By John Toperzer
So what riled the New York Rangers up so much for a November game against the Penguins?
NYR assistant coach, Ulf Samuelsson, was interviewed during his team’s loss to Edmonton last weekend.
If you want the tenor of the coaching staff of this team, listen to what Ulf Samuelsson told me a couple of minutes ago in the dressing room. I asked him flat out if the lack of offence through the first two periods had anything to do with defending their own zone. Here are his exact words: “Collectively, that could be the worst two periods I’ve seen since I got here, and that’s a lot of games. Hopefully that was a low point for us.” He went on to say: “We are leaving it to the leadership of this team to rally the troops. It is not about X’s and O’s right now. We are not competing at a level we need to. We are getting crushed by Edmonton in our building and that is embarrassing.” For the record, Ulf Samuelsson has watched 120 Rangers games since he got here as the assistant coach.
The significance of Tuesday’s loss is debatable, but then again so is any regular season game. After all, everything’s geared toward prepping for the playoffs. There’s still much work to be done. Most likely, Pittsburgh won’t roster all of the same players in April it does right now.
Nevertheless, the Pens’ script has played out (at least on paper) similarly to a Dan Bylsma-led squad. The team has trounced much of its competition – going on a seven-game winning streak, killing 39 straight penalties, leading the league with a 35.6 PP percent.
But it has also come up short against two of its greatest rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers. Had Pittsburgh lost to Winnipeg or Minnesota, it’d be easy to diagnose the X’s and O’s of the loss in a systemic, non-threatening way. But the Flyers and Rangers (to a lesser extent) bring out emotion other teams do not.
In a near perfect five weeks, the Pens’ only two Eastern Conference regulation losses have come at the hands of Philly and the Rangers. Head coach Mike Johnston has repeatedly said that every day of the regular season is designed to get his team ready for the playoffs. Time will tell whether he’s met his goal.
Fortunately for the Pens, there’s nothing pre-ordained about the season.
Coach Johnston never said what happened to Kris Letang on Tuesday, except that the defender consulted with the training staff before going back into the game. Letang missed the last eight-plus minutes of the first period and the beginning of the second period with an undisclosed injury.
Watching the tape, initially it looked as though the Rangers Kevin Hayes slashed Letang on the wrist. At the end of the play, however, Letang took one stride and was seen limping toward the bench. In either case, the blueliner returned to the game and didn’t miss another shift. Letang has a multitude of injuries to his credit, including a balky knee, so the situation bears watching.
The defensive pairing of Christian Ehrhoff and Robert Bortuzzo did not look good Tuesday. Maybe Ehrhoff shouldn’t get a free pass, but as a long-time NHL veteran he’s earned that right more so than Bortuzzo. Bortuzzo hasn’t been back long from his injury, but he looked slow Tuesday, sprawling out on the ice, screening Fleury, failing to clear the puck. He represents Pittsburgh’s biggest physical threat on defense (though Simon Despres has come on surprisingly well), but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Bortuzzo sit for Scott Harrington at some point – if and when the Penguins actually put him in their starting lineup.
I read on Dobber Hockey that Blake Comeau was on the ice for 18 shots taken and only three against Tuesday. That sounds really good, but what some fans will likely remember is the 2-on-1 in which he carried the puck down the right wing, whiffed on the shot and then got knocked off his skates.
Other fans might remember the blind, un-penalized Chris Kreider hit on Comeau outside the New York blue line. I’m not sure how Kreider’s hit wasn’t a penalty, unless the officials thought Comeau embellished the play by laying momentarily on the ice. I don’t get it, though, that should have been an interference call.
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist appears to have gotten into Pittsburgh’s collective mind. When former Penguin Tanner Glass swatted a Nick Spaling shot off of the goal line, it helped to set the tone for the night. It’s difficult enough to beat Lundqvist, let alone beating him without being rewarded with a goal. Evgeni Malkin appeared particularly frustrated by the King on Tuesday.
Early in the game, Malkin missed a couple intended passes because he didn’t turn around to look for the puck. That’s a disturbing trend, dating back to the overtime game in which he skated out of the offensive zone with his head down rather than looking for a puck that was at his feet.
Sidney Crosby was really no better Tuesday night, either. He lost an early battle with Derek Stepan along the end boards and was called for interference immediately thereafter on Mats Zuccarello. What’s with Crosby getting into it physically with the diminutive Zuccarello every game? It almost makes me wonder what Crosby’s game would look like if he was 6-foot-2, 225 pounds instead of 5-foot-11, 205 pounds. Would he mix things up more often?
Anyway, Crosby lost the puck twice on back-to-back possessions in his own end – the second time by Rick Nash – before Zuccarello scored off a faceoff win.*
*Obvious disclaimer that Sidney Crosby remains the best player in the world.
Olli Maatta skated Tuesday in an on-ice workout less than a week after thyroid tumor surgery. Great news! The feeling is that Maatta might not miss the four weeks he was expected to miss.
Beau Bennett skated primarily on a fourth line with Marcel Goc and Craig Adams in his season debut. The line looked pretty good, applied pressure. Bennett skated 9:35 TOI. There’s a scenario for Bennett skating on actually any one of Pittsburgh’s four lines. It will be interesting to see where the first-round pick finally fits in after the last couple years of unfortunate injuries.
Root Sports showed a graphic on Paul Martin’s ice time. In 2013, he spent 12.2 percent of his play on the power play, a number which is down to 5.3 percent. Last season saw him skate 11.4 percent of his time on the penalty kill, 15.8 percent in 2014-15.
Lastly, a 5-0 blowout loss seemed to be the perfect opportunity to send a message to Marc Staal that last year’s playoff abuse of Crosby wasn’t appreciated, but nothing happened. Almost reminds me of the Pittsburgh Pirates failing to retaliate against the Cincinnati Reds after Aroldis Chapman plunked Andrew McCutchen on the helmet with a 99-mph fastball a couple seasons ago.
Links ‘n At
— Fun with Fenwick: Johnston vs. Bylsma, Hockey Buzz’s Ryan Wilson reports.
— Penguins coach Johnston stresses shoot-first mentality, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports.
Already, the Penguins have cut nearly a foot off their average shot attempt – 33.57 feet in 2013-14 to 32.79 this season, according to sportingcharts.com.
— Penguins stray from successful formula on the road, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.
Tuesday’s Penguin Post-Game Audio