Tuesdays With Stoosh: 3.30

(*Editor's note, by now you have heard the Pens extended Letang's contract. We'll have more later. Anyone that jobs Gonch only proves they know nothing about hockey and life in general.)
 
Commentor Stoosh has been around quite a while.
He even has a shirt in Storeblog.
He's banged out beastly Homer-esque comments with a high level of consistency.
Only fitting to give him the reins.
 
 
 
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The beauty of the game of hockey is that so much of it is driven by intangibles.  Football and baseball can claim much more grand spectacles, but heart, emotion and effort can only accomplish so much in baseball.  Ask Jack Wilson.
Hockey also doesn't take 30 seconds off between plays, allowing emotions to cool and the crowd to sit back and take a breath.  Basketball ebbs and flows with that back-and-forth momentum, but not with the same fluidity you see with the game of hockey.  Basketball also misses the emotional aspect that the "team" concept creates – a concept that has been absent from the NBA since the Bird-Magic-Jordan heyday.

These intangibles find their roots in emotion and heart and manifest themselves in effort.  This is what causes hockey players to appear willing to skate through walls – and sometimes anyone who happens to be in the way – to get to a loose puck.
 
It's the reason why a hockey player will never take himself out of the lineup and play on a foot that he broke two months earlier.  It's why a hockey player will throw himself into a fight he knows he won't win, but will inspire his teammates to rally around him.  Why?  Ultimately, it's for the chance to spend 30 seconds carrying a 35 lb. silver trophy around the ice.
Nothing brings this kind of emotion to the surface like the NHL playoffs.  And with the playoffs right around the corner, it's easy to see why some Pens fans were starting to, um…
worry a little.
 
Over the course of the last couple of months, a disturbing little trend began to emerge in Pens games regarding the energy level of the team.  Too often, they looked disinterested or lacked focus, or both.  There were times where the effort was there, but it was inconsistent from game to game.  What's worse, you kept hearing about it in the post-game comments, so there was an awareness that at least something needed to be done.  But nothing seemed to change.

When this happens in November or December, it's one thing.  As it begins to creep towards the end of March, it's a problem.

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Thankfully, one favor the NHL schedule-maker inadvertently did for Pens fans was a late-March four-game stretch that saw the team play road games at Detroit and Washington, followed by back-to-back weekend home dates with the Flyers and Leafs.  It gave Pens fans a good chance against decent competition (mostly) to take stock of the current Pens team as it preps for the playoff run.  Given that the Pens from a strict win-loss standpoint have been playing just over .500 hockey since January 1 and intensity is sometimes…um…lacking, it came at a good time.

What have we learned?  Well, maybe things aren't so bad.

Damn, That Sucks…

They were too sloppy at times against the Red Wings.  There were turnovers by the defense that made me wonder if Ryan Whitney and Hans Jonsson were back in Pens jerseys.  But in their defense, the Wings right now are everyone's nightmare in the Western Conference.  They're the hottest team in the West (8-1-1 in their last ten, same as Phoenix and Nashville).  More on that later.

Gee, That's Swell…

Over that four-game stretch, the Pens took five of eight points, which is solid when you consider that all four games were played without Malkin and the last three were played without Gonchar.

Damn, That Sucks…

 

The Pens blew a 2-1 lead against the Caps, then came back to tie it at 3-3 with about three minutes left, only to blow what looked to be a certain win after taking a 2-goal lead in the shootout.

Gee, That's Swell…

If this team has played a "good loss" since coming back from the Olympic break, the loss to the Caps was it.  For long stretches of the game, that intense physical style we saw them play down the stretch and through the playoff run last year was back.  The Pens resurrected the high-pressure forecheck that gave Caps d-men fits last year and did in this game.  An up-tempo Pens attack caught Caps d-men and forwards standing around watching the puck and led to chances that forced Jose Theodore to bail out his team with a number of highlight-reel saves.  Everyone who's watched Theodore play the last few years knows he's capable of stealing a game here or there.  But doing it four times out of seven in the face of the kind of pressure he saw from the Pens?  No Caps fan will admit it because they'll be too busy gloating over the season series win by the Caps, but there were little things that Caps fans couldn't be happy with that revealed themselves in that game.

Damn, That Sucks…

Fleury lets in a "soff" goal a minute into the game. To Aaron Asham.

Gee, That's Swell…

The following 59 minutes.  The Pens officially clinched a playoff spot with this win, getting all four goals from "secondary scoring" guys – Cooke, Dupuis, Kunitz and Fedotenko.  Crosby had three assists and was everywhere; he treats the Flyers the same way Bruce Boudreau treats a bathroom after a dinner at Mad Mex.  Feds had two points.  Fleury was rock solid in the face of the Flyers' crease-crashing and usual shenanigans.

Damn, That Sucks…

Pens came out slow again versus the Leafs, spotting them the first goal of the game early.  They generated very little consistent offensive pressure through the first thirty minutes of this game.

Gee, That's Swell…

This game may have been proof that they can in fact "flip the switch".  They re-focused themselves over the last half of the game, especially in the third and generated tons of chances.  Cooke's goal was a beautiful deflection, the amazing result of what can happen when the point man (Leopold) just gets the puck to the net.

Final thoughts on the stretch, dudes:

  • Some of the recent success has to be attributed to the return of the secondary scoring.  Talbot has had a solid three-game run now and someone may have told him the playoffs started already.  The Pens need to continue to get contributions from guys like Dupuis, Kennedy, Cooke, and Fedotenko.
  • Not sure I've seen Cooke play as hard as he has over this last stretch of five games since he joined the Pens.  I know some Pens players went public with some mild criticism of his hit on Savard, and I'm sure guys made it known that a hit like that puts them in a dangerous spot.  Cooke has been playing like a guy who might be proving a thing or two to his teammates.
  • I have to thank Raybin for pointing this out on Twitter a few days back.  Ray Shero got Jordan Leopold at the deadline to help shut down Ovechkin; Ovechkin had just four shots and was invisible during long stretches of that game last week.  George McPhee, on the other hand, needed to upgrade his defense and got…Joe Corvo.  Corvo has two goals and three assists in 11 games since being acquired by Washington, but he's also a -4 and has yet to post anything better than an even rating.  Wonder what McPhee was thinking as Crosby turned Corvo into a human drillbit dishing the puck to Guerin on Guerin's goal.
  • The Wings are healthy, playing well (hottest team in the West along with Phoenix) and have now put six points between them and 9th spot in the West. Osgood's charting faceoffs rather than playing ole' with every fifth shot fired at him.  San Jose, Chicago and Vancouver have to be at least a little bit nervous right now.
  • If Dave Tippett doesn't get the Jack Adams Trophy this year, they should just stop handing out the award.  And doesn't this also highlight what an asstastic job Gretzky did as coach of that team?
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