Friday, April 13, 2007

Friday, April 13th, 2007

-- Pens resiliency immediately tested.

-- Pirates should feel fortunate.

-- Steelers draw difficult schedule.

---Learning Curve---

Game One: Senators 6, Penguins 3.

Ugliest game of the year, bar none. Through 2 periods, Ottawa had outshot Pittsburgh by a 29-12 margin. They still somehow only had a 2 goal lead at that point. If anything, you'd have expected the Senators to have fallen behind a step after playing 2 periods of their most intense hockey of the season.

It was, in fact, the Penguins who began to show lapses in the 3rd. Ottawa won the opening faceoff and planted one in the back of the net nine seconds into the final frame for a three goal advantage. Not 30 seconds later, Sidney Crosby appeared to have scored, but Toronto said "no goal" due to a "distinct kicking motion", which may have been the correct call, but it wasn't intentionally done.

It's ok. Practically nothing went right for the Penguins that night. A defensive brain fart led to a Chris Neil breakaway and subsequent goal. In the flow of the game, I don't know if I've ever seen Marc-Andre Fleury stop a breakaway. In the shootouts, yes, because he's prepared for it, but when it happens unexpectedly, he always seems to bite on the first move. Ugly.

The only Penguin goal to come 5-on-5 was an ugly little garbage goal by Jordan Staal, only slightly prettier than the one Mario had to put behind Dominik Hasek in 2001 to extend Game 6 of their series against the Sabres into overtime. The other two were power play goals (one on a 5-on-3) when the contest was already out of reach.

Ottawa must have outhit the Penguins 92-8 all game long. It was to the point where the sound of Penguins getting hit into the boards came off like a rhythmic cadence.

Twenty-two total penalties in the game. And the whistle was blowing every 5 seconds due to an off-sides or icing call. I don't know if the officials are supposed to be tightening up for the playoffs, but I counted 3 instances where icing was called where I didn't think it should have been (and I only watched about half of the game off and on as I was visiting my parents, helping them with their computer).

And, of course, a meaningless semi-brawl toward the end of the game. As much as I detest most fighting in hockey, I will say it's the first time I've ever seen the Penguins get the better of another in a fight as a team. It was almost like a caricature in which the Ottawa players looked half-assed grabbing a Pittsburgh jersey, but each Penguin had a fist ready to land on an undefended portion of their respective Senators' head.

No one said the Penguins were going to sweep Ottawa. The last three games of the regular season between these two teams were closely contested. They finished the season tied for the most points. I've got the Penguins in 7.

Actually, here's my whole prediction that I submitted to ThePensBlog for the contest they're hosting. I've got my eye on a "Weekend at Bernie's" DVD. I had to move teams that won in the first round to face the correct opponents in the 2nd round. The number to three digit number to the right is the Goals-Against-Average for the winning team in the series.

It's gonna be a red June.

Speaking of ThePensBlog, the guys over there were magnanimous enough to label me "The Hardest-working Man in the Business". While I thank them for their generous comment and plug, I guess they proved their own point about how their analysis doesn't mean anything. I mean, if I were the hardest-working man in the business, you'd think you wouldn't see more than a day or so pass between entries.

Just kidding. Thank you very much, guys. I feel I am in very good company.

Anyway, back to hockey...

The sheer number of overtime games the Penguins have played, in addition to having a significantly younger roster top to bottom, will see the young pups outlast the older guard. Conditioning is that thing you see come through toward the end, not so much the beginning.

But the young pups have to have assimilated the information from Wednesday to be successful in a game that, while is not a must-win, is important to keep their morale up. And they have to win at least one in Ottawa, anyway, to take the series. No time like the present.

---Lucky Bucs---

"Mike, you're an idiot. Have you watched the last 6 games?"

Yes, and that's what I'm talking about. After 9 games, the Pirates are 4-5. It's only 2 games better than where they were last year, but they had a chance to win each of those 5 games, except their 6-1 loss to the Reds. In only one of their wins (Sunday at Cincinnati) did they never trail at any point in the game.

The offense, through 9 games, has hit a pathetic .225 (clearly indicating their inability to string hits together) and an On-Base Percentage of .291 (not acceptable in the Major Leagues). They're tied for the sixth-most strikeouts and have drawn the sixth-fewest walks. Bad recipe there.

Despite all this, they're only one game out of first place. They've had the good fortune of facing the Houston Astros offense, who are batting .226 so far, with an OBP of .290 (about the same). They managed to take one from a Cincinnati team that's batting 24 points higher and on base 43 points better. They hung with a St. Louis team infamous for its instant offensive capabilities in all three games.

Of course, some of that luck comes from some part of your team being good. Zach Duke, Ian Snell, and Tom Gorzelanny have all pitched wonderfully in their first two games. Their ERAs are under 3.50 (Gorzo has a 1.50), and more importantly, none has a WHIP currently above 1.15 (Duke). Keeping that number down throughout the season is going to generate wins.

Select portions of the bullpen have been spot-on, too. Matt Capps, no walks, no runs and only two hits in six-and-a-third innings. Jonah Bayliss is unscored upon in 5 innings with four strikeouts. Shawn Chacon has been reasonably strong, as well, giving up 1 run in 6 innings of relief work.

Meanwhile, John Wasdin makes you yearn for Dan Kolb, and Salomon Torres seems better suited for the setup role when facing a dangerous lineup like St. Louis. Damaso Marte is a man who's lost his touch from his 2005 form when he won a World Series ring with the Chicago White Sox. He makes you hope John Grabow is on the fast track to recovery.

Youngster Juan Perez, while he is unscored upon, has that drama factor when he pitches. He's on the brink of establishing some true confidence, or getting shattered. Watch him carefully.

Bottom line, the team ERA is 3.25. If not for this, the Pirates would potentially be looking at another 2-7 start, or worse.

My greatest fear is that the pitchers will have bad games at about the same time that the Pirate bats decide they want to wake up, and instead of losing 3-2, they'll be losing 11-10.

It's better to be lucky than good, and so far, it looks like it's been mostly the former.

---Tough Road Back---

At first glance, it doesn't look terribly daunting. You see the Browns and the 49ers and the Cardinals and say, "Aw, how cute..." Then again, you can't really take any road games for granted, and Mike Nolan may have the 49ers dangerous again.

The Steelers have, of course, defending AFC North Champion Baltimore twice, the second time for the last game of the season IN Baltimore which may have all kinds of playoff implications for both teams, perhaps a division title. Cincinnati has given the Steelers fits at home of late, and they have the AFC East this year.

And they have to visit the two AFC East teams that made the playoffs last year. It's only fair. I don't think the Steelers have played in New England since 1997, a game featuring a last-minute interception from New England's Drew Bledsoe that led to a tying TD and two-point conversion to force overtime. Then Pittsburgh won on a Norm Johnson FG. The Jets' last two meetings with Pittsburgh have come at Heinz Field, both close losses (one of them closer than many care to remember).

The Bills and the Dolphins each have something to prove to the league, so they're not to be overlooked, either.

The Seahawks get to come to Pittsburgh as part of the NFC West package in a Superbowl XL rematch. You know that no matter what the outcome of that game, ignoramuses across the country will still stamp about and say the fix was in in Detroit in February '06 (see the end of my last entry).

Visits to the Broncos and Rams are also on tap.

What worries me the most is how these games are laid out. Three consecutive games against the NFC West. Then a bye week. Then two road games against quality opponents. The Broncos are also fortunate enough to be coming off their bye week, and the Bengals will be coming off a home game against the Jets.

And, best of all, the Steelers have a short week between games 14 and 15. They host Jacksonville on Sunday, December 16, then play an NFL Network game on Thursday the 20th. AT St. Louis. This was the kind of scheduling that would get Cowher up in arms. We'll see how the new regime handles it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey man,
nice analysis of the pens game. got your link from the pensblog. pretty cool. been checkin it out. decided to give a comment. i see three chicks comment here all the time. they do there too and they're not too bad at sports i c.

thanks for the steelers schedule.

go pens



4/13/2007 4:04 PM  
Blogger Tiffany said...

A defensive brain fart led to a Chris Neil breakaway and subsequent goal.

...the sound of Penguins getting hit into the boards came off like a rhythmic cadence.

Mike, LOVE those lines^^^ & great post on the Pens game!! Weekend At Bernie's, huh? :-)

P.S. Welcome to the comments section Tim! ˜˜ٮ˜˜ Us "Steeltown Angels" are a friendly bunch...

4/13/2007 9:06 PM  
Anonymous karri said...

Ahhh...Mike...a new commenter I see...good...very good! Welcome Tim!

Ok, now to your post...terrific recap of the Pens first playoff game...and you "only watched about half of the game off and on" as you were visiting your parents, "helping them with their computer"...woah! You got a lot of talent in writing. I hope you get the career you'd like sooner rather than later...especially for the sake of Pittsburgh sports talk.

There is one thing I'm annoyed with, picked the DEVILS to win the Stanley Cup in ThePensblog pool!!!! Mike, how could you? Just for "A weekend at Bernie's? Tiffany did another song on her blog and in the lyrics it says who I happened to pick for the winner of Lord Stanley's Cup.

But of course it's the Pens. Just can't put my heart or head into any other team. :) I want the autographed hockey puck.

The Pirate's 10th game is on the TV right now and they are losing 8 to 2 in the 9th...5 runs for San Fran in the 1st...ohhhhh. The pain begins!

4/13/2007 9:37 PM  
Anonymous nicole said...

Hi Mike,
Real nice post. All three of my favorite sports covered on one page...great.
I can't think about the Steelers right now though...way too early. Watched the Pirates lose 8 to 5...totally agree with Karri. It's very painful...
And the Pens...I'm sick...have to go to work early...hopefully I'll be back for the start of the game tomorrow. Keep up the great recaps guy. ;)

Ohhh, almost forgot...hello Tim, welcome.

4/13/2007 10:35 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Mike, enjoy reading the blog from afar. Always good insight. Just wanted to give you a little head's up. Last time the STeelers played in New England was the season opener in 2002, the year after the Pats beat the Steelers in the AFC title game and then won their first Super Bowl. That season opener was easily forgettable, though. I think the Steelers lost something like 30-13. It was awful. Hopefully, this year isn't reminiscent.

4/16/2007 3:52 PM  

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