The Pittsburgh Penguins entered the 2013 playoffs as heavy favorites against their first round opponent, the New York Islanders. After all, this was David and Goliath. Engineers of both a fifteen and seven game winning streak, the Penguins entered the playoffs having won 23 of their last 27 games. The Islanders, meanwhile, are an up and coming squad, a franchise that hasn’t qualified for the postseason since 2007 or won a playoff series since they upset these same Pittsburgh Penguins way back in 1993.
Despite all the Pens regular season success, though, there are question marks surrounding this club as they enter the postseason. After all, following their 2009 championship, Pittsburgh has won exactly one playoff series. In fact, they have been bounced by a lower seed in three straight postseason matchups. Following their implosion against the archrival Flyers in the first round last year, the hockey world is anxious to see how they will respond now that the playoffs are underway.
If their first game against the Islanders is any indication, this Pittsburgh team is focused on exorcising its recent playoff demons and beginning a long postseason march. Yes, it has only been one game and, yes, it was against an opponent that many would consider to be inferior. But, nevertheless, it was impressive.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some things that stood out.
Coming into the playoffs, pundits and fans alike considered Marc-Andre Fleury to be the Penguins’ elephant in the room. If the team wasn’t able to make a deep playoff run, it was going to because of Fleury. Considering the team’s recent postseason success (or lack thereof) and The Flower’s .834 save percentage and 4.63 GAA against the Flyers last spring, perhaps there is something to that. At the same time, virtually none of the Penguins played well in that Philadelphia series and to place the blame entirely at Fleury’s feet is a bit unfair. He was, after all, overworked down the stretch, something that may have impacted his sub-par performance.
Well, Fleury certainly made a statement Wednesday night, stopping each of the 26 shots he faced to record his sixth career postseason shutout and, in the process, tied Tom Barrasso’s franchise record. Though never under siege for long periods, Fleury was solid between the pipes, something that will put Pens’ fans at ease (at least for the time being).
No one has ever questioned the Pens’ skill or offensive ability. Clearly, a team doesn’t score the most goals in the league two years in a row without talent. No, the problem Pittsburgh has faced in the recent past stems from defensive effort and play without the puck. They needed more character. More toughness. They needed to be less one-dimensional.
And that is precisely why GM Ray Shero, quickly becoming a master of the deadline deal, recognized the need to make the moves he did at the deadline. In Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow, the Pens obtained two rugged, former captains who are hungry to win a championship late in their careers. In Douglas Murray, Pittsburgh gets a punishing, stay at home defenseman who makes life miserable for opposing forwards. And in Jussi Jokinen, the club gets a versatile face-off specialist. Together, the additions provide the Pens with dimensions that they simply haven’t possessed in recent seasons.
The results were evident Wednesday night as the new blood has clearly infused a new attitude in Shero’s club. They looked hungry. They looked like the wanted to atone for past playoff failures. They looked like they wanted a championship.
Simply put, they absolutely punished the Islanders. Not only, for example, was John Taveres held without a shot but he was taught a harsh lesson about the toughness of playoff hockey. Whether it was courtesy of Doug Murray or Kris Letang, the Penguins took the body on the Islanders star at every opportunity they got. The result was a frustrated Taveres who proved to be ineffective throughout the evening.
The Penalty Kill
One of the few issues Pittsburgh faced during the regular season came from their penalty killing. Ranked 25th in the league, the Pens knew this would need to improve if they were to return to Stanley Cup glory. First test? The aforementioned John Taveres and the New York Islanders 11th ranked power play.
So far, so good. The Islanders went 0 for 4 with the man advantage Wednesday night. What’s more, they really didn’t generate many quality chances. The Penguins suffocated New York’s skilled players and, when there was a breakdown, Fleury was there to shut the door. If the Penguins can keep up this kind of effort, it will go a long way toward shoring up one of the few flaws that they have suffered from this season.
Clearly, one playoff game does not make a postseason march. But the Penguins opening 60 minutes made a clear statement with regards to any questions their critics may have had about what this team is capable of this spring.