Pittsburgh-It’s about that time of the year where the grass gets a little greener, and the air outside smells like playoff hockey. Before the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin, there is a lot of unfinished business that needs to be settled in the Eastern Conference. The Philadelphia Flyers, in the eyes of most hockey experts, are crumbling down the stretch. On the other hand, the conference leading Washington Capitals seem to be shaping into post-season form at just the right time.
The Pittsburgh Penguins could finish anywhere from 2nd to 5th in the Eastern Conference. With the way that the Flyers are playing right now, the Pens have a strong possibility to finish 1st in the Atlantic Division. If the Pens do win their division, they could be situated as the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference depending upon how the Boston Bruins finish the regular season.
The NHL playoffs are more about match-ups than they are about home-ice advantage. They are more about what team is hot at the right time, and what team has their best players showing up on the score sheet every night.
With the uncertainty about the return of Sidney Crosby, there are some favorable match-ups and one not so favorable match-up for the Pens. The Pens could faceoff against any team sitting anywhere from 5th to 9th place in the Eastern Conference standings. These teams include the Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes. The Pens have a tremendous opportunity to prevail in the 1st round of the playoffs based solely upon experience. Here are some key points examining possible playoff opponents for the Penguins.
Tampa Bay Lightning:
This is the most likely opponent that the Pens will face in the post-season. The Lightning are back after a four year absence. Being away from the playoffs for four seasons is like starting all over again for the Lightning. Playoff hockey is a different breed, and being away from it for four years will be a rude awakening for the Lightning. Dwayne Roloson, the Lightning’s 42-year old netminder, has posted a 2.58 goals against average since joining the team midway through the season. Most experts believe Roloson does not have what it takes to beat the Pens in the first round. The best playoff goaltenders are consistent in every game. Roloson hasn’t been close to consistent while posting a 17-12 record with Tampa Bay. Roloson has only been to the post-season 3 times in his NHL career. The playoffs are about experience, and Marc-Andre Fleury has more playoff games under his belt in the past 3 years than the veteran, Roloson does in his entire career.The Lightning’s starting netminder has a 4.13 goals against average against a Pens team that has had many difficulties scoring goals.
Speaking of experience, the Lightning’s best defenseman, Victor Hedman, has no playoff experience. The Lightning depend upon their young nucleus to produce. Vincent Lecavalier is not the Art Ross Trophy candidate he once was a few years ago. Steven Stamkos has one goal against Pens in four games this season.
While the Lightning do have better talent up front than the Pens currently do on paper, the Pens will be able to tighten up their defense even more once the playoffs begin. But if the Pens continue to take penalties at the same rate as they did in the regular season, they will get burned against the Lightning and their 6th ranked powerplay in the 1st round. If the Pens stay out of the penalty box and play their normal game, they will prevail in a 1st round match-up against the Lightning.
The Habs are the last team the Pens and their fan base want to see in the playoffs. The Canadiens pulled an ugly trick on the Pens last post-season by upsetting the defending Stanley Cup champs, at that time, in a game 7 at Mellon Arena. Mike Cammalleri led the playoffs in goal scoring with 13 goals. This season he has also torched the Pens by scoring three goals in as many games. The Pens usually do a stellar job shutting down the opponent’s best forward, but for some reason they have not been able to slow down Cammalleri.
The Pens were 1-3 against the Habs this year. The Canadiens have a way in which they get under the skin of the Pens. The Habs game plan to stay patient and wait for their opportunities worked wonders against the Penguins in last year’s Eastern Conference Semi-finals. The hate and frustration that the Pens have for the Canadiens stilled seemed to be in full force in their four regular season meetings this season. The Pens only managed to score five goals in four games against the Canadiens. Carey Price looked very cool, calm and collected against the Pens, as he almost does in every game he plays against Pittsburgh.
The one positive thing for the Pens is that they will not have to face Jaroslav Halak in this year’s playoffs if they would play the Habs. Halak was not only in the heads’ of the Penguins, but Halak was in the heads’ of every player he faced in last year’s post-season. The reason why Halak was picked to go between the pipes over Price was because Price has not fared well in the post-season. If Carey Price lets in a weak goal early on in the playoffs, the momentum may just swing in the Pens favor.
New York Rangers:
The Pens were 2-3-1 against the Rangers this season. They were unable to beat the Rangers at the CONSOL Energy Center, but the Pens have always seemed to have playoff success against New York. The Rangers did not put up much of a fight in 2008 when the Pen ousted them in five games.
Marian Gaborik is not scoring at his usual rate this season. After posting a 42-goal season a year ago, maybe Gaborik’s injuries are finally catching up to him. Gaborik has tallied 22 goals in 60 games this year. He has two goals and three assists in six games against Pittsburgh. That type of production is not what most expect from Gaborik given his past 2 full seasons.
The Penguin killer has been Ryan Callahan. Good news for the Pens, Callahan broke his ankle blocking a shot against the Bruins a few games ago. Callahan has the game-winning goal in each game that the Rangers have come out on top against the Pens. Callahan has five goals and 4 assists in six games against the Pens. He has absolutely owned the Pens this season.
With the Rangers struggling to score goals just as much as the Penguins, the advantage goes to the Pens in this match-up. The Rangers never travel very far in the playoffs. They have not been a real threat to the Eastern Conference since back in the early 90’s. This series would more than likely be boring due to neither team being able to produce many goals. Anyone would choose Fleury over Henrik Lundqvist due to Fleury’s playoff experience. King Henrik has won a total of two playoff series his entire career. The Flower exceeded that in one playoff run.
As talented of a goaltender as Ryan Miller has been in his career, the Pens would still prevail over the Sabres. The Pens swept the season series against Buffalo. The Sabres tallied a total of five goals in four games against the Pens. The Sabres do not have a true scoring talent on the offensive end. Thomas Vanek seems to be on the downside of his career and hasn’t been putting up the same goal-scoring numbers as he did in years prior.
Miller’s numbers against the Pens were not in line with what is expected of the best U.S. born goaltender in the NHL. His goals against average was close to 3.5 against the Pens this season, and he had a save percentage under 90%.
The Sabres are fighting for dear life just to be invited into the post-season. While no team takes a night off in the NHL, other teams can relax a bit knowing that they will be playing at the end of the regular season.
The Hurricanes playoff hopes just caught a boost last night with the New York Rangers losing to the Atlanta Thrashers at Madison Square Garden. The Canes have two games in hand on the Rangers and own the tie-breaker against them if they would end the season with the same number of points. The Canes are in a battle with the Sabres as well.
The Pens may find themselves facing the Canes in the playoffs again, setting the stage for the Canes to get redemption for a loss in the conference finals against the Pens two years ago.
The Canes have a strong, young bunch of forwards leading their team. Eric Staal is one of the most feared offensive threats in the NHL. They also have former Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Cam Ward in net.
Although, the Pens beat the Canes three times this season, the Canes would be on a roll if they ended up
meeting the Pens in the 1st round. Barely squeezing into the playoffs, and out to get revenge, a 1st round match-up with the Hurricanes would be scary for the Pens.
Even without Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pens should win their first round match-up. There aren’t many playoff savvy teams resting at the bottom of the standings. We should see the Pens in the 2nd round, and hopefully starting that 2nd round with their captain.