Whatever became of them?
There, right at the very top of the chronological list released Thursday of the “Top 20 Greatest NHL Teams,” as voted by hockey fans, was the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Mind you, it’s a highly debatable list – it appears there were no voters old enough to remember the Montreal Canadiens of the 1950s or even the Toronto Maple Leafs of the early 1960s – but all the same, that Penguins team from a year ago deserves to be there. Perhaps you remember: young Matt Murray’s sensational goaltending; Kris Letang scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal off a perfect pass from Sidney Crosby; Crosby walking away with the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs.
Whatever became of them?
No wonder after Thursday’s Penguins practice at the University of Ottawa rink Crosby was drilled with question after question about what his team was going to do about its lack of scoring.
Fair questions. Over the first seven games of the playoffs, the Penguins averaged 4.29 goals a game. Over the next eight that fell to 1.75 goals a game and, in the current series against the Ottawa Senators, which the Senators lead two games to one heading into Friday’s Game 4, that statistic stands at a measly 1.0 goal per game.
“Just execute,” said the ever-positive captain. “The chances have been there. We’ve hit some posts and had some good looks. Just make sure we’re hungry. When it’s not going in for you, you’ve just got to keep it simple. Just keep going, and the puck will go in.”
“We need to shoot puck,” Evgeni Malkin added.
The Penguins have Malkin, Crosby and Phil Kessel, their top scorers with 20 points, 15 and 15, respectively. Young Jake Guentzel, the post-hitter, has nine goals. Bryan Rust had five before he was put out by a hard check from Dion Phaneuf. The top-scoring defenceman has been Justin Schultz, also lost following a hard check.
There is no Kris Letang on the blueline, out since April following surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck.
“Letang is such a big part of their team,” said Ottawa forward Derick Brassard, who has been a big part of Ottawa’s success. “He plays like 30 minutes a night – he’s their [Erik] Karlsson.”
Malkin is so clearly frustrated that he got tossed from Game 3 in the dying minutes, Crosby has been talking so much to teammates that Karlsson took to mocking him on the ice, Kessel so flabbergasted and furious he hides his head when he isn’t screaming the face off one of his linemates.
“You have to turn the page regardless of what happens, good or bad,” Crosby said. “We don’t have to change too much.”
One might think after Wednesday’s decisive 5-1 victory by the Senators – including three goals in a 2:18 span – there would be no more talk of how “boring” the Senators are, but players themselves happily mention it, almost as if revelling in the condemnation.
“We fly under the radar and that’s okay with us,” said Bobby Ryan, one of the stars of the 5-1 win. “All season and then in the playoffs we’ve been the unsuspecting team that finds a way to hang around.”
“Depending on where it’s coming from,” Brassard added, “they’re maybe just a little jealous that we’re here right now. It doesn’t matter what people are saying, we’re here.”
Senators head coach Guy Boucher, on the other hand, wants to hear nothing of “style” of play. He claims that his team lives “in a bubble” and is therefore both oblivious and impervious to such chatter.
“I don’t know what is said out there,” Boucher said Thursday. “I’ve been focusing on our team and I have no clue. I think there’s 7.5 billion people on the planet, so there’s 7.5 billion opinions on everything, so I’m certainly not going to sit here and try to decipher which opinions I agree with and which I don’t.”
No one knows what minuscule portion of those 7.5 billion are hockey fans, but those who are have long grouched about passive fore-checking and neutral-zone trapping. It works wonderfully for the Senators, so who can fault them for sticking to such a system? But the players know it’s not a work of art.
Ryan, himself a fine and creative offensive player, fully appreciates how frustrating it can be for the likes of Crosby, Malkin and Kessel. The Senators blockade the neutral zone and force teams to dump pucks into the corners, hoping to retrieve them on the fore-check. Even if they do, the Senators strategy is to keep the opposing players to the outside. It can be infuriating, as Kessel’s several run-ins with Phaneuf, his close friend and former teammate with the Toronto Maple Leafs, have demonstrated time and time again.
“It’s tough,” Ryan says. “It wears on you mentally and physically. I think a lot of times we throw blankets over you and try not to give you more than five, six feet of space to make a play. We collapse back and we take away the second and third chances pretty good.
“People will still continue to think we’re the boring old team. We do. We clog the neutral zone. We make it hard for you to come through.
“It works for us, so we’re sticking to it.”Report Typo/Error