Every once in a while Penguins bloggers will come together and commiserate about the days of Aleksey Morozov, debate the merits of haircuts throughout team history, and sometimes to even talk about the playoffs (yes Jim Mora, the playoffs). Usually at this time of year, Penguins fans are preparing to watch their team either live up to expectations as one of the perennial Cup contenders or flame out in a not-so-glorious fashion. For once, while making their preparations to watch the Penguins kick-off the postseason, most fans don ?t know whether to ?cry or wind their watch. ?
I ?m not sure there are many in Pittsburgh or league-wide that have much optimism about the start of the first round series against the Metropolitan division rival New York Rangers. In fact, I don ?t think you ?ll find many who even think the Penguins stand a chance. Here at the Point of Pittsburgh, we ?ve brought together bloggers from across the Penguins’ world of bloggers to talk about why and just how it might all play out. With us to talk about the Penguins and the low-down about the First Round series are:
No point in wasting time, as the puck drops later today for Game 1, so let ?s get to it. First question:
1) Who and what team are we going to see in the playoffs ? This regular season we’ve seen the Penguins do their best impression of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and even many of the bad off-Broadway reproductions somewhere in between. So what team shows up against the Rangers ? And further to that, is it now officially Head Coach Mike Johnston’s team or are we looking at a facsimile of the Bylsma teams we’ve seen in years past?
Eric: That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? It’s safe to say we won’t see their best. Injuries have made sure of that as the Pens could be without 3 of their top 4 defensemen, plus hotshot rookie Derrick Pouliot. That’s a lot to overcome for any team, much less one that relies so much of quick puck movement to exit their own zone and jump-start their own attack. I’d like to think that the freedom of being an underdog will help the guys left standing play their best, but even if that happens, will it be good enough? As for the Johnston/Bylsma part, I think Johnston has put his mark on this team as best he could, given all the injuries, but it’s hard for any new coach to completely take things over in one year.
Mike: This is definitely not Dan Bylsma ?s team and Mike Johnston has done his best to put his mark on it. It wouldn ?t have made sense for Johnston to totally reinvent the wheel given that the core of the roster is still in place. I think the Penguins would have been in good shape had they stayed healthy. They wouldn ?t have been a favorite but the East is wide open. Without Olli Maatta and Pascal Dupuis (and now a handful of others on top of that), this team is a shell of itself. Too many players are in roles that are way over their head. The same could possibly be said of Mike Johnston ?
Nicholas: Probably that team that was pretty horrific down the stretch. That isn’t to say a chaotic team can’t upset the status quo. I recently told a friend that I hope the Pens are enough of a train wreck that their anarchy sucks in some other team like an Andy Capp’s wife anger storm. The Rangers are the sleeping, content Andy in this scenario. This is a problem singular to Mike Johnston’s team. But that’s the thing, I’m willing to give Mike a playoff run before tacking the previous regime’s failures on him.
Brian: It’s a question that depends largely on which defensemen manage to make their way back into the lineup. At this moment Paul Martin might be the only legitimate top 4 defenseman healthy and in the lineup, and he has to be gassed after how the end of the season played out. Getting Ehrhoff and Pouliot back would certainly help, not only because of the skill set they provide but because even if rusty, they’re still fresh legs. Dumoulin/Harrington, whoever gets the nod, will bring fresher legs. But even still the forwards group is still weak in the bottom six, and the wingers with Crosby and Malkin have struggled at times this season.
With all of the roster turnover, it’s not Bylsma’s team, but it’s not Johnston’s yet either. Winnik, Cole, and Lovejoy all came over at the deadline – Perron and Lapierre midseason. That’s a quarter of the game day roster right there. With everyone in and out of the lineup due to injuries or acquisitions there hasn’t been enough consistency for Mike Johnston to fully put his mark on the team.
Metzer: It is hard to say which version of the Penguins will show up. They have definitely embraced certain hallmarks of Mike Johnston ?s system, but there are elements that have started to pop up from Bylsma ?s such as the stretch pass that made it ?s re-appearance on occasion over the second half. Generally speaking, the Penguins have got to decide if they want to try and win as a defensive squad that sits back and waits for mistakes or if they are going to get on the attack and try to roll up some goals. There has been a definitely war of wills in that regard and it has had them looking like they don ?t know what they want to be.
It does seem that locking themselves into a playoff spot energized them to a certain extent. While beating the Rangers seems like a long shot, the guys in that room are saying and doing all the right things and it seems as if they are ready to put up a fight.
A case could be made that all of the pressure is on the Rangers, who won the Presidents ? Trophy and are hoping to get back to the Cup Final for a second consecutive year. The Penguins have the benefit of starting on the road and being an underdog for the first time in an opening round series since 2006-07 and that is something that might work in their favor.
If they can score some goals, get the same quality goaltending that Marc-Andre Fleury has provided all season and find some consistency on special teams, they have a chance to play spoilers.
Nick V: I think Johnston definitely left his mark on this team, but we haven ?t exactly had much of a chance to see it this year with all the injuries. What Rutherford ?s vision for this team was at the beginning of the season was significantly hindered by the injuries to Dupuis and Maatta is significantly different than what we saw on the ice for the majority of the season. Just as Bylsma was able to overcome an unreal stretch of injuries in 2010-2011 to take the Penguins to the second round of the playoffs without Crosby or Malkin in the lineup, Johnston will have to see if his coaching can compensate for the loss of Letang.
2) What is the one stat (fancy or not) that will be the difference, good or bad, for the Penguins in this series?
Mike: Henrik Lundqvist was 5-1 in his last six regular season games with a save percentage of .933 and a GAA of 1.99. That injury might be the best thing that could ?ve happened. Lundqvist is well rested now and the Rangers are getting healthy at exactly the right time. The Rangers and Capitals could be a fantastic second round matchup if both teams advance.
Brian: I’ll go with 26.5. It’s the number of scoring chances per 60 minutes the Penguins have registered on the season, and it’s middle of the pack at 14th in the league. The Rangers are a team the Pens can win the possession battle against even without Letang, provided that the rest of the blue line gets healthy. New York can offset that disadvantage with Henrik Lundqvist, so it’s important that Pittsburgh is not only driving the play but challenging Lundqvist as well. And getting the chances is only the half of it, as they need someone to bury them and step up with some key secondary scoring.
Eric: The Pens’ power play percentage. The Pens’ goal scoring issues the past 6 weeks or so are well documented and I think much of that can be traced back to their ineffective power play. If they can get that going, it can cover up a lot of other holes in their game. I they’re lucky; maybe it can bolster their confidence in the rest of their offense too.
Metzer: I don ?t need your fancy stats because I have eyes! It had to be said. I find a way to throw that in each and every time fancy stats come up. Of course I am kidding because they definitely provide some unique insight, but they do not provide all of the insight.
Seriously speaking though, this is probably as simple as the Penguins finding a way to score some goals. Do that and get rewarded, especially if they come on the power play. Offense in general became a big time bugaboo down the stretch. We all know that goal scoring was way down around the league this season, but a team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and a host of other capable offensive players should have been able to score more than 2.22 goals per game since Feb. 15. That number dropped to 1.95 between March 4 and the end of the season and gets even worse (1.74) if you remove the 6-4 victory over Edmonton back on March 12.
Goals become even more important when you realize that they Penguins, once ranked in the top five defensively this season, have allowed 3.33 goals per game over their final six games of the season. Sure that came with just five defensemen dressed, but if they maintain that rate of goals against average, they ?re going to need four per night to win. That ?s tough sledding against Henrik Lundqvist.
Nicholas: Goals scored.
Nick V: While I think there ?s no argument plausible against goals scored as the most literal and accurate representation of what will be the difference in the series, I ?m going to go with one that wasn ?t mentioned. Face-offs. The Penguins were a statistically better faceoff team than the Rangers through the regular season, which is even more impressive when you factor the Penguins rather unimpressive faceoff numbers. Faceoffs, in my opinion, are what will make or break this series, especially with the Penguins lacking rest and healthy bodies on defense. The more young, rookie defensemen that suit up for the Pens, the more important each faceoff becomes to keep the puck out of the Rangers ? skillful hands.
3) With the absence of Letang, continued risk of Ehrhoff’s health, and the less than inspiring play of Beau Bennett and Craig Adams, what should the Penguins playoff roster for round one shape up like ? Anyone not currently on the team that should get a starting spot (here’s looking at you Kasperi)?
Brian: Well first off, there will be a sixth defenseman, and it’ll be interesting to see how Johnston sets his lineup. Taylor Chorney was in the lineup because of league minimum cap hit – would he have been the first call up if it wasn’t an emergency recall? Does his experience make him a better option regardless? He managed to average only 14:50 TOI per game despite the team being down a defenseman at times and despite the other dmen struggling with the increased workload. It doesn’t seem like the coaching staff can trust him, but can they trust both Dumoulin and Harrington more?
I don’t have anyone in particular from Wilkes-Barre that I’d like to see in the lineup, but anyone would be better than Maxim Lapierre at this point. To put things kindly he’s been pretty much useless since coming to Pittsburgh. Play Sutter and Spaling as your two centers in the bottom six and dress a young guy who has something to prove.
Nicholas: Get ready for unlimited Bobby Farnham chants. As brutal as this team ended the season, you’d think a shakeup was necessary in the forward department. But it won’t happen beyond someone Johnston has already used. If at all, you’ll see more random blue line plug-ins. Dumoulin and Harrington for sure. Jim Rutherford took a wrench to what used to be this team by the trade deadline, expecting more moving parts might do more bad than good.
Metzer: I really don ?t believe that we will see Kasperi Kapanen in a Pittsburgh Penguins ? jersey this postseason. Sure, something crazy could happen in terms of an injury, but he is still needs to pack on some more muscle/weight to log regular minutes in the NHL. Plus, if you brought him up, it would have to be in a top six role and that is a ton of pressure to heap on a young guy. I just don ?t see it happening and through conversations, that is the vibe I am getting.
However, that doesn ?t mean that we might not get a chance to see Scott Wilson in the lineup. He ranked top three in almost every offensive category in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and led the team in shots on goal. He might draw in at some point.
There is a better than average chance that Brian Dumoulin gets into the lineup tomorrow night and partners with Taylor Chorney. That duo was outstanding in Wilkes this season and helped the WBS Penguins become one of the best defensive teams in the league. Both players are also capable of moving the puck and jumping into the play when they have too.
As for the lineup itself, my guess is that you ?ll see this for Game 1:
Winnik ? Crosby ? Hornqvist
Kunitz ? Malkin ? Perron
Bennett ? Sutter ? Downie
Comeau ? Lapierre ? Adams
Martin ? Lovejoy
Scuderi ? Cole
Dumoulin ? Chorney
Based on the answers Christian Ehrhoff gave following practice on Wednesday, he could be back in the lineup for Game 2, which would be a big boon for the team.
Eric: I actually thought Beau Bennett raised his game significantly in his last two games. I saw a guy that was skating better and a lot more confident with the puck. Here’s hoping it continues. The Pens could certainly use it. As for others, it’s looking like Ehrhoff and Pouliot may not be ready for game 1, so a spot’s open on defense. Assuming the Pens remember they’re allowed to dress 6 in a game, that is. If that remains the case at game time, I’d guess Brian Dumoulin gets in. From what I’ve read, he spent a lot of time playing with Taylor Chorney in Wilkes-Barre and the two of them work really well together. I’d like to see Scott Wilson and his speed get in as well, but I’m not sure who the Pens would (realistically) sit to open a spot for him.
Mike: There just aren ?t a lot of options to work with at this point. I wouldn ?t throw Kapanen into the fire. This team isn ?t going anywhere and he ?s better off adjusting to the smaller North American ice at a lower level. Brian Dumoulin will probably slot in as an injury replacement but that ?s about it. The biggest problem is that injuries mount in the playoffs. This is as healthy as the Penguins are going to be, and that ?s scary.
Nick V: I think it really comes down to a lack of options as was mentioned. I just don ?t see many call-ups ready to step-in and make a difference, not to mention, the forwards on this team were acquired in part for their ability to step-up their game in the postseason. Lapierre, Sutter, and Spaling are the three I expect to have a significant impact either good or bad at some point in the Rangers series. Once Ehrhoff is available I think he ?s first in, but I would actually argue for dressing 7 defensemen and 11 forwards, just to minimize the risk of losing another defenseman 2 minutes into Game 1 and having to play with 5 defenseman for an extended period of time.
4) Whats the one avoidable mistake you think Mike Johnston might make throughout this series that could cost the Penguins the most?
Nicholas: Relying on a tired defense for much of anything. With injuries, the blue liners are playing scads more than normal. If he hasn’t implemented any new sort of offensive zone or puck-carrying schemes, the puck is still going to head back into the Pens zone and leave MAF trying to stop the world.
Metzer: There are two things that I fear in this season. 1. Too Many Men on the Ice penalties. They took a dozen of them this season and honestly, that is like getting fired from your job for attendance. Meaning, attendance, like the personnel you swap on and off of the ice, are pretty much the only things you have full control over. He simply cannot allow that to happen. 2. Shorthanded Goals — they allowed 11 of them over the course of the season and the Rangers are one of the best transition teams in the league. If the Penguins get sloppy with the puck at their own blue line they will pay the price. Especially when they are icing a power play unit that features one D and 4 F.
Eric: Tough question. Maybe over-reliance on veterans? Guys like Kunitz, Scuderi, Lovejoy, etc… have their issues, but we all know vets get a longer leash. If any of the vets struggle, I’d hope HCMJ wouldn’t hesitate to make a change.
Brian: If I had to take a guess, I’d say its player usage. He’s got a tired, top-heavy lineup. He’s going to need to find ways to shelter some of the players at the bottom of the lineup while also making sure his workhorses are getting a breather. It’ll be doubly important deeper into games as different scenarios play out and the team finds themselves down or up. Given the situation the team is in I think it’d be a delicate situation for a seasoned head coach to handle, let alone a guy in his first year leading an NHL team.
Mike: Playing a dump and chase style. They ?ve been doing that a lot lately. The Penguins are still built to score off the rush and they need to find ways to generate odd-man rush opportunities. They ?re not going to grind the Rangers down on the cycle and generate scoring chances from the slot. They need to match the Rangers speed and get them out of position with a quick transition game. Of course, the Penguins offense will only be as good as their defensive zone play. It starts from the breakout and goes from there.
Nick V: I definitely have to agree with the thought that avoiding over-reliance is the key for the Penguins in this series. Not only on the defense, or the veterans, but on the big-two; Malkin and Crosby. The Penguins not wearing #87 and #71 on their jerseys have to make a difference on the score sheet.
Not only that, but, and excuse what I ?m sure is Bylsma-induced trauma, Johnston has to make adjustments throughout the games and throughout the series. Whatever the Rangers are throwing at the Penguins they absolutely have to try and figure out how to counter before it ?s too late. The Rangers are the healthier and deeper team, the Penguins won ?t win if they try to match up one on one with them, which means they ?ll have to have the right strategy to give them the advantage.
5) Lastly, who’s going to win, in how many games, and why?
Metzer: As game time gets closer, I have started to buy into the Penguins possibly pulling an upset in this season — BUT — since I already went on record with a prediction in the Beaver County Times, I have to stick with it.
The Penguins will be competitive, counterpunch and give the Rangers some headaches, but at the end of the day the Rangers will take it in six games. They simply have too much depth, up front and on the blue line. That alone gives them a major advantage. It might be different if the Penguins had Kris Letang, but they do not ?
I will say that Marc-Andre Fleury will continue his masterful season and will end up with at least one shutout.
Mike: Rangers in four. This is a bad matchup for even a healthy Penguins team. Pittsburgh would ?ve been much better off being the wild card in the other division against Montreal. I think they could ?ve actually beaten the Canadiens.
Brian: I can’t see the Rangers letting this drag out. New York in 5. That being said, if the Pens manage to bring it back to Pittsburgh for Game 6 it’ll likely be because they’ve held their own, and at that point all bets are off.
Eric: My head tells me that a whole lot of things would have to go the Pens’ way for them to make a series of this, and that the chances of that aren’t so great. But you know, going with the odds and what makes sense isn’t very much fun. So I’m putting on my black and gold glasses and making the optimistic/homer pick: Pens in 7. \_(0)_/
Nicholas: Pens in 7. Even with as grim as I’ve sounded over this. The Rangers are a juggernaut and have had the Pens’ number this year. But I think I would combust if I picked against the Pens.
Nick V: I wish I could write that I believe the Penguins will proudly wear the underdog tag and go with the ?us versus the world ? mantra, but I just can ?t see it. The Rangers line-up is deep, all the way through. They had the 3rd highest goal scorer in the league, arguably the best defense corps, and Henrik Lundqvist in net. That ?s a nearly fatal combination in any series, let alone against a team that could end up starting three playoff rookies on defense. The Penguins will win Game 3 with a gallant effort, but that will be the only one. Rangers in 5.
If the Penguins do manage to pull this one out, look for a return of the roundtable for Round 2.