Tomorrow we’ll look at strategic adjustments Mike Johnston and the Pittsburgh Penguins have made to grab an early road victory from the New York Rangers. Today, let’s empty the notebook. Random thoughts on random players and the series between Pittsburgh and New York…
Θ I’m not a big fan of Brandon Sutter’s lack of physicality and general inconsistency, but he’s stepped up his game once again in the playoffs. Sutter isn’t good along the boards and doesn’t have a quick release to catch-and-shoot off the cycle, but he’s establishing himself as one of the best in the league off the rush. Not many players in today’s game can consistently beat goalies coming down the wing like Sutter can. Pittsburgh needs to somehow find ways to get him more of those opportunities.
Θ Sutter is a player that needs talented linemates to thrive. He’s not going to generate offense on his own. The problem is it’s tough in today’s cap era to surround him with decent wingers on a third line. Sutter makes $3.3 million. If you assume above-average wingers cost at least the same, an ideal third line for Sutter would total almost $10 million. The Penguins will never be able to afford that in the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin model. Prediction: A team with a second-line center need will come to the same conclusion and trade for Sutter this summer.
Θ Matthew Barnaby, now an analyst on NHL Network Radio, was discussing the PK Subban slash on Mark Stone this week and said that players “absolutely” go onto the ice in the playoffs with the intention of injuring their opponents. Barnaby said that in his era (1992-2007), bounties were common and often in the range of $500 if a particular player was knocked from the game.
I thought of his comments when I saw Carl Hagelin clip Sidney Crosby from the blindside in Game 2:
Hagelin doesn’t need $500 on the board to motivate him to knock Crosby out. He knows how important Crosby — who has a well-documented history of head injuries — is to the Penguins’ chances in this series. The hit also made me think of this Steve Downie quote after signing with the Penguins last summer:
Steve Downie on protecting Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin: "I can guarantee there won't be any liberties on those players this year."
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) July 4, 2014
I think Downie has enough loose screws to back up those words if Game 3 starts to get out of hand.
Θ The Rangers powerplay could have ended both games early but has managed only 2 goals on 12 opportunities so far. Despite plenty of talent, the Rangers’ powerplay ranked in the bottom third of the NHL this season. Their biggest problem in Game 2 was overpassing. Quick puck movement around the perimeter looks great but it doesn’t generate scoring opportunities unless you turn it to the net and attack.
Θ Chris Kreider and Rick Nash have done a nice job screening Marc-Andre Fleury on the powerplay this series. New York’s best chance for goals with the man advantage will come from shots through traffic or getting Fleury to drop to his knees in anticipation of a shot. Fleury is playing much lower to the ice this season — he even looks like Jonathan Quick at times — and drops to the butterfly very quickly. That makes him susceptible to the cross-ice pass:
Θ What happened to David Perron? He scored 9 goals in 16 games after coming over from Edmonton in early January but hasn’t scored in his last 14 games. At times, coach Mike Johnston has even dropped Perron to the fourth line. I’m always careful with criticizing at this time of year because a lot of players are struggling through injuries. That might be the case with Perron. His skating stride looks labored, which made me think mid-body injury. Then I remembered he struggled through a hip injury for a good portion of last season. Hip problems not only affect skating stride but also shot release and power.
Θ Assuming Perron is hurt — I’m going to bet that he is, based on the eye test — the Penguins are in rough shape this early in the playoffs. Crosby has struggled through injuries all season and had his left thumb ‘frozen’ to get through Game 2 after a Derek Stepan slash. Blake Comeau has a lingering wrist problem and can’t control the puck. Some have suggested Malkin is dealing with a back injury. Most teams are at their healthiest in Game 1 of the first round. That’s not good news for Pittsburgh.
Θ On the Rangers’ injury front, keep an eye on Keith Yandle in Game 3. Comeau threw Yandle into the boards from behind twice in a row in the first period and Yandle looked shaken up. He missed some time but eventually returned for the final two periods.
Θ Dan Boyle is proving to be the Rangers’ weak link on the back-end. He’s no match for Max Lapierre in front of the Rangers’ net and looked awful on Crosby’s first goal in Game 2:
New York needs Kevin Klein to return as soon as possible. Klein’s injury has left Dan Girardi and Boyle as the only right-handed defensemen in the Rangers lineup and forced the latter into too many important situations. Klein’s return would allow Boyle to slide back into a true #6 role.
Θ Former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma didn’t like to match lines. He preferred to dictate the game and force other teams to scramble for matchups against his big guns. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault claims he’s not matching lines in this series — although he does seem to be targeting certain matchups with his defensive pairs.
Mike Johnston does a lot more line matching and the strategy has paid off so far in this series. Rangers rookie Kevin Hayes is no match for Crosby’s line, especially when Hayes is often flanked by two smaller wingers in Hagelin and Martin St. Louis. If the Hayes line can get sustained offensive zone time, they’re fine, but that wasn’t the case in Game 2 and Crosby made them pay:
Θ Taylor Chorney isn’t Kris Letang, but he’s held his own in his playoff début. He’s even been an asset on the second powerplay unit, directing the breakout and distributing the puck with confidence in the offensive zone. Pittsburgh shouldn’t rush to give Chorney ($550k and UFA at year-end) Paul Martin or Christian Erhoff’s money when the two leave for free agency this summer, but Chorney is carving out a spot at the NHL level.
Θ The same can’t be said of Brian Dumoulin. Rough start in limited minutes for a young defenseman that’s in over his head in playoff hockey. The Penguins don’t have much of a choice. Scott Harrington would be no better at this point and Ehrhoff is lingering in the fuzzy “day-to-day” world of playoff injuries. Dumoulin is lucky his panic turnovers and unnecessary icings haven’t backfired so far. Johnston needs to be very careful with his deployment of the nervous rookie.
Θ I first covered Max Lapierre in person in Vancouver at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. The Canucks’ third line of Lapierre, Raffi Torres, and Jannik Hansen had a considerable impact on the series even though Vancouver ended up falling to Boston in seven games. Lapierre and Torres were a nightmare to play against.
Alain Vigneault coached those Canucks and coached Lapierre for two seasons at Prince Edward Island of the QMJHL as well. He knows the impact Lapierre can have on a game. I expected Lapierre to play a big role in the Penguins playoff run at some point but was surprised it happened in Game 1 of the first round.
In hindsight, these comments from Lapierre to Joe Starkey at the Tribune Review were telling:
“My whole career, my game has been built around passion and emotion and adrenaline. So I guess this is why I change a little bit in the playoffs. When I train in the summer, all my focus is how I’m going to be after 82 games. I like it when every inch and every second matters. That’s the kind of game I really enjoy playing in. I can’t wait for Game 1.”
Lapierre quietly tip-toed through the last few weeks of the regular season but has been a huge factor in two playoff games. His ice time jumped to over 18 minutes in Game 2 and that’s where it should stay if Pittsburgh wants to steal another game in this series.