Rangers and Penguins Searching for Consistency

The Rangers and Penguins were supposed to be the class of the Eastern Conference. And they still might be at the end of the season, but after six games the East’s best two teams from last year are both 3-3-0.

James Conley of PensBurgh joined me for an email exchange to talk about what’s wrong with the Penguins right now, what happened in the playoffs against the Flyers last year and how Matt Cooke completely changed his style of play.

Keefe: From the moment the lockout ended until Game 1 of the season, I told anyone who would listen to me that the Rangers, Penguins and Bruins would be the class of the East (in no particular order). But after six games, only the Bruins have held up their end of my preseason prediction bargain. The Rangers and Penguins? They’re both 3-3-0 with one-eighth of the season gone.

The Rangers’ three losses have come against the Bruins, your Penguins and the Flyers. Three postseason teams a year ago, and two of the three teams I believed to be the best in the East this year.

The Penguins’ three losses have come against the Maple Leafs, Jets and Islanders. Three non-postseason teams a year ago and having seen the Leafs against the Rangers on Saturday night, I can’t believe the Penguins lost to them.

After starting out 2-0 against the Flyers and Rangers, the Penguins are 1-3-0 and have been outscored 14-6 against some very inferior opponents (on paper). It’s early, but then again with only 48 games, it’s not that early.

Let’s open this up with how concerned you are, if at all, about the Penguins right now.

Conley: Concern is a good word for the Penguins right now. The shortened season really makes it hard to implement changes and it’s becoming apparent that something must change. The margin for error is just so, so slim. Like you mentioned, it’s only six games at 3-3-0, but it’s still a significant chunk of the season. If the Penguins decide they need to make some changes — whether that’s matching lines, new personnel or going deep and making an organizational change — they aren’t going to have the kind of time they’d like to let something new work itself out.

The other concern, and maybe this is related to the first, is their inability to make tactical changes and apply them within a 60-minute game window. It started in Pittsburgh last Wednesday with Toronto. The Maple Leafs pressured the Penguins in one-on-one battles where the Flyers and Rangers didn’t, and the Pens weren’t able to respond. Teams are feasting on the Penguins’ cute setups and turning them into goals. That has gone on for the last four games, and it seems like every team that is willing to do the work can upset the Penguins’ game plan exactly as the Flyers were able to do last Spring.

Is it just rust? It stands to reason that a team that relies on high-skilled, timing plays would need some adjustment time to account for the joke training camps following the lockout. But the Penguins’ problems seem to go back to late last season, when the team quit “beating” their opponents and simply outscored them. It seems like they’re hesitant to beat clubs by playing the physical game, by cycling the puck, by chipping and chasing. The team was successful in the spring of 2011 even after Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin went down with injuries because they adjusted their game plan to address their weaknesses. With those two in the lineup, it seems like no one wants to make the smart, simple but boring plays that a team has to make a thousand times in any one game if they want to be successful. That it carried over from last year’s playoff thud to now seems less like an aberration and more like a fundamental flaw. I’m not sure that’s a problem that can be addressed with line-matching and a bag skate.

Keefe: I know what it feels like to be concerned because I feel the same way with the Rangers. Maybe not to the extent that you do since the Rangers’ losses were against the Bruins, Penguins and Flyers, but because every loss is that magnified this season and every win seems to feel like things are fixed. But I also like that each game and each game’s two points are so significant and that each week is packed with three-plus games and the postseason is just three months away.

You mentioned last season, which I wanted to talk about because I don’t think anyone could have envisioned it ending the way it did for the Penguins. They were the four seed in the playoffs even though they had the second-best record in the East (Ladies and gentlemen, the NHL playoff system giving the division winners the top seeds!) and missed out on having the No. 1 overall seed by a point. But then they lost to the Flyers in six games, after having a 2-1 series lead, (though I don’t think I need to remind you), because of 30 goals allowed in a six-game series! 30! Three … zero! (Not that the Flyers were that much better having allowed 26, including 10 in Game 3.)

Despite the Rangers’ No. 1 seed last year, I thought the Penguins were the best team in the league. And if the season were 83 games instead of 82 then maybe the Penguins win the East and their playoff path changes and they are spending the summer with the Cup. But for a team that struggled to get by the Flyers in the first round, maybe it didn’t matter who the Penguins faced last season in that their early postseason exit was inevitable.

Conley: All about the matchup. The Penguins took the regular season series from the Rangers 4-2. Ditto the Bruins (3-1-0), Capitals (2-1-1) and Panthers (3-1-0), and split their series’ with the Devils (3-3-0) and Senators (2-2). The Flyers were the only East playoff team of a year ago to have a winning record against the Penguins (4-2-0).

That’s not to say another team couldn’t have beaten them. In fact, the losses now are definitely indicative of problems that first surfaced late last year and were loudly exploited by a fast, smart Flyers team (as in the Pens outscoring teams as opposed to actually outplaying them, as I mentioned before). The Flyers had the formula for success against the Pens before anyone else, and now we’re seeing other teams implement that game plan. It was definitely the worst possible matchup they could have drawn. But as we’ve seen in the losses this year, clubs are taking cues from the Flyers — pressuring the Pens into making bad plays, capitalizing on their turnovers and slamming the door shut on Bylsma’s infuriating faith in the stretch pass. The Pens like to talk ad nauseum about “getting to their game.” Opposing teams are starting to get to the Pens’ game regularly. These things do have a shelf life.

At this point, the book is out on how to beat the Pens. It only took two games to figure out the new power play, which after Wednesday’s practice had Malkin on the point and James Neal back to the position where he scored 18 power play goals last season. Still, the other elements of their game — high-risk puck retrieval, using the boards to make the tip-pass deep into the offensive zone, the blue line power-play drop pass — all those things have been figured out. Simply showing up and competing at a level commensurate to their opponents would be a good place to start, but there need to be serious, systemic changes to the breakout and power play if they ever plan to adjust to the clubs which have already adjusted to them.

Keefe: I hope John Tortorella has time to read this before Thursday’s game as you give away the Penguins’ never-changing game plan because the Rangers haven’t defeated the Penguins since Jan. 6, 2012 and have lost the last five matchups.

On Tuesday night, the Islanders’ Colin McDonald became the second player suspended by Brendan Shanahan this season when he ran the Penguins’ Ben Lovejoy from behind.

Matt Cooke has been suspended five times (four with the Penguins), including the first round of the 2010-11 playoffs for his ridiculous actions. Cooke changed his game following that suspension and played in all 82 games last season, the first time he had done so in nine years, and scored a career-high 19 goals and posted his highest points total (38) in nine years as well. He also recorded a career low in penalty minutes with 44.

If someone started watching hockey and the Penguins in 2011-12 for the first time, they would have thought Cooke was an effective player and a great secondary scoring option for the Penguins. But for anyone who watched Cooke was prior to last season, it seems unfathomable that he could completely change his style of play and not be the most dangerous and reckless player in the league.

To me, Matt Cooke will always be the guy extending his elbow after hitting Marc Savard in the head or the guy who created the textbook video for boarding when he rocked Fedor Tyutin from behind. But that doesn’t mean that’s the case for everyone.

What do you think of Cooke now and what’s your perception of his style of his play pre-2011-12 and post-2011-12?

Conley: The change certainly seems to be genuine. The players obviously have great respect for Ray Shero, and I can’t imagine a more influential voice in all of hockey than Mario Lemieux. Both of them laid out an ultimatum for Cooke. Cooke’s obviously an intelligent player and person, so it’s not unfathomable that he could make that change.

I think for a lot of guys, that style of play used to be their ticket into the league. It almost became Cooke’s ticket out. Every player is doing what he needs to do to stick, whether it’s score goals, block shots or fight and piss people off. For Cooke, the agitator role was his meal ticket. The culture of the game changed, so he had to change with it.

For fans who only see Cooke a few times a year, that reputation is going to precede the player. Maybe that’s why no one thought Cooke could reinvent his game at his age. But I think being a little older played to his advantage, being experienced enough to know what was at stake. The reputation before his suspensions was obviously awful, and at least in Pittsburgh the shift in his style was a big story last year. I don’t know how he’s perceived league-wide, or whether all is forgiven, but anyone who can’t acknowledge that he has adapted and adopted a cleaner style is probably still a little salty about his past.