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No Better Place

The risk of injury is why NHL teams hate sending their players to international tournaments.

It’s one thing if a team’s player gets hurt playing for their NHL team, but it’s another if they get hurt representing their country.

Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray played for the under-23 Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey. In a September 19th game against Team Russia, Murray left with what originally was thought of as only a blister. Instead, it was a broken hand and it means that Murray will miss the start of the 2016-17 season.

For now, Murray is listed as out for 3-6 weeks. The soonest he’d return would be October 15th, when the Penguins battled the Anaheim Ducks. However, that means that the Penguins need a starter on opening night, October 13th, against the Washington Capitals.

Hello, old friend, Marc-Andre Fleury.

The 2009 Stanley Cup-winning netminder returns as the starter after losing his job in the spring, not because of performance, but dumb luck.

Before a concussion on April 1st ended Fleury’s regular season, he went 35-17-6 with a 2.29 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage; easily the best season of his career.

However, with the injury, Fleury could not finish the regular season or start the playoffs in net. That role went to the rookie Murray. As good as Fleury was in the regular season, Murray had been better through the course of the second half of the season, going 9-2-1 with a 2.00 GAA and a .930 SV%.

In the postseason, Murray led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup victory with a 15-6 record, a 2.08 GAA, and a .923 SV%.

Fleury was not healthy enough for the first round but was for the second. Despite that, Fleury did not make a postseason appearance until Game Four of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning after Murray allowed four goals through two periods.

Fleury didn’t allow any goals in the third period, but the Penguins still lost. However, Fleury started Game 5 in Pittsburgh. He allowed four goals, including the overtime winner and wouldn’t see the ice again in the postseason.

In the offseason, the question surrounding the Penguins wasn’t “will Fleury be traded?” it was “when will Fleury traded?”

Instead of dealing his franchise goaltender, general manager Jim Rutherford decided to keep him in hopes of pairing the two goaltenders together to form the league’s best netminder duo.

In the long run, this plan may prove faulty because Pittsburgh must eventually determine who its top goaltender is, come postseason time.

For now, it’s perfect.

2015-16 backup goaltender Jeff Zatkoff started the first two games of the playoffs while Murray and Fleury were hurt, going 1-1, but left in the offseason when it became obvious that the Penguins wanted to keep both of their Stanley Cup-winning starting goaltenders.

If Zatkoff had been retained and Fleury traded, Pittsburgh would be relying on a goaltender with a career SV% of .915. It’s solid for a backup, but not a starter. The Penguins would risk going with Zatkoff and Tristan Jarry, who has never played an NHL game, as their goaltenders.

Instead, the send a 10-year veteran looking to regain his job as a starter for the Penguins with Jarry as his backup.

Once Murray comes back, who knows how crazy the Penguins goaltending situation will get. It is ridiculous to expect Fleury or Murray to share the net equally with the other when both have proven that they are deserving of a primary starting job.

Until then, the Penguins will begin 2016-17 the way that they have the past 10 seasons, with Fleury as the starting netminder. 

© 2016 All rights reserved. Interactive One Millennial
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    Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

It took 14 games, but Aaron Rodgers has finally achieved a passer rating over 100. The Green Bay Packers defeated the Detroit Lions 34-27 largely due to the play of their quarterback, Rodgers.

While he did not throw for that many yards, Rodgers accumulated 205 passing yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 129.3. After almost a full season of underperforming, Rodgers now has a game he can look back on with pride.

Rodgers’ struggles last season were unprecedented for his career, but also not entirely surprising. After the Packers’ week seven bye week last year, Green Bay finished the season with a record of 4-6. The team was a mess ever since their loss against the Denver Broncos.

Rodgers did not play well at all for most of last season, but blame was able to be shifted off of the Hall of Fame bound quarterback due to injuries and a lack of a running game. A quarterback can only do so much to make his team win, and given the shape the rest of the team was in, Rodgers struggling made sense.

The Packers’ wide receivers were either hurt, couldn’t get open, or couldn’t catch a ball last year. Rodgers lost his favorite receiver for the season, Jordy Nelson due to an ACL tear. Randall Cobb proved that he is not a number one receiver and Davante Adams had massive trouble all season holding onto the ball. Combine that with injuries to the offensive line and running back Eddie Lacy suddenly too out of shape to be productive and it was a recipe for disaster.

In 2016, most of those issues are gone. The Packers’ offensive line is healthy and playing great, Nelson is back, and the rest of the wide receivers are healthy. Yet, the Packers offense struggled in their first two games of this season against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Minnesota Vikings. Everything pointed to Rodgers as the problem.

Looking back at the tape, Rodgers didn’t look like someone who has been named to the NFL’s All Fundamentals Team, twice. Rodgers’ mechanics and pocket presence were terrible. On many of his throws in the first two weeks, Rodgers was throwing primarily off of his back foot. His passes didn’t have the same zip as they usually do and was missing open receivers. He also would scramble out of the pocket when there was no pressure, usually resulting in a negative play.

It’s likely that these were bad habits formed during last season when Rodgers couldn’t rely on his receivers and offensive line and was forced to improvise on most plays. Rodgers said after the loss against the Vikings that he needed to play better and he did.

The difference in his mechanics from this game to his previous ones is like night and day. He seemingly gained confidence in the rest of his teams overnight. Rodgers stepped into his throws, threw with confidence, and maneuvered the pocket like his old self. Rodgers threw for four touchdowns in the first half against Detroit.

The problems aren’t entirely solved, however. The offense seemingly disappeared after halftime, scoring zero touchdowns in the second half. This allowed the Lions to climb their way back and make it a one possession game after being down by three possessions.

However, that may have more to do with the play calling than anything. The Packers ran the ball more during the second half and didn’t have the same aggression as they did in the first half.

Rodgers’ arm has always been amazing, even during this recent stretch of poor play. The problem with Rodgers was more mental than physical. Rodgers lost confidence in the rest of his team last season, and deservingly so.

Now that it’s 2016 and most of those problems are gone, Rodgers needed to regain his trust in his teammates and that seems to have happened. Rodgers will need to prove that the game against Detroit was not a mirage. That said, it looks like Rodgers is back. 

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After two big wins to start the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers could not get anything going against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.

Quarterback Carson Wentz tossed two touchdowns in the Eagles’ victory to improve to 3-0 as a rookie starter. The three consecutive wins to start a season are the most in Eagles’ history when under a new head coach; Doug Pederson.

The Steelers were crippled by injuries and the blitz on Sunday. Pittsburgh lost linebackers Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, and Lawrence Timmons, wide receiver Eli Rogers, and offensive lineman Ramon Foster to injuries during the game. Jones and Timmons both would later return.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger faced constant pressure when dropping back to pass. The Eagles sacked Roethlisberger five times and forced him to throw an interception. Roethlisberger failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time this season.

After consecutive 100+ yardage rushing games, running back DeAngelo Williams was not able to continue the trend this Sunday. Williams mustered only 21 yards on eight carries. As a whole, Pittsburgh rushed for 29 yards as opposed to 125 by Philadelphia.

Eagles’ running backs Wendell Smallwood and Darren Sproles were thorns in the Steelers’ side all game long. Smallwood led the Eagles with 79 yards rushing and a touchdown. Sproles took two carries for -1 yards, but caught six balls for 128 yards and a score.

For the Steelers, the long bright spot of the game was wide receiver Antonio Brown. A week after managing only 39 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals at a rain-soaked Heinz Field, Brown caught 12 passes for 140 yards but did not reach the end zone.

With the loss, Pittsburgh is 2-1 and returns to Heinz Field next weekend for a matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs. Roethlisberger will be tested even more since the Chiefs’ defense intercepted six passes in a 24-3 win over the New York Jets.

Roethlisberger will have a new weapon in his arsenal for the game.

Running back Le’Veon Bell returns after serving a three-game suspension for multiple failed drug tests. In only six games last season due to suspension and injury, Bell rushed for 556 yards and three touchdowns.

With Bell back, the Steelers will have two threats at running back and a combined 1,721 yards since the start of the 2015 season. While Williams will play less of a role with Bell’s fresh legs back in the lineup, he’ll still be a crucial part of the NFL’s best 1-2 punch at running back.

How will head coach Mike Tomlin use both effectively?

Bell should get the bulk of the carries because he is the more-talented of the two and deserves it after a disappointing performance by Williams.

However, Williams doesn't deserve to be punished for staying on the field and avoiding trouble like Bell. That said, he is 33 and Bell is 24.

Bell is the guy, but Williams should still be involved regularly. If Bell gets a big carry of 20 or more yards, there's no reason not to sub Williams in for him to give Bell a quick breather and vice versa.

If Bell gets 20 carries a game, Williams should get at least 10 himself. This way, Pittsburgh takes advantage of the strongest element of its offense.

With wide receiver Martavis Bryant suspended for the entire season, it's up to the running backs to carry the offense. Assuming both stay healthy, Bell and Williams could form the best dynamic duo since Ronald Reagan and George Bush in 1984.

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