Pressing question: How much pressure is on the Pens?

33 Comments

One of PHT’s 10 pressing questions in advance of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs…

Here’s the list of teams Pittsburgh has defeated in the playoffs since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009:

Ottawa Senators
New York Islanders

End of list.

The lack of wins over quality opponents — neither the Sens nor Isles are in the playoffs this year — speaks to a larger issue facing the entire Penguins organization, prior to what could be the most important postseason in franchise history:

Over the last five years, the Pens’ playoff exits have defined them far more than any of their wins.

There was running into the Halak wall in 2010. The defensive meltdown against Philly in ’12. The offense seizing up like an engine with no oil against Boston last year. For a team that looked to be on the cusp of a dynasty after beating Detroit five years ago, the playoffs have become vexing — something few expected to see.

“Given the guys that I played with on the ’09 team, you’d think that they were going to be a perennial Cup candidate,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said, per the Columbus Dispatch. “But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

“Just because you have a team on paper that looks like it’s going to blow the doors off the playoffs doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. You have to come together at the right time and for a long time. As much as you think this team would have had more wins, it’s not shocking. It’s a hard time of year to win.”

Yes, it is a hard time of the year to win. But one has to wonder what happens if the Penguins don’t.

Head coach Dan Bylsma will undoubtedly come under fire — again — should Pittsburgh flop. Rumors flew after last year’s sweep to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, with one report claiming owner Mario Lemieux was mulling over a coaching change, followed by another suggesting the Rangers were ready to pounce if Bylsma was let go.

Marc-Andre Fleury will also be under the microscope. Replaced by Tomas Vokoun midway through last year’s opening-round victory over the Isles, Fleury rebounded this regular season and posted great numbers, but that’s done little to shake his playoff reputation. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, Fleury isn’t the goalie that backstopped Pittsburgh to the Cup in ’09; he’s the one that followed up an awful series against Philly two years ago by getting yanked last year.

So, how does Fleury deal with it all?

“Not read too much. Not watch [TV],” he said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And remind myself that I have won one more Stanley Cup than a lot of people.”

Like Bylsma, Fleury’s future could hinge on this postseason. He’s heading into the final of a seven-year, $35 million deal and it’s hard to imagine Pittsburgh re-signing him after another playoff disappointment.

Others are in a similar boat. Longtime defenseman Brooks Orpik, who’s spent all 11 of his NHL seasons in Pittsburgh, is a pending UFA. Same goes for Matt Niskanen, who’s played the last four years with the Pens. It’s all part the overall theme of pressure — along with the weight of expectations comes the added weight of uncertain futures, possibly hinging on how the Pens do this spring.

“This team has had the weight of expectation on them for a long time,” Scuderi explained. “It’s something you just have to learn how to deal with. Those are mostly kind of outside sources putting the pressure on you.

“You just have to be able to shut it out and play your game.”

For more Pressing Playoff Questions, click here.

Antti Niemi had to make a save with his bare hand

Getty
2 Comments

Antti Niemi made 31 saves in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 4-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night, and 30 of them were pretty standard.

The one that wasn’t came in the third period when he lost his glove during a scramble around the net and still managed to instinctively make a save on the puck. With his bare hand.

Niemi said after the game, via the Tribune Review, that he thought the referees would stop the play after his glove came off, and when they didn’t “I just kept playing.”

You can watch the play by clicking here.

Probably not the type of thing you want to see happening because that looks like a great way to break a bone (or the entire hand) and get sidelined for extended period of time. Niemi said the officials told him there will no longer be an automatic whistle for goalies losing a glove or a blocker, but that one will remain for when they lose their helmet.

The Penguins signed Niemi to a one-year contract this summer as a replacement for Marc-Andre Fleury after they lost him in the expansion draft to the Vegas Golden Knights. Niemi is looking to rebound from a tough year in Dallas. He will serve as Matt Murray‘s backup for the season.

‘A good start’ — Stamkos stands out in preseason debut

Getty
2 Comments

The Tampa Bay Lightning and National Hockey League unveiled the 2018 All-Star Game logo Friday.

Far more importantly for the Bolts this evening was the return of their all-star center Steven Stamkos, as he made his preseason debut in what was his first game in 10 months.

His 2016-17 season was abruptly ended in the middle of November because of a knee injury and subsequent surgery, making it the second time in four years his regular season had been disrupted by a major injury.

It may still take a while before Stamkos feels truly comfortable coming back from this injury.But his performance on Friday proved to be a very promising start for No. 91, the Bolts and their fans in Tampa Bay.

He didn’t score, but he assisted on two first period goals, including a nice set-up to linemate Nikita Kucherov, and the Lightning beat the Nashville Predators by a score of 3-1. Stamkos also received a healthy dose of ice time, playing more than 19 minutes, including 5:32 on the power play.

His pass to Kucherov resulted in a power play goal.

“It was exciting to get out there, I was pretty anxious about it… It was a good start, something to build on,” said Stamkos afterward, per the Lightning. “It was nice to just go through a game day, I haven’t done it in a long time… I was glad with how the first one went.”

Golden Knights assign 2017 first-round picks Glass, Suzuki to junior

Getty
Leave a comment

The Vegas Golden Knights continue to make roster moves during their inaugural training camp.

On Friday, the expansion club assigned four players to junior. That includes 2017 first-round picks Cody Glass of the Portland Winterhawks and Nick Suzuki of the Owen Sound Attack.

The Golden Knights made franchise history by taking Glass with the sixth overall pick and then selected Suzuki at 13th overall. Both players appeared in two preseason games for Vegas, each recording two points in the exhibition opener versus the Vancouver Canucks.

“Nobody is going to rush (the rookies), that’s for sure,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant told the Las Vegas Sun following the club’s 9-4 win over Vancouver on Sunday.

“We are in a position where we want to make sure they are ready to play. They are going to be good players when they’re healthy and strong enough to play in the league.”

Vegas has all three 2017 first-round picks — Glass, Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom — signed to three-year entry-level contracts.

Mitchell signed PTO with Blue Jackets — shortly after getting cut by Blackhawks

AP
Leave a comment

When the Chicago Blackhawks announced their roster moves yesterday, John Mitchell was among the cuts.

His professional tryout with the Blackhawks had come to an end, as it did for veterans Mark Stuart and Drew Miller.

It can be an uphill battle to make an NHL roster for veterans on professional tryouts. But for Mitchell, he quickly received another opportunity to attend a camp and try to land a spot, signing a PTO with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Mitchell, 32, has appeared in 548 NHL regular season games with 70 goals and 177 points.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets are still without forward and restricted free agent Josh Anderson, as the two sides are stuck in a contract impasse right now. It was reported on Thursday that his representatives have been in contact with Hockey Canada about the 2018 Olympics.