Penguins Mailbag: Goaltending, Championship Chances & the Islanders

The Pittsburgh Penguins will kick off the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Sunday, hoping to win their fourth championship in the Sidney Crosby era. I decided to have you submit some questions for me to answer, so here they are.

Who Gets the Start in Game 1?

This is a harder question than many would think, but I would go with Tristan Jarry for Game 1, however, on a very short leash. He finished with a 25-9-3 record on the season, however, his individual statistics were not good, with a .909 save percentage (SV%_ and -9.13 goals saved above expected (GSAx), which ranks pretty poorly leaguewide, at 75th out of all 92 goaltenders this season.

His counterpart, Casey DeSmith, has thrived this season, with an 11-7-0 record, to go with a .912 SV% and 3.89 GSAx, which ranks him at 16th leaguewide. He has had a great season since coming up from the American Hockey League, and if Jarry strings together a bad game or two, I would be comfortable to see him get a shot in the crease. An issue, however, is that he is currently dealing with an injury, however, it is not known how significant it is.

Maxime Lagace simply is not an option. He had a great final game against the Buffalo Sabres, with a shutout and 2.24 GSAx, but the odds of him replicating this performance, especially in the playoffs, are just not good.

Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So, as I said, go with Jarry, but if DeSmith is available and the series is not looking great, maybe turn to him and give him a try. I think Jarry has earned the crease for the time being, however.

Does Mike Sullivan Have to Win This Series to Save His Job?

No way. There is no scenario in my mind where firing Mike Sullivan is the right call for the Penguins. The amount of work he has put in since being swept in 2019 is mindboggling, and he has turned this team from going into a severe decline to being a legitimate Stanley Cup contender again.

Sullivan is a coach who loves to juggle all four lines, which was a major problem for one reason, being that the team has not had four good lines to run since the 2017 Stanley Cup Championship. He finally does this year, and after testing out various depth players in the lineup, he has found some that look like they can be a mainstay for the playoffs, like Frederick Gaudreau.

Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Sullivan’s main issue in the past was having biases for and against certain players, which led to putting the lineup at a disadvantage. For example, his refusal to take Jack Johnson out of the lineup a couple of years ago, his insistence on consistently giving Dominik Simon top-six minutes, and his need to play Patrick Marleau, even when he was playing the worst hockey of his career in Pittsburgh. The difference is that this year there has been none of that. Sullivan has not put the team at risk for certain players, and they have been better because of it. His development and maturity as a coach have been great for this team and gives him a better chance of keeping his job for the long term.

Which Teams Are the Biggest Threat to the Penguins’ Championship Chances?

Let me tell you, the number is not very high. To me, there are five teams that pose a serious threat to the Penguins’ chances at winning the Stanley Cup: the Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Boston Bruins. Yes, I know any team can beat anybody in the playoffs, but I am just naming the seriously threatening teams. The odds seem to agree with me as well, as MoneyPuck has the Penguins slated at sixth, just one less than me.

To me, it will mainly come down to how each team’s star players perform, and for the Penguins, that specifically means Evgeni Malkin. In his last two playoff runs, he has just one goal and two even-strength points in eight games. He just has not been the explosive, electric player we are used to seeing come playoff time, and that is going to have to change.

Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

When Malkin is going, so is Kasperi Kapanen, but the young Finnish winger seems to struggle when he isn’t. The Penguins will need this line to produce heavily against a weak offensive but strong defensive Islanders team, so it will be crucial for them to get going early on in the series.

Will We See One More Penguins vs Capitals Series?

This question is an interesting one for sure and would make for a great storyline. However, do I have it happening? Unfortunately not. I just cannot see the Washington Capitals getting past the Bruins this season. To me, it seems like they just are not as driven as they once were before the Stanley Cup win in 2018.

Let’s say hypothetically that it does happen, I would give the Penguins the advantage. The Capitals’ goaltending is very weak, and neither Ilya Samsonov nor Vitek Vanecek will be able to carry the load in the postseason for too long, in my opinion. The Penguins depth outranks what Washington has as well, especially with their speed.

Tom Wilson, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The issue with this series would be Tom Wilson. If his recent antics with Artemi Panarin and the New York Rangers were not enough, he has a history with dirty plays against the Penguins in the playoffs, as he broke Zach Aston-Reese’s jaw off of a dirty hit in the 2018 postseason.

What Will Be the Biggest Challenge Against the Islanders?

The biggest challenge for the Penguins against the Islanders will be not allowing them to keep their shots to the outside, which was a major reason for the sweep in 2019. They will need to find a way to break through the trap system and get high-quality shots at a decent rate.

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The Islanders tend to slow down their opposition’s transition game. The Penguins can’t allow that to happen, as speed is a huge reason for their success, and if New York shuts that down, players like Bryan Rust and Kapanen become way less useful.

Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Do not allow the Islanders to get in close on Jarry. They benefit heavily off of rebounds and loose pucks near the net, as they play a gritty, grinding type of hockey. They do not have any stars who are elite at shooting the puck outside of Mat Barzal, who is not exactly a perennial top goal scorer himself.

First of Many

Well, that is all I am going to answer for the time being, but I hope to release these at least once a month, answering 5-10 questions. If you are interested in participating in the next one, follow my Instagram, @puckempire.

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