Friday, March 16, 2012

Healthy Pens overmatch Blueshirts in Sid's return

It was billed as Sid's Return Part II. But really had a lot to do with the Pens' top defender Kris Letang, who was a bigger factor in Pittsburgh's 5-2 win over the Blueshirts. Letang finished plus-five along with an assist while teammate Sidney Crosby helped set up two of the Pens' five goals en route to their 10th consecutive win, cutting the Ranger lead to four.

Crosby was good in 16 minutes, flashing off the gamebreaking speed and playmaking that's made him the game's best player. Though he got plenty of help from Evgeni Malkin (goal, dominant), Matt Cooke (2 goals), Pascal Dupuis (goal) and Chris Kunitz (goal), who did damage on the scoreboard. James Neal and Steve Sullivan each had a pair of assists as the healthier team was too much for the Rangers at The Garden.

Aside from their lead down to four, there has to be concern about how they've been handled by the Pens, who after dropping the first two, have taken three straight in the season series with one more left that could very well decide the division and top seed. The theme has been the same with Pittsburgh jumping in front quickly and then controlling the tempo with puck possession, making our team chase throughout. Against a talented team who also boasts their own elite goalie in much overlooked Marc-Andre Fleury (29 saves), you just can't fall behind. Finally intact, the Pens are deeper than anyone and are the favorites to come out of the East even if Boston's the defending champ. You wouldn't know it lately.

It would've been nice to have Ryan Callahan, Henrik Lundqvist and Mike Del Zotto for last night but it's more imperative for them to be 100 percent down the stretch. Despite taking the morning skate, Lundqvist rested due to the flu. Marty Biron (27 saves) wasn't bad. Early on, he kept us in the game with some big stops and really couldn't be faulted on the Pens' first three, which exposed terrible D lapses. However, with our team fighting back down 3-2 thanks to Marian Gaborik's 35th late in the second, he allowed a backbreaking goal to Kunitz right as a Pittsburgh power play expired. It killed any momentum and Dupuis soon put it away on a broken play.

The Pens were quicker to the puck and deserved what they got. Crosby centered a third line flanked by Cooke and Tyler Kennedy (2 helpers). He drew a penalty and created space for unguarded linemates. How else to explain the horrible gap that Kennedy had to find Cooke at the doorstep for his second that came 72 seconds after Malkin undressed Ryan McDonagh for his 39th? McDonagh had one of his worst showings, getting outmuscled by Kennedy on the first Penguin goal to Cooke that set the tone. John Tortorella eventually switched McDonagh and Marc Staal, who was reunited with Dan Girardi while Ryan worked with Stu Bickel.

In a game like yesterday's, you can't get away with playing seventh defensemen like Anton Stralman and Steve Eminger. Tortorella was forced to use them due to the schedule. He's no longer overusing Girardi, who needs to stay fresh for the postseason. The numbers were ugly with our top four going a combined minus-nine. Del Zotto was missed. So too was Mike Sauer, who we probably won't see again till the Fall hopefully. Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust tried but went minus-five. Both continue to play through pain due to how much they sacrifice. There's no way you can match them against a top line right now. But Tort continues to while trying to find a spark for slumping Derek Stepan, who worked well with Brandon Dubinsky on a few shifts in the second. Unfortunately, Artem Anisimov didn't return for the third due to a bad shoulder from a hit. Just what they need. Another key player hurt. Hopefully, it's not too bad.

Both our goals came from who else but the line of Carl Hagelin, Brad Richards and Gaborik. They've been everything. I erred the other night when I said they combined for seven points. The correct total was nine. My apologies. After the Pens dominated the first half of period one, Hagelin continued his brilliant play when he combined with Richards and Gaborik for his 14th, which he buried top shelf from in front. Fourteen goals and 21 assists for the former sixth round pick, who studied four years under Red Berenson at Michigan. Can you say gem?

For the most part, our team stayed disciplined only taking three penalties. However, Bickel's hi-sticking double minor hurt because the Pens basically scored on it thanks to a nifty Crosby backhand feed for Kunitz, whose shortside shot eluded Biron. The rough Prust picked up in the first was a good penalty cause he took the body on Malkin, who of course retaliated with a two-handed to the face. No penalty was called. Unbelievable. We'll just leave it at that.

There was also a missed elbow on Pitt bruiser Deryk Engelland. Ironically, right before Hagelin tied it, Brooks Orpik punched Gaborik. Maybe it was poetic justice that they scored. It's not like our power play would've done the job. Though they did get two opportunities against one of the best penalty killing units, who made it 23 for their last 23. There just aren't many flaws with the Pens. Not when they can roll out a Norris caliber defenseman in Letang and one of the best defensive blueliners in Orpik. Zbynek Michalek is probably their most underappreciated. Even Paul Martin has picked it up. When you boast Jordan Staal as your third center, you are loaded. They will be a handful this Spring.

The bigger questions center on Crosby and Letang, who both have concussion history. They'll get tested. Even if Sid told reporters afterwards that he rested more than his first comeback where he ramped up the physical play. As dominant as Malkin is and Fleury, the Pens would be hard pressed to win without Crosby and Letang. Though I'm of the belief that Letang is the most valuable Pen because of how he can control a game. There are few better.

As for our Blueshirts, it's back at it tomorrow when the stingy Avs visit. In case you missed it, J.S. Giguere and Martin Brodeur turned back the clock to '03 with each pitching a shutout. The Devils prevailed in the shootout with Ilya Kovalchuk getting his record seventh skill competition decider. Just dandy. Figure Semyon Varlamov to be back in on St. Patrick's Day against Lundqvist, who should be ready to go.

Both Callahan and Del Zotto practiced this morning. Whether they're ready to go remains to be seen. In the mean time, we'll probably see Mats Zuccarello again. He was robbed by Fleury on a great chance. I hope the flashy Norwegian sticks. Here's hoping we see Tim Erixon before too long.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Carl Hagelin, NYR (14th goal, 21st assist-5 Pts in last 2 GP)
2nd Star-Kris Letang, Pit (assist, +5 in 24 shifts-24:42)
1st Star-Evgeni Malkin, Pit (39th of season, 8 SOG, +2, 5-1-6 vs NYR in '11-12)

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