Tuesdays With Stoosh: 3.08

 
Just fifteen games left in the regular season.  Are you kidding me?  Where the hell has this season gone?
 
Wasn’t it just yesterday that we were shuffling out of Mellon Arena for the last time, ridding ourselves of that miserable end to the 09-10 season?  
 
Weren’t we just extolling the virtues of King Shero for the summertime signings of Michalek and Martin? 
 
Didn’t we just finish counting down the days left in August?
 
Weren’t we all just walking around Consol Energy Center for the first time?
 
Four weeks from today, the Pens play their last regular season home game of 2010-11.  
 
Five days later – including one night of redemption in Nassau – it’s Game 82, a 3:00 PM tilt in front of probably 500 fans in Atlanta.
 
So this is the home stretch, as they say, and it finds the Pens sitting pretty comfortably in the 4th playoff spot.  They’re just two points ahead of Tampa for fifth and five up on Montreal for sixth, so home ice in the first round isn’t an absolute certainty just yet.  But they’ve got a thirteen-point lead on the 9th playoff seed and even better, they’ve got a four teams between them and golf in April.  So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.
 
Even better is this.  Somehow, the Pens are just two points back of pulling even with the Flyers for the first overall seed.  
 
When Crosby went out of the lineup with his concussion two months ago, maybe you could’ve envisioned the Pens still being here.  Staal was just getting back and Malkin was still in the lineup, even though it was obvious there was something wrong as he still wasn’t playing up to normal Malkin standards.  But that went out the window a little more than a month ago when Tyler Myers headed into a corner to battle Geno for a loose puck, went “baby giraffe” on his skates and tumbled right into Malkin’s knee.
 

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In that moment, if you channeled your inner Bill Paxton, no one could’ve blamed you.  Most of us did for at least a moment or two.
 
You just can’t take that kind of talent out of a lineup and expect everyone else to pick up the slack.  Take the Sedins out of Vancouver’s lineup or Datsyuk & Zetterberg out of Detroit’s and you’re looking at two teams who are brought back much closer to the rest of the pack.  They’re not BAD teams, so to speak, but you can’t lose that kind of superstar talent and expect to win the same ways you normally do when those guys are in there.
 
Jordan Staal is great in his normal role with this team, but a playmaking center in the mold of Crosby and Malkin he is not.  He just isn’t that type of player.  It’s not part of his game, and it never has been.  Mark Letestu has been a revelation this year and while he brings an element of creativity to his game, he’s not going to be able to match up to an opposing team’s top shutdown defensemen the same way Crosby and Malkin could.  Over time, you’re asking a lot of players to assume roles and deal with matchups they normally wouldn’t have to deal with over longer stretches of play.  To that end, it’s up to the coaches to rework the team’s approach to suit the remaining strengths, and it’s up to the players to respond.
 
No one will dispute that the main reason they are where they are right now is thanks to what they accomplished in the first four months of the season.  They were 26-12-3 when Sid left the lineup.  They played 12 more games before losing Geno for the year and in those 12 games, they went 8-3-1.  So it wasn’t like they weren’t already in a good spot.
 
 But they were still faced with more than two months of hockey without their two most talented forwards.  And they still had to respond with this new approach, asking players to do different things virtually overnight.  There were bound to be some adjustments and that’s been the case as the Pens have played 14 games since losing Malkin and they’ve won just four times.
 
But they managed to stay afloat by taking eight of those games to overtime and securing at least one point in each of them.  When Geno went out, the hope was that the team could just continue to play .500 hockey.  That would be enough to get the team into the playoffs and at that point, they let the chips fall where they may, especially the return of Crosby still a possibility.
 
From a points-taken standpoint, they’ve been almost right at that .500 mark.  Of the 28 available points since Geno was lost for the year, they’ve taken 12 of them.  It’s not .500, but it’s not terrible either.  The Flyers losing five of their last eight games in regulation has certainly helped, too, so wooo for Bobrovsky possibly hitting a wall.
 
As regulars have returned and Shero re-tooled the roster, they seem to be getting used to this new approach.  They’ve taken six of their last eight, and those have come against three of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference over the last few weeks.
 
There’s still a lot of hockey left to play, and a lot can happen.  The Pens are still struggling to find consistent goal-scoring and that doesn’t look to change much unless Crosby gets back, and no one knows if that’s happening this year.
 
Until that point, they’ll make do with what they have, and lack of relative star-power aside, they sent a tremendous message to the rest of the conference with that win over Boston on Saturday.  The Pens already have what could be considered the best defense-goaltending combo in the East; when Orpik comes back, I’ll take the Pens’ top six and Fleury over Boston’s top six and Tim Thomas.  They’ve also embraced this up-tempo, physical approach that saw them match the Bruins hit for hit Saturday and frustrate the B’s into seven recorded giveaways.  Their forecheck and quick transition would be nightmares for teams like Washington and Tampa – each of whom are lining up to be potential first-round opponents for the Pens, and each of whom tends to take care of the puck with the precision normally reserved for most D-league rec teams.
 
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.  There’s still a lot of hockey to be played between now and then and we’ve seen how quickly things can turn in a season.  Pens fans are the last ones who need to be reminded of that.
 
Some quick thoughts, dudes…
 
DISCLAIMER:  This is kind of depressing to think about.  You’ve been forewarned.
 
Had Sid remained healthy and continued to produce at the same rate he was when he went out of the lineup, he would have 53 goals and 108 points heading into tonight’s game. He’d be leading the scoring race by 27 points and would have a 12-goal jump on Stamkos for the Rocket Richard trophy.
 
With the Sabres in town, it’s a good time to mention this. Terry Pegula assuming ownership of the Sabres and securing their future in Buffalo is a great thing. We’re not that far removed from all the proceedings that led to Lemieux and his ownership group ultimately being awarded control of the Penguins. Between that and the uncertainty that was created by the arena saga, we lived through that kind of uncertainty for nearly a decade. So kudos & congrats to Sabres fans.
 
On the flipside of that, what a mess it’s become down in Atlanta. To hear and read some reports, I’m starting to wonder if that April 10 game isn’t just the close on the regular season, but the Thrashers franchise in Atlanta.
 
I may have mentioned this before, but something that should at least concern Flyers fans is the possibility that Sergei Bobrovsky may be hitting a wall here.  Bobrovsky has never played more than 35 games in a season before.  He’s now played 42 and will likely end up somewhere around 55 by the time the regular season ends.  Malkin saw a drop in his production late in 2006-07 and he seemed overwhelmed by the pace in that first playoff matchup with the Sens that year.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Bobrovsky.  The Flyers next option in net is Brian Boucher.
 
Six games into his Penguins career and James Neal being held scoreless in each already has some media types and even some fans breaking out the “James Neal is a bust” talk.
 
Neal has averaged a goal every three games for his career.  It’s only been six games for him, and it’s worth noting that he’s adjusting to new teammates and a new system, to which Disco alluded earlier in the week.  Sometimes it just takes time.  When Marian Hossa was acquired in 2007-08, he only scored 3 goals in the 12 regular season games he played.  He didn’t really start clicking until the second-round series with the Rangers and he finished that playoff year just fine (12-14-26 in 20 games).
 
In each of the last two years, Neal has produced the majority of his points while playing on a line with Brad Richards.  He’s the type of winger who benefits most from having a playmaking center to set him up, and that’s fine.  Not all wings are able to create that kind of offense on their own, and if he was, we sure as hell would’ve had to give up more than Alex Goligoski to get him.
  
This isn’t Alexei Ponikarovsky, Version Canadian.  Neal isn’t playing his way down to the fourth line or the press box.  He’s been playing good hockey away from the puck since he arrived, culminating in a very solid game in the win over the Bruins that was probably a perfect 60-minute microcosm of his Pens career thus far.  He was strong on the puck.  He hit, even laying out Chara with a Kunitz-on-Timmonen-like check that sent one hell of a message if nothing else.  He backchecked.  And when Kovalev set him up with a beautiful chance in the slot late in the third period, he…managed to hit nothing but Tim Thomas.  Oh well.
 
What happens this year with Neal is almost secondary, anyway, at least as it relates to his long term future with the Penguins.  Neal was acquired to play with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Even if he goes scoreless through the remainder of this year, when training camp starts next year, he’ll be on the first or second lines.  
 
He’s produced in the past when he had a talented center setting him up, particularly with the likes of Brad Richards.  With all due respect to Mark Letestu and even Jordan Staal, neither are Brad Richards, Sid and Geno.
 
Be patient with Neal.  He’ll be fine, especially once he’s got 87 or 71 feeding him pucks.
 
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