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Penguins

“Puck Talk With Popchock” – Politics & Niskanen Still Make A Difference

Matt Niskanen

Matt Niskanen contributed a goal and an assist in the Penguins’ 5-3 win over the Flames in Calgary Saturday. (File photo credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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By Matt Popchock

(mpopchock@kdka.com)

Although the succession of late-game letdowns was a bit of a disappointment, there really wasn’t a lot to complain about from the first weekend of the 2011-12 NHL season if you’re a Penguin fan.

If anything, we should be quite pleased the Penguins have returned from western Canada with five of a possible six points as they prepare to re-open CONSOL Energy Center against the Florida Panthers Tuesday night at 7:30 (which can be seen on ROOT Sports).

They continue to find ways to win in a part of the continent that had been frigid to the Flightless Birds for much of their 44-year history, including a quality season-opening victory over a team that fell just one win shy of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.

But two of the biggest things I take from that three-game road trip, excluding sleep deprivation, are two things I wondered would be relevant at all this season: Matt Niskanen and the office politics of the NHL.

As the previous season wound down, Niskanen was perhaps the most heavily criticized member of a defensive corps that bent over backwards (when they weren’t bending over forwards, or sacrificing their bodies otherwise) to keep the Penguins afloat under trying circumstances during the stretch run.

During the Penguins’ first-round flop against the Tampa Bay Lightning, one could barely tell Niskanen existed. Quite frankly, Penguin fans wished he didn’t. He registered just one point and finished that series with a minus-3, underscoring why the Dallas Stars were perfectly willing to part ways with the work-in-progress that never progressed in exchange for up-and-coming Alex Goligoski.

I don’t know who lit a fire under Niskanen during the preseason, but I hope that fire isn’t extinguished anytime soon, not even by what happened in the closing minutes of Sunday’s eventual shootout loss in Edmonton. He’s been playing with a greater aura of confidence this fall, and just as importantly, he has played penalty-free for the first 11 periods of the season while averaging around a respectable 19 minutes of ice time through three outings.

On Saturday at the Saddledome he gave the Penguins the lead for good over the Calgary Flames by not only knowing when to pinch, but by simply not giving up on the play. Niskanen, with his gusto and net-front presence during the Pens’ second-period onslaught, probably scored even more points with Dan Bylsma, who constantly preaches both.

Progress has been made, but hopefully more lies ahead. He was caught in Statue of Liberty mode deep in his own zone Sunday as youngsters Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins outworked him and the rest of the Penguins’ D for the latter’s first career goal, an all-important tying tally for the Oilers.

As a result, Niskanen carries a minus-2 rating into Tuesday’s home opener that might ordinarily make me wrinkle my nose, but when you look up and down the Pens’ roster, it actually puts him in the middle of the pack. Plus, he’s made nine shots on goal (including six on Saturday), just one fewer than team co-leaders Kris Letang and James Neal, and as previously mentioned, he’s contributed to the success of a power play unit that has been the NHL’s most efficient through three games (yes, you read that correctly).

So far, with Matt Niskanen, we’ve been able to take the good with the bad. Back in the spring, we had to take the bad with the bad.

His job as the No. 6 defenseman seemed to be in peril entering training camp, but to this point, he has secured it. Having done that, it is just as important Niskanen remains at the top of his own game as it is for his fellow blue-liners until Brooks Orpik has fully healed, because the absence of Orpik’s leadership has been noticeable at times.

A chief reason for those aforementioned third-period hiccups is, in fact, the Penguins’ vaunted defense, which looked a step slow in the waning minutes of those first three games. That was the case when they let Brent Johnson’s shutout disappear, that was the case when Keith Ballard and the Sedin twins forced extra hockey last Thursday, and it was the case when the Pens saw the Flames nearly deflate a comfortable 4-1 cushion.

Maybe it’s just the simple need for that group to build its legs and get reacquainted with the speed and flow of regular-season hockey, but at any rate, it underscores the importance of guys like Niskanen pulling their weight for 60 minutes.

One of the other things that stood out to me over the first weekend of the new season was the nonsense on Saturday that apparently wasn’t prevalent enough to incur the wrath of no-nonsense disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, a lapse in recent protocol I find a tad disturbing.

The Penguins’ offense had engulfed–and embarrassed–the Flames. Their Canadian counterparts desperately needed a change in momentum to avoid getting run out of their own building on opening night.

Immediately following Evgeni Malkin’s first goal of the season, which later proved to be the game-winner, Matt Cooke took an ironic, but nevertheless unprovoked, elbow to the head from Calgary defenseman Cory Sarich.

Shanahan has been really shortening the leash on NHL players far and wide who violate Rule 48, a rule governing deliberate head contact put in place after Cooke’s controversial decapitation of Marc Savard. He has already administered suspensions totaling over 30 games and fines totaling over $700,000 for transgressions in exhibition games.

I recently praised Shanahan for trying to light the lamp on a new era of hockey, an era more void of carelessness and disrespect amongst players, and I have no regrets for doing so.

Why would Shanny stop now? Because of the aggrieved party’s name, that’s why.

We’re all well aware of Cooke’s history, and on Saturday the skate was on the other foot, as Cooke spent a significant portion of the game out of commission.

He later said Sarich got him in the jaw, and nothing more. Although his injury was not significant, by pointing to his sore jaw, he implied the principal point of contact by Sarich was, in fact, his head. That flies directly in the face of what the league deemed upon review, but the reaction to the play by the “Hockey Night in Canada” crew meshes much better with the video evidence.

It was a textbook violation of the very rule Shanahan has tried to enforce more carefully and more stringently. The fact that the NHL did not issue supplementary discipline seems as bizarre as Dan Bylsma’s claim that the Penguins support the league in this matter, and the fact that the Pens didn’t even get a power play until Malkin was later chopped at like a tree is ridiculous. In context, it was an obvious attempt at message-sending, and the league is making an egregious mistake by shrugging this off.

I’m sure we can agree on what would likely have happened to Cooke if he were in Sarich’s position, so the only reason I can conceive for a lack of punishment is, apparently, politics still matter in the NHL, despite its refreshing change of leadership.

This realization is a disappointing one, considering how much inconsistency of discipline has already hurt the credibility of the league. I hope this lapse in judgment is a rare one, but considering what a joke NHL justice has been in my lifetime, nothing would surprise me.

In the meantime, when you consider how poorly they started at home last season, the best thing the Pens can do Tuesday is to stomp a mud hole in the Panthers the way the great Penguin teams of the early Nineties would. Surely they’ll have a raucous crowd behind them at CONSOL Energy Center, which now apparently boasts an enhanced concessions menu.

I wonder if knuckle sandwiches made the cut?

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Be sure to keep visiting 937thefan.com, including Casey Shea’s “Shea-ved Ice” blog, for coverage of Tuesday’s home opener, and tune into SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan for continuing coverage of the Penguins throughout the 2011-12 regular season.

(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)