Totally stealing this from our buddy The Peerless Prognosticator, but how does this incarnation of the Pittsburgh Penguins compare to the unit that won the Stanley Cup last season? Let's break it down line by line:
The first line is the same in terms of personnel, but the players are no doubt different. Sidney Crosby has already set a personal high in goals scored and Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin are two-time Cup winners that are capable of opening up holes, creating turnovers off the forecheck and both under-rated in dishing pucks off. All in all, it's largely the same, but if nothing else that they're more comfortable with each other makes the 2010 version more in sync than the 2009 unit. Guerin might be in his twilight, but he's capable of rising to the situation. As a Penguin, when healthy (as he is now) Kunitz has been a very productive point producer. Add those two to the best player in hockey and you've got yourself a dangerous line.
Call this the wildcard. With Pascal Dupuis playing very well, and Maxime Talbot trying to get back on track, there's no guarantee that Ruslan Fedotenko will hold on to this prize position on the second line. Feds might just have 25 points so far this season playing with Malkin, but he's been skating with a purpose lately. Add fellow Ukrainian and trading deadline addition of Alexei Ponikarovsky and Rusty might be back on track. How Ponikarovsky fits in might be the whole key to the 2010 playoff run -- he has the size (6'4, 225) and the previous NHL experience (63 points in the 2006-07 season) to be a difference maker. Will Poni fit in with Geno? Will it work well? That's the million dollar question, but Ponikarovsky could be the key addition to fuel Malkin and Fedotenko to another long run.
Widely recognized as one of (if not THE) best third lines in the league, the 'Sesame Street Line' will be back in tact. Matt Cooke adds some grit on the forecheck, Jordan Staal seems to get better and more forceful with every shift, and a hard-worker like Tyler Kennedy is hardly an anchor here. These guys can grind and show hesitiation in getting the puck to the net when they have the chance. Few 3rd lines in the league have the skill, work ethic and intensity to match them, and being together for another season should make them more of a force in 2010 than they were in 2009.
As last year, the Penguins will have some flexibility. Often times, Crosby or Malkin will double shift with 2 players to try and catch the opponents weaker players off the ice. Craig Adams is the team's only right-handed faceoff man, he may very well dress. Michael Rupp has a career high 12 goals this season, Pascal Dupuis has 14 goals this season and Maxime Talbot's post-season performance needs no introduction. The moves the Pens have made has increased their depth this season and even the 4th liners can be viable contributors now.
And for the defense...
In an effort for more balance, the Pens have put Mark Eaton up with Sergei Gonchar. Can Eaton stay healthy and play positionally well enough to help Gonchar out? Gonchar will still skate about 25 minutes a night no matter what the situation, and this pair will usually play with the Crosby line, so moving the puck smartly up to the forwards to skate it through the zone will be their challenge.
Last season the "shutdown" unit of Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi did some work against Jeff Carter, Alex Ovechkin (kind of), Eric Staal and Henrik Zetterberg, limiting all of those stars at even strength. This season the Pens have switched it up, giving Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang that duty. Brooksy and Tang are both better skaters and a little more physical, but it's been tough to replace the positional awareness of the guys that did the job last year. Once they get the puck -- if they get the puck -- it should be a better opportunity for the Pens to transition and transition quickly.
Veteran Jay McKee is waiting in the wings, but for now the two former Minnesota Golden Gophers make up the third pair. Alex Goligoski has largely struggled in the second half of the season, and Jordan Leopold is a new face to the team, so it remains to be seen how he'll fit in. But both are great skaters, can move the puck and are better positionally in their own zone than others may think. Plus when they get the puck, there's no doubt about their abiliy to move it out of the zone and hopefully create chances in transition.
It's kind of amazing that a guy who's won 30 games in the past two seasons might come in under the radar, but somehow Marc-Andre Fleury is flying low. Despite stopping Nicklas Lidstrom in Game 7 to win the Stanley Cup, despite stopping Alex Ovechkin on a breakaway early in Game 7 of the Eastern semi-finals, and robbing several Flyers and Hurricanes along the way, Marc-Andre 3000 isn't getting much respect or recognition around the league. And that's fine. Because no other starting goalie in the NHL has won more playoff games in the past 2 years, and no other netminder quite rises to the occasion like Fleury does. Martin Brodeur and Ryan Miller will be threats to be reckoned with, but stack their post-lockout resume against MAF and they'll come up short.
The 5 big questions:
- How does Ponikarovsky mesh with Malkin in a high intensity atmosphere?
- The shutdown unit of Gill-Scuderi has been replaced basically by better puck-moving (but lesser all-around defensive players) in Goligoski-Lepold. Can Letang and Orpik pick it up and limit the chances of the best offensive players?
- Will Fleury, who's been shaky lately, regain his clutch and shut the door?
- What about the Superstar Maxime Talbot, who's had a rough, injury ridden season? Will he get back in the groove and score some timely goals?
- Has the core of the team, who are the 2 time defending Eastern Conference champions, have enough gas in the tank to come out fired up and defend their championship?
If most (or all) those questions end up in a positive way, plus the needed health and lucky bounces -- the Pittsburgh Penguins will be on their way to another long and fruitful playoff run. After reaching the summit in 2009, obviously nothing will be a success unless they do it again. With Sid, Geno, Gronk and Flower, you can never say never....But it's going to take a team effort to help those guys to get back to where we all want to go.