Penguin Playoff Notes: No Apologies for first round matchup

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by John Toperzer

Sidney Crosby had to have his head on a swivel Wednesday when James Wisniewski was on the ice in Game 1. The well-paid blueliner attempted to line the centerman up several times but missed on every occasion. Crosby finished with just one assist and a minus-2 rating, but he did what he does best – set linemates up with opportunities. Gibbons hit a post off of one feed and Chris Kunitz had multiple chances. From a shooting standpoint, Crosby whistled shots wide to both sides of the cage. He needs to put the puck on net for some POP rebound opportunities in Game 2.

Kunitz needs to do more, play better. He seemed a step slow and his hand-eye coordination was off.

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I’m not sure the Penguins would’ve been able to come from behind to beat many other teams in the playoffs, Wednesday. Down 3-1 after of a short-handed goal, better teams would’ve found a way to keep a lead – for at least more than a few minutes.

Columbus didn’t show the wherewithal to get it done. They don’t seem to have the ability to impose their will or style of play on Pittsburgh. The Jackets have never won a playoff game and coach Todd Richards uses the same system (only with lesser talent) as Dan Bylsma.

Even when Pittsburgh fell behind, scoring chances were still readily available. The Blue Jackets don’t have enough quality players to cut the gap space on Sidney Crosby and company. Bylsma is using Brian Gibbons in an effort to give Crosby and Kunitz room. So long as Gibbons uses his stick more as a hockey instrument and not a 2X4 piece of wood, then he could continue seeing some shifts on the top line. Even if he doesn’t, it just isn’t that big of a deal against Columbus.

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I think ROOT Sports is going to actually have to interview fans sitting on their couches in their own homes watching the Penguins pretty soon. The ones watching on the Jumbo screen outside of CEC are acting more like the ones inside the rink more and more. Wednesday, when the video cut to the fans outside Consol watching on the big screen, they barely moved. Oh, they clicked those thunder silly sticks together a bit, and a few folks jumped up, but for the most part, they kept their eyes focused on the screen watching themselves with little reaction. The kids on the couch in the Mellon parking lot were certainly not impressed.

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Crosby had to have his head on a swivel Wednesday when James Wisniewski was on the ice. The well-paid blueliner attempted to line the centerman up several times but missed on every occasion. Crosby finished with just one assist and a minus-2 rating, but he did what he does best – set linemates up with opportunities. Gibbons hit a post off of one feed and Kunitz couldn’t get the puck out from between his skates on a couple Crosby feeds. From a shooting standpoint, Crosby whistled shots off-line to both sides of the cage. He needs to put the puck on goal for some POP rebound opportunities in Game 2.

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I wouldn’t say goalie Marc-Andre Fleury played a great game nor would I say he played poorly Wednesday.

If I was grading his performance, I’d give him a “B-minus” to a “B”. He stopped Matt Calvert on a breakaway with a poke check. The name “Calvert” doesn’t rhyme with “Lemieux” or much of anything else, for that matter, but Fleury had to make a save nonetheless – and he did.

Fleury was fortunate that the late third-period shot coming down the right wing by Jack Skille rang off of Big Ben behind him and didn’t go in the net (Speaking of Big Ben, Roethlisberger was spotted at the casino in Pittsburgh on Thursday and reportedly had a big wad of dough on hand).

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During the work stoppage last season, Pittsburgh columnist, Dejan Kovacevic, interviewed Crosby after a player’s practice. Crosby fumbled for a name when Kovacevic asked him for a possible breakout candidate and then settled on Matt Niskanen. Well, Niskanen had a big Game 1 after a career season in 2013-14.

That said, did anyone catch his nearly tragic giveaway at the start of the third period Wednesday. After Evgeni Malkin (yes, Evgeni Malkin) cleanly won the opening faceoff, he back-handed the puck back to Olli Maatta. Maatta snapped the puck up to Jussi Jokinen on the left boards by the red line. Jokinen then slid the puck across the ice to Niskanen at the blue line. Inexplicably, Niskanen, who had plenty of space, lost sight of the puck while looking up ice. This led to No. 11 on the Blue Jackets coming down the left wing with a scoring opportunity. Fortunately, Jokinen and Maatta covered for Niskanen, but the unforced giveaway was striking. Niskanen had to be a lot stronger on the puck, especially on his own blue line. Who does he think he is, Kris Letang?

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Speaking of Letang, his miserable game has been dissected thoroughly since Wednesday. It’s scary to think how large the gap is between his best and worst performances. He looked ready to take on the world during the last weekend of the regular season and then played equally poorly in Game 1.

Counting on him and Malkin after prolonged absences would be a mistake and even Coach Bylsma saw that. I found it surprising that the Pens coach even considered putting Malkin and Letang on the points for the first-unit power play. Fortunately, Paul Martin and Niskanen took over as Game 1 progressed. That’s the beauty of this Round 1 matchup. A coach can experiment with different matchups and linemates and still beat the opponent.

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For all of the talk about Milan Lucic’s hit Friday to Danny DeKeyser’s privates, I still can’t believe more folks didn’t bring up Manny Malhotra’s similar “stick” to Crosby late in the season. Click here for a refresher.

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Given that Pittsburgh doesn’t have to play its best game to beat the Blue Jackets, the team should make no apologies for its opponent. Two years ago, the Pens had to play a difficult matchup for them (the Flyers) and bowed out after six games. The postseason is all about matchups, hot goaltending, etc. It’s not hard to see a path to the Stanley Cup Final laid out with series against Columbus, the Rangers, and Detroit.

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To me, the Gibbons and Beau Bennett line-switching illustrates that the Pens can pretty much do what they want and still beat Columbus. Gibbons actually has more regular-season time with the No. 1 line than does Bennett. Bennett called himself out on the Blue Jacket’s first goal and he should have. He attempted a blind, cross-ice pass from the right wing to the left side of the ice in the offensive zone, leading to the Columbus rush. I kept waiting for Bennett to appear as a backchecker and by the time he showed up on my DVR’ed review, the Jackets had Harlem Globetrottered their way to an opening goal. Again, playing a lesser opponent allows Pittsburgh to make mistakes and still come out on top.

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The “Gold-Out” could’ve been big if it wasn’t more of the “Faded Yellow Out” variety. The giveaway shirts weren’t particularly flattering (to put it kindly). If anyone saw the Jason Grilli “Grilled Cheese” gold shirts given out at PNC Park’s “Free-Shirt Friday,” the color of those shirts would’ve been perfect for CONSOL. They were a much brighter shade of gold. Of course, the playoffs are more about which team wins on the ice than what color the fans in the stands wear.

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Sidney Crosby, James Neal and friends were in a suite Thursday at PNC Park. I can’t help but to think of Crosby’s batting practice homer (click here). Re-watching the dinger, I noticed two things. First, Crosby is wearing a “Reebok” hat and not a Pirates hat. Second, he quit his batting practice immediately after stroking his long ball. The Kid knows a little bit about timing.

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Pittsburgh radio personality, Mark Madden, said Thursday it’s silly to talk about which players might go if the Pens lose in the playoffs – especially after one playoff victory – but threw the name of James Neal out there. Madden mentioned the winger because you’ve got to give something up to get something, namely Ryan Kesler.

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There’s a chance Nick Foligno (knee) could return in Game 2 for Columbus. Click <a href="here for the Ottawa perspective of a Sidney Crosby elbow to Foligno back when he played for the Sens. Remember, Crosby had just come back from one of his concussions. Also, Foligno had just rolled over the top of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, as the video shows in the first 10 seconds. Foligno is an agitatingly-good player who has two goals and 15 points in 23 games against the Pens. Click here for his career statistics.

Pittsburgh would do well to keep an eye on him inside the offensive zone.

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Malkin was seen wincing on the bench after his first shift Wednesday, but finished with more than 17 minutes of ice time. He had two assists. Look for him to score on one of those “big, fat, juicy rebounds” per ROOT Sports announcer Bob Errey, on Saturday.

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Much has been made about the Brandon Sutter breakaway no-call. What no one has mentioned is how Sutter crashed into goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. There’s always been a rallying cry about crashing the net, getting guys in front of the goalie, setting up screens. Where has that been? Jayson Megna put Flyers goalie, Steve Mason, last weekend with a net rush. I’m not advising that kind of play, but the Pens need to make life more difficult for Bobrovsky. Foligno will do that for the Jackets.

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Dan Bylsma:

Sidney Crosby:

Rob Scuderi:

Brian Gibbons:

Brandon Sutter:

Marc-Andre Fleury:

Courtesy, Pittsburgh Penguins

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Treasure Life!
JT
@JohnToperzer
@PiratesTalk

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