Pittsburgh Penguins: 2012 Playoff Edition

This is a Guest Post by Robert Bello

The Penguins concluded the 2011-12 season by winning the crucial last 3 games in a row, beating the #2 Seed Bruins and then the #1 Seed Rangers , thereby clinching home ice advantage against the 5th Seed Flyers.  In the season finale at home, Pittsburgh then snapped the Flyers 5 game win streak on the Penguins home ice, the Consol Energy Center (the Consol), in a 4-2 win to finish 51-25-6,  the 4th best record in the NHL this season, and the #4 seed in the Eastern Conference.  http://www.nhl.com/ice/standings.htm?season=20112012&type=CON (Final Conference Standings and Playoff Seeds).  The Penguins won almost 75% of their home games with a dominating 29-10-2 record at the Consol.

Pittsburgh Penguins 2012 Neal Kunitz Crosby
(Kevin Hoffman-US PRESSWIRE)

The club’s low point of the season was followed by an impressive run: After losing 6 in a row in early January and falling out of playoff contention, the Penguins roared back to go 25-5-2, gaining 52 of a possible 62 points and finish among the league’s elite Cup contenders.

Only 3 other teams, each division winners, the Canucks (Northwest Division, 111 points), Rangers (Atlantic 109) and Blues (Central, 109) had more points. The Penguins’ 108 points was the 2nd highest point total in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the Rangers. http://www.nhl.com/ice/standings.htm?season=20112012&type=LEA (Final League Point Totals).  The Penguins tied the Rangers for most regular season wins with 51 each.  It is the second highest point total in Penguins history: only the 119 points earned by the ’92-93 Penguins with Lemiuex, Stevens, Tocchet, Francis, Barrasso etc. tops it.

While the other top teams in each Conference were rewarded with easier 1st round challenges, the Penguins were not as fortunate. They draw the 6th best team in the NHL this year, the Philadelphia Flyers, who’s path to the playoffs resembled the Penguins in key areas. Both teams suffered substantial injuries to key players for extended periods of time (For the Penguins most notably Crosby (who Missed 60 games), Kris Letang (who missed 31 games) and Staal (32 games). For Philly Chris Pronger (declared done for the season and possibly for his career) with severe concussion symptoms in December, as well as extended injury periods for Sean Couterier, Mega Star Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, Daniel Briere and Brayden Schenn).

Yet both teams have risen above that challenge to finish in the Top 6 through superior offense (the Penguins led the league with 282 goals; the Flyers were tied for 2nd with Boston with 260 goals; they are #5 and #6 in the league on the power play, respectively) and outstanding goaltending. Penguin Goalie Marc Andre Fleury finished 2nd in the NHL with 42 wins and a 2.36 Goals Against Average (9th best among goalies that played at least 40 games this season), while the Flyers off-season acquisition of Ilya Bryzgalov to shore up a terrible goaltending situation ultimately paid off.

While Bryzgalov struggled  at times during the season to adapt to Philly’s unorthodox “rough and tumble” style, he finished as the 10th best netminder in the league with 33 wins and a 2.48 goals against average. This included an impressive late season run in March of 4 straight shutouts with a 10-2-1 record and 1.43 goals against average for the month, and finished the season with a total of 6 shutouts.

At first blush, going into this first round playoff series, the Flyers would seem to have an advantage, having won 4 of the last 5 meetings with the Penguins (and winning the Season series 4-2) and having won 5 straight on the Penguins home ice before yesterday’s loss.  However, that initial conclusion seems very premature upon closer examination of the strengths of the two teams. What is immediately noticeable is the clear talent differential.

The Penguins feature arguably ( and among knowledgeable hockey fans and experts there isn’t much room to argue) 3 centers in Crosby, Malkin and Staal who are among the league’s best, each with a combination of incredible talent, experience, consistent effectiveness and success  (and in Cros and Geno, arguably two of the best who EVER played).  Add the league’s 7th best point scorer and 4th leading goal scorer, Sniper James Neal with 81 points, 40 goals and a league leading 18 Power Play goals, and Defenseman Kris Letang who despite missing 31 games was still the 17th best scoring defenseman in the league with 42 points (10 goals, 32 assists) and 8th best among defenseman with a +21 plus/minus rating to the mix, and its clear that in the “Star Power” category the Penguins are loaded.

Winter Classic Coverage
Jaromir Jagr left in the 2nd with an injury (Tom Turk/The Hockey Writers)

Jaromir Jagr was supposed to provide consistent star power for the Flyers when signed in the off-season to replace the goal scoring prowess of two “traded away” stars:  Captain Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Yet Jagr’s struggle to reach just 20 goals and long droughts between effective contributions have left the Flyers with only Daniel Briere, an above average winger, and Claude Giroux as superior talents in their line-up, and Giroux is truly only at the start of a star-quality career.

To the Flyers credit, they have plugged the injury gaps with young players and rookies (including Wayne Simmonds with a career high 28 goals after coming over from LA for Richards, and Jacob Voracek with 18 goals coming over from Columbus for Carter) who have responded admirably. And since they are well-schooled by former Cup winning Coach Peter Laviolette (Carolina, 2006), they have impressively made the most of gritty, grinding, physical, but still just a bit better than average  talent to get to the top 6 (including former Penguin Playoff Hero Maxime Talbot, who has scored a career best 19 goals and been a leader as the 3rd line checking center).

On defense, the Flyers have a physical group of Defensemen, with 4 of the 6 averaging 6’4” and 220 pounds, but nothing approaching the offensive talent the Penguins have with Kris Letang (who would have easily been a Norris Trophy Candidate for the League’s best defenseman if he had not missed 31 games with two lengthy concussion injuries) and Paul Martin.

Moreover, the Penguins’ Zybenek Michalek, Derek Engelland, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, and Ben Lovejoy are among the league’s most defensively solid defense corps in the league: with their superior defensive play (and the Rock Solid play of Marc Andre Fleury in the net), the Penguins had the league’s 2nd best “Goals Scored to Goals Given Up” differential of +61 (282 goals scored/221 goals given up). As a group the Penguins defense are more nimble, do a better job of jumping into plays and keeping the puck alive in the offensive zone and of making long break-out passes to set up great odd man break scoring chances.  This often does and should result in extra even strength offense to the Penguins’ benefit.

Between the pipes, despite Bryzgalov’s impressive finish this season, he has been inconsistent over the course of the year and its anyone’s guess which of his Jekyll and Hyde personalities will emerge in this season’s playoffs. In last year’s post-season with Phoenix, he was deemed expendable after allowing a horrific 4.36 goals against average in a 4 game sweep of the Coyotes by Detroit.

The Flyers signed him to a 9 year $51 Million contract and they are pinning their hopes on that investment. Should he struggle in the early games of this playoff series, Laviolette may insert back-up Sergei Bobrovsky into the line-up as Bobrovsky has had incredible success against the Penguins, going 5-1 over the last two seasons (with his first loss to Pittsburgh in that span being the season finale yesterday).

But if yesterday’s game and the prior one are any indication, the Pens have now seen Bobrovsky enough times to know he goes down early and often and that the key to scoring is to deke and roof it.  Should enough panic in the Flyers game set in that Bobrovsky is called upon, it should be a clear indication that the Penguins are having their way and will mercifully end the Flyer’s season soon thereafter.

By contrast, Fleury was their Rock of Gibralter during the defining moment of their season, the 25-5-2 streak from Mid January to the end of March.  Although he struggled a bit in the Penguins brief losing streak near the end of the season, Flower regained the form that took him to the 2nd most wins in the NHL this year (42) against the Rangers in the next to last game. And he similarly looked very sharp in the first half of the season finale against Philly (he was replaced in that meaningless game midway through it by Brent Johnson for rest purposes).

Fleury has been a premier netminder for Pittsburgh since the Cup win in 2009, but he has steadily continued to improve his game to become among the very best in the NHL in the past two seasons,

Marc-Andre Fleury (Flickr/wstera)

with Goals Against Averages of 2.3 both years and as THE Penguins difference maker in the defensive zone game in and game out.  It is safe to say that if there is one particular area where the Penguins have the biggest advantage over the Flyers, its with a proven winner under pressure in the net with The Flower.

What do the Flyers have going for them in this playoff series? Amongst all the teams in the league, Philadelphia  somehow seem to have that little X Factor when playing the Pens, as cross state rivals. There is a tortured history between these teams since they both joined the league in the first  NHL expansion draft of 1967, as the Flyers of old once tormented Pittsburgh with an unbeaten streak against them on home ice at the old Spectrum of 42 straight games, from 1974 to 1989.

More recently,  the Flyers won 4 of the  6 meeting this season and had been 5-0 at Pittsburgh’s new home, the Consol, from the date it opened in 2010 until yesterday.  That said, in my experience, those regular season losses does not necessarily translate into success in a 7 game playoff series.  In that crucible of pressure, the best talent, and the coolest players under pressure, ultimately win out.

In that vein, one can hardly dispute that the Penguins have the superior talent (by a wide margin), better and more consistent goaltending  and more experience (A) in the playoffs and (B) playing as the same core group in meaningful playoff situations.  (The Pens won the Cup in 2009; A more experienced, higher scoring Flyer team WITH their Leader and Defensive Dominator Chris Pronger fell short in the 2010 Finals: THIS year’s group may have better goaltending but is a far cry from the 2010 Flyer world-beaters). And for first time in two years, the Penguins are relatively healthy and  can unleash the 3 best centers in the game at the same time.  All of that adds up, in my estimation, to a pretty definitive probability of Pittsburgh winning the series in 6 games,  notwithstanding all the hype and the bloodshed the Flyers will exact for having their season cut short.

What the Pens will have to guard against is what they always have in their 45 year history of playing the Flyers: getting drawn into extracurriculars, the rough stuff, having to then play shorthanded and risking suspension situations that take Pittsburgh away from its strength, playing good solid offensive hockey. If the Flyers can goad the Penguins into a boxing match and away from REAL hockey, the Flyers have a real chance of making this a competitive series.

That said, the statistical dominance and offensive firepower the Penguins have showcased this season is truly remarkable, and in my estimation, provides ample evidence that the Penguins not only have an excellent chance of beating the Flyers, but also a very strong chance to compete in the Stanley Cup Final.

And you can start by considering the massive impact of Sidney Crosby, one of the greatest players to ever put on skates, who is added to a team that had already figured out how to finish among the league’s elite teams even without him in the lineup for 61 games this season.  (Sid was also sidelined for the entire second half of last season with concussion symptoms, missing a staggering total of 101 of the team’s last 164 games over two seasons). As he picks up steam from being out twice this season with severe concussion symptoms, a rested Sid is a nightmare for the opposition: Witness his 3 goals and 7 assists in the final 5 games of this season (2 points per game).

Since his most recent return on March 15th, Crosby has 26 points in only 14 games. Despite lengthy periods between game action, Sid has returned each time without missing a beat. Between his brief 8 game return in November/December and second return in March, he finished this season with a total of 37 points in just 22 games, a 1.68 point per game average, without any sense of needing to slowly “ease back into” his game.

“Hitting the ice flying” doesn’t even begin to cover it: Crosby made an immediate and multi-point impact both times he returned this year, and he is just getting revved up as the Playoffs begin.  For example, Crosby had three 4 point games in his severely shortened 2011-12 season, including a goal and 3 assists to beat Buffalo on March 29th.  There’s no doubt he can still singlehandedly dominate a game and propel the Penguins to victory.

And Crosby has historically excelled against Philadelphia, with 64 points (27 goals, 37 assists), the second highest point total against one team in his career (only the Islanders have given up more points to Sid’s scoring prowess). In the playoffs, Sid has 6 goals and 9 assists in 11 games against the Flyers.

Of course, you can forget Crosby when you talk about Pittsburgh’s success as an elite level franchise this season because Sid missed 75% of the season.  The Art Ross Trophy Winner for most points in a season this year went to Evgeni Malkin with 109 points (50 Goals, 59 assists).  In this writer’s opinion, Geno also has no legitimate competition for the Hart Trophy as the League’s MVP.  His statistical domination of the league is matched and surpassed only by the visual spectacle in which he accomplished those statistical feats. Malkin’s recovery from missing the 2nd half of last season with a torn ACL and MCL and major off-season rehab makes his incredible success this year all the more impressive. Like Crosby, it was not in Geno’s DNA to take it slow and ease back into form.  He won the scoring title despite missing the first 7 games of the year due to continuing rehab.

Once he re-entered the lineup, Malkin relentlessly took the league by storm all season l with his dominating puck control style, an imposing 6’3” 200 pound Dynamo with a long reach and “deadly weapon” hands.  In the absence of Crosby, their Captain and leader, most of the year, Geno took the baton and through his superior play made everyone on the team better, leading the Penguins to victory on the ice and in the locker room.

Whether finding the open teammate with a  “soft as a feather” pass for an uncontested shot with his great vision and anticipation, setting up his sniper linemates James Neal for one of his 40 goals (18 on the power play) or Chris Kunitz for one of his 26 goals, gaining the blueline with his smooth stick-handling and skating style, creating a turnover and scoring chance with his deceptive back-checking, firing a wrist or slapshot to a perfect spot in the net, or turning the opposing goalie inside out with a perfect deke and THEN gracefully depositing the puck into the twine, Malkin was THE BEST PLAYER in the NHL this season. BAR NONE. END OF REPORT.

Evgeni Malkin
(Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

The statistical evidence supports the Malkin Magic we saw with our own eyes all year.  Malkin hit the celebrated 50 goal mark in the last game of the season on a wicked wrist shot. Although more common in the 1980s and early ‘90s, in the more defensive minded and better goaltending era of the 2000s, only an elite group of 18 players have scored 50 goals in a season in the last 10 years. Sid did it once. This is Malkin’s 2nd Scoring title (Crosby won it once). And this flash of brilliance by Geno is nothing new: Malkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Playoff MVP in the Pens 2009 Cup winning year with 36 points, more than any player since Gretzky scored 40 in 1993.

Malkin had three 5 point games, and was the only player to get three hat tricks  this season.  He was 2nd in the league in goals scored, 3rd in assists, 2nd in power play points with 34, and 8th in power play goals with 12. In every aspect of the game, Malkin excelled: Consistency: he averaged 1.5 points per game. Defensive responsibility: of the top 10 goal scorers, Malkin was 2nd with a +18 plus/minus rating.  And coming through in the clutch: Of the top 10 goal scorers, Malkin was 2nd with 15 goals against division rivals (NY Rangers, Flyers, Devils) where crucial points were on the line.

Geno was also instrumental in the Penguins getting 9 shoot-out wins (and thus 9 extra points in the standings) by being 2nd in the league with 8 shootout “goals” in 11 chances, a 73% success rate, with 3 of those goals being the game deciding shootout goal.  Geno scored 8 goals this season in the 3rd period or Overtime which either tied the score or won it, in scenarios where the Penguins ultimately won the game. Clearly, with the game on the line, you want Malkin to have the puck.

All of this statistical brilliance, and unlike Steve Stamkos (who scored 60 goals but had his Tampa team fail to make the playoffs) having that individual success uplift is team and translate into massive team success ,  makes clear that Malkin should get the Hart Trophy. And is another reason that Philadelphia, and the Penguins potential next round opponents, have ALOT to overcome to beat the Penguins.

Add to that the Solid contribution of Jordan Staal, the best 3rd line center in hockey, who, despite being consistently utilized in a defensive role to stop the opposing team’s best line, has still found a way to regularly contribute offensively, with 29 points in his last 29 games.  In fact, Staal’s line with Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke may be the best 3rd line in hockey, with Kennedy being a gifted goal scorer like Staal, and Cooke willing to take the beating that goes with scoring the ugly goals in front and screening the goalie to allow point shots to score. Between Malkin’s line, Crosby’s line, and Staal’s line, there is no break in the offensive shelling for opposing teams or their netminders.

Playing with Crosby is veteran Steve Sullivan, a gifted  playmaker and goal scorer who has excelled all season in a leadership role, setting up key goals and quarterbacking the power play, which went from one of the worst to one of the best this season. And Pascal Dupuis, Crosby’s other linemate, finished the season with a 17 game point scoring streak (10 goals, 7 assists), tops in consecutive game scoring in the NHL this season.  Dupuis’ speed, tenaciousness and now goal scoring touch (one of six 20+ goal scorers on the Pens with 26) have been a tremendous boost to the offense. And Dupuis is another man who gets it done in the clutch: he led the team in game winning goals with 8.

Special teams is a critical element of playoff success. Since the play involves greater checking, more clutching and grabbing, and essentially much less time  and space to make a play in the playoffs, games are frequently decided by special teams. The Penguins finished the season with the 5th best power play scoring at a 19.9% clip (the Flyers were right behind, finishing 6th with a 19.7% effectiveness rate).  The Penguins truly excelled in killing penalties, with Staal, Dupuis, Cooke, Craig Adams, Brooks Orpik, Zybnek Michalek and Kris Letang among the best in the league. That is reflected in the Pens rank of 3rd best at an 88.8% penalty kill rate. The Flyers could suffer here at 17th with only a 81.2% penalty kill rate against one of the best power plays in the league.

From a coaching perspective, both Bylsma and Laviolette have won the Cup as coaches and both have shown an ability to get the most from their players in challenging circumstances (Bylsma won the Jack Adams Coach of the Year Award last year for his effort in getting the Penguins into a 2nd place tie with the Flyers in the Eastern Conference despite not having Staal the first half of the year or Crosby or Malkin for the second half).   Bylsma seems a little better motivator but Laviolette has gotten great production from a group of younger players so its difficult to give either coach the edge here.  It will be the players who decide this one.

Thanks for reading. LET THE GAMES BEGIN.

It’s a Great Day for Hockey.
The Badger

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