Here are some numbers to consider as the Penguins prepare for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs against Ottawa:
*Sidney Crosby had no goals in four games against the Senators this year.
*Sidney Crosby had 51 goals in 77 other NHL games against the rest of the league.
*Sidney Crosby had three points in four games against the Senators this year.
*Sidney Crosby had 106 points in 77 other games against the rest of the league.
In four games against the Senators this year, Sidney Crosby was a -3. Against the rest of the NHL hew was a +15
Here are some other numbers that may indicate why: 12, 4, 24
Those are the numbers of Mike Fisher, Chris Phillips, and Anton Volchenkov.
Fisher is renowned as one of the better two way forwards in the league. Meanwhile Phillips and Volchenkov are regarded as a shutdown defensive pair. And they are deployed against Crosby’s line almost all the time.
If Crosby is Canadian Superman, that trio adds up to Canadian kryptonite. But Sir Sidney is welcoming the challenge.
“They’re a talented pair (Volchenkov and Phillips). And they’ve played good team defense. But there’s always new games, and there‘s always new opportunities,” said Crosby after practice Tuesday morning, “But that’s a challenge and that’s why you play the game.”
Another challenge may be for coach Dan Bylsma to figure out how to get Crosby away from Volchenkov, Phillips, and Fisher. After all, the Penguins do have home ice advantage. So that means 4-out-of-7 games Bylsma will have the last change. And Bylsma admits the Senators “chase” that match up on the ice even when they are on the road to make sure #87 sees #’s 12, 4, & 24.
“They’ve gotten quick changes to get their defensemen (Volchenkov and Phillips) on the ice in certain circumstances. We‘re going to try to create as many challenges as possible for those two if they are going to try to shut down one guy (Crosby),” said Bylsma. “We’re going to give them strength on the ice when those guys aren’t out there.”
By “strength” that probably means Evgeni Malkin. He is, after all, the second best scorer Pittsburgh has. And he is the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Unlike Crosby, Malkin has five goals in four games against Ottawa this year. And that probably isn’t a coincidence if Crosby’s line has been getting the brunt of attention from Phillips, Volchenkov, and Fisher.
Malkin can’t just be good against Ottawa this month. He has to be great. And the power play has to be excellent too. And the Penguins are going to have to skate like maniacs and perhaps draw those three ace defenders into some penalty box time.
And …oh, yeah… beat the hell out of them too. Especially Volchenkov and Phillips. Nail them every time they have the puck.
“We’ve just got to get pucks behind them. Kind of deter them. A lot of guys don’t like to turn and get pucks,” claims Penguin winger Chris Kunitz. “You have to lean on ‘em, and lean on ‘em, and lean on ‘em and make them play as many tough minutes as possible.”
That’s easier said than done. All three players are big and tough. Phillips is 6’3” and 215lbs. His partner, Volchenkov, is a stout 6’1” 228. And even Fisher is a rugged 6’1” 215. But these guys aren’t just statuesque oak trees. Plus, Kunitz is one of Pittsburgh’s most willing and most effective hitters. And he’s inured. He may not play in game one. Furthermore, Kunitz’s bad shoulder may hamper his hitting ability.
In particular, the defensemen impress their Penguin blue-line peers.
“They are guys who bring it every night. They are true professionals in every sense of the word. They are good shot blockers and they play against the other team‘s top line every night. They always stay solid,” says Mark Eaton. “ Volchenkov is more of a shot blocker and a physical guy. Phillips is more of a cerebral player and a positional guy. Different players. But if you put them together they make a good tandem.”
The Penguins had something like that last year with Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi. Those guys are gone this year though. And to paraphrase Rick Pitino: “They ain’t skating through that Zamboni entrance either.”
So some pair in Pittsburgh’s end of the ice better play defense like Volchenkov and Phillips. And Jordan Staal better be every bit the two-way stud Fisher is.
Otherwise, the six months of hand wringing we’ve all been doing about the Penguins perhaps playing New Jersey or Washington may become a moot point… because with talent like that the Penguins may be in danger of losing in the first round to Ottawa.