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Bluelines: The Monumental Miracle in Pittsburgh

No matter what, you can't seem to keep the Pittsburgh Penguins down. Stan Fischler looks at that, continues his Doc Emrick interview, shares his thoughts on backup goalies and much, much more.
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The 2021-22 Hockey News Annual did the Penguins a great, big favor last September. Author Shelly Anderson picked Pittsburgh to finish fifth in the Metro Division.

Actually, Andy could have buried them on the bottom.

I would have.

They'd gone three straight seasons without a series win. HMCS Captain Sidney Crosby was aging – although nicely, I admit – Geno Malkin needed a Blue Cross policy and Tristan Jarry's goaltending was, let us say, Oy vay!

So, what do we have here now that The Very Serious Second Half is underway? A Steel City team that won't go away – from a playoff berth that is. Or as Bossman Brian Burke will tell you, "We can go all the way."

The scary thing is that Mike Sullivan's sextet plays hockey like losing a game is not an option. What's more – upon further review – this club is a lot more than the Sidney-Evgeni-Kris magic vaudeville act; and that's the beauty part.

There are – you'll excuse the expression – secret weapons galore; and dutifully spread over the roster. Some of them are guys you never heard of or ones whose name you misspell the first time around.

These Penguins' fascinating "Other Fellows" are equally responsible for this Pennsylvania uprising. These former no-names have become – with all deference to the Preds – the Tyrannosauri of the ice lanes. Who are they?

By their works shall ye know them: Jake (The Rake) Guentzel, Tristan (Forget About The Playoffs) Jarry, Evan (Out Of Nowhere) Rodrigues, Mike (The Mystery Man) Matheson and – you won't believe this – Chad (The Roarin') Ruhwedel.

No, I'm not making this up. My excellent Pitt observer and essayist, Vince Comunale, has had his Argus eye on these guys all half-season. And he doesn't mind unmasking the mystery.

"Jarry is an unexpected surprise," Vince reports. "He's playing at a Vezina level. He's in the top ten with goals against, save percentage and shutouts."

Remember, it was only last spring when Jarry was auditioning for the part of Royal Sieve and was blamed for the playoff loss to the Islanders.

Guentzel's name is beginning to show up almost as frequently as Crosby's. Suffice to say he's taken his game to a higher level and belongs in the All-Star Game.

As for Rodrigues; his rise is more of a shocker than Jarry's. A free agent Pitt prize, he's having a career year matching goals with assists. At my last look it was 15 G's and 16 A's. (Give that scout a raise.)

Matheson is merely The Poor Man's Letang and there's nothing shabby about that. As for Chad? Do you recall that he was a member of the dual, 2016 and 2017 Champs. He's a steady force among the bottom D-men.

Head Counselor Brian Burke doesn't mind telling us that this team has Cup potential and he's not talking about Lipton's Cup 'Of Soup either! Or as Louis Jordan would say –were he was around now – "Beware, Brother, Beware!"

BEWARE THE BACKUPS:

Jordan Binnington thought he had it made, but he didn't.

Gifted in the off-season with a six-year contract worth about the value of the Cocos Islands, Binny believed he had a mortgage on the Blues crease for at least, say, a few years.

Guess what? Jordy is about to be ousted from that bit of 6-foot-4 ice acreage by a flashy Finn from Helsinki named Ville Husso.

While Binny has – at least for the moment – turned into human Swiss cheese, Husso has looked more like Supergoalie with every outing.

Last Monday night provided a perfect point-counterpoint. The Flames blitzed Binnington sufficiently enough for coach Craig Berube to flash an S.O.S. Jordy got the hook after the second period leaving Husso – who's made a habit of winning – to mop up the 7-1 loss.

This should surprise nobody – especially my Hockey News esteemed colleague Matt Larkin. A couple of years ago Matty wrote a piece with a headline that said it all: THE RISE OF THE BACKUPS.

Since then, the backups have continued to climb in importance. This past Monday, Minnesota's starter Cam Talbot returned from a five-game absence due to an injury, played two periods and got hurt again.

Kaapo Kahkonen took over and very likely could wind up as the Wild starter.

Nor would that be a surprise either, cause it's happening all over the place.

Vezina Trophy-winner Marc-Andre Fleury is in Chicago and not Vegas 'cause Robin Lehner pushed him bye-bye.

It can happen anywhere because goalies have been transformed from the most durable of hockey players to the most fragile. New Jersey saw Mackenzie Blackwood go down, leaving the Devils vulnerable again.

Pick a reason for the puckstopper problems and, no doubt, you'll be right. Some say that physically it's a tougher job. Or that they're facing more shots in a more wide-open game. Or that there are more back-to-backs. All legit alibis.

I blame it on the ridiculously overused "Butterfly" technique, but you've heard that song before. Don't matter.

What matters is that on the NHL's "Help Wanted" classified list you'll find more goalies wanted than ever as the back-ups become the front-ups!

I'M JUST SAYIN'

* Seems about time that the NHLPA will start looking to replace Don Fehr. I always figured that Don's sidekick, Matty Schneider, would get the gig. He's sure earned it. But other names are popping up and I don't like that.

* Full credit to Cale (The Monster) Makar and Adam (Sly As A) Fox, but Ye Olde

Vic Hedman is turning heads as a top candidate for the Norris Trophy.

* To absolutely nobody's surprise, Bettman, Inc. has rejected Quebec City's latest bid to rejoin the fraternity. Same reasons; City is too small and not enough big-time corporate backing.

* That said, there was no more fun place to cover a hockey game than Quebec City while staying at that most beautiful of hotels, the historic Chateau Frontenac.

* After seeing the dent that an Alex Ovechkin shot put into a Robin Lehner puck-proof mask, I'm not so sure it's puck-proof anymore.

*TSN's Travis Yost says he likes the Leafs. I wonder if he read my few-weeks-ago piece here when I declared Toronto the next Cup-winner.

* Good job Blue Jackets Jarmo Kekakainen nabbing right wing Jakub Voracek. This Kladno Czech still has the goods, piling up big assists. And thank you Coby Maeir for pointing out this note in a so far disappointing season in Columbus. 

* Maestro Maeir adds, "The Jackets aren't ready for prime time but should be in the mix for the rest of the season." (Not if Wednesday night's 6-0 blast by Calgary means anything). Then again, last night's come from behind 5-3 slap-down of the Rangers shows that the BJ's can still be OK.

* Florida's hoped for whiz-kid goalie Spencer Knight was involved with a quirky story or two in this rookie year of his. Back on Dec. 30th the appearance of Hugo Alnefelt in for the Bolts was really something. It marked the first time two NHL goalies born in the 21st Century faced each other.

* Wait! That's not all. When Knight recently faced Vancouver's Spencer Martin it was the first ever match-up of two Spencers in goal. (Thank you, Al Greenberg and Jameson Olive of the Cats website for the tips).

* The Reader's Write: Funny note from Uncle Ricky about the NHL team that played the fewest games ever. "It was the Montreal Wanderers with one win and six losses in the NHL's first season, then their rink burned down." Goalie for their one and only win was Bert Lindsay, a Hall of Famer just like his son, "Terrible" Ted Lindsay of the Red Wings.

* Surely He Can't Be Serious Department: Flyers Chairman Dave Scott on his GM Chuck Fletcher: "I like the way he's built the organization." (This after his Broad Street Non Bullies endured a13-game skid and last in the Met.)

* Cheap Shot Of The Week Award goes to Buffalo goalie Aaron Dell for the sneaky elbow that felled Ottawa's Drake Batheson last Tuesday. The Farmer In The Dell got three games for being Sluggo.

* Rite of Passage for Reps. Do you want to be an agent? Have a strong stomach. Exhibit A: Nazem Kadri – enjoying a super season – decided to celebrate his expected riches by doing what too many players do; he fired his rep and got a new one!

* Didja catch that almost amazingly casual Trevor Zegras goal for Anaheim last night against the Habs? They're calling it another "Michigan." Nix to that. I call it a "Bedford" because that's where he comes from in Westchester, N.Y. And the way he pulled it off – and up and in – was a degree better than your run-of-the-mill "Michigan."

* Prediction: The Evander Kane signing will put the Oilers into the playoffs for sure. Next smart Ken Holland move: Sign an A-1 goalie. They are around.

DOC EMRICK ON WHAT MAKES HOCKEY PLAYERS SO SPECIAL:

In an exclusive interview Hall of Fame broadcaster Mike Emrick explores a fascinating question – about the special qualities of hockey players.

"I believe that it has to do with the Canadian heritage of the game. The influence of the sport has come from its roots in rural Canada. And it always has been 'Everyman.' That is, a wonderful group of individuals pulled together as a team.

"In 50 years of covering the sport – and broadcasting it for 49 – I met six or seven people I considered uncivil. The rest were great to deal with; some more verbal than others. But I found most willing to try and give you time.

"Why? Because that was the atmosphere of the room. 'I don't give away secrets or tell you anything that will hurt a teammate. But I am glad to give you time and help the sport.' Sounds Pollyanna but perhaps I got spoiled because we only chatted with one or two players at a time.

"But, I always found these guys humble – in the 1970's in the IHL, or American League or from that point on in the NHL."

(Next issue, Doc tells a compelling story about a player who overcame a colossal challenge to reach the top.)

WHO SAID IT? "I know my players don't like my practices, but that's OK because I don't like their games!" (Answer below.)

THREE CHEERS FOR THE IRON MAN:

Considering the rapid rate that NHLers go down with injuries it's beyond amazing that Flyers defender Keith Yandel has broken the league's iron man record. Really, the vet blue liner should write a hockey survival book; or at least a pamphlet titled "I Don't Like Being Scratched. "

Think about it – 965 straight games – and how this man's fuselage has endured the assorted assaults, cheap shots, and stitches; not to mention the mental fatigue and whatnot. I'd like to know who's gonna top this mark and I wouldn't be surprised if the answer is nobody! One more time: YAY! KEITH!!

HOW DO YOU FIGURE THE FLYERS?

Oh, woe is Philly! Picked to finish fourth in The Met, the Flyers will be lucky to finish in Delaware. Frankly, I liked the look of them early on with Pal Alain Vigneault behind the bench. Seems like a previous century.

Wha' happen? Everything. But mostly injuries all over the place. Losing top centers Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes as a double torpedo to the hull. Also dependable Dman Ryan Ellis.

On the smile side; Carter Hart has improved in goal and Cam Atkinson has been a plus. Unfortunately Hart's defense has been porous and the result can be found in the record-breaking losing streak

The power play stinks and when the opposition scores first, get this: 2-19-3. Mike Yeo will finish the season behind the bench and, after that, your guess is as good as mine.

"Claude Giroux will be a UFA," notes The Wise Man of Florida, Al Greenberg. "Figure him to be dealt to a contender. Philly could get a high draft pick for him. As for the future, there's no short-term solution. The club needs a major makeover. Cut ties with the vets."

A FINAL WORD ON JETHRO: Exactly a week after his passing, Clark Gillies has invoked more sadness among the hockey fraternity as well ,as NHL fans across the board, than I can ever recall for a stickhandler. Yes, he was that good a guy and that fine a hockey player.

ANSWER TO WHO SAID IT? Harry Neale; when he coached the lowly Vancouver Canucks.

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