Lacing Up: It's Good to be Back
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Joshua Neal: Well, Matt, I wasn’t sure when we’d be writing our first article in the midst of the season until just a few weeks ago, but it surely is good to be back. This 48-game schedule is going to be completed at a torrid pace. Game #1 on the schedule did not disappoint, as the Penguins took down the Flyers 3-1 in a hard fought game. I hate to side with Pierre McGuire in most instances, but the game did feel as if it had a playoff atmosphere about it. So, who shone in the first game of the season?
The first player I want to talk about is really, as I see it, the true key to success in the Penguins season. Marc Andre Fleury turned in a very good netminding performance in the first game back. His counterpart, Ilya Bryzgalov, made some settled down to make some great saves after letting two early goals in. But Fleury’s steady play, especially on some excellent saves against the Philadelphia power play were truly the difference. Fleury looked very sharp: he was out on angles, aggressive, and not afraid to help his defense occasionally by playing the puck. The one goal he allowed was on a bit of a defensive breakdown – first by Brooks Orpik and on the backcheck by Chris Kunitz. Overall, I think he turned in a top notch performance in an environment that brought out some demons in him last year in the playoffs. Matt, I have a feeling that you agree, and that you might not be quite as excited to see backup Tomas Vokoun get his season debut between the pipes tomorrow at Madison Square Garden. Am I right?
Matt Paul: Josh, I’ll take a minute to remind our readers that this conversation began following the Penguins vs. Flyers game Saturday and likely will conclude no later than mid-game Sunday evening (Pens. vs. Rangers). And now on to our regularly scheduled discussion…
It was refreshing to watch live hockey again, rather than reruns of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was even more refreshing to see Fleury rebound from what was a horrendous and infamous performance against the Flyers last spring. As you said, he was sharp, aggressive, and maybe the best description: focused. We’ve discussed the role Tomas Vokoun might play on the team, and one of more intangible things he brings to the table is legitimate competition for Fleury, forcing the French Canadian “Flower” to bloom rather than wilt if he wants to keep his job.
Speaking of Vokoun, he is slated to start Sunday (and by the time this is published, we’ll know how he performed), but I wouldn’t say I lack excitement for his debut. Rather, I just hate to see Fleury ride the pine 24 hours after such a strong showing, especially when the team will have a modest tow days off before their home opener Wednesday. That said, Vokoun is a legitimate goaltender in this league, and I’m excited to see what he can offer in terms of tangibles.
Josh, what did you think of the other new additions to the team? I’m speaking specifically of Tanner Glass and that new third line center. What’s his name again?
Josh: I think I know who you mean. It was a bit of vindication for me, watching Brandon Sutter do just about everything according to the hockey textbook yesterday. That’s not to say we won’t miss Jordan Staal, and that’s not to say that one or two games should have us reconstructing statues outside of Consol, but I think a lot of people have a lot of reasons to be excited about 16 in black and gold.
Sutter was an exemplary penalty killer, out there for a lot of time for a penalty kill that went 5-for-5 against a Flyers’ power play that was positively deadly last year, especially in the playoffs. He did take a penalty in the early stages, but as I see it, he played a very nice game – along with the rest of the third line. I can’t believe I’m typing these words in the same sentence, but Tyler Kennedy looked fast, physical, and committed to the system. Cooke was tossing out more hits than than the Billboard Top 200. For the better part of the third period, this line kept Giroux and company from tying the game up.
Matt: I had a sneaking suspicion you might have been happy with Sutter’s performance given your mancrush on him since he was acquired. As for Glass, he was much less visible, but far from disappointing. From my seat (right side of the reclining couch with an ice cold beer on the end table beside me), he appeared to be in an adjustment phase. His three hits and one blocked shot are stats I expect to see from him on a regular basis, but I anticipate we’ll see a bit more of an antagonistic approach with a few flying gloves before long. Who knows, Josh, maybe you’ll be rating a Glass vs. Bickel fight before we publish?
Since we’re on the topic of physicality, I feel the need to respond regarding Cooke. Seven hits. That’s a pretty nice number for anyone, but it’s impressive for Cooke if only because he was so cautious last season that he appeared to lose his edge. His game seems to be back, and with that, let’s hope he can stay smart and keep his physicality on the clean side. If so, he’s a player who will help immensely and who teams will hate to play against.
Is there anyone you are disappointed with so far?
Josh: Well, Matt, as I type this I’m watching a 4-1 Penguins game in which pretty much every phase of the game has been dominated by our guys in black and gold. I’m knocking on wood, but there are few better ways I could have scripted a start to this season than two road wins against huge rivals. Also, I’m anticipating a very entertaining John Tortorella interview after ts one. Get your bleepers ready, folks.
But as analysts, I think we would be remiss to say there aren’t some areas that need some improvement. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I am disappointed in Despres. He played a pretty suspect game against Philly. He looked out of position and slower than his billing coming into the league. He has had some bad turnovers in each game that some day will lead to us fishing the puck out of the back of the net at some point. Thankfully that hasn’t happened yet. But even from game 1 to game 2, I think his confidence is growing. He made a beautiful bank pass to set up the Tyler Kennedy goal. He also made a very nice sliding breakup later in the second to stymie a Rangers chance.
The big disappointment for me, though, is probably going to be one that is smattered across papers and blogs around the city: Eric Tangradi. Through these games, he just isn’t getting the job done. He looks slow on the forecheck. He hasn’t been doing a lot of the things Kunitz did for the Malkin and Neal line. It isn’t much, but he just doesn’t seem to be compatible on that line. Maybe it’s a coaching adjustment with him, or maybe we need him to be somewhere else. I don’t know yet, but if there is one thing that is lacking, it’s the buzz and pop from the third guy on that line. Matt, want to continue on your areas of improvement? Or would you like to accent the areas of strength before we wrap up this week?
Matt: I’ll do both, Josh. For starters, I’ll pick up where you left off in mentioning my disappointment in both Despres and Tangradi. I don’t have much to add for either player other than to say there are players knowing on the door at each position, and my guess is the leash will have some give for a week or so, but at some point Bylsma will shorten it. Beau Bennett and Robert Bortuzzo, to me, are preciisely the types of players this team could use. Bennett being a skilled playmaker to set up the stars and Bortuzzo a shutdown, penalty killing defenseman with some physicality. I also think we’d be doing our readers an injustice if we neglected to mention Dustin Jeffrey, whose leash was short from the start. After a poor showing Saturday, he was benched tonight (Sunday night) in favor of Joe Vitale, who I felt should have been the guy from game one.
As for the good? How about Tomas Vokoun? He hasn’t had to make many difficult saves, but a second period pair on Rick Nash within a span of five seconds showed me everything I need to know about him: he’s always in good position. As Steigy said, he doesn’t move around much and, consequently, he makes it look easy. If the Penguins can continue to get goaltending like this and the one Fleury turned in Saturday, they’ll be difficult to beat in the regular season and even more unstoppable in the playoffs. It’s early. Real early. But this has the makings to be the best goaltending tandem in the NHL.
And this team has the makings to be right there when the Stanley Cup is on the line. We’ll see you Thursday for our second weekly “Lacing Up.”