Greetings all, I hope you've enjoyed mothers day weekend, and the brief respite from playoff hockey related cardiovascular problems.
In what was sure to be a tough series, the Pens somehow managed to pull a 4-2 series win out of an overall disappointing performance. Whatever, it's the playoffs. You can't expect them all to be clinics like games 1 and 5. I said going into the playoffs that I preferred the Islanders solely because of inexperience and goaltending (namely theirs being bad, not ours). Never thought it would be easy, and fortunately Nabokov lived up to expectations. Now we enter a new series, against a new lower seeded team, with the expectation that we will come out on top. Let's look ahead.
The easy storyline for this series is the Cooke/Karlsson incident, and the sideshow that created amongst Senators higher ups (#asshat). It's the playoffs, so the time for such liberties has passed. The Senators players are focused on a bigger goal, we are as well, so this is a non issue (no Big Mac's obviously). Regardless, this series has ample room and reason for hostilities to arise. Assistant captain (really?) Chris Neil is going to be on the opposite bench, and we all know what with what that means. Add that to the recent history between the clubs come the postseason in 2007, 2008 and 2010, and you have two teams with reason enough hate one another.
How do the two teams stack up?
Forwards: Advantage Penguins
This one is probably the easiest of the bunch to determine. We all know what we have on offense, and on paper it looks like a veritable all star team. The lines appear to be solidifying themselves a bit more (outside of the flux in the 4th line), which is vital for our team considering all of the new talent acquired, and the lack of time to gel. This however should not lead us to be dismissive of the Senators. With veteran superstar Daniel Alfredsson and a group of talented younger players such as Michalek Turris, Zibanejad, Pageau, Conacher and Silfverberg, this team has firepower. While they had trouble scoring in the regular season, I would chalk it up more to injuries than anything else. There is also the chance that Spezza comes back, which would be a major boost. Still, we have the best group of forwards this side of Chicago, and I think we will assert dominance over a young group a step slower than the Isles team we just faced.
Norris winner v Norris nominee. Couple of vets, couple of skilled youngsters per side. Really it's hard to differentiate between these crews too much, so long as the Pens can improve upon their weak showing against the Isles. Ottawa's D performed well against Montreal, but the Habs lacked pretty much all of their big talent players and never posed a huge challenge. The Letang vs. Karlsson dynamic will be fun to watch, and we all know what Gonchar is capable of. Really I haven't seen enough of Ottawa's D to say too much more, but I know they are young with a lot of size.
This has the potential to be another point of conversation throughout the series, but it shouldn't be. Why? Tomas Vokoun. Granted it's only two games, but his numbers are outstanding. First in SV%, second in GAA. Why isn't this a big advantage for us? Two things. One, Craig Anderson is second in SV% (in 3 more games) and fifth in GAA. He's a proven playoff performer more than capable of stealing games. Two, Marc-Andre Fleury. Not because he's a bad goalie, but because he might be cause for controversy. Does he start game 1? No way (I should hope). But does he get in if Vokoun has an off game? Probably. He's still a wildcard here, and who knows how Dan is going to use him. Also Robin Lehner the Sens backup is one of the best goalie prospects in the league, so even in case of injury they are in good hands. Hopefully Vokoun gives us no reason to bring Fleury back in.
Special Teams: Advantage Penguins
I'm throwing out regular season percentage here, since as we know that doesn't translate. How we do in this area is going to be of maximal importance for the Pens to win the series. Our PK was fantastic last series, and I don't see any reason that should be a let down. Our PP was ridiculous, and though that may not be sustainable, we still are just too stacked, even for an Ottawa PK which put out great regular season numbers, and decent playoff numbers.
Coaching: Advantage Senators
I know I'll catch some heat for this one, but honestly I'm not even looking at Bylsma's faults so much as Maclean's strengths. A finalist for the Adams award last year, it's likely we'll see him there again this year. He spent time under Babcock in Anaheim, and was also with him in Detroit when they won the cup. Sure he wasn't a head coach, but he's helped coach a team to the cup and knows what it takes The fact that the Senators are even in the playoffs this year is testament to what he was able to do with his injury riddled team that had no business being competitive without most of their best players. On the other hand Bylsma has been extremely successful as a head coach. One could say that's only because of the all star talent we have, but in the Crosby/Malkin-less 2011 season we almost made it to the second round. My concern stems from how he utilizes his lineup. In games, we see our 4th line getting shortened minutes, with players like Sid having to take on a ton of minutes leading them to be exhausted come crunch time. Aside from that, with the depth we have he needs to be making good roster decisions game in and game out Sure he put in Kennedy and Vitale in for game 5, but those both seemed like logical choices after game 2. Eaton was allowed to keep suiting up until game 5, and Vokoun didn't play until the papers were calling for his head. He likes his guys and he sticks with them, for better or for worse. If players are ineffective, he has to be able to adjust.
Overall: Advantage Penguins
Not by as much as one might think looking at the seeds. This Senators team has been playing a playoff style game all year, and have got healthy at the right time. They seem somewhat similar to the Isles, in that they are young, fast, and playing with nothing to lose I see another grueling series which pushes us to the edge, and forces us to sharpen up our overall game and not rely solely on our ridiculous goal scoring capabilities.
Prediction: Penguins in 6