We’ll be seeing Pittsburgh Penguins hockey again soon enough, as the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is complete and the next round’s pairings are set in stone. The Penguins will travel to Washington, D.C. for Thursday’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal against the #1 seed and President’s Trophy winners, the Washington Capitals.
We’ve Come to Chew Bubblegum And Kick Ass
And We’re All Out of Bubblegum
It may have been a foregone conclusion to most people that these two teams would face each other again in the playoffs, but things hardly looked certain at times for the Capitals who only just eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs Sunday night in Toronto with a 2-1 overtime win. It took six games to do something that most assumed would take five or four, and Toronto had a 2-1 lead heading into Game 4, but the Maple Leafs showed that they are very much on the upswing with the young players they have. They will be even more competitive next season.
Also finishing up their series Sunday was the Ottawa Senators, who also went on the road to Boston to eliminate the Bruins in six games. Clarke MacArthur scored the series-winning goal with the Senators on the power-play in overtime. All six games in that series were decided by one goal, and four of them went to overtime.
The 1st Round Was Delicious
So, with the second round pairings set, let’s take a quick look at the Conference Semifinals.
The Pacific Division final mirrors the Metropolitan Division, with the #1 seed squaring off against the #2 seed, thus the Anaheim Ducks hosting the Edmonton Oilers starting tomorrow. The Ducks rolled through the Calgary Flames in four games as John Gibson and Jonathan Bernier combined for a .963 save%. Edmonton was challenged slightly more by the San Jose Sharks, but still came out on top in six games. Cam Talbot also had a couple of shutouts in the series, and the Oilers were able to oust the defending Western Conference champions despite the Sharks’ leading the playoffs in blocked shots (Edmonton had only 35 shots go through on Martin Jones). This series may look a lot more like the Capitals/Maple Leafs series, with a veteran, Cup-thirsty squad facing off against an up-and-coming team with plenty of young guys itching for more playoffs. My guess is that this series will go to seven games, and the Ducks will move on to the Conference Finals and not have to worry about the Blackhawks.
Feeding The Ducks
The Central Division bracket features
the top two teams in the West, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Minnesota Wild ha ha, no it doesn’t. The Nashville Predators swept the Blackhawks right into the dustbin, led by the fantastic goaltending of Pekka Rinne (.976 save%, 0.70 GAA, two shutouts) and the leadership of Jonathan Toews (one huge goal in a 4-0 with 5:18 left in his season). The Predators will have the honor of facing the St. Louis Blues, who will host Game 1 tomorrow; Nashville wiped out the Wild in five games also thanks to some very good goaltending from Jake Allen (.956 save%, 1.47 GAA). Something’s gonna have to give, and my money’s on Nashville to break through and advance to the Conference Final. In any event, I suspect it’ll be a seven game series, and probably a very close one at that.
These Guys Are Scary
The Atlantic Division bracket is kind of an odd one, the Ottawa Senators hosting the New York Rangers beginning on Thursday. As I mentioned above, Ottawa squeaked past the Bruins on the strength of some slightly-better-than-Boston goaltending from Craig Anderson, whereas Henrik Lundqvist played very well for the Rangers. The Senators will have to figure out Lundqvist, which may not be too tough considering their three players in the top 15 in the playoffs in scoring (compared to New York’s zero in the top 30), while playing a little more solidly defensively in front of Anderson. Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson is the leader among defensemen in points (6, all assists) and time-on-ice/game (30:23), and I have to imagine he’ll be all over the ice in this series as well. Still, I feel like New York has the advantage on a number of fronts, and I think this might be a five-or-six-game series in the Rangers’ favor.
Shhhhhh, Don’t Wake The Baby
Finally, we get to the Penguins and Capitals in the Metropolitan Division bracket. And really, with all due respect to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Toronto Maple Leafs, this was the only way it was going to happen.
A rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinal, this series will be more challenging for Pittsburgh largely on the defensive end of the ice. No Kris Letang (at all, sadface) and (as of yet) no Matt Murray means Pittsburgh will have to continue focusing on being defensively sound. The good news for Pittsburgh is that Braden Holtby was pretty average against the Maple Leafs, and both Toronto and the Penguins have shown that, despite the Vezina nomination, Holtby can be beaten. We all know that Marc-Andre Fleury has his problems, and the Penguins were able to mitigate those problems with good matchups at home. The bad news is that the Capitals have the home-ice advantage in this series, so Pittsburgh will have to work harder to get those matchups in Washington.
The focus will be on the defensemen on both ends of the ice. As much ado has been made about the absence of Letang for Pittsburgh and what he means to the Penguins’ 200-foot game, the focus will also be on Washington’s defensemen to not allow the Penguins’ high-flying offense to set up shop in Washington’s end. Just six shots and one goal separated Holtby and Murray last year (both against Holtby), but with the instability of Fleury they’re going to need that difference to be greater. The Capitals’ defense has its holes: Kevin Shattenkirk and Brooks Orpik were both -4 against Toronto, and the Penguins abused Nate Schmidt and Dmitri Orlov last postseason. Both Schmidt (who replaced Karl Alzner mid-series) and Orlov have taken on more minutes for Washington, so we’ll see if they’re any better defensively.
How’s That Working For Ya?
The key to this series for Pittsburgh will be spreading out the offense. Last year, it was the Penguins’ vaunted HBK line, the “third” line, that did the most damage against the Capitals while the top two lines were relatively quiet. This year, against Columbus, the top two lines were relied upon and the bottom two were largely silenced. If Pittsburgh gets Chris Kunitz and Carl Hagelin back for this series, Washington will be harder-pressed on both ends of the ice. We all know Kunitz is not the offensive beast he was a few years ago, but he can take a licking and keep on ticking with the best of them, and maybe even chip in a few goals. Hagelin is a speedy, tenacious checker who led the Penguins in points against Washington last postseason.
Old Guys Rule
Here’s a look at what Pittsburgh’s lines could look like against Washington, at least judging by what the lines looked like during Sunday’s practice:
It Aint Easy …Bein Cheesy
Sheary was demoted after languishing against the Blue Jackets, and it stands to reason that the demotion will only last until the Penguins are unsuccessful with it. However, looking at those lines, one would have to imagine Mike Sullivan may tinker with them again as those bottom two are a bit light on offense and the top two might be too heavy. Might Sheary bump Rust off the second line, or Hornqvist off the first? In any event, you can see how adding Hagelin to the mix would prove only that much more beneficial for Pittsburgh. I am not as confident that the Penguins will win this series, but I still believe they will, but it will take seven games and it will be a nail-biter the whole way. If Hagelin and Murray return, the confidence in Pittsburgh’s victory should be much higher.
Are ‘We’ Missing A Link?
As for the Penguins’ defense, it’s been two months since Letang’s neck injury and eventual surgery, and the best thing you can say about Pittsburgh’s defense is that there’s stability and consistency. Ian Cole and Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey, and Trevor Daley and
Derrick Pouliot Olli Maatta have held the ship straight enough to be only the second-worst defense left in the playoffs (as far as goals against/game). Guess who’s #1? I’ll get back to you. Leaving aside the goals allowed, Pittsburgh also saw forty more shots against than for, 28 unblocked. The only team that performed worse than them, at two-and-a-half times worse, was the St. Louis Blues. So, not only is shot volume not perfect in the near term, it shows that a team can be inundated with shots against and still win…they just need their goalie to stand on his head.
I Hear Nothing
(Washington has allowed the most goals against per game of any team left in the playoffs. Long story short, luck plays a much larger role in the playoffs. Taking advantage of your shot volume is important, but cleaning up messes in the defensive zone are critical too.)
There’s still two days to go before Game 1, and there will still be plenty of time to make things ideal.
Black & Gold Nation…Please Remain Positive