It is a truism in sports; football, and hockey most of all that defense wins championships. We’ve seen it year after year. This year it seems to be adding a wrinkle to itself. Powerplays are costing teams games. Not by failing to produce, but by favoring offense so heavily, they aren’t prepared to play responsibly.

The Dallas Stars in game two of their series with the Anaheim Ducks were down two to one in the third. They were on the powerplay. On the ice are Valeri Nichushkin, Sergei Gonchar, Colton Scevoir, Cody Eakin, and Trevor Daley. Gonchar at age 40 is not in any way the skater he was ten or fifteen years ago. Nichushkin is rookie who is not only in his first NHL season, but his first season playing hockey in North America. Facing them were Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Getzlaf, Cam Fowler, and Ben Lovejoy. Either Getzlaf or Fowler deserve watching, and if you fall asleep at the switch with both of them on the ice, you deserve what happens next. The Stars did.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had a lead last night, they went on a powerplay, and lost it. All the momentum they had, and it was notable, the disorder of the Blue Jackets was equally notable. But the Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, the same man who was in charge of a very mushy team USA roster not long ago, puts out a PP of Malkin, Crosby, Niskanen, Kunitz an Neal against a team that had nine short handed goals in the regular season. The most defensively capable of that group is probably the 34 year old Chris Kunitz. As you know, the BlueJackets scored, the Penguins did not and the scramble began. Momentum was reversed, an the game ended ugly for Penguins fans.

In the first game of their series, the Tampa Bay Lightning faced the Montreal Canadiens.  The Bolts are up 2-1 on home ice, a raucous crowd is making the building shake. P.K. Subban is in the box for slashing.  Onto the ice storm Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, they are joined by Ondrej Palat, Ryan Callahan and completing the unit is Valeri Filppula. We can argue about who the best defender in that group is, its probably Callahan, but it doesn’t matter. They got cute, and got beat by Brian Gionta setting up Lars Eller. To highlight how little offense the pair produced only seven more points than rookie Ondrej Palat, and neither actually surpassed Stamkos who was limited to 37 games and 40 points, while Gionta and Eller played 81 an 77 respectively. While the teams went back and forth scoring on a game that went to overtime, the Lightning never led again, and lost the game.

The Pittsburgh Penguins enter the playoffs this year after being ignobly dumped in last years Eastern Conference Finals. The Columbus Blue Jackets missed the playoffs last year by the slimmest of margins and the city will see NHL playoff hockey for just the second time. The Penguins almost have to win the Stanley Cup this year to protect the jobs of Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma. The Columbus Blue Jackets have had their bench and front office shuffled repeatedly since they were last in the playoffs, and advancing almost certainly means contract extensions not just in the suits but for ice level backbone Sergei Bobrovsky.

Pittsburgh Penguins:

If there is a NHL team or player that gets more attention on or off the ice than the Penguins and Crosby, I’m not sure I know who they might be. The Captain of the Penguins is Sidney Croby, Olympian, 1st overall pick, MVP winner and a regular part of the NHL scoring race, when healthy. Evgani Malkin is another highly talented forward who floats between wing and center for the Penguins, he’s expected to be back on the ice for game one. Which version of the team will we see when the puck drops? The composed heavyweight contender we see in the regular season or the strung-out jobber that has ended their season in chaos more years than not since they won the cup?

Best Players:

Crosby, Malkin and Neal will likely have to carry even more of the burden than normal. Kris Letang, will be in the lineup after recovering from his stroke, but at what percent? His timing will be off, and he’s never been known as a staunch defender.

X-Factor

While pointing at Fleury would be accurate and easy, it isn’t going to be the biggest factor. The Penguins are used to scoring just about at will. When they don’t they come unglued, in this series they are facing one of the best goaltenders in the world with a very mobile defense in front of him. If they can’t solve Bobrovsky early and often and lose their composure they will be watching the second round and not playing it.

 

Columbus Blue Jackets

It would be an overstatement to say they are just happy to be here, but; they are just happy to be here, at least until they hit the dressing room. For an organization without a lot of playoff experience, the roster has quite a bit. 155 games among their forwards alone led by the currently injured Nathan Horton who has a Stanley Cup run behind him, and RJ Umberger one of the teams best known veterans. More importantly there is some playoff experience on their backend with Fedor Tyutin a holdover from the Jacket’s only other playoff experience, Jack Johnson’s resume has been endorsed with some time from his Kings days, and Bobrovsky’s with his time as a Flyer.

Best Players:

Ryan Johansen, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Jack Johnson are the names that spring to mind, but this team could almost be called “starless” simply because of how little media attention the team gets.

X-Factor

Execution. The offensive and defensive stats of the the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t that far apart, just seven goals separated their goals for at even strength in the regular season. Defensively they were again very similar. Once you look at how much better the team did with Bobrovski in net over backup McElhinney, you realize the Blue Jackets aren’t as over matched as some might believe.

One of the best coaches in the NHL was fired, and his general manager‘s loss, could push another coach out the door. Peter Laviolette has won the Stanley Cup as coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, and the AHL championship with the Providence Bruins. With him available, it is unlikely any coaches already in jeopardy will sleep any better.  Here are some coaches who might want to avoid signing any long term leases or lawn service deals.

Mike Yeo:

The Minnesota Wild head coach is currently sitting on an 0-2 record having been run over in the playoffs last spring. The roster is the best it has been in the franchises history, and if he can’t get the team into the hunt for a top 3 spot in the division, he might not be wild about his future.

Dan Bylsma:

The regular season hasn’t been a challenge for the Pittsburgh Penguins since before Bylsma took over. With his Olympic hockey distractions, any faltering of the team in the regular season might lead him out the door for a new voice in the locker room.

Michel Therrien

His  clashes with core players alone make him vulnerable. Add in the fact that he is a retread, who fans and media may not hold in high esteem and the theatrical bench boss of the Montreal Canadiens might find his second stay a bit shorter than his first.

Barry Trotz

Trotz is currently the longest tenured NHL coach, and the only coach in the franchises history. What he’s hasn’t done is get a (questionably constructed) team out of the second round. He’s only even gotten them there twice as is. If the no especially flexible coach can’t find it in himself to push for a more balanced approach to the game he may find himself relocated from behind the bench.

Even if all four of these coaches hold on to their jobs, it is hard to imagine Laviolette will one be the only coach fired this season, and two not be on the very short list to fill any vacancies.

The 2012-13 season had highs, lows and surprising blows. Sidney Crosby jumped out of the gate and pounced on the scoring lead. Then out of no where a puck breaks his jaw and puts him on the shelf. Elder statesmen Craig Adams and Chris Kunitz led the way appearing in all 48 games while Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Paul Martin and Kris Letang all missed extended stretches. When all was said and done, with their backup goaltender turning in better stats, the Penguins were the eastern conference champions when the final regular season game was played.

The playoffs saw the Penguins escape the New York Islanders in the first round, no thanks to Marc-Andre Fluery who allowed 17 goals in 5 games and turned in his second worst playoff performance. Thankfully, there was Tomas Vokoun. In eleven games, and making his first playoff appearance since his long ago days with the Nashville Predators, Vokoun won six games, carrying the team through the second round against a depleted Ottawa Senators squad and holding the fort in what would prove to be Daniel Alfredsson’s last game in a Senators jersey. Against the Boston Bruins, Vokoun was the most blameless of the teams top players as they were swept out.

Of the core components to start last season, all are returning. None of the playoff reinforcements remain, and a mistake that was made in years past was corrected, Rob Scuderi is back in Pittsburgh. The opening five games of the season represent a chance to jump out on top of their division against not very stiff competition. Not one of their first five games is against a team that made the playoffs last year. The only set of back to backs is the last pair of games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. All five of their opening games are also in the eastern time zone.

Number of days 1-5: 9

Number of cities: 3

Best opponent: Carolina Hurricanes or New Jersey Devils

Weakest opponent: Florida Panthers

Home games: 3

Projected points: 7+

There are several big questions looming over the team despite their undeniable collective talent. Will the Sochi Olympics cost the team any players lost to injury or fatigue? How much of a distraction will head coach Dan Bylsma’s Olympic coaching duties distract from his job as behind the bench in Pittsburgh? Will the teams official player leaders develop their leadership to a point where Ray Shero won’t feel the urge to bring in two other teams captains to help right the ship for the playoffs? And of course, when the playoffs start, will the team remember how to play in both ends of the ice? Getting to the playoffs is almost a given, even with two more playoff quality teams in the East is almost a given, but recent playoff failures raise the question of their exact nature of their mental fortitude.

This is an occasional feature that will take a look at multiple issues, each in 100 words or less.

Team USA Management  Announced:

Dan Bylsma will coach, and David Polie will be the GM. Only one of those is hope inducing. Here’s a look at potential players. Given who performed in the playoffs, are Paul Martin and Torey Krug now on the shortlist?

Naoko Funyama Is Gone:

News hit that Naoko would not be returning to Bruins broadcasts this fall. Since then everyone has checked in keeping her name a trending topic through the night, even with the NBA draft, and she’s gotten support from coworkers, other professionals, players like Tyler Seguin, and fans. Will NESN revisit the idea?

Kris Letang

 

The Penguins have reportedly offered Letang north of $7.5 million a year. Somehow he didn’t take this offer and personally get the contract certified by the NHL before the Penguins could come to their senses. Rossi takes a look at the situation. Over $7.5m would have him in the top 3 NHL defenseman, and he’s just not that good.

The Buyout Boys

Of the seven NHL players to receive compliance buyouts, two may have played their last NHL games. Steve Montador and  Ilya Bryzgalov. Montador is 33 years old, and didn’t play a single game for the Blackhawks last season after stops in five other NHL cites. Bryzgalov has melted down completely in goal since landing in Philadelphia going from two straight years of .920%+ to just 900sv% last year.

Alfie Not Giving Up The Throne

So with Alfredsson coming back another year, the old guys club of the NHL is waiting on on Selanne, and Jagr to give NHL coaches someone they don’t feel the urge to cut their meat for.

This has actually been a great series to watch, as long as you aren’t a Penguins fan or hadn’t wagered heavily on them. There’s been a high scoring game, laugher goals, big hits, player tantrums, scrums, guts on display and high paced hockey for five periods in a row. Unfortunately if you do favor the Penguins they’ve come up short with a single good effort and two bad ones.

1:

Which Penguins team shows up? If it is the version from game two, this series will be over in all but the final details of the records by the middle of the first period. If the team that showed up for game three takes the ice, there is a solid chance the Consol Energy Center will get another home game.

2:

Is there something wrong with Adam McQuaid? He played over five minutes less than rookie Torey Krug during the 95 minute long game three and was part of the parade down the tunnel. He and Krug have been a solid pair, and if he is out or ineffective the reshuffling of pairs might result in some weak spots in the armor of the Bruins being exposed.

3:

Do even the hardest of the blowhards believe the meltdown this series has been is primarily Dan Bylsma’s fault? He could have made some better choices, and not shuffling the lineup after game one would have, for example, shown some poise and confidence. For that matter not putting Tyler Kennedy a proven postseason performer is highly curious, but there are about 24 or 25 other people at ice level who have been a bigger detriment to the team.

4:

Will any Penguin’s player show up and impose more of their will on the game than Deryk Engelland? The 194th pick of the 2000 draft has thrown the body with a will, passion and precision that has likely made him the best Penguin through three games. He’s the only player to even try to consistently play physically against Lucic and Horton. As one of the lowest paid players on the Penguins roster, he’s got to be the only man on the team who can look himself in the eyes and say he’s earned his money.

5:

Will this be Jagr’s game to score? It has to happen eventually, and being the player to put his old team away would be fitting.

6:

Which teams stars will have the biggest impact on the game? To date Crosby and Malkin have had a very poor series. Letang’s series can probably best be described with the use of two to three of the “seven deadly words”. But the Bruins stars aren’t immune to bad games, Rask single-handedly gave the Ranger game 4, the Krejci, Horton, Lucic line have been known to make horrific line changes or turnovers. Or it could be a dazzling performance from Jarome Iginla, or Zdeno Chara, maybe Tyler Seguin or Matt Niskanen is able to seize the the game and take it over?

After the last Penguins vs Flyers game Mike Milbury made his usual, off the cuff remarks about the behavior of people involved. Dan Bylsma as a player made a great pressbox decoration, and most nights the only way he’d get on the score sheet was if he sat on it. He didn’t rarely played even ten minutes a night, and in 429 games he had a staggering 19 goals. By comparison, Georges Laraque out scored Bylsma on a goals per game basis by almost 2 to 1, and had long stays with teams where he saw at least some game action on a regular basis. As a coach, Bylsma has proven nothing. He took over a team of prima-donnas who spent most of their season throwing a coach under the bus with 25 games left, then in the playoffs he plays a goalie who allows the most goals, and finishes with a shabby sv%. He’s not taken a professional team end to end and won.

What exactly can Lemieux complain about? He’s played with and employed two of the dirtiest players in NHL history. Matt Cooke appears to have cleaned up his act, we’ll see. But hows many knee-on-knee hits, head shots and slewfoots did he commit before that? That’s his legacy. He can score 100 goals each of the next five seasons and ending careers and putting guys on injured reserve will be what he’s know for. This is a guy who was allowed to wear the “A” for this team well before he cleaned up. Ulf Sammuelsson is another of those players who seemed to exist to make sure the referees whistles worked and that the penalty bench never got too cold. As a player, he made a hell of an advertisement for people to let their sons do mixed martial arts or rugby which was safer than playing against this guy.

While no one in the world denies Sidney Crosby is immensely talented. Depending on your taste in playing styles he may even be the most talented player in the NHL.  But there are three other things he is too. 1st  is a diver. He’s taken quite a few. He’s not achieved Montreal Canadiens level, but he can more than hold his own.

2nd He’s dirty:

That’s a clear two on one, where he’s the third man in, throwing punches at the back of the head of someone who’s already engaged with another player.

And 3rd he is a whiner. He talks to the officials more often than any player I’ve seen in the past two decades of watching the NHL. His pathological insistence on his own sainthood is incredible.  But when you come right down to it, given the tactics he routinely employs on the ice, the only reason he doesn’t spend more time in the penalty box is because someone prevents it.  Even with whoever preventing more penalties, and rightly deserved suspensions he’s already the third most penalized player in his draft class. He’s nearly doubled up on Paul Stastny who is fourth, and sits behind only Steve Downie, and Jared Boll. Downie is a loose cannon, and Boll is reasonably skilled enforcer who drops the gloves a lot.

While I certainly don’t agree with even half of what Milbury says, he got it right the first time. His comments on the Penguins were spot in. If the don’t like the way people speak about them, they need to change the teams identity.

It’s no secret that the Boston Bruins style of play and their rapid turnaround from a deplorably bottom feeder to Stanley Cup Champions have ruffled some feathers. Along the way they’ve made enemies in Montreal, Tampa Bay, Vancouver and nearly every other city they’ve played on a regular basis. The other thing they’ve done is earn a ton of admiration and respect. That could lead to a big, big problem; poaching.

Specially, with all the disappointing to purely disastrous starts, it could be open season on the Boston Bruins bench and off ice staff. The Anaheim Ducks are on shaky ground, the Carolina Hurricanes are floundering, and both the St Louis Blues and Montreal Canadiens have already made some remedial moves. When does the first owner or president take to the stage with a new broom and say “no more”.

Off the ice one person who has a huge number of selling points to a team who needs to rebuild is former defenseman and current head of player development and assistant general manager Don Sweeney. While he’s spent most of his professional career with the Bruins, as his playing time was winding down he did pursue other options. Not only has he been a part of the Bruins front office since his retirement ushering young talent into the NHL, but before that he had an impressive player resume. Like nearyly anyone would be he was largely overshadowed by playing along side Ray Bourque. Make no mistake about it though, he was a legitimate impact player.  In his five front office years he’s helped rocket Adam Mcquaid, Steve Kampfer, Tukka Rask, Johnny Boychuk and others to the NHL with the Bruins, and helped others achieve their NHL dream outside the system.

Doug Houda is one of Claude Julien’s assistant coaches. He’s been here in Boston for five seasons,  he has coaching experience with a Stanley Cup Champion. Further his AHL coaching tenure is a winning one. He also had a long and physical career as a player similar to Dan Bylsma and Gordie Dwyer. As someone who has worked side by side with a Jack Adams Award winner and Stanley Cup Champion he’s got considerable cache.

The same could be said, and even more so for the other assistant coach. Geoff Ward has head coaching experience that Houda lacks. He led the Hamilton Bulldogs to AHL supremacy. He’s coached in two different OHL organizations, and led a team in Germany. With championship chops and head coaching experience of his own, he may be the ripest cherry of all the assistant coaches in the NHL.

These are just three of the men who could be ripped out of the organization at any moment. Next coaching and managerial change could rip out the nurturer of the pipeline. It could equally take out the special teams coordinator, or the man who is Chiarelli’s right hand managing contracts and overseeing operations. Integral pieces of the Boston Bruins ascension to the sports zenith are in the cross hairs of multiple organizations.

Off the Faceoff is a semi-regular feature filled with a varying number of one(ish) line thoughts, mostly on hockey.

 

In regards to the Issue of the week: You always know where you are and who’s where on the ice.

Me: B**** Please! How many times a season are we treated to the sight of two or three teammates plowing into each other on the ice? What about the players who trip over their own goalie without being pushed? Or the guys who get their stick hung up in the netting or the goal?  Nice fantasy, but I prefer mine in print form and clearly labeled as such.
Goonery on March 24th.  It has been posited that some schlep will be brought up to fight Chara for his technically correct, but ill timed hit.

Me:  It wouldn’t surprise me. Ryan White has played 12 games for the Habs this season and has yet to record a goal. He has 77 PIM’s in 33 AHL games and just 12 points, seriously you’d think that a team with LTIR cap space, and the 22nd ranked offense would call up someone who was of use with their gloves on.

Playoffs, who’s in.

Me: Two west predictions to make it, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes.

Two Coaches who should get Jack Adams notice in the east

Me: Bruce Boudreau for keeping his team at or near the top of the conference while (finally) implementing reasonable defensive structure and having several key players forget how to score. Dan Bylsma, with more man games lost than any one wants to think about and almost as much salary on IR as on the ice, he’s kept his team within striking distance of the division and conference lead.

What the experts say about the hit: Kevin Weekes, and Carey Price both say you know where you are on the ice at all times. Jeremy Roenick says he was often surprised to hit those stanchions or be hit into them. Mathew Barnaby says he fought Chara three times and that the guy isn’t dirty.

Me: Is it any surprise that both Price and Weekes are goalies who spend 99% of their in the same pretty small area within the crease and the rest within two strides of it feel you know where you are all the time? Not really, but goalie isn’t like any other position on the team. Roenick played more than 1500 NHL games and called five different NHL arenas in both conference home, I can’t see someone with more than 500 goals and 1200 points to their credit can’t be counted as highly creditable on the topic of on ice awareness.  As for Barnaby:

I don’t see how that disposes someone towards excess sympathy.