicate. Remember, there have been many times where the best players from WBS have had to spend time on the NHL roster, which means the Baby Pens weren't always at their fullest in terms of the lineup. He is wearing #39.


-New York Rangers

-Chief punk Sean Avery was a healthy scratch for the 3rd time in the Rangers' last 4 games.

-G Henrik Lundqvist made 38 saves in the win.

-RW Ryan Callahan scored his 23rd goal of the season and added 2 assists.


-LW Henrik Zetterberg scored his 21st goal.

-G Jimmy Howard was replaced by Joey MacDonald after the 4th goal against.

-C Mike Modano scored his 3rd goal of the season. Modano has recovered from an injury earlier this season. He is the all time leading US-born goal and point scorer in NHL history. He is also Married to entertainer Willa Ford.


-Uber-leader Mike Richards scored his 21st goal of the season.

-Rookie G Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 30 of the 31 shots the Guins sent his way. He looked sharp. Flyers fans will hope for this to continue in to the playoffs as it seems that the only thing holding them back from a return to the Finals could be the man or men between the pipes.

-New Jersey

-G Martin Brodeur stopped 26 shots in earning his shutout. Since the teams did not score in regulation or OT, no player gets credit for a shootout goal. It is instead a team goal awarded.

-It appears that the push for the playoffs will come up just a bit short for the Devils. Their horrendous start cost them, as they have played pretty very good hockey (in terms of points, not entertainment) since the coaching change.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Recap: Games 68-71

photo courtesy of penguins.nhl.com

Games: vs. BUF (W 3-1),  vs. MON (L 3-0) Edmonton (W 5-1), @ BOS (W 3-2 OT)

Notable Highlights:

-6 of 8 possible points. The playoff spot is nearly secured. I'm not going to roll around in a pile of $$ over these wins though. Edmonton and Ottawa are very bad. As The Pensblog points out, we are entering a stretch where 6 of the next 7 games are against playoff teams. Even though it will likely be a time to coast and get guys back in to the lineup, there is a definate chance to find out if there is reason for optimism in the playoffs.

-It seems pretty clear that the Pens go out of their way to hit and mess with Montreal D P.K. Subban. F Mike Rupp took a swipe at him in a scrum and F Max Talbot got him with a pretty good slash. This seems directly related to the opinion that Subban's injuring of F Jordan Staal in last season's playoffs was not accidental.

-The home game against Montreal was the 200th consectutive sellout for the franchise (regular season and playoffs). I've been a half-season ticket holder for 7 years and attended many games prior to that. Even though I've become jaded by the game day experience (not including playoffs), it is nice to see things going so well after being in the building for so many lean years in the early 2000s.

-Wins against Edmonton and Ottawa give the team some confidence after the poor showing against Montreal. Even though they are bad, they are on the schedule and it would be very alarming had the team looked bad again in either of these contests.

-There's been some positive news on the injury front with Mike Comrie, Arron Asham, Eric Tangradi, and Sidney Crosby all returning to the ice in one form or another. Crosby had been symptom free for enough days in a row that he was able to skate for 15-20 mins. He remained symptom free the day after that, so he skated again. Speculation that he will return is extremely premature, but after all the ridiculous rumors swirling around Sid, it is good to see that he is not, in fact, retiring as the most ridiculous rumor speculated.

Ghastly Lowlights:

-Penguins power play was 0 for 7 against the Sabres. Could have changed a close game in to a comfortable win. Nothing new, but this stood out to me.

-Terrible effort against the Canadiens. I am way too lazy to look up the day game stats of the past 3 or 4 years, but for some reason I feel they start sluggish each and every time. In this case, there was an early goal scored by Plecanic. Turnovers galore. Ugly. Lucky for them, Edmonton and Ottawa were up next on the schedule to get their confidence back.

-D Kris Letang has been playing really poorly of late. He is not showing up on the scoresheet like he did at the beginning of the year and it's like injured Evgeni Malkin has been giving him pointers on how to constantly turn the puck over. His turnovers lead to goals in both the Montreal and Ottawa games. Hopefully he will settle down and get out of this funk. I do have to point out that I don't hear many of yinz calling for the trade of Tang...guess he's lucky his name isn't Goligoski.

-The NHL has a new hot topic of discussion: the "turnbuckle" hit. The "turnbuckle" is an area that juts in near the end of the player benches or in the buffer zone between the benches. It has become a topic of discussion because of this hit by Boston's Zdeno Chara on Montreal's Max Pacioretty. He suffered a severe concussion and a cracked vertebra.

I suppose this is the point in my blogdom where people can call me a hypocrite, but I did not find the hit on Pacioretty dirty. How is that possible? Two simple answers. First, it is an unavoidable area of openness from the playing surface. Players will from time to time be hit there an knocked in to the "turnbuckle". Did Chara know what he was doing? Yes. Was it interference? Yes, but not because Chara targeted the head. He looks to rub a player out in to this area to make him pay a price for the territory he is trying to gain. I see no indication that he was trying to do any more than shove his body hard in to the "turnbuckle". Secondly, this area really isn't much different that the boards or the goal. Sure the goal has give to it, but it's still possible for injury if a guy is hit in to it. Same with the boards. It's the way a hit is carried out that makes it dirty or not. Pens D Ben Lovjoy hit a Buffalo Sabre in to the turnbuckle and the Sabres went after him hard. F Max Talbot was the near victim of a hit like this against Ottawa, but wisely skated out of trouble by slowing up.

The "turnbuckle issue" will certainly come up again, but for now the NHL has the "headshot issue" on its hands. At the GM Meetings in Boca Raton, FL the discussions were dominated by how to best protect the players from the league-wide rise in concussions. A ban on hits to the head was rejected, with support being thrown behind proposals to expand Rule 48 and have increased enforcement of existing rules for charging and boarding. It was also reported that Penguins Owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux sent a letter to the league outlining a proposal for a fine scale to be used against teams based on the amount of games suspended. In it, the Penguins were used an example. Under the proposed structure, they would have been hit with $600,000 in fines based on the suspensions to players (mainly Matt Cooke) this season. These are great ideas, but it remains to be seen if the NHL brass and officiating have what it takes to be consistent and sustained in their enforcement both in-game and after the fact. As a lifelong fan of the NHL, I have my doubts but will hope for the best.

Forward Recaps:

-Guess who gets another mention?? Tyler Kennedy (...Kennedy). He scored his 16th goal of the season against the Sens.

-LW Chris Kunitz scored his 19th and 20th goals against the Oilers.

-C Jordan Staal scored his 8th and 9th goals of the season during this stretch.

Defenseman Recaps:

-Zbynek Michalek went without a goal until the Buffalo game. In a strange quirk of fate, he now has 3 goals in his past 4 games with goals against Edmonton and Ottawa. He has been a very steady piece of the defensive end, so it's good to see him get some breaks in the o zone.

-Ben Lovejoy had a goal against Ottawa and continues to play well with his expanded role.

-Corey Potter and Steve Wagner were called up from Wilkes-Barre Scranton prior to the game. Potter played in his first game for the Penguins. He has played in the NHL before.

Goalie Recaps:

-Marc-Andre Fleury played well against Buffalo and Edmonton. An early goal against Montreal did not help the cause with the team playing incredibly flat. He was pulled in that game about 7 minutes in to the 2nd period. With a 2 goal lead in the last few minutes of the Sabres game, he was attempting to get off a shot at the vacated Buffalo net. No real chance was launched. This is mainly because the puck was to his right. Fleury's best chance at a goal came a few years ago against Edmonton. The puck was settled to his left and he had time to set himself. Expect him to continue to try for a goal in any situation where the Pens have a 2 goal lead.

-Brent Johnson had a good game in relief of MAF against the Habs and then stopped 21 shots in the win against Ottawa. Good to know he's around for the playoffs as our #2. He has proven his worth time and time again this season. If there is such a thing as an "unsung hero" award for the team, he should be the unanimous winner.



-C Rob Niedermayer scored his 2nd goal of the season.

-Buffalo fans are rejoicing at the rapidly completed sale of the team to natural gas billionaire Terry Pegula. Having a billionaire fund your team is always a good thing, just like Pens co-owner Ron Burkle. Even better for Sabres fans is the fact that Pegula is a passionate hockey fan. He donated $88 million to Penn St to help develop an arena for an eventual Division 1 hockey program and his dog is named after Sidney Crosby. I'd wish him luck, but it doesn't seem like he's short on reasons to feel good about himself. This is still welcome news for their fans, and there is a real sense of optimism surrounding their fan base. They are great fans (not obnoxious) and travel well. I'm happy for their organization.


-The Canadiens are involved in their own controversial hit, with the injury to Max Pacioretty (discussed above). Montreal Police had to ask fans to stop calling to report a crime took place the outrage was so bad. I'd like to wish him the best in his recovery.

-C Tomas Plecanic scored his 21st goal of the season.

-G Carey Price recorded his 12th career shutout. This was his 61st game played of the season!


-LW Ryan Jones scored his 16th goal of the season for the Oilers only goal.

-Star Rookie Taylor Hall will miss the rest of the season due to ankle injury. He has been one of the few bright spots for the team this season.


-D Erik Karlsson has a very promising future leading the Senators in points, but after the game his +/- dropped to -36. FSN Pittsburgh's Bob Errey has a funny line about him being in contention for the green jacket (golf reference).

-RW Ryan Shannon's 7th goal of the season served as the only tally for Ottawa.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Recap: Games 65-67

Games: @ TOR (L 3-2 OT),  @ NJ (L 2-1 OT), @ BOS (W 3-2 OT)

Notable Highlights:

-4 of 6 possible points. Somehow, the Penguins find themselves only 2 points behind the Flyers for the Division and Conference lead. Currently, the Penguins have 84 points. Historically, you need between 88-92 points to be around the 8th spot. Even with a slump, the Penguins still have a better mathmatical show at finishing in the top 4 than in the bottom 4 or even outside of the playoff picture. Again, give Coach Bylsma credit for keeping the direction of the team moving forward, despite a definite lack in firepower.

-I'll give D Paul Martin a shout out in the highlights for logging a TOI of  35:26 against New Jersey. Somebody has to take the minutes when a defensemen is kicked out early on, but that doesn't make it any less important. He also made a nice stick check on Toronto D Dion Phaneuf to thwart a great scoring chance in a tight game.

-RW Craig Adams again gets a mention in the highlights. Just before Devils RW Ilya Kovalchuk scored in OT, he cranked up for shot that Adams got in front of. It's a tribute to the heart of Adams, that even in a game in early March, he will step in front of one of the hardest shots in the game and not give it a second thought.

-LW Tyler Kennedy scored his 15th goal of the season in the Devils game and added an assist on C Jordan Staal's goal against Boston. TK just keep making the most of his chances. Frankly, I couldn't find something negative to say about that if I tried.

Ghastly Lowlights:

-D Kris Letang had  a very selfish/stupid ejection in the Devils game. After knocking Devils C Travis Zajac down, he stood over top of him for a few seconds instead of joining the team on the rush. This naturally lead to a fight between the two. After grappling for a bit, Zajac pulled on Letang's jersey, revealing that it wasn't tied down. That is an automatic ejection. At a point this early in the game, it just unacceptable for a defenseman to be tossed over something he can control.

-C Jordan Staal and LW James Neal both went to the shooter on the GWG by C Mikhail Grabovski in OT against Toronto. With both forwards out this high, the puck was sent to Grabovski in front of the net where there was little G Marc-Andre Fleury could do. Both guys were being aggressive, but you have to be aware of where all players are at on the ice. It is even more important when an accomplished goal scorer is the one that is wide open. They will make you pay more times than not.

-There is a vocal group of dolts/Steeler fans that are unable to comprehend a fast moving sport like hockey/Sidney Crosby haters that will tell anyone that has an earhole or two that Sid is a sissy and should "tough it out" when it comes to playing with his concussion. The long term affects of concussions are terrible. They have even been said to change those who have been afflicted's judgment. Why else would Hines Ward agree to do "Dancing With the Stars"??

photo courtesy of mrboots.com

Everyone is entitled to their opinions, of course. I do wonder if these people would say the same thing about/to the face of Arron Asham. He has now missed his 13th game due to a concussion and isn't exactly the kind of guy that has ever shied away from physical play.

I wouldn't consider myself the biggest Crosby fan out there, but I do believe in at least trying to be reasonably consistent in an argument on any issue. Much of this season, I've found myself harping on the head shot and concussion issue as it relates to hockey, and sports in general. To suggest that Crosby isn't tough for doing the medically prudent thing is ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as it would be to accuse Asham of the same.

About 20 games ago, I discussed the growing concern over concussions in the sport, and introduced myself to the medical condition CTE.  This past week, it was revealed that NHL legend Bob Probert (1965-2010) had died with CTE. To his credit, he seemed to know that he would not live to see old age and agreed to allow his brain to be studied.

Probert accumulated 3,300 PIMs in his NHL career, many of which were from trading blows to the head in one form or another. Anyone that grew up learning hockey in the 1980s has a special place in their heart for Mr. Probert. He was one of the toughest guys to ever play the game. That just isn't a question. If you say otherwise, chances are you never watched him play. The trouble is, all that toughness couldn't save him from a hell of a shortened life (due to heart failure) and CTE.

I guess that if pressed on the subject, I would concede that Sidney Crosby and just about anyone else isn't tough when compared to Bob Probert. If he couldn't survive it, what chance do they have??

photo courtesy of fightstrap.com

Forward Recaps:

-James Neal has yet to score a goal in his time with the Pens. While this surely can be considered a negative, because of Neal's contract situation we can give him some time to adjust. He likely will benefit greatly from playing on line's next season with players like Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Neal is a power forward. His game isn't based on handling the puck and skating with it. With the injury situation, that is often what he is needed for currently. With players such as Sid and Geno, he will be able to find space because players have to go them instead. Once open, they will find him the puck. If you watched any highlights of Neal's goals (I know I have), you see a hard shot. The kind of shot that can go right through a goalie, even from the high slot. Don't write him off just yet.

-RW Chris Conner chipped in his 7th goal of the season against the Maple Leafs.

-C Dustin Jeffery had both an up and a down in this stretch. His up was the 2 goals (6th and 7th) against the Bruins, including the game winner. A closer look also reveals the negative. In the Toronto game, his turnover near the defensive zone face off dot directly lead the C Phil Kessel's goal.

Defenseman Recaps:

-Matt Niskanen took the blame for blowing the assignment on the winning goal in Toronto, but as discussed above I'm not buying it. Strong move on the part of a new teammate thought. Was pleasantly surprised at his seeing eye goal and the assist that sent Conner on a breakaway (for a goal) in in this game as well.

-Ben Lovejoy had an assist against Toronto and has looked pretty comfortable in the lineup recently. Playing time has allowed him to work some of the kinks out of his game.

Goalie Recaps:

-Marc-Andre Fleury had 17 saves against Toronto and had 29 saves against Boston. You could argue that he dramtically helped our cause against Boston and was just a participant in the Toronot game. I'm still anxious to see if he will be performing at the level he did for most of the month of February. MAF playing at that level will be the team's only realistic shot at advancing past the 1st round of the playoffs.

-Brent Johnson stopped 28 of the 30 shots tossed at him by the Devils. The first goal against was fairly weak, but you have to expect that a goalie will let in a soft one from time to time. Perfection isn't a realistic expectation every time a goalie is in the cage, let alone for one that had not played much in February.



-LW Nikolai Kulemin scored his 23rd goal of the season on some nice work with F's Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski.

-C Phil Kessel had an assist and a nice tip in goal near the cage for his 27th of the season.

-New Jersey

-The Devils have played at an astonishing pace. At the start of February, they had 35 points. By the start of March, they had 58 points. While it is still very unlikely the will qualify for the playoffs, they proved that they still have a strong enough roster to contend next season.

-In addition to a fight, Travis Zajac scored his 10th goal of the season.

-Ilya Kovalchuk's GWG was his 23rd goal of the season.


-D and Captain Zdeno Chara scored his 11th goal of the season.

-Mt. Lebo's D Matt Bartkowski has played 3 career NHL games. Each have been against the Pens.

-G Tim Thomas let in 3 goals against the Penguins, which is a "terrible" game for him this season. His GAA is 1.97 and if I had a vote for the Hart Trophy (MVP), he would have it.