Tuesdays With Stoosh: 4.26

 
At one point last night, I had a whole separate post initially written up for this. I started doing the Liveblog thing last night, in part because it worked well for Game Three (back when we knew what winning felt like) and in part because anything I pre-wrote for today would be tinged by the events of Game Six and most likely rendered moot.
 
And then, as they say, Game Six happened.  And I’m not sure anyone was ready to hear any encouraging words about this team’s prospects for the rest of the season, not that many – myself included – really have any to offer at this point anyway.
 
“You look like you’re going to a funeral.”
“Maybe I am.”
 
So the Liveblog was scrapped.  Besides, Staff did a much better job recapping the game and pretty much everyone’s mindset, anyway. No sense in re-hashing that mess of a game in any more gory detail.
 
So now what? King Theoden, thoughts?
 

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How did it come to this?
 
Game Seven or, if you will, the Gates of Mordor.
 
Yes, it sucks that despite once being up three-games-to-one and needing just one win to close it out, we’re now looking at a Game Seven tomorrow night.  But it’s not that tough to see how we got to this point. Simple math, really.
 
First, let’s give credit where credit is due. Tampa is a good team. They finished the season with 103 points as a team, just three behind the Pens.  They also had two players finish in the top five in scoring this year. They had three guys finish in the top 50 in goals scored for the season; the Pens by comparison have had just one, and he hasn’t played since January 5.
 
This is also a 4th seed versus a 5th seed. By that alone, this was likely going to be a closely-played series. Pretty much every well-paid network prognosticator and “expert” picked this series to go six or seven. Golly-gee-shucks, look at that.  We’re at seven games.
 
Couple all of that with two games of undisciplined and sloppy hockey by the Pens and here were are.  I don’t go down the notion that the Pens “they’re not trying” road, because I’ll have more on that notion in a minute.  But they have not been sharp.  There may be some very legitimate reasons for that, but they haven’t been sharp these last two games and Tampa has taken advantage of it.
 
I hate the Lightning right now, but let’s give credit where credit is due.
 
Some other thoughts and issues on this series.
 
 
JORDAN STAAL
Staal has a goal and 2 assists in six games so far this series. His goal tied Game Six at 2, which held for about thirty seconds until Downie put the Bolts up for good.
 
Staal has received some criticism for not putting up points in this playoff run, and some of that is justified. The Pens need him to be better than a point every two games. But much of this criticism tends to look at one thing and relate it back to his expected production – his draft slot. 
 
Staal was the 2nd overall pick in the 2006 Draft, and a lot of criticism levied at him seems to correlate that draft slot with the expectation that he should be effectively replacing Crosby and Malkin’s point production because of that.
 
That would be fine if we were talking about the same type of player. But the truth is that Staal just isn’t that type of player. He’s not a playmaker. He’s not a sniper. He doesn’t have the hands to be either, at least not on the level we’re used to seeing with Crosby and Malkin. It’s just not his skill set. 
 
None of that makes him any less worthy of being picked where he was.  Staal is very much like Keith Primeau – a big center with OK hands whose real strength and value to his team came not on the scoresheet as much as it is in his two-way game. Jordan Staal’s game is measured in wins and losses, not in goals and assists. Jordan Staal will win Selke trophies, not the Art Ross or Maurice Richard.
 
Jordan Staal is an elite-level shutdown center. Forcing him into a primary playmaker’s role going against the opposition’s top shutdown units  – as the injuries to Crosby and Malkin have done – does not put him in a position that suits his game. He has to deal with it and make the most of it, but you’re not going to get the same results you would with Sid and Malkin in that spot. But holding him to the standards set by Sid and Malkin just because he was drafted second overall is ludicrous. That doesn’t make Staal a bust. It means he’s playing outside his strengths and his normal role of the team.
 
If there’s a second round for this team to play, he needs to produce more for the Pens to advance. He can create offense; we’ve all seen what he can do when he winds it up on a rush or gets the puck in deep on the defense. He just needs to do it his way – by working along the boards and getting dirty goals…goals from out in front of the net.
 
ALEXEI KOVALEV
Yeesh.  Game Six very well may have been the last time we see AK-27 (or AK-72, I guess?) in a Pens lineup.
 
Back when Shero dealt a conditional 7th/6th round pick for Kovy, it was a gamble worth taking given the cost. It was a chance that Kovalev would find whatever it is that motivates him one more time, returning to the scene of much of his best career work. No one in their right mind expected him to be what he was 12 years ago as a Penguin; he’s approaching 40 years old now. But we all hoped it was a gamble maybe four or five flashes of brilliance a night. At the very least, we’d have that lethal wrist shot from the circle, right? And really, given the injuries at the time, it made sense.
 
The risk, of course, was that this was the Kovalev we were going to get. Slow. Indifferent. Prone to horrible penalties at the worst possible times. But most frustrating of all has been his refusal to shoot the puck.
 
His one goal this series – coming back in Game One – was pivotal. Through the first four games, he had those random flashes of brilliance. But the last two games, he’s been awful. He’s taken six minors in this series now, putting the team on the penalty kill against an opponent with a terrific powerplay. His hesitancy to shoot the puck at both even strength and on the powerplay has been mind-numbing, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change.
 
It wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest if Bylsma starts either Comrie or Tangradi in his place. Bylsma’s system exposes indifference; just ask Alex Ponikarovsky. And with the team on the brink, it can ill afford that right now. It would be a sad closure to Kovalev’s career as a Penguin, but it’s a call that Bylsma will almost certainly have to make.
 
THE TRICKLE-DOWN EFFECT OF FOUR MONTHS
Twitter and other media outlets last night were awash in criticism of the team’s effort over the last two games. While there’s something to be said for that, I have to wonder if it goes deeper than the team just not trying.
 
This is a team whose strengths exist almost entirely down the middle of the ice. The core is a franchise-caliber goaltender, four primary defensemen who may be as collectively solid as any four in the league, and three world-class centers – two of whom are among the most highly-skilled offensive talents in the league, and the other who has begun to redefine the shutdown center role for his generation.  When those elements are all working in concert with each other, it creates a potential nightmare of matchup issues for opposing teams.  Unfortunately, we have to wait until October to see how this is all going to work, thanks to injuries to all three centers this year.
 
But around those three centers, management has decided – perhaps due to economics of the cap as much as by choice – to surround them with a supporting case of high-energy forwards.  There is no Ovechkin or even Kovalchuk-level sniper on this team. There are a few power forwards types like Neal and Kunitz.  The rest are mostly energy guys.  In place of hands and the ability to put a puck through a 3” x 3” space over the goalie’s glove hand, these players possess speed and a willingness to skate through the boards to get a puck out of the corner and open up space for the skill players to operate.
 
Crosby’s concussion and Malkin’s knee injury has unfortunately forced many of these players into roles for which they may not necessarily be suited. Where Sid was once a top-line center, the Pens now had either Staal, Letestu…even Max Talbot and Dustin Jeffrey. Letestu was normally a third or fourth-line center; he’s now regularly in the top six and is the team’s best natural playmaker at center. Other forwards were shuffled accordingly and were expected to pick up the slack. And this is just on offense.  This fails to take into account the work that Crosby does on the backcheck, or the presence that each player is on the powerplay.  Now you’ve got defensemen doing more to compensate at both ends of the ice. Now you’ve got the goaltending bearing a much heavier burden and dealing with much less margin for error.
 
This is usually fine over short stretches of time. But Crosby has been out for four full months now, and Malkin nearly three, and this says nothing of the other injuries the team had to deal with during that stretch (Orpik, Kunitz, Letestu, Jeffrey, Asham, Tangradi, etc.). At some point, when does this reach a saturation point?  How long can you take away two pieces like Crosby and Malkin and really expect everything to proceed as normal?
 
This team has been dealing with a significantly shortened margin of error for four months now. At some point, that has to catch up.  At some point, you can only ask your rookie third line center to play as a first line center, face each opposing team’s top defensive personnel, and produce without hitting a wall.  At some point, you can only ask your goaltender to keep no fewer than two pucks out of the net per night.
 
In other words, maybe this Pens team is just tired.
 
Yes, these guys are professionals. But they’re also humans, not robots. The energy tanks only run so deep and can only be replenished for so long.  Maybe four months of elevated roles and precious little margin for error has finally caught up.
 
It’s happened before.  Go back to 2001-02. The Pens entered the season with Lemieux, Straka, Lang and Kovalev all coming back from an Eastern Conf. Finals appearance the year before. Jagr was gone, but a decent core was still there. The Pens were expected to contend for the playoffs and those four in the top six still made for a formidable offense.
 
Then Lemieux got hurt in training camp. Straka also suffered some injuries and in the end, neither ended up playing more than a quarter of that season.  To make matters worse, Kovalev and Lang each got hurt during the season and missed 15-20 games.  Before you knew it, Jan Hrdina was your top-line center and your biggest threat on the wings was Aleksey Morozov.  Rookies and prospects were relied on to fill lower-line roles when they probably should’ve been in Wilkes-Barre getting top-line minutes. The team hovered around .500 for about 55-60 games, but then the bottom fell out in February and March. Too many players were stretched too thin from having to play roles too far above their level for too long a period of time.
 
When the dust from Malkin’s injury settled, this was one of the things that crossed my mind – would this Pens team suffer some sort of collapse because of the trickle-down effect of the absences of Crosby and Malkin?  To some degree, maybe it’s a miracle it never happened during the season.  Somehow they managed to continue to play .500 hockey…actually a little better than that.
 
But here we are, a half-season after the injuries happened and players were thrust into more demanding roles. Is it all catching up now? Maybe. It wouldn’t be surprising if it has something to do with it.
 
Maybe it speaks volumes that Letestu is the team’s best playmaking option at center right now, or that Craig Adams is getting 14 minutes of ice time a night and was out there with four minutes to play last night, trying to generate offense. Maybe it says something when three of your top scoring options on the wings are Tyler Kennedy, Arron Asham and an aged Alexei Kovalev. The Steelers can’t plug in Ryan Mundy for Troy Polamalu and expect their defense to do the same things when Polamalu is in there; the same principle holds here.
 
Call it excuse making if you want to. Maybe it doesn’t entirely excuse the Pens’ failure to close this thing out in Games Five and Six.  But if you’re looking for a reason, there’s history to support what may be happening right now.
 
 
 
 
GAME SEVEN
No matter what, there is still at least one more game of hockey to play. 
 
No one wanted to be here, at least not given where the Pens were heading into this past weekend.  And given the last two games, fans have the right to be concerned.  This will be compounded by media spouting off stats and data, talking about the Pens’ struggles closing games out at home. You’ll hear a thousand and one references to last year’s Game Seven against Montreal, which would mean something if this was last year’s Pens team playing the 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens. How that impacts this team facing the Tampa Bay Lightning is beyond me.
 
They win tomorrow, though, and nothing else from this series really matters. It’s on to the next round, to at least four more games of anxiety and cheers, ups and downs, highs and lows. On to the next “anything can happen”.
 
Crosby’s not coming back tomorrow.
 
Malkin’s not coming back tomorrow.
 
With all due respect to both of those players, they don’t matter tomorrow.
 
As Norman Dale said, “I would hope you would support who we are; not, who we are not.”
 
Fleury, Johnson.
 
Staal, Kunitz, Neal, Dupuis, Kennedy, Letestu, Talbot, Conner, Kovalev, Tangradi, Adams, Rupp, Asham, Godard, Comrie.
 
Oprik, Letang, Michalek, Martin,Niskanen, Lovejoy, Engelland. 
 
This is your team.
 

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