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January 17, 2019
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
It was a special night at the Igloo. Sidney Crosby returned from his ankle injury, meaning it was his first chance to skate with Marian Hossa. And I hope he enjoyed it, because it didn't last long.
Hossa suffered not one but two injuries in Pittsburgh's 3-1 win over the visiting New York Islanders. The first occurred in the second period when defenseman Rob Davison submarined him with an open-ice hip check, smashing the Slovakian speedster's already gimpy right knee. Hossa finished the shift before limping back to the dressing room. While there was no penalty called on the play, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Birds took offense to the questionable check and started a bit of a melee.
Pittsburgh fans breathed a sigh of relief when Hossa returned to the ice later in the period. Then they breathed a sigh of "you've gotta be (sunshining) kidding me" in the third period when Sean Bergenheim blindsided an unsuspecting Hossa with a shoulder to the back of the head.
Brooks Orpik wasn't amused and promptly beat an apology out of Bergenheim. But the damage was done. Hossa was helped back to the dressing room and didn't return. Afterwards, the Penguins would only say he suffered a dreaded "upper body injury." It looked like he got his bell rung. But if the club said it was a head injury, Hossa would be forced to sit out the next game. So hopefully the cobwebs will clear by Sunday when the Birds battle the Blueshirts.
But are you starting to get the feeling Hossa will never be healthy with the Pens? It wouldn't shock me if he returned in time to suffer another ailment, making him a complete non-factor in the playoffs and opening the door for his quick departure over the off-season. For some reason, I just think he's Edmonton bound.
On the rare occasions when Hossa was standing upright, he demonstrated a pretty decent chemistry with Kid Crosby and Pascal Dupuis. Hossa's one of the few players in the NHL capable of keeping up with Sid. On the play when Davison took out his knee, Hossa picked up the puck behind his own net and simply exploded up ice, leaving the Fishermen flailing at air. Such warp speed maneuvers have become a common sight during his brief time with the Penguins.
Not to be outdone, Crosby proved the health of his ankle with his own freakish display of acceleration. Racing into the New York zone one-on-two, Sid flipped the puck over Freddy Meyer, stormed wide, and picked up the biscuit on the other side as he cut sharply towards the cage. Davison managed to disrupt Crosby just enough to prevent him from tucking the puck behind a bewildered Wade Dubielewicz. It was Crosby at his finest. No one else alive has the creativity or speed to make that play.
Overall, Sid didn't look too shabby. He was held off the scoresheet, but he could have easily had a couple points. It was obvious his timing was off, particularly on the power play, but his ankle certainly looked strong.
Speaking of the power play, the Penguins went 0-for-5 with the man-advantage. Michel Therrien opted against two balanced units and instead loaded up his top group with Crosby, Malkin, Hossa, Ryan Malone, and Sergei Gonchar. Crosby was pegged to play the point. Yeah, I realize it doesn't make much sense, but that's just Therrien being Therrien.
I'd spread the wealth. I'd keep the lines together, using Gonchar and Ryan Whitney at the points with one of them and Kris Letang and Darryl Sydor with the other. I mean, it's fine to load up one unit, but then you better let them play the full two minutes. I just think you're wasting Petr Sykora that way.
But the power play wasn't Therrien's only bizarre coaching decision. With Rob Scuderi back healthy, Therrien is dressing seven defensemen. In doing so, he elected to use Whitney on left wing with Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy. That's right. He played Whitney, one of the franchise's cornerstone defensemen, on left wing. Whitney got 13:41 of ice time, including 7:05 on the power play.
It's difficult to argue with Therrien's madness when the team keeps winning, but the Pens are winning in spite of their coach not because of him.
While Crosby's return drew the headlines, Jarkko Ruutu and Georges Laraque provided the offense. They both helped set up Malkin in the first for his 45th of the season, with Laraque throwing a beautiful pick in front of the cage. And it was beautiful because no penalty was called.
In the second, Ruutu snapped a 1-1 tie with an individual effort worthy of Mario Lemieux. Skating shorthanded, Ruutu chased down a clearing attempt deep along the left wing boards of the Islander zone and faked Dubie to his knees before skating behind the net and slipping home a wraparound. It was rather spectacular. Had Crosby scored in similar fashion, we'd be talking about it for the next 50 years. But since it's just Jarkko, who cares? Aw, he gets no respect.
Laraque closed out the scoring with a breakaway goal at 6:40 of the third. I rib you not. Laraque scored on a breakaway. Well, it was like a 15-foot breakaway. Ruutu got a turnover in the neutral zone and chipped the puck into open space for Laraque. Big Georges caught up to it near the top of the circles and barged down the slot home free.
After briefly considering a left hook, Laraque snapped a bouncing puck behind Dubie like he was Jari Kurri, or maybe even Jarkko Ruutu. Laraque celebrated by throwing himself into the glass a la Alexander Ovechkin. In doing so, he nearly crushed Radek Martinek.
Wow, dying in a Georges Laraque goal celebration. What a terrible way to go. That would be like getting struck by lightning at precisely the same moment Bigfoot hit you upside the head with Halley's Comet.
The three points were a career high for Jarkko. He now has four goals in his last six games. He's really become an indispensable part of the team. I just hope he doesn't hurt his back carrying Crosby and the rest of the offense.
Marc-Andre Fleury was once again rock solid in net, stopping 27 of 28 shots. The Flower is 8-1-0 with a 1.43 goals-against, a .953 save percentage, and two shutouts in his last nine starts. Fleury also made it fun at the end of the game, attempting to shoot at the empty net only to fire the puck off Orpik's leg and nearly into his own cage. Even though Therrien managed to laugh about it later, I'm guessing Fleury won't be trying it again anytime soon.
It's worth noting the ice was atrocious, which played a huge factor in Ruutu and Laraque emerging as the game's offensive stars. The conditions weren't exactly conducive to slick passing plays. Here's hoping the Pens don't skimp on the ice surface at the new arena.
The win pushed the Penguins into first place in the Wales with 97 points. Montreal is one point back with a game in hand. The Atlantic race is all but over, as the Birds now have a six-point bulge over New Jersey, although El Diablo has played one fewer game.
I'm pulling for a Pens-Flyers matchup in the first round. Aw, that would be great, that would be fun.
Ovechkin and crew are also two points back of Carolina for the Southeast crown. The Canes have the golden game in hand. And remember, a game in hand is worth two in the bush. Anyway, the two clubs will meet Tuesday in Washington. Set your TiVos.
So the Caps are looking at either missing the playoffs entirely or enjoying the No. 3 seed and home ice in the first round. Yeah, that seems fair.
Ovechkin remains four points up on Malkin in the scoring race with four games left. Malkin's missed out on three easy points in the past week or so, firing wide on two empty nets and losing an assist when Hossa potted an empty-netter a split-second after the horn. Those three points could come back to haunt him.
Keenan thought the contest would be a bit too rugged for the genteel Huselius. That doesn't bode well for the Swedish winger's future in Calgary. He'll be unrestricted this summer, so don't expect him back with El Scorcho.
But I find this whole thing shocking. I mean, Huselius seems like the ideal Keenan disciple. On a positive note, the two still get together each week to watch "The Bachelor" and "Rock of Love II."
Please, do your best to find the show on your TV machine and watch Willie. It's on at 8PM EST. And Kevin Weekes is also supposed to show up.