A Pittsburgh Penguins Preview
On Wednesday, January 16, 2013, after a long-endured hockey off-season, the Pittsburgh Penguins took to the ice at Consol Energy Center to play a televised scrimmage game that was open to the public. Because of the lockout, various teams across the league are trying different tactics to apologize to fans for the frustrating lost half season. The San Jose Sharks promoted 30% discounts on selected merchandise for season ticket holders and free Sharks jerseys for the first 200 fans to purchase two tickets to four or more home games. The Penguins are offering three free concession items and 50% discounts on all team merchandise. If you buy tickets to the Florida Predators' home opener, you get tickets to the next home game, too. While the promotions are nice, the Pens couldn’t have been happier as they opened up the luxury suites for the fans and unfortunately, had to turn away even more patrons outside the arena as over 18,000 hockey-hungry fans entered the building.
Looking ahead to an extremely intense season of only 48 games, the puck will drop in a playoff-like atmosphere for every team in the league. Every game will count. Taking a look at the divisions in each conference, none appear to be as flashy and overflowing with talent as the Atlantic Division. The Rangers, Penguins, Flyers, and even the young talent of the Isles include such names as Richards, Nash, Crosby, Malkin, Giroux, Hartnell, Hall, Eberle, and that doesn’t even include the division’s intense goaltending.
Focusing on my locality, the Pittsburgh Penguins have shown success over the past decade or so with the additions of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, and others. This year will be no different. With Crosby finally healthy after suffering multiple concussions, many are ranking him as one of the top scoring leaders already. Why wouldn’t they?
Don’t rule out Evgeni Malkin. Malkin has been playing in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in Russia during the lockout. Actually, he hasn’t just been playing, he’s been on fire and tickling the twine behind many Russian net minders. In 37 games, Geno has scored 23 goals, assisted in goals 42 times, and left with 65 points and a +23 rating. Look for #71 to have a stellar season as he could be at the top of the list for the Art Ross trophy.
Although the Pens have these two stars back in the line-up, last year’s “three-headed-monster” is down a head. Premier center Jordan Staal will be playing along with his brother(s) in Carolina. In six seasons with the Penguins, Staal racked up 120 goals in 431 games as a third line center. Four of his six seasons included 20+ goals and 40+ points. Those numbers will be sorely missed along with #11. It seemed to be a trade that Pittsburgh “yinzer” fans knew was coming and dreaded. Many understood his reasons for wanting to leave and, for the most part, wished him the best of luck with his new team. His replacement, Brandon Sutter, will bring a very different feel for a third line center to the team. With big shoes to fill, Sutter will provide the Pens with a much more defensive feel at center than Staal brought to the game. Considering how the defense struggled in last year’s first round series loss to the Flyers, this could be a great move. Being tossed up and down between the Hurricanes and its AHL affiliate, the Albany River Rats, Sutter has contributed 53 goals and 54 assists in 286 games. Look for Sutter, #16, to be playing alongside Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke, creating a potential checking line that could compete with any other in the league.
To paraphrase a local radio program, you know that hockey has been successful in Pittsburgh if there is a goalie controversy, just like the past Steelers’ quarterback controversies. Marc-Andre Fleury, #29, is coming off of one of his best regular seasons last year. He is also coming off of one of his worst playoff performances. The Penguins didn’t re-sign backup goaltender Brent Johnson. Instead, they received Tomas Vokoun in a trade with the rivaled Washington Capitals for a 7th round draft pick. Vokoun, now #92 instead of his original #29, will provide a safety net for Head Coach Dan Bylsma if Fleury doesn’t shake off that playoff funk that he showed last year and the past three seasons. At age 36, Vokoun knows that he is in a backup role, for now. Dan Bylsma also knows that he has two capable goalies and categorizes them as #1 and #1b. With 48 games this season, I expect #29 to start 30 games and #92, 18 games; not quite half of what either started last season.
Poor and ineffective goaltending and defense were the cause of the Penguins’ collapse in last year’s playoffs. The offense scored 26 goals in the first round series, but they gave up 30. The 5.00 goals-against-average shocked observers around the NHL. No matter how talented a goalie is, he can only stop so many shots. The defense has to do a better job in this short season if they expect to develop into Stanley Cup Champions. Paul Martin, originally known to be one of the better puck-moving defensemen, fell apart last year earning only one point of his career’s 19 (eight seasons in the NHL). Don’t be surprised if General Manager Ray Shero exercises the new CBA’s buyout privilege in the next off-season if Paul Martin plays sub-par hockey. Brooks Orpik, one of two alternate captains, must take control of his defensive zone. The Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t had that tough guy enforcer since the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals with Hal Gill. With younger players such as Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo trying to earn a spot as a top six defenseman, it’s time for #44 to make his presence known when opponents come across the blue line and into the slot.
In a short 48-game season, anything can happen. The Real Deal James Neal, #18, could continue the Art Ross-worthy season he had last year. One could assume that signed free agent Tanner Glass will get an opportunity to shine on the fourth line with Craig Adams, Joe Vitale, or Eric Tangradi. There is a lot of potential for this team to make its mark in this difficult and solid division. I won’t say that the Pens will be the cup champs this year; however, I will say that Lord Stanley’s cup will be awarded to a team from the Atlantic Division. So, put on your jerseys, get your tickets, turn on your flat screen TV’s, or just grab a beer and get ready for one of the most intense hockey seasons that we will see in the next decade.