Posted by: mdegeorge | May 12, 2010

Diary of a (Game 7) madman

It’s only post number two on this site and already journalistic neutrality goes straight out the window. But I think it’ll be worth it for those of you who want to want to see a Pens fan in anguish (consider it an early Christmas gift, Flyer fans).

I’ll be keeping a running game log of the ups and downs of tonight’s Game 7 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Montreal Canadiens on Versus. I’d like to apologize now to Maurice Richard, Steven Harper, and Rush for any insults that may be incurred over the next three hours.

Pregame

For a team that has won the last two Eastern Conference Championships, won their last two Game 7s on the road, and are 3-0 the last three times they have faced an elimination game away from home, I’m a little worried about the Pens despite being the favored team and having the home ice advantage.

[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=sidney+crosby&iid=8722195″ src=”e/3/c/a/Montreal_Canadiens_Halak_68f5.jpg?adImageId=12837162&imageId=8722195″ width=”380″ height=”291″ /]

If the Pens fail to win tonight, they will kick themselves for failing to cash in on their chance in losses. In Game 2, the outshot the Habs 39-21, including 18-3 in the second period, but failed to win at home. In Game 4, Pittsburgh outshot Montreal 26-9 through two periods but had just a 2-1 lead to show for it; just 3:07 into the third period, it was gone. In Game 6, the Pens hit three posts in the second period but still managed to lose the 20-minute segment 2-1 and trail heading into the third period. As much as Jaroslav Halak’s stonewalling and Mike Cammalleri’s opportunistic goal-poaching abilities have been the story, it ultimately comes down to the Pens not dropping the hammer when they’ve been getting the chance.

Keys to the game:

For the Pens, it has to start with the big three of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal. Wow, shocker. What they really need to do is establish a presence in front of the net. All the cycling is pretty and nice, but someone needs to get to the net, draw defenders, and open up the slot for someone other than Kris Letang to get looks at goal. If they’re just going to fire shots from 45 feet with no screens, Halak is going to eat up shot after shot like he has throughout this playoff run.

The Habs just have to keep doing what they’re doing: absorbing waves of pressure, being active in denying the neutral zone, and being smart in taking their chances going forward. Someone other than Cammalleri and Brian Gionta stepping up would be nice too (I think Scott Gomez still earns a weekly paycheck, right?)

First Period, 20 minutes left

An interesting roster move by the Pens tonight, sitting the energetic and productive Mark Letestu for Alexei Ponikarovsky, whose value this series has been roughly equivalent to that of a cardboard cutout of Kevin Stevens sponsored by Bud Light. The roster move also brings Pascal Dupuis onto Crosby’s line with Chris Kunitz, and moves Poni with Malkin and Bill Guerin. Interesting, though as we’ve seen, linemates mean about as much to Dan Bylsma as “No Talking” signs in the movies—he’s going to do whatever he wants anyway, it’s just a suggestion.. Hal Gill is also back from injury, which should be a big boost for defensive stalwart Josh Gorges.

First Period, 19:50

I was going to include an anecdote about how in the Pens-Caps Game 7 last year was changed so quickly by Marc Andre Fleury’s big save on Alexander Ovechkin. Well, Crosby’s boarding penalty, Gionta’s quick soft goal, and Matt Cooke’s trip to the box has the Pens in worst-case scenario already. I’m about 32 seconds from saying this is over.

First Period, 14:24

The Pens are quite fortunate to be down just one after a big save by Fleury on one of the superfluously consonanted Kostitsyn brothers. The big part of the early penalties means Malkin hadn’t touched the ice until the three minutes had been played. On the bright side for the Penguins, Gill looks to be labored by his injury, which appears to be slowing his already glacial pace.

First Period, 12:32

When you watch Fleury either stick-handle or try to control rebounds, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. And drop it almost did in the latter category with a Tom Pyatt shot that fell right into the path of Maxim Lapierre, who could only ring it off the post. Dominic Moore picked up a penalty on the play, and the former Harvard captain is headed to the box. The Habs have the momentum, and as Daren Eliot correctly identifies, the nervous Penguins at least have a man-advantage to try to stem the tide.

First Period, 5:37

The best checking line in hockey has what may be a momentum-turning shift with several cycles on the half-boards and a couple quality chances. But none of that matters since Brooks Orpik decides to have a personal wrestling match with Lapierre and gets taken out of the play to allow Moore to score. Wow. I’m stunned; there’s no way a defending Stanley Cup Champion should be this rattled and making this many mistakes on this type of stage.

Two things are becoming very apparent:

1. I’m all for physical hockey. But for a puck possession team, going for the big hit at the expense of getting the puck doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

2. Every time the Pens cycle, the objective seems to be to get it to the point man for a big shot before anyone can get to the net. When you finally get some space with the puck near the net, shouldn’t the aim be to keep it there by going closer to the net?

End of first period

Mike Emrick couldn’t be more prophetic: the Pens team skating off the ice now doesn’t look like any version of the black and gold that has showed up in either of the last two playoff runs. It looks like the inconsistent group who got shutout at home by Tampa at the end of the regular season. As much as it pains me, I think this is over (and not the “I’m just saying it to jinx the Canadiens after the hockey gods try to prove me wrong” over. I mean over, over.) It’s going to take one hell of a speech from Bylsma to change the fortunes here.

Second period, 19:20

Case and point of the series. Dupuis and Crosby do well to crash the net, and a loose puck bounces to Kunitz near the faceoff dot. What does he do? Tries to get the puck back to the point instead of turning and firing at a vacant net with Halak sliding out of the play (Crosby was in the net causing a stoppage of play, but still, it’s a microcosm of the decisions being made by the Pens.) I think they’re still waiting for the Habs to make a mistake rather than forcing the issue themselves. Guess what, Pittsburgh: there’s no way in Hell this team is making three mistakes, so you better get on your horse and do something about it unless you’re looking forward to that golf outing next weekend.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=mike+cammalleri&iid=8683742″ src=”3/b/f/0/Penguins_vs_Canadiens_0f57.JPG?adImageId=12837171&imageId=8683742″ width=”380″ height=”304″ /]

Second period, 16:28

In the immortal, although subverted, words of Mike Lange, Elvis has just left the building. Cammalleri scores on another turnover and it’s 3-0. This is an embarrassing performance from the Pens. The only bright side, if you can call it that, is that things have been resolved pretty early in the night.

Second period, 16:01

In what I can only describe as an attempt to keep viewership numbers up, the Pens get a power play chance, which only looks like an effort to rearrange chairs on the deck of the Titani…and Travis Moen just picked up a shortie. Another turnover by Kunitz means Marc Andre Fleury’s postseason has just come to an end. Wow

Second period, 12:24

In games like this, there are at times players you can point to and say, “at least so-and-so hasn’t played that bad, maybe he can lead the team back”. I just went through the entire 20-man roster and concluded that Brent Johnson should be on the ice along. There’s not spark from the third- and fourth-liners, nothing from Malkin, Crosby, or Staal, stupid decisions made all around, and now it looks like a lack of gumption for that attack.

I think the third “it’s over” might be the charm—at least to stop the onslaught.

Second period, 11:24

Kunitz figures out someone is liable to use an AED on him if he doesn’t start showing signs of life soon, so he pops up to score the kind of goal the Pens haven’t been able to collect all series (on a fortunate bounce off Halak’s pad). It’s still going to take a lot before it’s anything but window dressing. And when double-shifting Pascal Dupuis is the key to the “surge”, I’m less than convinced.

Second period, 6:15

You remember back in little league, when you got to the end of the season and had to jam in like 14 games in two weeks because of rainouts? Every once in a while, you got that one team that was on their second game of four in a week, and they only had two usable pitchers since one was on vacation or grounded for lousy grades. So you looked forward to that day knowing you would get plenty of at bats against the left fielder or assistant coach’s son who was only on the team because his dad had a minivan and could drive a bunch of kids to the game.

That’s what the Montreal attack looks like right now. They’re just lying in wait, doing what they have to on defense, because they know eventually they’ll get to opening and get to go up to bat against a Pens’ defense that is committed forward. If they had more offensive firepower, I would say six goals would be the minimum target, but even so, it’s still a possibility.

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=alexei+ponikarovsky&iid=8716871″ src=”3/6/d/f/Montreal_Canadiens_Subban_29f2.jpg?adImageId=12837176&imageId=8716871″ width=”380″ height=”301″ /]

Second period, 3:40

Oh the sheer, unadulterated, (potentially) scripted drama. The Pens are ineffectual on another power play—yet still begging for another anytime a white-shirted player comes within three feet of them—but Ponikarovsky makes a brief cameo to set up Staal for a second goal just after the man advantage expires. Oh, man, people may actually get to watch the commercials Versus sells in the third period.

By the way, I’m fighting optimism at every turn of momentum in this game. It’s getting increasingly difficult, but I’m not ready to succumb just yet.

End of second period

Kennedy weighs in with his most significant contribution of the series: goading Cammalleri into matching minors to get him off the ice for two minutes. The Pens celebrate by watching PK Subban slice through the four skates as if they weren’t there. But the Pens do have a 4-3 power play for over a minute to start the third period—with the added bonus of Gorges having to sit. Uh, maybe…

Second intermission

Not one of the better intermission reports by Versus. Bill Patrick, who I still contend is actually just former NHL2Night star Jack Edwards with some cosmetic surgery, informs viewers the Pens have played like “an endangered species” for most of the game. I would tend to think the polar bears are putting up more of a fight, plus they at least have Noah Wyle in their corner.

Then, Keith Jones intros and entire montage of Sergei Gonchar clips scripted around one clip of Gonchar slowly coming off the ice. This is why Brian Engblom needs more face time!

Third period, 19:29

The series in a nutshell: the puck falls directly Crosby at the side of the net and his attempt at the cage is soundly snuffed out by Halak. That was the chance, and it has gone begging. The rest of the power play passes in a largely uneventful fashion, and both teams have now settled into a more leisurely pace that surely favors the team in the lead. The deafening silence of all 17, 132 seem to recognize it.

Third period, 13:20

Gill loses his stick—the third time a loose Habs’ stick on the ice and a positive consequence for the Pens have coincided—and he heads to the box for holding as “Renegade” blares. You’ve got to love how apropos the music in hockey arenas often are. Can the Pens capitalize?

Third period, 11:02

Jaroslav Dryden denies Malkin on a golden opportunity on the doorstep, Gonchar fires wide with slapper from the slot, Letang is stopped by a quick Halak moving across the crease, and my remote bounces off the living room wall. And by that, I mean no. On top of that, the Pens are called for too many men on the ice, despite the fact that Canadiens have had half the province of Quebec pour over the boards like they’re fighting the Indians again on several occasions without drawing a call yet. At least a crack in the glass gives everyone a chance to settle down before the PK (not Subban).

Third period, 10:00

So ends that. Orpik is out taking a leisurely stroll by the face off circle leaving Cammalleri and Gionta with a 2-1 on a helpless Mark Eaton for the fifth goal of the game, followed by the obligatory shot of a giddy Bell Centre that gives me the sudden urge to rent “Canadian Bacon”. Once again, Halak has proven up to the task to stop the Pens many chances, and the Habs have taken advantage of the few openings they’ve had with aplomb. I feel comfortable enough to say that the Pens coule play until 2:30 in the morning Pacific time and not get five pucks past Halak.

Third period, 4:29

Gill heads to the box again to set up the “too little, too late” portion of the program, which doesn’t come to fruition thanks to a combination of Halakian efficiency and the Pens’ inability to find the freaking net. The Pens have pulled the goalie already, something that the announcing team doesn’t notice for about 30 second, even though the extra attacker Staal has two tries on goal.

Third period, 3:07

I think the Pens would be hard-pressed to score three goals in five minutes against this team if they had an 8-on-5 advantage.

And to make matters worse, the there’s so little action that the Emrick and Eliot have reverted to essentially reading off names from the Penguins media guide the media relations staff gave them to commemorate the closing of Mellon Arena with this woeful performance.

[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=jaroslav+halak&iid=8722207″ src=”6/3/c/c/Montreal_Canadiens_Halak_9a3b.jpg?adImageId=12837191&imageId=8722207″ width=”500″ height=”324″ /]

If Ovie is going to take flack for not showing up in their ill-fated series against the Habs, than Crosby and Malkin have to be held accountable for this debacle tonight. Sid threw a monkey wrench into this game 10 seconds in with his stupid boarding penalty that led to the first goal. Malkin, who has put in some decent performances even when he hasn’t been scoring, has been invisible to everyone and every thing other than Jaroslav Halak’s seemingly massive glove hand.

As much as I usually despise the stats broadcasters tend to harp on, it really does come down to the stars. Crosby and Malkin combined for two goals, six assists, and a minus-3. Cammalleri and Gionta combined for 12 goals, four assists, and a plus-2. When the stars show up and a goalie does what Halak does, it’s a recipe for disaster for the opposing team. The Habs proved tonight that they deserved this series win; they absorbed the Pens’ best punches time and time again, and came out on top.

One of the other problems that has become painfully obvious for Pens’ GM Ray Shero is that Alexei Ponikarovsky and the term “top-line winger” are not synonymous. The Pens’ ability to find the net is an aspect of this series that no one has bothered to question just yet. Everyone knew there were no superstars among this winger corps. But they’ve had tons of better opportunities than the ones Cammalleri has cashed in on, and they haven’t been able to find the top shelf that the Habs’ leading scorer apparently lives on. The Canadiens D were able to block a lot of shots, but there’s Pens weren’t able to capitalize on the same kinds of chances the opportunistic Habitants did. And that was the difference.

I’d like to say in closing that I am cursing this blog for forcing me to watch whimper of a performance when, left to my own devices, I would have changed the channel long ago.

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Responses

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