ON FAVORABLE MATCHUPSInside Pittsburgh Sports

With 26 games remaining in the regular season, I’m sure there’s going to be lots of talk from here on out for the Penguins from fans and pundits — win the top wildcard spot and go through the Atlantic —

The NHL playoffs is all about matchups and the Penguins would surely have a fighting chance to make some noise if they were able to avoid the Metropolitan Division, though, Florida when fully healthy and potentially adding an Andrew Ladd, who they are in on hard, would be no field day in round 1, neither would Tampa Bay if they ever get things going, but Pittsburgh’s only shot at winning a couple rounds will be avoiding the Metro.

Last night’s win against the Detroit Red Wings saw Pittsburgh outclass Detroit in a skating game. A few bounces going the Red Wings way and it certainly could have been a 6-4 game in the Red Wings favor but these type of games are what favor the Penguins.

“You can see both teams like to play a skating game, so speed is a factor,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “Both teams are similar in that regard. Both teams like to play with the puck. I don’t want to say we play a similar fashion but I think we have similar attributes as a group. Maybe that’s why the game played out the way it did. I knew it was going to be a fast paced game because both teams like to skate. We challenge our players to play quick. We think it can be a competitive advantage.”

Detroit’s group of defensemen are not like going against the Rangers or Capitals. They lack foot speed and strength as it was smooth sailing in the Penguins creating inside. We often talk how the Rangers and Capitals bluelines are bad matchups for the Penguins, the Red Wings blueline is a great matchup for Pittsburgh.

In the regular season, what the Penguins were really good at during the Bylsma years was getting teams to try to play a track meet. Pittsburgh would often outclass the opposition and players in the Western Conference would often say how difficult the Penguins were to play when you only see them a couple times a year. Once a good coach had time to game plan for them in the playoffs, then we know how that story played out, but we might be seeing the same thing here again under Sullivan in that the Penguins have the ability to bait teams (who are not defensively-mind teams first) into trying to play an up and down game.

They did it to Detroit last night. I don’t think Detroit’s players thought they could stop Pittsburgh, so they went into a mode of where we better try to outscore Pittsburgh.

“We were way too loose,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. “I thought it was the weakest 5-man unit defensively we’ve had in awhile.”

On Crosby/Kessel and playing inside the dots

One of the biggest myths surrounding the Penguins this season is that Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel are not a good match together.

The facts are we just don’t know yet whether they are. It’s been too small of a sample.

They played seven games together during the start of the season in a defensive minded system where the left wing play on the line from Chris Kunitz was awful.

Sidney Crosby is a pace player, Phil Kessel is a create off the rush player. The Penguins are now playing a system that resembles that type of attack.

Especially with Evgeni Malkin out, the Penguins needed to play Crosby and Kessel together and Mike Sullivan finally went with it last night in looking for a spark.

Results were Kessel scoring two 5-v-5 goals.

The book on Phil Kessel has been his shot has started to slip a bit and he doesn’t create inside the dots.

That changed last night in a favorable matchup. On his first goal of the night setup by Sidney Crosby, Kessel got to a prime scoring area, got a nice bounce off a stick and put the Penguins up 3-2. I liked his second goal of the night even better in his anticipation of where the puck was going.

“My biggest observation from watching Phil is when he’s skating and shooting from inside the dots, that’s when he’s dangerous,” Sullivan said.

Good night for Phil but until this becomes a consistent thing (creating inside the dots) and he shows an ability to create inside the dots against teams like the Rangers, Capitals, people won’t be getting too excited about his game vs the Red Wings.