Dare we remind ourselves of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ debacle last playoff season when the Philadelphia Flyers provided a punch that still has the city of Pittsburgh in recovery. The Penguins’ organization and players hope they will never have to experience anything like that ever again. There are no more excuses for the Pens. Ray Shero may have orchestrated some of the best trade deadline moves we’ve ever seen and the Pens may never have a team more talented than their current roster. Things will all play out when they face-off against the New York Islanders tonight at the Consol Energy Center.
If the Pens want to succeed and live up to the Stanley Cup expectations that the rest of the league has for them, they will have to play as they did in 2009. That was the last year the Pens won a Cup. If they want to have a long playoff run, there are five key factors that will either make or break the Pens playoff aspirations this year.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are the most talented offensive team in the league. They need to prove this to be true if they want to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Last playoff year, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin did not stick out enough for the Pens to beat the Flyers. Jordan Staal was actually the Pens highest scorer in that series. To throw out a cliché, the Pens’ best players have to be their best players. They cannot depend on secondary scoring to get them through any series. With Crosby possibly in street clothes to begin the Islanders series, Malkin, James Neal, and Kris Letang will have to make an impression and be the Pens’ elite players.
Crosby is currently listed as a game-time decision entering Game 1 against the Islanders. The longer he is out the more trouble this could cause the Pens. Crosby’s absence creates a major hole in one of the top two scoring lines. In addition, Malkin’s shoulder is not right. His shot is not as accurate or as hard. Geno is passing up a ton of shots he would normally take if healthy. When Malkin does try to unleash a shot, sometimes the puck gets loose on him and flies over the net or sails well wide. The Pens also need Brooks Orpik to return as soon as possible for his physical presence. This may not happen in the opening series unless the series goes the distance. Orpik skated without hockey equipment today.
Since Dan Bylsma won a Stanley Cup in 2009, he has won exactly one playoff series. With a cast of future Hall-of-Famers on Bylsma’s roster this year, he will be under extreme pressure to press all the right buttons. Bylsma failed to take advantage of the last change and line match-ups in past playoffs. He began to match lines this season and needs to continue to find the right line match-ups if problems develop in any series. Bylsma has also influenced his talented group of players to play structured and tight defensive zone hockey. He needs to cast that same spell on his players for the Pens to find success in their first series.
The Pens found ways to win by holding onto leads in the regular season. The best teams in the NHL know how to close out games. The Pens must carry this over into the post-season. They blew a handful of two goal leads in their series against the Flyers last year. To play great defense, the Pens need to continue to collapse down low in house area and protect their slot. This may mean surrendering some point shots, but the Pens are better off giving up shots from the point than 10 feet in front of Marc-Andre Fleury.
Speak of the devil, Fleury has to be the Pens’ best defensive player if the team is going to triumph. He should not field all of the blame from last year’s disaster, but many people do single out the Flower. He did bounce back to have a great regular season. There were very few games in the regular season where Fleury had to unexpectedly play when he did not plan on standing between the pipes. Fleury should be fresh for the playoffs. If the Flower does not play his best, the Pens have a very formidable back-up in Tomas Vokoun.
Without any doubt, discipline will be the biggest factor to the Pens’ playoff dreams. The Pittsburgh Penguins were drawn into scuffles and fights after the whistle in the Flyers series. Neal and Letang averaged better than a penalty per game as they completely lost composure when faced with adversity against Philadelphia. This completely played in the Flyers’ favor as the Flyers’ power play was automatic in last year’s series when the Pens were shorthanded. The Islanders beat the Pens 4-1 in the two teams’ first meeting of the season and the Islanders’ power play torched the Pens in that game. The Pens’ penalty killing was atrocious in that particular game and has been inconsistent at best this season. When the Pens have surrendered one PP goal in a contest they seem to give up a handful more in the same game. They do not want to depend on their penalty killing to win a Stanley Cup.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Pens need to have enough discipline to play Bylsma’s stuctured system. If they get lazy and stray away from their game plan, they will find themselves in big trouble. The Los Angeles Kings are a Stanley Cup winning minority as they did not face much adversity in the playoffs a season ago. The Pens will more than likely have to face a grim situation. This will force the Pens into a situation where their discipline will be tested and they will have to grind their way to victory. If they do what they’ve done during the regular season, the odds are in the Pens favor to travel very far in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But as we all know, the regular season is over.