Happy New Year hockey fans! I hope you all had a great holiday, but there’s been no rest on or off the ice, as it’s been an especially entertaining week for us all. The Olympic rosters were announced, the World Juniors got under way in Saskatchewan, and most would say the Winter Classic lived up to all expectations. There is alot to look forward to this year, but mainly it will be the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver that will set 2010 apart from any year previous.
Firstly, Congratulations to all of those who got their call to Vancouver. Certainly Canada could put together a pretty good B-team, and it’s tough for those players who are putting together their career-best this season and still missing out. Pittsburgh has seen it’s 1st round picks mature into the league’s elite since four years ago; Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Sergei Gonchar, and Brooks Orpik all got the good news. Though not among the league leaders in stats, Jordan Staal and Bill Guerin will be pretty disappointed to not be included. Especially Guerin, having played for the U.S in previous tournaments, and Jordan Staal would have given his nation alot more balance as one of the best penalty killers in the league, who can still score 20 goals a season.
Concerning the National Hockey League itself, we have just passed the official mid-way point of the season- a good time for all teams to assess their progress. We really are now heading into a period of non-stop hockey that will go a long way to deciding the fate of those teams on the outside looking in. Though obviously with so many games soon to be played, no high-flyer is safe either, and one of those teams who will be wanting to get back in contention for their divisional title are the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Pittsburgh are currently in the middle of their worst slump of the season, dropping all four games since the Christmas break after beating Ottawa 8-2 to end with a convincing 26-11-1 record at the time. Their struggles have been especially surprising considering how they have still only recently had the whole team back to full health.
The team will be in Florida tonight to take on the Panthers, and Patrick Minor’s recent article has the lowdown on what they will bring to the table. This game will conclude the season series between the Pens and Cats, as Florida will be trying to avoid a sweep. The 0-3 record Panther record against Pittsburgh hasn’t been a reflection of their play though, as they have given the Penguins problems in their own zone, and have been able to shut down the big guns pretty well across the three games. Brent Johnson has played two of the three against Florida and has been outstanding throughout the season. It isn’t yet confirmed Johnson will be starting this one, but considering the back-to-back situation, his success against the Panthers, and Fleury’s average last outing it’s realistic to expect to see Johnny back in the crease.
The Pens certainly missed Sergei Gonchar last night against Tampa Bay. He was still hurting after blocking a shot earlier in the trip, and without his hard release from the blue-line Pittsburgh wasn’t getting much through on the powerplay. Gonch has had a few days rest but no word as of yet whether he will be back in the line-up. Hopefully he will be back soon though, as the Pens main other slump came when he was out of the line-up for a while as the team struggled on their Pacific road-trip. It is clear-cut the difference Gonchar makes on the powerplay, but even he hasn’t been able to lift a horrific Pittsburgh powerplay. Coming into Saturday’s 3-1 loss they were 15.1% overall (29th) and 11% on the road and it isn’t looking like improving. There is so much puck-moving talent on the unit, but only one or two shots at best will get to the net as the Pens are content to pass it around the boards.
The team also needs more from Alex Goligoski, who was a -2 againt Tampa and has just 1 point in his last 9. As sharp as Malkin’s shot from the point is, I would like to see Goligoski back on the top unit with Gonchar, and Geno playing the half-wall. There is alot of movement anyway on the PP from guys like Crosby so having a second defensemen out there would help, especially considering how reluctant that unit is to get off the ice, going 1:30 at least and very often close to the full two minutes.
So the Penguins are struggling on this road trip, losing their last three, though their away record is still equal to on Igloo Ice at 13-8-0. The fact is that it still might be a long time before Pittsburgh drops any places in the standings, mainly depending on whether Boston can continue winning and the Penguins losing. Though even if they are sitting pretty Byslma certainly wouldn’t have liked how his team were effectively outplayed against more elite competition in Buffalo and New Jersey, and it has been uncomfortable watching seeing how the Penguins have matched up to the Devils this season. It’s not the same feel of the 0-3 record the Panthers have against the Penguins- all those games have gone to overtime at least, and the fact that Florida has been able to manage this shows how they have a shutdown plan rolling against the Pens and have had some bad luck to come out losing each time.
The gap atop the Atlantic division is widening and if the Pittsburgh Penguins want to reclaim 1st then it’s time to end the slump. Tonight.