March 16, Penguins Live
Brian Metzer and Adam Gretz talked about the Penguins' discipline level. Metzer: "Everyone talks about the Penguins as this undisciplined group and they do this all the time and they melt down. I know they have had these moments, specifically dating back to the 2012 playoffs against the Philadelphia Flyers, but generally speaking, I don't think we've seen it all that much this year, but the problem is, it happens to occur on national TV and that just builds the narrative and that stereotype just grows into a thing of its own across the league." Gretz added: "I think that's pretty much it. This really was the first time this year that they have had a game like that. I don't want to criticize officiating too much, but I think some of those guys on Sunday maybe had a little bit too quick of a trigger finger handing out some of those misconducts. I'm not sure that anything that [Kris] Letang or [Chris] Kunitz did was really that far off from what a lot of other players do in similar situations that don't result in those types of penalties. It was a weird game. Like you said, it hasn't happened much this season. It just so happened the one time it does happen, it's on national TV, everybody sees it. I think the one thing you take out of that game that's a concern, and we've talked about this in the past, is Steve Downie spent 22 minutes in the penalty box in that game. I think the thing that frustrates me the most about him is he's a really good player and they need him on the ice. Every minute he's spending in the penalty box is a minute you don't have one of your better players out there, and he really has been one of their better players at even strength."
Spot on from both guys here. That Sunday afternoon was a mess, but much of the reaction to it in the aftermath was overblown. Then again, I suppose overreaction to a loss (especially a bad one) is nothing new.
March 17, Penguins Live
Sam Kasan on the frugality of the New Jersey Devils organization: "When other teams come to Consol Energy Center, when they eat the media meal, the teams always eat for free and the same thing when we travel around. There's only a handful of teams that actually make the other visiting team pay when they come to the arena to eat, and Jersey's one of them."
Wayne Gretzky once called the Devils a Mickey Mouse operation. Same as it ever was?
March 18, The Mark Madden Show
Mark Madden and Dejan Kovacevic discussed the possible root of all the Penguins' woes. Madden: "Is the power play perhaps THE biggest problem? Because I have a feeling if that power play got up to the level it produced at in October-November, we'd think a lot more highly of the leadership, the 5-on-5 play, the attitude in the dressing room. I think a lot of problems would solve themselves." Kovacevic: "It's everything. It's not just Sid, but we would be talking about this team in completely different terms if the power play was productive. We really would. I think it's held everything back about this team, not least of which is their confidence, possibly their consistency issues we've talked about, how they approach other teams. Look, when you scare the other team with your power play, they're not able to do those things that cause you to get undisciplined."
Early on, when the Pens were supremely competent on the power play, I often joked about them being too good, and sooner or later, the refs would deem it an unfair advantage and stopping calling penalties. Well, that kind of happened. Part of that's on the Pens, because you have to work to earn those calls and they definitely dropped off there, but there's no question the officials just aren't calling the games as tightly anymore. Anyone that tells you otherwise is either blind, a fan of a team that likes to hook and hold, or employed by the NHL. That said, this team hasn't done anywhere near enough with the chances they've had. They currently sit 8th in the league at 19.8%, but those numbers are largely due to the insane ones they put up early. I counted 25 losses in games the power play has had at least one chance but failed to score a goal. 8 of those came in overtime or shootouts, so there's 8 more wins they could have, not to mention how many regulation losses they could have pulled at least one point out of by scoring a single PPG. Now, let's not act like the Pens are some bottom-feeding team (they have 90 points at 40-22-10), but imagine how much better that record could be had the power play not fallen off a cliff. A competent power play could do a lot for this team.
March 18, Penguins Live
Metzer and Vince Comunale talked about the struggling power play. Metzer: "The power play's mired in a bit of a doldrum again. Right when it seemed like they were turning a little bit of a corner in the early part of the month, they've now gone into a big time swoon again. No matter what they seem to do, it seems like it's not getting it going. I do like having Ehrhoff out there. He's not ashamed to shoot the puck. He seems to get it to the net as often as he possibly can." Comunale: "It's just a matter of shooting the puck. If that means putting Christian Ehrhoff out there on the top unit, then so be it, because that's what they need to do. They need to shoot the puck. [Sidney] Crosby scored a power play goal where he just one-timed it from the faceoff circle and it went in. I wish that they would go back and look at the film of that and say, wow, look at how this worked by shooting the puck on net. The power play is so bad right now, it's actually giving the opposing team momentum because the other team doesn't really have to worry about taking a penalty they know there's pretty much a 90% chance the Penguins are not going to score on it. And we've actually seen a lot of shorthanded opportunities the other way recently as well. The solution is simple: Just shoot the puck and rotate bodies, but Sidney Crosby just refuses to move anywhere but that right wing faceoff circle. You look at some of the best power plays around the league and it's quick movement of the puck, it's movement of the players, and the Penguins don't either one of those." Metzer: "Yeah, sometimes it looks like a bubble hockey game to me where they're sliding up and down in one spot or spinning in circles."
The bubble hockey comparison is painfully accurate. As mentioned above, a competent power play would do so much for this team, but they seem to have forgotten everything that worked early and are content to do the same low-percentage stuff over and over, no matter how many times it fails. That's the most frustrating part of this: they saw the simple approach worked early and basically refuse to go back to it. I generally don't favor management and/or ownership getting involved with coaching, but when this kind of stubbornness goes on for this long, I almost wonder if it isn't time for Mario to lay down the law. It shouldn't have to come to that, but I'm not sure what else you do when the team clearly isn't doing what the coaches want.
March 21, Pens Week
Paul Steigerwald on Kris Letang: "Several weeks ago, Bob Errey on our broadcast, mentioned one of the reasons he why he was so impressed with Letang's play this year is because he's targeted every night. He's become such an important part of the Penguins mix - and by the way guys, Jim Rutherford actually said to me the other day that he thought Letang was the team's most valuable player, so that's a pretty high endorsement right there - teams come after him. It's not just that he has to defend the best players on the opposition, or that he has to provide offense for the Penguins, or do all the things that he does in terms of his skill, but he also has to deal with people coming after him physically. We saw another example of that the other night when Curtis McKenzie interfered with Letang down low around the net. Letang had gone in deep on the play and he just basically took him and pushed him away from the puck. It was almost like he was playing a different sport. He drew Letang into some sort of fisticuffs or an altercation if you will, but it really wasn't a fight. It was deemed a double minor for roughing to both players.I can see why Kris Letang would start to lose his mind a little bit. He's getting this kind of attention every game and he's getting no help from the referees. It's tough for the Penguins to really go crazy and start dealing with it from a physical standpoint themselves, because then you get in danger of being shorthanded and you're trying to kill penalties and it just gets worse."
Letang's often been criticized for being hot-tempered, and a lot of that is deserved, but exactly how much is he supposed to take? McKenzie could have been rung up for 2, 3, or 4 minors before Letang went back at him. He fought through all of it, didn't dive, and what did he get for it? The referees evened it all up. You're almost telling him to take a dive there. To make it worse, McKenzie will get some attaboys from his coach there because not only did he keep Letang from creating offense, he got him off the ice for 4 minutes and did so without putting his team shorthanded. In a lot of ways, that sequence summed up everything that's wrong with the NHL right now: great hockey players being minimized be lesser ones while the NHL lets it happen, and often times, encourages it. I don't know Curtis McKenzie or his game. Maybe he's a capable player. Or maybe he has to play that way to have an NHL job. I don't know. I do know that style of play is only effective because the league allows it to be. If the league had it's officials enforce the rule book, guys that have to play that way to be effective would be out of the league pretty quick, and the league would be better off for it.
Steigerwald on officiating: "The Penguins have had a history with referees going all the way back to January 28th - I call it the day hockey died - in 1992 when Mario Lemieux, Kevin Stevens and Jaromir Jagr were all ejected from a hockey game in Washington. And the reason they were was because the Capitals were interfering with the Penguins all over the ice - and it was kind of the beginning of the end in terms of teams being coached to interfere - and the Penguins just lost their minds that day. I remember Mario throwing his stick down the ice at Kerry Fraser and Kerry Fraser and Mario having words with each other, even in the newspapers, Kerry Fraser said some things. And then as recently as this week, there's Kerry Fraser on his blog at TSN saying he still has friends among the ranks of the referees in the league and they thing the Penguins are whiners and so they tend to hold a grudge against the Penguins, which I think is absolutely unconscionable actually, because referees are supposed to be above that. I hear people say it like it's just a common, accepted thing in hockey that the officials would hold it against you if you behave a certain way and spread the word around the ranks and take it out on you in games because it's human nature. I don't know if it's happening, I'm not accusing them of it, but I'm saying that people talk about it like it's a common thing, like 'oh yeah, that happens' and if it's happening, it's unconscionable."
Sadly, Steigerwald's right about how accepting people are of this stuff. Almost every time I've heard Paul Stewart do an interview, I've been amazed at how forthcoming he is about how he basically stuck it to players that ticked him off. I have a hard time imagining an ex-NFL referee admitting he refused to throw flags because he didn't like a QB and nothing coming of it, but in the NHL, that's just how it is. Which is sad.