Despite the fact the Washington Capitals ran away with the Eastern Conference, the target is on the backs of the Pittsburgh Penguins as they prepare to faceoff against the Ottawa Senators Wednesday at 7pm. Unless Brian Elliott becomes a impenetrable brick wall, the Penguins should steamroll the Senators in 5 games – but after that, it could get interesting. Following up on back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals, can the Penguins win it again? Here are ten reasons, in no particular order, why they’re likely to fall short.
1. They Can’t Beat the Trap
The New Jersey Devils unveiled a blueprint on how to beat the Penguins by going 6-0 in the season series. With Jacques Lemaire back behind the Devils bench, that notorious Devils trap is in full-force and gave Pittsburgh fits. As the season progressed, teams began to realize that one way to stop the Penguins three-center juggernaut was to trap and play mistake-free hockey. It was never more obvious than last week when the Capitals (typically a high-flying offense) got an early lead on Pittsburgh and rarely sent an extra forward inside the blueline the rest of the game, leading to a 6-3 victory.
Among hockey experts, it’s generally known that there are two main ways to beat the trap. One option is to allow your skill players to skate through it. While Crosby, Malkin, and Staal seem capable, the Penguins wingers are just too slow (Guerin) or lack the skill (Dupuis, Talbot, Kennedy) to make this strategy work.
The other option is to simply score first and force the trapping team to play from behind and go on the attack. This doesn’t bode well for the Penguins either. In their last 11 games, they allowed the first goal in 9 of them, and their two early leads were against the hapless Islanders.
2. Powerplay Percentage = 17.2%
A possible third way of beating the trap is to capitalize on opportunities, and specifically on the powerplay. This is another area the Penguins have struggled mightily for long stretches. It doesn’t make sense that a powerplay with the likes of Crosby, Malkin, and Gonchar could be in the bottom half of the league, but that’s the case this season.
In recent weeks, Crosby has started to rely less on forcing cross-ice passes and instead is finding shooting lanes, but when the puck hits Malkin’s stick, the powerplay stops dead in it’s tracks. Without a legitmate right-handed option to balance out a slew of left-handed stars, it makes it too easy for opposing teams to take away Gonchar and force Crosby or Malkin to score on individual efforts. When the defense tightens up in the playoffs, you need an effective powerplay to advance.
3. Stat via Corey Masisak (Twitter):
There are 8 teams w/more points than the Pens this year. They are 3-16 against them. 3-1 against Buffalo and 0-15 against the rest. Ouch.
- I typically don’t put a ton of stock into regular season results, but these numbers are a definite concern. To be the best you need to beat the best and while the Penguins found ways to win in last year’s playoffs, at some point they’ll need to win four games against the likes of Washington, New Jersey, and the elite teams of the Western Conference.
- 4. Where Are Evgeni Malkin’s Parents?
Last season, Malkin’s parents became cult heroes after their arrival in the city of Pittsburgh. Evgeni seemed inspired and relaxed at every game they attended on his way to the Art Ross Trophy as the regular season scoring champion. In the playoffs, father Vladimir was often seen amusingly high-fiving and hugging female fans after big goals by Geno. Malkin’s parents have been nowhere to be found this season, despite Evgeni claiming they are on their way. After a curiously slow start, Malkin said his parents would arrive in January; then in time for the Olympics; now he says they’ll be here for playoffs. Could their absence be part of the reason why Malkin looked distracted and even disinterested for long stretches throughout the season? Perhaps even a falling out between the family? It’s tough to say, but Malkin has surely not looked himself.
5. Alex Goligoski
Last week, we touched on Goligoski’s disappointing play as of late:
While Goligoski looked well on his way to filling Gonchar’s shoes early this season, he’s never recovered from a November leg injury. The lasting physical effects of the injury may have been a legitimate excuse for a while, but the issues seem to have shifted to mental for Goligoski. Without the confidence to shoot the puck and take control of the game, it’s hard to imagine the Penguins not being forced to find a replacement for Gonchar.
With the stakes higher in the playoffs and some clear mental hurdles standing in the way, Goligoski will cost the Penguins a game at some point along the way. Hopefully it comes in the first round when there’s still time to sit him in the press box and dress the defensive shot-blocker Jay McKee in his place.
6. The Washington Capitals
In what might qualify as borderline obsession, the Capitals have had their eyes on beating the Penguins for years, maybe even decades. Ahead of their first round matchup with the Montreal Canadians, the Caps are already looking on to bigger and better things:
“I’m certainly not looking forward to playing them,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I hope they lose in the first round. If we have to play them, we have to play them.”
Last year, the Capitals were devastated after getting blown out in the pivotal game 7 matchup with Pittsburgh. Injuries were likely to blame as it was later revealed Ovechkin, Green, Semin, and Poti were all battling various ailments. This year, after cruising through the Eastern Conference, anything short of a Stanley Cup will equal disappointment in Washington.
Malkin and Gonchar are back after missing games in recent weeks due to injury, but their absence revealed a team without as much depth as once thought. With a full squad, the Penguins have the pieces to make a long playoff run, but injuries are inevitable this time of year. With Chris Kunitz already battling a shoulder injury, if another player like Guerin, Staal, or heaven forbid Crosby/Malkin go down, Tyler Kennedy just isn’t a capable replacement.
8. Marc-Andre Fleury
Fleury could easily be reason #1 why this team will win the Cup again as he always seems to raise his game at this time of year, but his recent play can’t leave fans feeling too comfortable. He’s still been making the flashy, game-changing saves reminiscent of recent Cup runs, but it’s the soft goals that are a definite concern.
For a high-scoring team like Washington, their goaltending tandem of Theodore and Varlamov just needs to avoid playing bad. For a team like Pittsburgh with an inconsistent defensive corps, Fleury may need to be outstanding.
Fleury is at this best when he’s confident and controlled in the crease. He’s lost that swagger after allowing terribly soft goals in many recent games. If he starts to over-commit on his angles and direct rebounds into the slot like he did against the Senators in the 2007 playoffs, it could be a quick exit for the Penguins.
In the past two years, the Penguins have started slow and rode late-season surges just to get into the playoffs. They carried that momentum into April, May, and June – a characteristic you often see in successful playoff teams. This year is different. The Penguins have been comfortably in the playoff picture for much of the season, and their mediocre effort level has showed. Can they “flick the on switch” as Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski asked in his playoff preview?
Maybe the best thing that could happen to this team would be for Ottawa to steal a game or two in Pittsburgh and force the Penguins to play with some desperation.
That’s the number of games the Penguins have played in the past three seasons, not taking into account the February Olympics. At some point, fatigue becomes a factor for teams looking to win back-to-back Cups. Detroit was the last team to do it in 1997-98, and many teams struggle to stay mentally sharp and physically dominant.
There isn’t a team in this years playoffs without a weakness or two, but it might take otherworldly efforts by Fleury, Crosby, and Malkin, along with timely contributions from their supporting cast to bring the Cup back to Pittsburgh.