As the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins get ready to drop the puck on their Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup, here are five hot story lines to keep an eye on:
While his return is inevitable (knock on wood), the chances of Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby being in the lineup for Game 1 against the Islanders are 50/50 at best. He is scheduled to meet with his doctors on Tuesday morning, and by lunch the world should know whether or not the likely (in my less than professional opinion) league MVP will be in uniform come Wednesday night.
Make no mistake that Crosby is ready for this, and chomping at the bit to get going. After having to sit out the 2011 playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning due to lingering concussion symptoms, and a bitter 6-game loss last season to the hated Flyers in the first round, the Captain is rarin’ to go and restake his claim as best in the world. I’ll give my predictions later today, but I’ll say this: if the Penguins go on to win The Stanley Cup, Sidney Crosby will win the Conn Smythe Trophy.
New Kids on the Block
No, not the 80’s boy band.
The last time the New York Islanders were in the playoffs was 2007. Also the same year that the Penguins (including Crosby, Malkin, Orpik and Fleury) began their current 7-year playoff streak.
The Isles are certainly a young team. But, ladies and gentlemen, they are for real. They’re quick, fast, and incredibly talented. John Tavares is in Hart Trophy discussions around the league, and the second line of Josh Bailey, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo are just as dangerous as their top unit (Brad Boyes, Tavares, and Matt Moulson).
And their blue line will be up to the task of defending arguably the deepest, most talented team in the league in the Penguins. Led by captain Mark Streit, the Isles’ defense is a veteran group that includes Andy MacDonald, Travis Hamonic, and Lubomir Visnovsky. These guys flat out know how to play, and are familiar with what Pittsburgh likes to do.
The stabilizing presence for this team, most of whom are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time, will be goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. A veteran of 19 years in the league (17 of which with San Jose), not to mention 12 appearances on hockey’s biggest stage, should help calm the nerves of the young Islanders.
Speed vs. Physicality
The Islanders’ game is speed. All the time. Out of the d-zone, through neutral ice, and on to the attack all at a breakneck pace. Now don’t get me wrong, the Penguins have speed of their own. But the Isles’ top three lines want to skate circles around you. Speed is a good thing to have, as it’s a great way to draw penalties.
The Penguins will have no choice but to combat the Isles’ speed with their physical play. Guys like Chris Kunitz, Brenden Morrow, and Matt Cooke will be responsible for wearing down the Islanders’ young guns on the back-check. Brooks Orpik (once healthy), Douglas Murray, and Kris Letang will have to punish the Isles’ forwards down low around Marc-Andre Fluery. The Pens’ physicality, while it takes a toll on the body (which works both ways coincidentally), has to be tempered so as to not get called for an infraction.
It seemed to work in 2009. So with that in mind, Penguins’ GM Ray Shero went ballistic just before the trade deadline again this past season. In ’09, Shero brought in veterans Craig Adams, Billy Guerin, Chris Kunitz, and Hal Gill to bolster his still young lineup. This season, not only did he go after veterans, but former team captains in Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla.
Both Morrow and Iginla have been to the playoffs before, including Iginla’s 2004 run to the Cup Final (ultimately losing to Tampa Bay). So you can understand each of their desires to get back to the big dance. What’s important to keep in mind here, is that each had a no-movement clause in their contracts, and both waived it to come to Pittsburgh. In Iginla’s case, he actually got to choose on the day he was traded, where he wanted to go. As you’ll recall, all of the rumors that night were that he was headed to Boston. Until Flames’ GM Jay Feaster got a deal he could live with from Pittsburgh, and Jarome chose the Penguins.
Add to that group defenseman Douglas Murray, and forward/utility guy/pizza maker/cable installer/dog walker/okay you get the point, Jussi Jokinen, and the Pens are absolutely loaded with veteran presence and leadership. It truly is a “Cup or bust” for this group in Pittsburgh
Make no mistake, the Pittsburgh Penguins are not out for redemption. They’re out for a reckoning.
When you boast the two best players in the world and a (still relatively) young goalie who was a first-overall draft choice, losing in the first round, especially in the fashion that they lost last season, is not an option. So the Penguins will be out to prove that last season was a fluke, and that they are refocused and re-energized. Add to that the aforementioned additions of Morrow and Iginla (and their Cup aspirations), and Crosby’s desire to reassert himself as hockey’s best player, and you have a recipe for domination.
Which is exactly what the Pittsburgh Penguins will be looking for starting Wednesday night.
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Fear not, dear readers, my predictions are coming. I’ll have the West for you later today, and the East will be up Wednesday morning.
And don’t ever forget that:
“It’s a great day for hockey!!”