Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Can I Get a Shot (on Net)?

It finally happened. I knew it would. I'm not sleeping well following Penguins games. Tuesday morning, I was grumpy, still cranky from the Penguins' game two loss against the Washington Capitals and grumpier still from my fitful sleep, having spent the 4:00 a.m. witching hour turning the game over, shift by shift, rather than enjoying the warm embrace of my beloved friend, sleep. I sometimes have this problem following Steelers games and it always seems to happen after a Steelers - Patriots tilt.

I don't want to even say where this thought has led me. Perhaps the utter uselessness of Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar planted this sick lump in the pit of my stomach. More likely, the Washington Caps were the culprits. Two games into the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, I'm seeing some unsettling similarities between the 2009 Caps and the 2001 New England Patriots, minus the cheating, of course.

The Capitals. The Patriots. Huh? Red, White and Blue. Ya follow?

Plus, both franchises have coaches I don't trust. It's hardly necessary to re-visit Bill Belichick's transgressions, but there's something I just don't like about beady-eyed Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. Perhaps it's his striking resemblance to Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon. Every time I see him behind the bench, I can't help but say, "Now, sir. We'll talk, if you like. I'll tell you right out, I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk." Who trusts Sydney Greenstreet?!

Each team has bandwagon jumping fans who never gave two hoots about "their" franchise until: the arrival of a true superstar in the case of the Caps; or the arrival of a Lombardi Trophy in the case of the Pats. Does the difference matter? Not really. Every season of my hockey viewing life up until the 2007-2008 season, the crowd noise in Washington was deafening when the Penguins went there. Of course, the noise was generated by Pittsburgh fans who took over the joint. Shameful. Now the beltway hockey neophytes all sport brand new Ovechkin jerseys as they waive purchased rather than homemade signs, and taunt inappropriately. Here's a handy tip for DC fans, don't chant "Crosby" when he's not even on the ice. Philly fans may be coarse, they may be rude, they may be jerks, but they are at least knowledgeable hockey fans. It's freaking embarrassing.

Still, the similarities don’t end there. Shift for shift, the Pens have played right there with the Caps. In fact, I'd say that they've outplayed them on a lot of shifts, so much so that they have played long stretches of the first two games planted right in front of goalie Simeon Varlamov. I think it's even fair to say that the Capitals haven't had as many opportunities as the Penguins, but when they have had them, they've capitalized (if you'll pardon the phraseology.) Just like those Patriots, they keep hanging around, hanging around, keeping it close and then, bam, one little mis-step and it's over.

These Caps seem to understand something that those Pats teams understood: it's not simply that you score, it's when you score. In the third period, the Pens went on the PP when Milan Jurcina went to the box for interfering with Malkin. Pffffft. That is just what the Pens PP did. Pfffft. And then literally, as Jurcina came out of the penalty box, Malkin was sent to the box for the stupidest case of tripping seen since the Three Stooges were still working.

That Caps Power Play? They don't piss around. Malkin hadn’t even had time to pick up a water bottle in the penalty box when Ovechkin planted the puck in the laces behind Marc-Andre Fluery four seconds in. Four seconds. You could pretty much see the life drain out of the Penguins. Except for Mr. Crosby.

Does that mean I think the Penguins are snakebit? That they are accursed, destined to suffer the same fate as our 2001 and 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers? Not by a long shot, but some things have got to change if they intend to counter-punch their way back into this series.

Not to overstate the obvious, but if you hadn’t noticed, the power play unit isn’t producing. It pains me to say this, but I have to lay a good bit of the blame for this PP pickle at the skates of Gonchar. I see Gonchar lollygagging behind the net on defense, I see him lollygagging at the point on the power play, I see him lollygagging through the neutral zone, I see him lollygagging while he dumps and chases the puck. What's that make him? A lollygagger.

I like to joke that he's a lazy communist, but the fact is, he may be too worn out to run the PP, given the fact that he plays more minutes than any other player. Monday night he played more than 27 minutes. Nobody even comes close to his on ice time, not even the magnificent Crosby. (Just as a reference, using game two's stats only, Crosby had over 22 minutes of ice time, while Bill Guerin, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi and Evgeni Malkin played over 19 minutes, each. That's pretty much how it plays out regularly, so it's a fair barometer.)

Given those numbers and the fact that Gonchar is 35 years old, it's completely understandable that he's too gassed to run the PP effectively. I get it. That doesn't make the pallid power play passable, however. The Pens have been dumping and chasing and dumping and chasing. They play up against the boards and just pass around the perimeter, and pass, and pass. They generate just one or two legitimate shots on net at a time when there is just no substitute for actual, you know, shots on goal. A little urgency would be helpful.

So, there are two options. Either use Gonchar less and demand more from Scuderi, Orpik, Kris Letang, Mark Eaton and Hal Gill on their defensive shifts. Or have somebody else with more fuel in his motor out there quarterbacking the power play. (I prefer the former option because now is hardly the time to revisit the putritude of the Pens power play in Gonchar's absence earlier this season.)

The other issue is that nobody besides #87 is doing much of anything and, yes, #71, I am looking at you. Malkin's got a big time slapshot, a big time one-timer, and a big time wrister. Those shots may not quite match the the velocity of Ovechkin's lasers, but they can give you a close shave, too. He sure picked one helluva time to go into witness protection.

So this is for Geno: just because Ovechkin grew up the child of an Olympian in Moscow and you grew up in the Russian equivalent of Turtle Creek (that's pronounced ‘turtle crick’ by the locals), doesn't make him better than you. Big stars play big in big games and they don't get much bigger than this, my vodka swilling friend. So start peppering that puck on net.

Maybe Malkin and Gonchar should have a couple of shots of Smirnoff before the game? Or maybe I should. It might help my sleep.

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