What a Finish (Early End of Season Report)

What was once thought to be unthinkable has happened. The Penguins have put together a run that puts them at the top of the league over their last 10 games. The Penguins have the top powerplay in the league since February 1. The Penguins just might be working themselves out of the 48% chance at Ovechkin. Lots of the talk here in Pittsburgh is surrounding that last point, and many people are calling for the team to somehow tank the rest of the season and secure the best shot at Ovechkin.
Before I get into my views on that, let me give the current team their proper due. Their play late has been phenomenal. This might be one of the hardest working teams in years that has played here in Pittsburgh, and it is finally, FINALLY starting to come together for them. The bright spots on this team are many despite what all the “no better than an AHL team” naysayers have been saying all season long.

1)The Play of late- 9-3-2 in the last 14 games! The team has been rolling to say the least! A win and tie in back to back games against the Isles, a shutout of a streaking Dallas team, a win in Toronto, highlighted this stretch that has included a 6 game unbeaten streak, and win streaks of 4 and now a current win streak of 2 games. The team has scored a powerplay goal in ten straight games, and they have gotten great play all around!

2) Dick Tarnstrom – I myself was guilty of saying the Pens should deal him if the offer was right, and I must say that I am so happy that CP didn’t listen to me or many others this time. With his two points on Sunday against the Rangers, his powerplay total for the year is up to 37, tops among all NHL defensemen, his point total of 50 (15+35) has him second among NHL defensemen, and his Average Time on Ice puts him around 15th among that same group. The statistic that everyone will point out is the his -35. I say that it basically tells of nothing. Tarnstrom has probably played the most minutes out of any Penguin this entire season, the team has given up 15 shorthanded goals, and often times, Tarnstrom plays all 2:00 on the powerplay, meaning that probably 10 of those minuses comes from shorthanded goals alone. It’s been a long time since anyone with even a minus rating of anything (-3 for Blake in 1998) won the Norris, and I don’t think that Tarnstrom necessarily deserves to be discussed as a candidate, but I don’t think his play can be overlooked any longer! His defensive play this season hasn’t been shutdown caliber, but at the same time, you can’t expect that from a guy as offensive minded as him and he hasn’t made many mistakes that have really severely hurt the team. I don’t see how there is any way that his status as a top powerplay quarterback can be questioned any longer. As I mentioned, the Pens have the best power play in the league since Feb 1. (about 26%) and Tarnstrom is clearly the catalyst of that unite, and he has been all season long. Thankfully, CP recognized his talent and made him a deadline day “untouchable” on a team where there haven’t been many of those in recent years. Tarnstrom should have an even better season next year with the overall improvement of the team and the return of Mario Lemieux and the what I will even say “likely” return of Alexei Kovalev.

3)Ric Jackman for Drake Berehowsky- WOW! I mean how else can you say it? Jackman has had 19 points (6+13) in his 19 games as a Penguin! The Ric and Dick connection has had a huge role in the turnaround experienced here in Pittsburgh over the past couple weeks. Jackman has been solid defensively, has made great first passes, seems to be playing great with Tarnstrom, and has been nothing short of perfect. All I heard was a rumored disagreement with Rick Ley, a coach in Toronto, was a possible reason that they shipped him out, but this sure was a great acquisition for the Penguins, and stands to reap benefits for years!

4)Goaltending. The Pens signed Sebastian Caron to a three year contract this offseason, quite a committment for the team who later traded up to get Marc-Andre Fleury in the draft. Aubin seemed to be the odd man out, and Andy Chiodo, another draft pick, seemed to be a project at the very least. All but Caron have played above expectations. No one expected Chiodo to see an NHL game probably, and he came in and played spectacular in most of his starts, Fleury terrorized the league early in his campaign and is now playing great back in Cape Brenton, Aubin has shown that he can, and I think will make a strong NHL back up in his career being able to take over the starting job for a couple weeks if he needs to because of injury. Caron has been inconsistent to say the least, but he has shown signs of some solid ablilty. I was not a big Caron fan when they signed him this offseason, and on most nights I still think he needs quite a bit of polishing before he can approach being an NHL starter. The situation with 4 goaltenders definitely is not one that a team minds having. Decision day will probalby be at some point in the offseason, where I think the Penguins owe it to J.S. Aubin to deal him to a team that is interested. Aubin has been kind of slapped in the face by the organization a few times, and as a result, I really think his confidence was hurt, but I think the guy can honestly be a very solid NHL back up. If not this offseason, at least by next off season, if not mid season, the Pens will probably look to deal either caron or Chiodo. With Bobby Goephert available as the AHL goalie next season, a Flery Chiodo tandem would be just fine for the Pens, and maybe they could get a nice return for a young promising goalie like Caron.

5)Milan Kraft and Aleksey Morozov- Both of these guys will be looking for new contracts from the Pens this offseason, and there play of late has all but assured them that they will both be staying in Pittsburgh. Kraft has had the best month of his career and is now fourth on the team in points, and Morozov has scored in 5 straight games, including back to back OT winners after going almost 40 games without a goalie earlier this year. Kraft has improved his faceoff work, his backchecking and overall defensive responsibility, two of the biggest knocks on his game. His skating could still use work, but his offensive skills will hopefully offset that deficiency. I credit this turn around almost entirley to the change from ‘Kraftster’ to ‘MAniac29’! Morozov has looked like a sniper lately. He has three overtime winners this season, and is looking like he’ll be a perfect fit on Mario’s right wing next season with the confidence he is playing with right now!

6)The Trio of Rookies- Ryan Malone should be the third candidate for the Calder, hands down. He has had a far more consistent season that Trent Hunter, and although he currently trails Hunter by a few points, his overall play this entire season has me sure that he will be that third nominee. Malone has 3 SH goals, 3 OT winners (tying a rookie record), and he has probably been the best foward over the entire sesaon for the Pens. He is a perfect power foward mold of a player and has scored goals that deserve to be on season highlight reels for probably 40% of his goals this season! He has deceptive speed because of his size, as is evident by some of his more power drive to the outside goals that he has scored, add onto this the fact that he has great strength and hands around the net, and he is the perfect left winger for Mario and Morozov next year. Brooks Orpik will probably be the future captain of the Penguins. You can see this develop if watch Penguin games over the entire season. I am not kidding that he is probably at this point, the most promising Scott Stevens mold player in the NHL. After paying his dues in the minors, the former first round pick is really starting to gain his footing in the NHL, tallying almost one big hit per game recently. Konstantin Koltsov may never score more than 15 goals in a season, but he will sure work harder than almost everyone on the ice. Koltsov has never really scored much at any level of hockey, but he is probably the fastest player in the NHL, I kid you not. He’s a smallish foward, but he bangs, will go to the net, and is a great puck pursuer. His strong anticipation skills go along with his speed and make him a future penalty killer as well that will be dangerous shorthanded.

7)The coaching- Eddie Olczyk has done a strong job with these guys this season. He kept them up during the 18 game winless streak, and I mean they went hard every shift, every night. Some coaches can’t even say that about their playoff bound teams. I think most importantly, he has admitted mistakes, he has learned from them, and he will grow with this team of young players for years. I would imagine Olczyk will be the coach without a doubt for two more seasons, and probably long after that. I am not saying he will be a future great, but when he has a team that is reasonably competitive, talent wise, I think we will see that he has a strong career ahead of him. Additionally he has surrounded himself with a knowledgable staff that has done wonders for many individuals on the team this season.

8)The Prospects- Ryan Whitney is regarded as one of the best defensive prospects in college hockey, if not the best. Taken sixth overall two years ago, Whitney lead BU to an upset of BC in their three game series just last week, and seems that he might even be ready to make the jump to the NHL next season. The Terriers finished poorly in his senior campaign, but he had a pretty strong season, rebounding from a season of injury. Noah Welch is another of the top defensive prospects in NCAA hockey. He has had a great season as a senior on a weaker Harvard team. Welch will likely be in WB next season competing hard as one of the top Defensmen there. Ben Eaves rounds out the Collegiate hockey A prospect list of the Pens. The elder brother of much higher touted Patrick Eaves was injured this season, but still finished fourth on BC in scoring, and is gaining acclaim as a great set up man. Ondrej Nemec, a Czech defensemen who followed Whitney in 2002’s draft has just been brought over to play for WBS Pens over the final couple weeks of the season. He is a probably a B prospect and will really get seen first hand for the first time in the coming weeks. Paul Bissonnette nearly made the NHL team this preseason the same year he was drafted, and remains a strong defensive prospect in the system. At foward, Maxim Talbot and Stephen Dixon, both of whom appeared in the WJC this season are scoring lots of points in the QMJHL and may be seen a little bit closer next season in WBS. Sergei Anshakov played on par with Ovechkin in the WJC and according to some, even outplayed his Russian teamate. Michel Ouellet, a former 100+ QMJHL player is leading all rookies in the AHL in goal scoring with 28 goals. Colby Armstrong and Shane Endicott are both showing signs of improvement in their games as they finish the season with the WBS Pens. Andy Chiodo is playing great down with the Baby Pens since his demotion as well. The team has turned it around, and as was the plan by Patrick, will make the playoffs, and hopefully make a strong run at the Calder Cup. I need only say Marc-Andre Fleury’s name and that is enough. The kid has unreal anticipation and poise for his age. He will be the franchise goalie the penguins drafted him to be.

When I originally began writing this article, it was only going to be about the recent run, but it has turned into more or less a season report, so I figured I’d add the “()” to the title, and give an evaluation of some of the players I haven’t touched on, since I doubt any Pens fans will feel like repeating much of the stuff I have already gone over. Besides, with the publicity they are getting with this run, maybe more than bishop and guinsfan will care to read through this long piece of Penguins writing.

Rico Fata: Rico began the year on fire, and has since cooled off dramatically. He showed signs of being capable of contributing 20+ goals at the NHL level, and should only improve in the off season. His speed is by far his greatest asset, and when his hands are caught up to his feet, he plays strong, but he still needs to do this on a more consistent basis.

Tomas Surovy: A pure sniper. Surovy has played extremely well on the offensive end of the puck this season, and he has even made strides in his defensive game. He is showing based on his dialogue with the team after his recent demotion that he is willing to work hard to stay with the NHL club next season. Mario compared him to a young Peter Bondra, and some of the goals he has scored this season speak directly to that.

Tommy Kostopolus: Still young enough at age 25, the guy works hard, and has a nose for the net. His hands below the hashmarks are very strong, and there don’t seem to be many holes in his game. He plays a pretty consistent game every night, chipping in the occasional big goal. Hopefully he can find a place as a solid third liner on the pens for the next few years.

Rob Scuderi: Similar to TK, Scuderi is just a solid defensmen. Brookis Orpik, his teamate of three years at BC said that he does nothing exceptional, but does everything he needs to very well. Scuderi had a brief stint with the NHL Pens this season, and impressed so much by his solid defensive play that he was all but assured a held roster spot next season by CP, a guy who is normally quite mum on such subjects. Not a bad departing gift from the GM of the big squad.

Matt Murley: The former RPI standout seems to have a bit of trouble adjusting to the speed of the NHL game. He has had a couple stints in the NHL this year, and at times has shown promise as a strong offensive player. Needs to improve skating and overall fluidity in every area.

Matt Bradley, Lasse Pirjeta, Ramzi Abid, Landon Wilson, Jon Sim, Mike Eastwood are a group of which a couple will probably be out of a job next season. You could see Abid or Bradley drop to the WBS pens, but the others would probably be unemployed. Bradley’s got speed and overall quickness, but has overall given a poor offensive season, far below expectations. Abid shows some promise, but like Fata, seems to lack the consistency, though this may come with more consistent playing time. He has a big body which the Pens have got to like. Somehow Jon Sim seems to be what the Pens were missing all season, he has about a 5-1-1 record as a Penguin and Landon Wilson has been a Penguin for each of the games over this 14 game stretch of improvement. These guys are a little bit older and will probably need to step it up in the preseason to keep their roster spots. Pirjeta was acquired in the Holzinger deal on deadline day, and has played pretty well, he is a big guy at 6’4″ and if he can prove to be a face off winner may grab a roster spot next season. Eastwood has really turned his game around and has been a solid faceoff winner, penatly killer, and veteran guy towards the end of the season, but his age might mean his time is up, as is the same with Kelly Buchberger, who finally, over this stretch recorded his first point of the season.

Martin Strbak: pretty solid performer since coming over in the Straka deal, has been consistent, and probably more than antyhing else, shown a very quick first pass that is usually pretty accurate. Never more than a 4th or 5th guy, he’s got size, and isn’t the best skater, but is an NHL player nonetheless.

Joe Melichar: has rebounded fairly well from insessant shoulder injuries to have an average season where his play of late is far surpassing his early season mistake making.

Dan Focht: will really have to come to camp prepared if he wants to keep his roster spot after the strong play of Rob Scuderi.

Now to the question of whether the Pens ought to be more concerned about losing games right now. First, let me say that I don’t think you can call yourself a professional organization if you would ever in the least ask a team to lose or throw games. Personally, I was very worried about losing the pick at the beginning of this stretch, but as it has continued, my feelings have changed. When you look at the team that is taking the ice now, you see a totally different group of guys than you did a month ago, and I’d like to see this same group of guys come out next season. I think for this to happen, you have to let them continue this roll. Seeing how happy these guys are to be playing the game right now after all that they’ve went through, I can’t possibly root against them. I was exstatic to see them come back and tie the game late today and then win late in overtime. Eddie Olczyk clearly wants to be a winner, as they scored the GW today with the goalie pulled in OT. You’ve gotta love that call, I don’t care if it means the difference between ovechkin or not. I am a proponent of the play as hard as you can now, play for the win every night, and let the draft chips fall where they may. The Pens will likely not work themselves out of a shot for Ovechkin completely, and if the Hockey Gods continue to shine on this team as they have been recently, even at the fifth spot, the team will win the lottery. As a Pens fan, this is just great to see, and the team looks very promising. With the drastic cut in ticket prices, there is no reason why, if the team comes out of the gate next season as they have played over the last few weeks, with a big number 66 centering the top lline that every game shouldn’t be close to a sell out!

Let’s Go Pens!