by John Toperzer
Hurray! Saturday’s game returns to ROOT Sports. NBC Sports Network has exclusively broadcast two of the last three games. “NHL Rivals,” as it’s been termed has been more like the Pittsburgh Penguins versus __________ (fill in any other name). The Pens have played the Bruins and Rangers the last two Wednesdays and will host Philadelphia next Wednesday.
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, old Penguins owner, Howard Baldwin, conceived PensVision circa 1993, 1994. This was a cable TV concoction in which the only way Penguins fans could watch games was to buy a little black box to unscramble the game signal. It didn’t work.
I’m all for seeing the Pens get the national spotlight, but I could see how fans from other cities might get jealous or bored with watching the same team every week. I’d rather see the Pens get North American coverage next June.
Listening to Mike Lange and Phil Bourque on the radio, the topic of hybrid icing and the increase in faceoff comes up every game. I figured I’d do something about it and see if hybrid icing has led to a bump in draws.
I calculated the number of regular season faceoffs in 2012-13. There were 85,792 draws, according to NHL.com. A total of 1440 games were played, giving us an average of 59.57 faceoffs per game.
I then added up the numbers through this past Wednesday. There were 27,910 faceoffs through 450 games, making the average number of draws per game in 2013-14 — 62.02.
The numbers show that faceoffs have increased by about 2.5 draws per game from 2012-13 to 2013-14. Make of that what you will. I’d say each faceoff adds between 30 seconds and one minute of real time to each game. How significant is that?
I went back and compiled the Penguins faceoffs, starting with the Cup year.
2008-09: 57.39 faceoffs
For whatever reason, the biggest bump in faceoffs came after the 2010-11 campaign (57.71) and 2011-12 (60.45). Pittsburgh’s numbers are up only slightly in the year of hybrid icing.
For as much as Lange and Bourque discuss hybrid icing, you’d think there was a much larger increase but there isn’t.
I watched the Penguins practice Thursday and did some live tweeting. I noticed that Shelly Anderson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and somebody else tweeted similar information that I put out — that James Neal was flying around the ice. What no one mentioned on Twitter was that at one point Neal looked gassed and slumped over on his stick while standing next to Sidney Crosby during one drill.
Thursday was Neal’s first full practice and I’d have been surprised if he wasn’t gassed. Initially ROOT Sports put out a tweet that he wouldn’t be back for two weeks, but it’s looking like one week might do the trick. According to my sources, Neal is coming back from torn muscle around his rib cage. Evgeni Malkin can’t wait to welcome him back.
Beau Bennett practiced all week long. Coach Dan Bylsma initially had him slotted on the third line but by the end of the week he was with Malkin and Jussi Jokinen. It’s possible Bylsma wants to manage expectations by putting Bennett on a lower line or simply that he feels his versatility is one of his biggest assets at this stage of his career. Remember that the long range plan for Bennett has to eventually slot with Sidney Crosby. How long range of a plan is that? No one’s really sure.
Here’s a little Bennett tumble that few saw at practice or picked up on. It didn’t slow him down at all. The Pens would be wise to take it slow with the second-year player, given the team plays 12 times in the next 22 days.
This picture of Matt D’Agostini reminds me of John McEnroe’s “chalk flew up” rant with all of the snow chips fluttering across the photo. D’Agostini has been a healthy scratch more times than not in recent weeks. Hopefully he’ll get his chance against his old team Saturday night. Players always seem to do well against the teams that traded them.
D’Agostini will likely get that chance at the expense of Dustin Jeffrey. I saw Jeffrey’s potential in 2010-11 when he scored seven goals and 12 points in 25 games. For a host of reasons, his ship has sailed in Pittsburgh. For his sake, I’m hopeful that the Pens will release him when Neal returns. His body language during practice was almost as bad as his on-ice play against the New York Rangers on Wednesday.
Sidney Crosby always skates hard at practice. What a great example he offers others. Where have his points gone? In his first eight games, he totaled 17 points: In his last eight, only six. Trade him!?!
I’m not sure how Crosby could help put Evgeni Malkin back in focus, but something needs to happen. Getting Bennett back can’t hurt. I’m wondering if the Pens should split up Crosby and Malkin onto different power plays. It wouldn’t be the end of the world and might boost Geno’s cache. It’s worth a shot. The second power-play unit does seem to be seeing more time this season than last.
Olli Maatta, who does see time on the team’s no. 2 PP, hasn’t pointed since the team announced he was sticking around on Oct. 24. That’s not his game, of course, but it would be nice to see something — at least for his own confidence. I’ve seen his weakness in clearing people out in front of his own net. Perhaps that will change with experience.
Finally, there’s been lots of talk about Deryk Engelland. He’s played pretty well as a fourth-line forward. It’s doubtful he gets in the same picture as Crosby except for as seen here. That is, unless the team does something special for Philadelphia.
What I find interesting is that no one in the Pittsburgh media has pointed out how Engelland is more expendable as a forward than as a defender. Sadly, I think that’s one of the reasons the Pens put him up there. Losing one of six defensemen due to a fighting major puts a lot more strain on a team than one of 12 forwards. Opponents could target Engelland when he plays defense, knowing that Pittsburgh would be down to five blueliners. Not so much when he lines up as a winger. Good move by Bylsma.