Prior to the start of the regular season, one of the themes of training camp was new Head Coach Mike Johnston talking about how his plan was to prepare the Penguins to win in April, May and June rather than win the Presidents' Trophy.
Little did Johnston realize, it would come down to the final game of the regular season to secure their spot in the playoffs.
Saturday night after Brandon Sutter scored his second goal of the game to extend the team's lead to 2-0, you could just feel the weight being lifted off their shoulders.
Because of the health and energy level for the team, this could be the first time key players are happy with extended time off as game one starts Thursday and game two on Saturday. The Rangers can thank the New York Knicks for not giving them the opportunity to jump on the Penguins on Wednesday.
The Penguins recalled defensemen Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington from Wilkes-Barre Scranton because little did GM Jim Rutherford fail to realize, six defensemen are better than five.
Dumoulin and Harrington don't have much experience in the NHL, which is all the reason why Christian Ehrhoff need to be in a hyperbaric chamber to recuperate and sleep until game one on Thursday.
If Ehrhoff and Derrick Pouliot can't go in game one, that means Dumoulin or Harrington will get to play on a third defensive pairing with Taylor Chorney. If familiarity means anything, Dumoulin should get the call first. The good thing about no salary cap restrictions come playoff time, we won't be watching Rob Scuderi (26:28) and Ben Lovejoy (24:47) log minutes neither can handle.
A Light Bulb for Bennett?
After Beau Bennett returned from having his head slammed into the glass on a clean check and went to the team's dressing room, he was a different player finishing a few collisions along the boards and got into the danger zone by creating a pick on top of the crease that allowed Sutter to score the opening goal. It would be a significant boost for the Penguins if Bennett can look and play like an NHL forward, which means he'll have to skate through the middle of the slot to create some space for his linemates.
Curious to see if the Rangers go with a familiar approach against Crosby and Malkin by putting Marc Staal and Dan Boyle out with Derrick Brassard centering a line with Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello versus Crosby, then have Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi pairing out against Evgeni Malkin.
The Penguins would be wise to try to get Crosby and Malkin going by double-shifting each on the fourth line with Blake Comeau and Nick Spaling. This isn't the time of year to think Max Lapierre is going to change his colors and produce offensively. If Johnston can get Crosby or Malkin on a shift with Comeau and Spaling against New Yorks' fourth line of Dominic Moore, Tanner Glass, and James Sheppard, it could be a productive strategy.
Rangers penalty-kill at home was 10th (84.1%), Penguins power play on the road was 20th (16.4%)
Rangers power play at home was 23rd (16.4%), Penguins penalty kill on the road was 3rd (85.4%)
Penguins must win the special teams battle in the first two games and that means not giving up a shorthanded goal and keeping New York's power play from getting hot.
Kevin Klein had some success against the Penguins this season but he's not expected to start the series coming back from a broken arm but don't feel too bad for the Rangers since they acquired Arizona's Keith Yandle at the trade deadline, though he hasn't produced much at all.
Since Yandle arrived in New York, he's only collected three assists on the power play in 20 games with 3.48 TOI/GM. McDonagh and Girardi each have a goal scored, so the production from the defense has been limited for the Rangers.
Down low at forward, Brassard is the leading goal scorer with two goals and one assist since the trade deadline. Nash only has one goal and two assists during the same time period while averaging 2.37 TOI/GM.
If the Penguins can keep New York's power play neutralized and not give back momentum while on their own power play, it will setup an even-strength battle with the goaltenders in charge.
Since winning the Stanley Cup, Marc-Andre Fleury has taken a lot of criticism for the team's failures in the playoffs but outside of his struggles against Philadelphia in 2012 and first round against the Islanders in 2013, Penguins have lost games for many reasons outside of his control.
It wasn't Fleury who failed to score against Boston in 2013, ignored any semblance of team defense in 2012, and responsible for blowing 3-1 series leads twice against Tampa Bay (2011) and Rangers (2014).
This season, Fleury has had a resurgence of sorts with a 2.32 GAA, .921 save percentage, and a league leading 10 shutouts.
If Fleury doesn't play this well, Crosby and others are lining up tee times instead of preparing for a first round payback series against the Rangers.
All of that to say, prepare for Fleury narratives and over-the-top insults saying how much Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has the advantage in this series.
Fleury has 52 wins, 40 losses, 2.68 GAA, .905 save percentage and 8 shutouts in the playoffs.
Lundqvist has 43 wins, 48 losses, 2.24 GAA, .922 save percentage and 9 shutouts in the playoffs.
If Fleury played behind a team defense that had to play conservatively on offense in order to compete, he would likely have similar numbers as Lundqvist and many other of the top end goaltenders of his era. Many times, Fleury bailed out his teammates since 2008 and he'll do it again in 2015.
Playoff predictions sure to click....
First Round: Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Washington, St Louis, Chicago, Winnipeg, and Calgary
Second Round: Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Winnipeg
Third Round: Pittsburgh, Chicago
Stanley Cup: Pittsburgh
What fan picks against their team? Homer or not, Let's Go Pens!