The Pittsburgh Penguins begin their journey tonight of defending their Stanley Cup title and are looking to become the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma is not looking ahead and is only focused on the Ottawa Senators. “We know we’re not competing for the Stanley Cup right now. We’re competing to get four wins against the Ottawa Senators, ” Bylsma said.
Despite recording their 6th-100 point season in team history and earning a No. 4 seed in the playoffs, questions and concerns surround the Penguins heading into their first round series against the Senators.
Among the major question marks is whether the Penguins more mobile-style defense is built to win in the playoffs, while questions also surround what kind of production the Penguins will get from their group of mediocre wingers and the inconsistent play of Marc Andre Fleury down the stretch.
The Penguins are built to win down the middle and the play from Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal will dictate the Penguins success in their first round matchup against Ottawa.
Crosby heads into the playoffs playing what he considers to be the best hockey of his career. Tied for the NHL lead in goals with 51, Crosby scored 18 goals in his final 30 regular season games.
Crosby has recorded 62 points (24 goals, 38 assists) in 49 career playoff games, including a team high 15 goals last post-season.
Malkin heads into the post-season after what was a frustrating regular season. Injuries and inconsistent play led to career-lows in goals (28), assists (49) and points (77), along with a plus-minus rating of minus-6 and 100 PIM.
However, Malkin had a strong end to the season, scoring 5 goals in his final 5 regular games. He is skating around with a jump in his skate as the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, looks to have a repeat performance from 2009 when he scored 14 goals and 36 points in 22 postseason games.
The Senators game plan will center around shutting down Crosby and Malkin and making the Penguins beat them in other areas.
Defensemen Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips will get the exclusive role of shutting down Crosby.
Crosby will also see plenty of the Senators second line of Matt Cullen – Mike Fisher and Milan Michalek.
All three players are strong defensively, especially Fisher who is among the top two-way players in the game. Fisher had a career high 25 goals and Michalek was third on the team with just 22 goals in 66 games
Meanwhile, big rugged defenseman Andy Sutton will get the assignment of slowing down Evgeni Malkin.
The depth of Ottawa’s blueline will be tested as top-four defenseman Filip Kuba will miss the entire series due to back problems. The loss of Kuba, puts 19 year old defenseman Erik Karlsson on the prime stage of playing a top-four role against Malkin.
Evgeni Malkin is widely considered to be Pittsburgh’s x-factor in the series but so is Jordan Staal.
In year four, Staal had his most complete season, scoring 21 goals and 49 points, including a team-high plus/minus rating of plus 19.
With the last change in games 1 and 2, Staal will likely get the assignment of shutting down Senators dynamic center Jason Spezza and the Senators top line of Peter Regin – Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson
Spezza like Malkin is regarded as the Senators x-factor in the series.
A knee injury hindered Spezza’s play in the first half of the season but since late January, Spezza has scored 18 goals and added 20 assists in the Senators final 30 games. Spezza’s 18 goals matched the amount of goals Sidney Crosby had in his final 30 games.
Daniel Alfredsson is still a top line player but did see his game slip a bit this season, posting his lowest point total (71) since 2001-02, and scoring just 20 goals.
Staal will be relied on by Pittsburgh to play a shut-down center role but the Penguins may need more from him offensively this post-season.
Last post-season, Staal was a force for the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final against Detroit but for the most part, had an inconsistent playoff run prior to the Cup Finals.
Staal had 4 goals and 5 assists for 9 points in 24 playoff games, including a team-worst minus-5 rating.
The Penguins lack of production from their top-6 wingers is troubling and could become even more troubling if the Senators are able to limit Malkin and Crosby.
Crosby and Malkin combined for 29 post-season goals in 2009 but the Penguins still got scoring from other areas.
Whether the Penguins can get the same kind of production they got from Ruslan Fedotenko, Max Talbot Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz last post-season is doubtful.
Fedotenko, Talbot and Guerin combined for 22 goals last post-season, playing key roles in the Penguins success. Guerin is a year older and Fedotenko and Talbot are having awful seasons, unlike last season when both went into the playoffs playing well.
Fedotenko who ended the regular season with a team-worst minus-17 rating, has two goals in his last 19 games.
Bill Guerin heads into the playoffs with 4 goals in his last 20 games.
After scoring 8 goals last post-season, Max Talbot had just 2 goals in 45 regular season games.
Pascal Dupuis who had 18 goals on the season and has locked up a spot alongside Sidney Crosby, has just 2 goals in his last 16 games.
The biggest concern for Pittsburgh could be Chris Kunitz who heads into the playoffs with a nagging shoulder injury and will not play in game 1. There are doubts that Kunitz will be healthy at any point in the series.
Kunitz who is the Penguins most effective hitter and forechecker will be missed if he is limited in the series.
Alexei Ponikarovsky, the Penguins marquee acquisition is the one major mystery. He has two goals in 16 games with the Penguins and has not been able to develop any kind of chemistry with Evgeni Malkin.
Defensively there are evaluators around the league who are very intrigued to see how Pittsburgh’s more mobile style defense matches up against Ottawa in a seven-game series.
The growing consensus is that the Senators can exploit the Penguins third pairing of Alex Goligoski and Jordan Leopold and wear down the Penguins group of mobile defenseman with an aggressive fore-check headlined by the likes of Jarkko Ruutu and Chris Neil.
Both teams have weaknesses when it comes to the depth on their blueline and the Senators have some young players on their blueline that are untested.
In most seven-game series, goaltending and special teams will tell the story of which team prevails.
The biggest challenge for the Ottawa Senators is goaltender Brian Elliott who will appear in his first playoff game.
Elliott posted a 29-18-4 record along with a 2.57 GAA and .909 save percentage and how he handles the playoff atmosphere of playing on the road to open up the series will dictate the Senators success.
Winning game 1 is pivotal to the Senators winning the series and Elliott will be tested early.
Elliott was 1-0 with a 2.25 GAA in two games against the Penguins this season. The Penguins talked today about how they respect Elliott and the Senators have an immense amount of confidence in Elliott.
“Whether he wins a Conn Smythe or a Stanley Cup, there are numerous situations where we’ve seen that, ” Senators head coach Cory Clouston said. Most recently a guy like Cam Ward, but you can go back over the years and there’s a lot of goalies who have come in and played very, very well. We expect Brian to play well. We’re going to give him a lot of support and stay with our structured game.”
One scout told me Elliott struggles with his glove hand and his rebound control is erratic.
Meanwhile, there are doubts from some about Pittsburgh’s Marc Andre Fleury heading into the playoffs. Whether that’s warranted is up for debate as Fleury has posted a 31-18 career playoff record, including 30 playoff wins in his last two post-seasons.
Fleury has a 2.45 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage in 49 career playoffs.
The reason for the concerns surrounding Fleury is that he’s had an up and down second half of the season, compared to previous seasons when Fleury went into playoffs playing at an elite level.
In the regular season, Fleury was 37-21-6 with a 2.65 GAA and a .905 save percentage.
Fleury struggled against the Senators this season, posting a 2-2 record and a 2.90 GAA in four games.
However, Pittsburgh has the clear edge in goal until Elliott can prove that he can outperform Fleury on the big stage.
Both teams struggled on the power play in the regular season. Ottawa was 21st in the NHL (16.9%) and Pittsburgh was 19th (17.2%)
In the head-to-head matchup, Pittsburgh was 4-for-20 in four games against Ottawa, while the Senators were 1-for-17 (5.8%) against Pittsburgh.
Series Prediction: Pittsburgh in 6