Penguins, Flyers on a collision course + 30 Thoughts | Hockey | CBC Sports

NHLPenguins, Flyers on a collision course + 30 Thoughts

Posted: Monday, April 2, 2012 | 06:53 PM

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Linesman Tony Sericolo separates Evgeni Malkin (71) of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Scott Hartnell (19) of the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 18 in Philadelphia. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) Linesman Tony Sericolo separates Evgeni Malkin (71) of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Scott Hartnell (19) of the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 18 in Philadelphia. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Some NHL GMs (and some other execs) were asked what they saw as the Penguins' greatest weakness heading into the playoffs. The obvious answer was injuries, since some critical players (Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang) have unfortunate medical histories.

The second answer was a brutal early opponent. "If you're a big-time Stanley Cup contender, you'd love to see them get a team like Boston early on," one executive said. "Because, even if the Bruins lose, they're going to take a pound of flesh out of them."

Enter Philadelphia.
It was a rough week for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Three defeats out of four, 19 goals allowed. Even Marc-Andre Fleury, his superb season suppressed by the star power around him, stopped just 52 of 66 shots he faced (a .788 save percentage) in taking those three losses.

Two weeks ago, rivals raved about Pittsburgh's lineup.

"It's unfair," said one GM. "Beating them is going to be a major upset," said another. It seemed a foregone conclusion they would catch the Rangers, win the Atlantic Division and hold the Eastern Conference's number one seed for the playoffs.

Now, New York needs just one point (or one Pittsburgh loss) to prevent that. The respect for the Penguins' roster remains extremely high, but this team's put itself in a tougher spot.

Those same GMs (and some other execs) were asked what they saw as the Penguins' greatest weakness heading into the playoffs. The obvious answer was injuries, since some critical players (Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang) have unfortunate medical histories.

The second answer was a brutal early opponent. "If you're a big-time Stanley Cup contender, you'd love to see them get a team like Boston early on," one executive said. "Because, even if the Bruins lose, they're going to take a pound of flesh out of them."

Enter Philadelphia.

The Flyers aren't as physically dominant as Boston, but that's a pretty nasty group. And, as Sunday's last-minute line-brawl proved, this rivalry doesn't need much lighter fluid -- especially at this time of year.

The Penguins aren't exactly a bunch of softies, even though they don't fight anywhere near as much as last season (third-most in the NHL). Dan Bylsma probably wasn't too unhappy at Joe Vitale's (clean) hit on Daniel Briere that started Sunday's maelstrom or that the Flyers took the worse of the injuries, because it served as a reminder that Pittsburgh can play a hard game, too.

But, if you're Bylsma, Ray Shero or Mario Lemieux, you've got to be concerned about what seven games of this could do to your team. Two weeks ago, after Philly beat the Penguins 3-2 in overtime, the coach said the Flyers "targeted players after the whistle...weren't penalized for it, and I think that allowed them to get back in the game."

That was a message for the playoffs, and look for Bylsma to bring that up again before a postseason showdown. That isn't the only lobbying Pittsburgh's been doing. This is one team (Vancouver, Buffalo, Chicago and Toronto among others) privately complaining about the return of obstruction. More powerplays? More fun for the Penguins.

Peter Laviolette's no dummy. He's aware of all this. Does he go postal if these two teams aren't destined for a first-round hookup? By making an issue of who Byslma put out there late, he puts some of the focus back on Pittsburgh. A $10,000 US fine? Ed Snider will happily pay if it gets a call or two.

The Penguins (and their fans) were apoplectic when Brayden Schenn cross-checked Sidney Crosby. Get ready for two weeks of this.

And ask yourselves the same question other executives will: Even if the Penguins win, how much will the Flyers take out of them?


1. Conventional wisdom is that the Western Conference matchup to avoid is the No. 4 / No. 5 fight between two of Detroit, Nashville and Chicago. After all, the thinking is, you'd rather finish sixth and face the Pacific Division winner. Here's the flaw: travel. Since 2000, nine Central Division teams have won a first-round series against a team at least two time zones away. How many went on to reach the Cup Final? One. (That's Detroit, which captured the crown in 2002.) Be careful what you wish for, especially if it's the Kings. Get a look at that Staples Center schedule.

2. Even though Jeff Carter escaped without an ankle fracture, is a deep bruise any better? Just ask Nicklas Lidstrom. We'll see, but a tough injury at an awful time for Los Angeles.

3. Few notes about Geoff Molson and the Canadiens' GM search: "The process begins Monday," the Canadiens' owner said when we spoke Friday. His plan is to sit down with Serge Savard and begin assembling "the list." It's been almost 20 years since Savard ran a team and you wonder if there's any concern he doesn't know today's game/players. "We met for almost three hours last week," Molson said. "I was very impressed with his knowledge." Make no mistake, Savard will be a powerful voice in this process.

The timing of Pierre Gauthier's firing? Another GM said he didn't like it, but understood. "They've had such a bad season. They wanted to start the positive news cycle as quickly as possible."

5. Asked Molson the number one reason he made the change. He thought for a few seconds before replying. "When I really looked back, it had been a long time since we'd had a really great season." What did he learn most this year: "Our fans expect excellence."

6. One of the other changes will be communication/structure within the front office. There was a complaint inside the organization that Gauthier and Bob Gainey didn't consult anyone else. This is tricky, because some teams prefer it that way. ("That's not unusual," one GM said. "Our scouts send in their reports and we decide from there.") Others use the Detroit model where a lot of different people get an opinion. Molson seems to want the latter, especially since the Tomas Kaberle deal is being blamed on internal secrecy.

7. The best advice for the Canadiens? Wait. This is going to be an interesting spring. Tim Wharnsby pointed out there's been only one GM firing in the last 16 months. Will it stay that quiet? Several executives think there are going to be surprises, guys available we wouldn't expect.

8. If the Canadiens do go with less experience in the Kirk/Picard chair (Patrick Roy, Julien Brisebois, Claude Loiselle, Vincent Damphousse, etc.) they must surround him with great people. Perry Pearn is under contract for another year and can do your prospect development. Will they ask the Wild about Blair Mackasey, Minnesota's director of professional scouting (a Montrealer with a great reputation) and Guy Lapointe (coordinator of amateur scouting)?

9. And that brings us to Scotty Bowman, who we mentioned on Hotstove. Mixed reviews on that one. Some people could definitely see him taking an advisory job, since running the Canadiens was the one that got away from him 30 years ago. But, some other very smart people aren't so sure. After all, he's 78 and loves his life in Tampa. Would that have to change?

11. One tweeter asked why some NCAA players (Jaden Schwartz) play a game or two at the end of the season while others (Spencer Abbott) don't. Wade Arnott, who represents both, say there are several factors. "At the top of the list is what's best for your development. There's also the immediate fit with your NHL team." Schwartz has already played for St. Louis, while there was no guarantee Abbott would dress in Toronto. Plus, if you're not going to play and your degree is important to you, leaving now can ruin your semester.

12. Then, there are the financial considerations. Some players want to burn one year of their contract by getting into a game or two, but Arnott says there are advantages to waiting. First, no player is going to reach any rookie performance bonuses in so few appearances. Second, under the CBA, if you play less than 10 games in a season, you gain no rights towards free agency or arbitration. So, your contract may end, but there's little leverage.

13. Nice little scoop from Wharnsby that the Senators met with Erik Karlsson's agency (Newport) to map out a contract plan. Sounds like there is a lot of common ground, which is good news for everyone. The big question: is Karlsson willing to wait for a CBA so Ottawa has a better idea of the landscape? "Bryan Murray's in a tough spot," said one GM, and others agreed with this. "Ideally, you want to see what the new rules are going to be. But, you don't want to upset this player...arguably the most important guy on your roster." 

14. PJ Stock and Mike Milbury grumbled about Karlsson's flaws, but with this kind of player, you have to focus on what he can do, not what he can't. If this season is proof of anything -- it's not to underestimate Karlsson's learning curve. Look how far he's come in five months. Plus, being on the other side of PJ is always a winning argument and Milbury hates Christmas. (I'm very brave when Mike isn't in the same room.)

15. This week, Hockey Canada begins contacting players for the Worlds. (After Anaheim finished its home schedule Sunday night, Ryan Getzlaf said he thinks both he and Corey Perry will play.) Don't be surprised if Kevin Lowe waits to see if Lindy Ruff gets into the playoffs for the coaching job.

16. Toronto finally showed some life in delivering a harsh blow to Buffalo's playoff hopes. Thursday's loss to Philadelphia was a Fugitive-sized train crash. Consider: Jonas Gustavsson goes down in warmup, and when Jussi Rynnas steps in, the first shooter hits him in the mask. Then, up six, Scott Hartnell asks Ray Ferraro to wish his grandfather a happy 91st birthday while the Flyers forward waves from the bench. It was pretty funny, but there is no way anyone in a Maple Leaf uniform should stand for it. On HNIC Radio, Bobby Holik said if he was playing, "Brendan Shanahan would have been called in."

17. Upon seeing what happened to Rynnas, Glenn Healy told a hilarious story about Billy Smith. Smith's last season was David Volek's first and Volek, during one warmup, fired a bullet past Smith's ear into the top corner. While Volek skated away, proud of the shot, Smith charged and delivered a two-hander. Volek never shot high in warmup again.

18. Because of efforts like last Thursday's, Dion Phaneuf is taking a beating. No one should escape unscathed in Toronto, but the piling on Phaneuf for his leadership is a little unfair. On great teams, it never falls on one person. Teams have "leadership groups" of five or six players. While there are certainly things Phaneuf could do better, who is helping him? (Especially with Joffrey Lupul out.) It hurts that Mike Komisarek and Colby Armstrong, two players who have worn the "A", are struggling. Couple years ago, had a conversation with one alternate captain, who said that even if you're wearing a letter, you can't say anything if you're not playing well.

19. Had an interesting conversation this week with a non-Florida employee who really thought Brian Campbell deserves much more consideration for the Norris, and even a little for the Hart. Don't know if I'd go that far on the latter, but he's quietly lifting mountains for the Panthers. Campbell, who's played every night, leads the NHL in time on ice (overall, even-strength and per-game).

Obviously, the Oilers made a bad mistake when they fouled up the post-deadline recall rules and couldn't bring back Magnus Paajarvi. (It's doubly unfortunate when you consider they were trying to reward him with a few more days of an NHL salary.) Kevin Lowe took heat for ripping the four call-up limit, but he was protecting someone and figured it was better to try and muddle the issue.

21. A few other execs believe that if Jay Feaster had his way, he'd already have begun an aggressive rebuild of the Flames -- but hasn't had support of upper management/ownership. (Feaster denied that when I asked, and, as Oilers fans know, he's denied it quite famously in public.) You have to believe, after the incredible disappointment of the last two weeks, things are going to change now.

22. Spent some time the past few weeks asking for opinions on what's gone wrong in San Jose. The most interesting answer came from a coach, who said that the negative of jettisoning Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi was it eliminated the Sharks' ability to score "easy goals." Heatley and Setoguchi can blast one-timer, quick-release shots. In today's game, that's valuable and it meant San Jose would have to work harder to score.

23. Think the NHL was extremely unhappy about Quebec City's arena announcement. Hated the timing, and let the organizers know it. The more you try to look into what is really going on, the more you realize there may not be five people who know the truth. And, they're not talking. Best guess: they are working very hard to find a way for Greg Jamison to buy the Coyotes.

24. If Phoenix stays, Ray Whitney probably does too. If not, well, how many UFAs get a raise at 39? What a season he's having.

25. Carolina's players on Kirk Muller: "He coaches like he played...Aggressive."

26. One of the things people wondered about Muller was whether or not he would be tough on players. Asked about that, a couple of Hurricanes smiled and said, "Minnesota." That was March 17. While they wouldn't specifically reveal what happened, in the second intermission Muller let them know they were coughing up a winnable game. Carolina scored three times in the third to win 5-3.

27. Wanted to thank CBC Edmonton's Mark Connolly for his help interviewing Tyler Ennis's parents for Inside Hockey. Many of you saw the words "Dream Big" on Ennis' wall, but were wondering about the other message painted there. It is, "When a defining moment comes along, either you define the moment or the moment defines you." He heard it in a speech and liked it.

There were some great stories about Ennis and his junior coaches at Medicine Hat, Willie Desjardins and Shaun Clouston. For example, twice Desjardins critiqued him for work around the net. Once was when Ennis fanned on a shot while trying to roof it and another came when Ennis let a puck sit close to the goal line instead of jamming it home with certainty. Desjardins said this was proof of how Ennis could lose focus. Ennis' response: "What's the big deal? Both were in."

29. Ennis confirmed a story written by The Hockey News' Ryan Kennedy: that he had one awkward pre-draft interview, refusing to answer a question about taking a pill that would guarantee a Stanley Cup victory but kill you in a decade. "It was with Toronto," he said. "I like my sleep and woke up about five minutes beforehand (8 a.m)...I said, 'That's ridiculous. I want to win the Cup, but I don't want to die in 10 years.'" (Don't think Ennis is a bad guy because of these stories. Very nice guy, just blunt.)

30. Don't be surprised if you see some 6:30 p.m. local starts on weekdays in the playoffs, so the league can get a staggered finish or two.

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