Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Playoff Preview: Penguins Versus Lightning

How will the series break down? What are the keys for the Penguins if they hope to advance to the second round? How can the Lightning derail this Pittsburgh team? Will I, personally, survive the heightened anxiety of the NHL playoffs?

1. Offense. Even though Steven Stamkos has slowed down considerably from his prolific first-half scoring, he still put 45 pucks in the back of the net (2nd in the NHL) and had 91 points (5th in the NHL). I expect Tampa will try to get him going early in the series, try to feed him opportunities early in the first game, but even if Stamkos doesn't score, the man I most fear is the diminutive Martin St. Louis. I love this guy. I love watching him play. I love how he skates through defenses to create opportunities. Appropriately enough for a guy who plays on the Lightning, the guy is electric. If this Tampa Bay team were playing any other team, I'd be rooting for them, based on my fondness for St. Louis. Which is why he and his 99 points (2nd in the league) and 68 assists (also 2nd) scare the beejesus out of me. He's the offensive engine that really drives the Lightning. Plus Vincent Lecavalier looks resurgent -- and that's quite a one-two-three offensive punch for the Bolts.

Sidney Crosby has been out for three and one-half months and he still leads Pittsburgh in goals (32) and points (66) and while the Penguins have done a noble job of manufacturing points, these are the playoffs and Chris Kunitz, Mark Letestu and Tyler Kennedy are going to be facing top defensive units -- goals are going to be even harder to come by. Even before Evgeni Malkin blew out his knee, Pittsburgh fans were disappointed in his production, but you cannot tell me that now, in the playoffs, you wouldn't kill to have an explosive scorer like Geno back on the ice? In their time together in Pittsburgh, Sid and Geno have combined to account for 30.7 percent of the team's playoff goals since 2007 -- nearly a third of their goals, fer cryin' out loud.
ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING (huge advantage, editorially speaking)

2. Defense. This may be the Penguins best and most improved unit. Despite the marked paucity of defensive stats available, I decided to beat my head against a wall and try to crunch defensive numbers anyway. That's just how I roll. I used the top seven defensemen for each team -- for the Pens: Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Ben Lovejoy, Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland -- for the Lightning: Victor Hedman, Mike Lundin, Pavel Kubina, Brett Clark, Mattias Ohlund, Randy Jones and Matt Smaby.

The Pittsburgh defensemen are a combined plus 40. Tampa's corresponding crew are a combined minus 7. That's just a shocking disparity. Shocking. Meanwhile, the Pens defensemen have scored 137 points and the Lightning 110. And, in another nice little stat, the Pens defensemen have netted five game winners, versus the Lightnings' two.

It's more than numbers, though. In the off-season, Ray Shero went out and got shot-blocking savants, Zbynek Michalek (146 blocks) and Paul Martin (129 blocks). Then, Coach Dan Bylsma installed a defense meant to protect the net-minder, but also to turn it around and head the other way -- Pittsburgh transitions from defense to offense as well as any team in the league, creating opportunities on the other end. And they are used to winning tight games, ranking third in the league in winning percentage in one-goal games. The playoffs are tight games more often than not.

3. Goaltending. It is true that to start the season, Marc-Andre Fleury had his head lodged up his fetching little behind and I don't think I will ever figure out just what was wrong with him in the fall as he absent-mindedly watched pucks whiz by from time to time. When Bylsma started Brent Johnson for a stretch until Fleury got some things figured out, there were the nay-sayers who worried that Flower's ego would be permanently damaged or, at the very least, that his relationship with Disco Dan would be forever ruined. Pah-tooey. I did not believe and still do not believe for one hot second that Fleury, a Stanley Cup winning goalie, is so fragile that a couple of benchings when he playing like ass will cause him to fall apart. He's tougher than that and it's ridiculous that anybody thinks that about him. I believe that he is the main reason they are in the playoffs and hosting this round.

On the other side, Dwayne Roloson is a cagey old net-minder, a steady presence in net that Tampa Bay was needing. He's been great for the Lightning and, like St. Louis, were he matched up against any other team, I'd be rooting for him. That said, he's not the kind of stopper that Fleury can be. He just doesn't have it in him.

The Penguins allow just 2.39 goals per game on average and the Lightning 2.85. Much of the burden of getting the Penguins through the first round is squarely on Flower's shoulders who is often magnificent, but I'd be foolish to ignore the fact that he does lay an occasional stinker (and when he does play a stinker of a game, it is bad stinky). Even given that, 'll take Fleury with all the pressure any day of the week.

4. Special Teams. The Lightning rank sixth in the league in power play efficiency, scoring 20.5 percent of the time they have the man advantage.

The Penguins rank first in penalty kill (even without Matt Cooke because of his idiocy), killing off the man advantage 86.1 percent of the time.

My friends, something has got to give.

I have to wonder if it might be the Pens penalty killing unit actually scoring a goal, particularly given that the Lightning have given up 16 short-handed goals, more than any other team in the league and we know how the Penguins love to get in transition on the kill unit.
ADVANTAGE: PENGUINS (ever so slight)

How is it all going to shake out?
This is a tight series. The Lightning can be explosive. Roloson can pitch an occasional shut out. It's always harder to score in the playoffs and the Pens are already offensively challenged. As good as Fleury and the defense are, there's no way they're going to be able to shut out St. Louis, Lacavalier, and Stamkos, not to mention Simon Gagne and a very motivated Ryan Malone.

Even so, there is something special about this Penguins team. They keep winning against all odds. If they want to continue to do so, they will have to manufacture goals from somewhere. With Staal, Kennedy, et al facing the toughest defensive pairings, they need a boost from their third and fourth line guys and their defensemen. Craig Adams and Mike Rupp, Michalek and Ben Lovejoy: come! on! down!

If you were a mad scientist and you went into a lab to create perfect fourth line guys, what you might come out with would be Adams and Rupp. They just do everything so well, all the little things. And no, they don't have the speed of Chris Conner, or the vision of Sid, or the hands of Malkin. This is why they are fourth line guys. But they are smart, they crash the net, and they lean on teams. In the last five games of the season, Rupp had three goals and an assist, while Adams had one goal and two assists. The defensive guys chipped in down the stretch too, with young Mr. Lovejoy contributing four assists and Michalek adding two goals and one assist.

The other place I would look for an offensive surge is none other than Max Talbot. Talbot has been a big game player in the past (I need not remind Pens fans of his two goals in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals versus the Red Wings). Could we be so lucky as to see a return of Super Max?

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