Last season, the Penguins got swept by Boston in the Eastern Conference final. The Penguins only scored twice. The stars – Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin – weren't just unproductive, they were non-threatening.
Last year was the eighth of the Crosby era. The Penguins have one Stanley Cup to show for it, and one additional appearance in the final.
That's not enough.
Last season's ending was abrupt, and embarrassing. GM Ray Shero made a flurry of trades. The Penguins appeared loaded. In the end, they weren't even close.
So what did the Penguins do?
The Penguins stood as pat as possible. They let the rental players walk. They signed Rob Scuderi and assistant coach Jacques Martin. Otherwise, they stood pat. They brought back the entire coaching staff. All the stars, too.
At some level, that validates last season - including how it ended.
That's certainly how the Penguins are playing. Inconsistency is epidemic. That goes for the team, and for many individuals.
The Penguins lead their division. But they don't pass the eye test. On the ice, they know one emotion: FRUSTRATED.
That's understandable. The Penguins are a team with too little tension. Except for the very bottom of the lineup, no one worries about his role. No one worries about playing time. No one worries about a harsh word from the coach. Tension on an everyday level helps you deal with bigger tension in big situations.
I have beaten this drum before. But now that drum is beating the Penguins. As constructed, they won't win a Cup. Or come close.
When Michel Therrien got fired, he had hit his expiration date. But he created tension. When Therrien used Brooks Orpik or Ryan Whitney at wing, or teased Malkin for not being in the scoring leaders, or exploded in the dressing room after a lackadaisical period, it sent a message.
These Penguins need that message. This team is totally bereft of a bad cop, whether in the coaches' office or in the dressing room.
Don't confuse "bad cop" with “bad guy.” Bill Guerin was a bad cop, but he's a great guy. He was just pragmatic and demanding. You need that guy.
Right now, the Penguins don't have that guy.
Malkin needs chewed out sometimes. Letang needs chewed out right now. That never happens. Everyone walks a wide circle.
The Penguins need a shakeup. They needed it to happen in the offseason. Better late than never - but I'm betting on never. The Penguins have adopted a Steelers tradition: Their biggest problem is, they don't realize there's a problem.
Tactically, there are two things I don't understand.
*Deryk Engelland playing ahead of Robert Bortuzzo. I don't think one other coach in the NHL would dress Engelland over Bortuzzo.
*Dan Byslma's utter disregard for line matchups. Boston got Zdeno Chara up against Sidney Crosby every shift last night. Crosby is a great player. He can do well against anybody. But it's a coach's job to put his players and his team in optimum position to succeed. Surrendering every matchup doesn’t do that.
These Penguins are headed down the road to being one of the NHL's all-time underachieving teams. And no one with the power to do so seems even remotely inclined to change the route they're on.
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Refreshing Steelers notes are always a contender: Crisp and cold, just like the bracing Cleveland air yesterday! Shame about the smell...
*It’s not time to clear space for Lombardi No. 7 just yet. Yesterday’s win was more about Cleveland’s stench than the Steelers’ excellence. But, at 5-6, all the Steelers can do is live to fight another day. They did. Baltimore looms large. CAN'T WAIT!
*Except for a disaster against New England, S Troy Polamalu is having an excellent season. He’s healthy, and he ravaged the Browns by forcing two fumbles and recovering one. He’s not quite as dynamic as he once was. But Polamalu is still more dynamic than any other Steelers defensive player.
*DE Cam Heyward: One sack, one fumble recovery and one hellacious stiff-arm. His late father, Ironhead, would be proud. Heyward isn’t a Pro Bowler yet. Yet.
*Yesterday on CBS, announcers Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots desperately tried to sell the Browns-Steelers rivalry. But it doesn’t exist anymore. Part of it moved to Baltimore with the real Browns. The rest got beaten to death by Steelers dominance (25-5 since the Browns re-entered the NFL in 1999).
*QB Ben Roethlisberger is 16-1 against Cleveland. He’s a one-man rivalry killer. Roethlisberger is the windshield, the Browns are the bug. Ain’t no rivalry.
*Is Antonio Brown a true No. 1 receiver? I don’t think so. Click HERE to read why. But Brown certainly got the best of highly-regarded Cleveland CB Joe Haden. The Steelers’ offense still dinks and dunks too much for my liking. But Roethlisberger is making it work. The more no-huddle, the better.
*Brown nearly dropped his 41-yard TD catch. One extra bobble, and Brown goes from hero to having had an ordinary day. The Steelers still win, though.
*Roethlisberger’s left-footed pooch punt that pinned Cleveland at its 1-yard line was nifty. So much so that WR Emmanuel Sanders celebrated downing it like he’d cured herpes. At least the No-Ring Mafia has something legit to crow about.
*Check out this tweet by yours truly immediately after CB Willie Gay’s 21-yard interception return for a touchdown:
THINGS JUST GOT GAY.— Mark Madden (@MarkMaddenX) November 24, 2013
*Yesterday was a big day for Gay: One pick-six, one sack, one forced fumble. NT Al Woods had two sacks. LB Jason Worilds nearly broke Browns QB Jason Campbell in two. Rookie RB Le’Veon Bell rushed for 80 yards, his second-best output. The Browns’ incompetence was a cure for a variety of ills, including those of the Steelers’ D as a collective: Five sacks, four takeaways and a TD.
*One thing the Browns can do is rush the passer: 31 sacks before yesterday, ninth-most in the NFL. But they got zero sacks vs. the Steelers. C Fernando Velasco has become a glue guy in the absence of the injured Maurkice Pouncey. Velasco may be playing better this year than Pouncey did last year.
*S Will Allen got a pick last week against Detroit, then returned a fumble 49 yards to set up a touchdown yesterday. Allen is making the most of his role in the absence of injured Shamarko Thomas, and is even outplaying starter Ryan Clark.
*The quick turnaround before Thursday’s game at Baltimore might help the Steelers. After three straight victories, better to play again quickly. Perhaps Baltimore feels the same after defeating the New York Jets yesterday, 19-3.
*Six AFC teams are now 5-6. It’s too early to worry about tiebreakers, who beat who, or who plays who. The Ravens game will tell a tale, sure. It’s huge. But when you’re in a six-team cluster with five games left, you might as well pick the winner out of a hat. The Steelers must keep winning – and they must keep improving.
*If the Steelers deserve credit for anything, it’s keeping focus. At 0-4, the season was a good bet to fall apart. It didn’t. Players and coaches should be proud of that.
*The Steelers will not make the playoffs.
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690 goals (tied with Mario Lemieux).
121 game-winning goals (tied with Gordie Howe for most in NHL history).
A league-record 18 overtime goals.
Five scoring titles.
Two Stanley Cups.
One Olympic goal medal (tied with Kurt Angle).
At some point, don't you have to love JAROMIR JAGR again?
Jagr got goal No. 690, game-winning goal No. 121 and overtime goal No. 18 in one fell swoop last night as New Jersey beat Los Angeles, 2-1.
Jagr is 41 and, when it was mentioned he had tied Howe's record, Jagr replied, "He played 'til 50, so I've got nine years to go." Hockey should be so lucky.
Jagr spoke glowingly of Lemieux after tying his ex-teammate's career mark: "I didn't really have a chance to see [Gretzky] when he was doing the 200-point season when he was in Edmonton. When I came in the league I was playing with Mario. He was the guy I was looking up to.
"I know Wayne got all the records, but to me, I got a better chance to look to Mario. I could see him every day in practice, the way he plays. He was a huge influence on the game I play.
"I was pretty lucky to see him at his best. I tied him, but he probably played 600 less games than me. This is just a number, but he didn't play many games. If he would have played as many games as me, he would probably have 900 goals."
For the record, it took Lemieux 915 games to score 690 goals. It took Jagr 1,412,
Jagr's isn't in Lemieux's class. But it's insane to think Jagr isn't one of hockey's 10 best forwards ever.
But, hey...next time Jagr's in town, boo him anyway. When the Devils visit Consol Energy Center on Dec. 13, it might be your last chance. You can be jerks...or not.
One touch, one touch, one touch, GOAL. Like FC Barcelona on skates. Most goals shouldn't have two assists. This one should have had three. Penguins 4, Washington nil. In the land of meaningless banners, champagne hockey is king.
If you want to know what the Penguins need, take a look at Washington when the Penguins visit the Capitals on - drum roll - RIVALRY WEDNESDAY!
The Penguins have a definite edge in goal, and a huge edge on defense. It's fairly even at forward, especially with Evgeni Malkin not scoring goals.
But the Caps are much bigger and grittier up front, especially below their bottom six. To wit:
*Troy Brouwer (6-3, 215)
*Jason Chimera (6-3, 213)
*Eric Fehr (6-4, 212)
*Brooks Laich (6-2, 210)
*Tom Wilson (6-4, 210)
Even Alex Ovechkin is 6-3, 220, and often runs opponents through the boards. Joel Ward is 6-1, 230. The Capitals' forwards play very big.
Compare the Caps' size to Joe Vitale (5-11, 205) or Craig Adams (6-0, 200). Tanner Glass is the Pens' main grit guy up front, and he’s 6-1, 210. Brandon Sutter (6-3, 190) plays much smaller than his frame.
Brian Gibbons is the Pens' newest third-line addition. He's 5-8, 170. YIKES.
If the Penguins lose - tonight or come springtime - that difference could be a factor.
Let's hope Evgeni Malkin cracks his 14-game no-goal streak with a seven-point outburst to take the NHL scoring lead. Geno never stopped piling up the helpers. That would add even more drama to - drum roll - RIVALRY WEDNESDAY!
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