When the final chapter closed on the Penguins’ 2010-11 regular season, the standings reflected a team that finished with 106 points. That was good for second-best in franchise history.
49 wins. That ties a franchise second-best.
Some additional perspective, if you will. Both of those totals marked team highs in the post-lockout NHL; high-water marks for the Pens in the Crosby-Malkin Era. It’s even more amazing, then, that those numbers were achieved with Crosby & Malkin only playing half the season (it’s easy to forget that Malkin only played 43 games all year).
But those numbers and those accomplishments are now just about meaningless. The regular season is over. Today is the eve of the greatest postseason tournament in sports.
The NFL playoffs are great, but they’re also one-and-done; blink and you miss it if your team goes out in the first round. College bowl games are a joke. Give the NCAA a few more years and they’ll find a way to play the national championship game the week before the Super Bowl. March Madness is solid, but Gus Johnson is a caricature of himself. And let’s be honest, chances are you’ve never watched half of the teams in the tournament play 5 minutes of hoops all season. World Series? Meh. You can keep Joe Buck and his miserable attempts to wax poetic over another Red Sox-Yankees ALCS.
Give us four seven-game series, and put them on ice. Give us white-outs in Pittsburgh and Phoenix. Give us crowds clad in red in Detroit, Washington and Calgary, or orange in Philly. Give us 21,273 at the Centre Bell in Montreal, all trying to intimidate the officials into calls in favor of the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. Give us players skating their first shift in Game One of the opening round like it was their last shift in Game Seven of the Cup Finals.
Wednesday night, sixteen teams – the Pens, of course, among them – get to start it over.
Just let us start it over again.
And we’ll be good.
This time we’ll get it, get it right.
It’s our last chance to forgive ourselves.
Muse, “Exogenesis, Part III”
(I know we’ve linked that clip probably 100 times since January, but if you’re any sort of hockey fan, tell me that’s not some of the best three minutes and 27 seconds on Youtube.)
Zero wins, zero losses.
Be good. Get it right.
And the first to 16 wins, wins.
Starting out west…
BLACKHAWKS (8) vs. CANUCKS (1)
The Canucks won the Ted Leonsis/San Jose Troph…er, Presidents’ Trophy with 117 points this year. There wasn’t a team in the league that scored more goals this year than Vancouver. There also wasn’t a team this year that allowed fewer goals than Vancouver.
There also isn’t a team in the league with a goaltender who is his own running postseason subplot like Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo, and that is thanks to Lu’s penchant for folding up and getting played like an accordion in late April/early May. Given his team’s dominant season, his history and the rematch with the Blackhawks (who have eliminated the Canucks each of the last two years), Luongo’s playoff run this year could easily be the most scrutinized playoff story, at least outside of every time Crosby puts on his skates. In fact, if there’s an opposing player rooting for a Crosby comeback in the playoffs, it’s Lu.
Lu jokes aside, Vancouver’s good. They score goals. They don’t allow them. They have the league’s best powerplay and they couple that with the league’s third-best penalty kill. The Sedins are creepy and robotic, but they’re also elite players. Kesler became a dominant all-around player and 40-goal scorer. Burrows chipped in 26 goals. They roll three very strong lines.
The Blackhawks backed into the playoffs, literally not making it until the last game of the season was decided (they needed the Stars to lose). They’re the defending champs, but this isn’t close to the same team that won the Cup last year. They still have Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp and Keith, so their core is solid. The supporting cast? Ehhhh, not so much, especially with Bolland & Brouwer hurt. Plus, Kane borrowed Brian Bosworth’s hair again.
(It’s a picture from last year, but it’s the same. Wysh has the current photo over at Puck Daddy.)
There’s enough of a core there to make things interesting, especially if they can steal Game One or Two and make the Canucks their own worst enemies heading back to Chicago. But Vancouver looks awfully focused. While most said this was a matchup the Canucks didn’t want because of the history with Chicago, it’s a grudge match that could easily become “Pens-Sens in 2009” for the Canucks if they remain focused.
KINGS (7) vs. SHARKS (2)
ZOMG IT’S PLAYOFF HOCKEY IN CALIFORNIA!
THEY HAVE ICE AND EVERYTHING!!
AND BOTH TEAMS, THEY’RE FROM CALIFORNIA!!
PLAYOFF HOCKEY! IN CALIFORNIA!
WOULD YOU BELIEVE THIS SHIT?!?!
San Jose is a solid team and they’re almost assuredly enjoying the fact that the “PLAYOFF CHOKE” spotlight is firmly turned north to Vancouver. And the Sharks entered the postseason on a 7-2-1 finish, so they’re rolling (or swimming? Perhaps? Confused.).
And the Kings are hurt. No Kopitar. No Justin Williams. That means the Kings are being lead offensively by longtime-winger-for-Sid candidate Dustin Brown, Ryan Smyth and Jarrett Stoll. Injuries up front can also mean an increased role for our old buddy Alexei Ponikarovsky. Heh. Heh. Heh.
San Jose is still led by Joe Thornton, and he hasn’t sniffed a Conf. championship in 10 years. He’s an older, scruffier version of Jason Spezza. And Dany Heatley has gone from 50 to 41 to 39 to 39 to 26 goals in the last five years. Someone might want to check to make sure that Cheechoo didn’t kidnap Heatley and sneak back in the SJ locker room.
COYOTES (6) vs. RED WINGS (3)
They may have one foot in Winnipeg thanks to a horrible lease and worse ownership situation, but the Coyotes are right back in the first round again, facing the Red Wings, again. Unlike previous years, the Coyotes CAN score. They finished 14th in the league in goals per game. They have eight players with at least 15 goals, but only one with 20, so they’re balanced. And Bryzgalov has been put up some kind of sick goaltending again. Keith Yandle has become the type of all-around defenseman than the national hockey media wishes Mike Green was.
Detroit is, well…Detroit. It seems like this same group has been together for 10 years now. Just like last year, they’ve fought through injuries all season to some key players. Zetterberg won’t play in Game One and his status for the series remains to be seen. Lidstrom has played well, but even he has taken a little bit of a step back – admittedly from his own unreal standards – as age finally seems to be catching up to him (reminds me a little of Lemieux in 2005-06). Howard is battling injuries and was fighting the puck a bit towards the end of the season.
Detroit is still dangerous, but it’s starting to feel like the window is starting to close on this core, maybe just a little. Most of their core guys are into their early 30’s, some older than that (Holmstrom, Bertuzzi, Rafalski) and these guys as a group have played a ton of hockey the last five years. Against a younger team like Phoenix, this could be a year that the injuries and workload finally catches up to Detroit in the first round.
PREDATORS (5) vs. DUCKS (4)
The Preds are what the Pens would be had the Pens played without Sid and Geno all year. Pekka Rinne may have put together the quietest Vezina season ever. No tremendous star power up front (hockey gods, please send this team an elite forward); when Sergei Kostitsyn is your leading scorer (tied with Erat at 50 points), that says something. But as we saw in the Pens-Preds game earlier, this team is ridiculously fun to watch. They don’t trap as much as they try to force the issue on the forecheck. They make you make mistakes in your own zone. Shea Weber can shoot a hockey puck through the trunk of a Giant Sequoia. And Barry Trotz will be played be Dennis Franz whenever Hollywood makes a movie about the NHL (Alain Vigneault will be played by Dan Aykroyd and Arnold Schwarzenegger will play Ryan Getzlaf).
What to say about the Ducks? On one hand, there’s Teemu Selanne. On the other hand, there’s Corey Perry. On one hand, there’s Bobby Ryan. On the other hand, there’s Powder (Jason Blake). Selanne and Ryan are awesome. Perry is douche enough for the entire Pacific Division. Advantage: Preds.
And now, the East…
RANGERS (8) vs. CAPS (1)
If there’s a way for the NHL to institute some sort of last-minute rule change that eliminates both of these teams at the end of the series no matter what, I’m all for it.
One of these teams has to win. And John Tortorella is kiiiiiinda cool, if only because he has no problem berating Larry Brooks in public (NSFW warning).
On the other hand, the Rangers winning means the Rangers are a round closer to proving Rags homer Stan Fischler correct in that ridiculous Cup champs prediction he made on Twitter after the Rangers beat the Pens in February (when the Pens were icing a team of six AHL forwards). It also could possibly mean the end of the Bruce Boudreau era in Washington, and I’m not sure anyone really wants that.
But does anyone really want to see Washington advance?
SABRES (7) vs. WRETCHED HIVE OF SCUM & VILLANY (2)
The Flyers finished the season going 3-4-3 in their last ten, lost the top seed in the conference to Washington and were THISCLOSE to losing the division to the Pens. The Sabres, by contrast, finished the season winning eight of their last ten. And they got Brad Boyes (former Erie Otter) at the trade deadline.
Is Pronger coming back? Is Pronger skating? Has Pronger been cleared for contact? Will Pronger play in the first round? Shouldn’t the Flyers just shut Pronger down for the rest of the year, you know, just to be safe?
(See how dumb it sounds? This is all we hear about Sid.)
In all seriousness, Philly isn’t the same team defensively without Pronger on the ice. The rest of the defensive corps doesn’t absorb the role adjustment well, particularly Timmonen. Timmonen is fine unless he has to assume that top role vacated by Pronger. Watch and see if Ruff doesn’t tell his guys to dump the puck in to Timmonen’s side and then hammer him every time he goes to get it. Even if Pronger can play, it remains to be seen just how effective he can be, what with a broken hand.
This is a series Philly should still win. Claude Giroux is scary good. The Flyers have three terrific lines and a fourth line that embraces and plays its role well. But the Sabres have the offensive depth to skate with the Flyers if the Flyers want to try to run and gun. And the Sabres are playing well. And Philly goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky kind of isn’t. He looks to be hitting a bit of a wall and yes, there’s a Pelle Lindbergh comment there somewhere (BAC of .240. It’s a miracle he didn’t kill anyone else).
CANADIENS (6) vs. BROONS (3)
Don Cherry picked the Bruins to win. Big surprise. He used to coach the Bruins. He lost the Cup while he coached the Bruins to the Habs. And I think Cherry is entertaining as hell, but he has a mancrush on Bobby Orr that makes Pierre McGuire’s obsession with Mike Richards seem healthy.
This could be and probably will be an ugly series. These are traditional rivals to begin with, but that’s been ratcheted up by the events of this year, culminating with Giraffe On Skates Zdeno Chara trying to stuff Max Pacioretty into part of the turnbuckle. And that’s without Subban somehow certainly managing to make himself a target at some point in this series.
Montreal is having scoring issues, and that doesn’t bode well for a team about to face Tim Thomas. Gionta and Cammalerri could turn it on at any point, and Plekanec is solid. But all those guys just don’t seem to have the same jump they had going into last year’s playoffs.
LIGHTNING (5) vs. PENS (4)
This is probably the best matchup the Pens could’ve hoped for. Buffalo wouldn’t have been terrible, but they’re a deeper offensive team than the Lightning. Tampa’s got a better top six; Buffalo’s probably got a more balanced top nine forwards.
Tampa is a team that most Pens fans were actually kinda-sorta cheering for at the start of the season. Yzerman is a class act. Boucher is a solid coach – a great offensive and powerplay mind who used to be an assistant on Sid’s teams in Rimouski. And we all saw the Lightning as a legitimate challenge to the Caps in the Southeast.
But now we have to learn to hate Tampa. And that shouldn’t be too hard. They’re standing between the second round and the end of a season, a season that could take a significant turn for the better if Crosby continues to progress and gets cleared to return.
On paper, Tampa has the finishers and the offense. Martin St. Louis finished 2nd in the league in scoring. Steven Stamkos finished fifth after tailing off a little from the start of the season. Vinny LeCavalier also put up a respectable 25 goals and 54 points in 65 games. Throw in 17-goal seasons from Ryan Malone and Simon Gagne – both recently healthy after missing about 30 and 20 games, respectively – and they’ve got a solid top six.
But on paper, the Pens win the goaltending and defense matchups.
Fleury has been playing at an MVP level since, ironically, turning his season around with a win on November 12 against Tampa. He’s been lights out ever since.
The Pens top four of Michalek, Martin, Orpik and Letang is as good in their own zone as any team in the league. Michalek has been exactly as advertised – Scuderi with wheels and puck skills. Martin has begun to settle into his new role here, use his mobility and has established a working chemistry with Michalek. Orpik and Letang have been solid and improving together for a couple of years now. Orpik brings the hammer; Letang was playing a Norris Trophy-level from about November into March. He slipped a little late, but seems to be getting his game back now that Orpik has recovered from his mid-season injury.
The Lightning almost always play St. Louis and Stamkos on the same line, so it’s a safe bet that they’ll come to know Michalek and Martin better than their own shadows over the next two weeks. Lecavalier often plays with Gagne, so look for Orpik and Letang to likely match up there. It’s conceivable those those top four d-men could combine for 45-50 minutes a night over this series.
The other major key for the Pens is staying out of the box. The Pens had the league’s top penalty-killing unit, but it slipped a little late after Matt Cooke went and done got himself suspended, and he won’t be back until the second round, if they make it. You don’t want to give Stamkos, St. Louis and Lecavalier the benefit of two minutes with a man advantage more often than you have to, no matter how strong the PK may be.
Pittsburgh’s offense has struggled without Sid and Geno, like anyone expected they would. They lack a proven finisher right now, but Kennedy, Staal, Talbot, Dupuis and Kunitz have elevated their games and have led the team with some scoring gritty goals. Tampa’s defense can be picked on. Only one of the 16 qualifying teams in the league allowed more goals this year than the 240 Tampa let in, and that was Detroit with 241. Tampa finished 22nd in the league in goals-allowed-per-game, and they were last in the league in shorthanded goals allowed with 16. Heh. Heh. Heh.
No one knows what to expect. This is the fifth consecutive appearance by the Pens in the playoffs, and this may be the toughest one to predict what to expect since that first appearance in 2006-07. To be honest, since Crosby and Malkin both went out with their respective injuries, most Pens fans would’ve been fine with being right here. Get to the playoffs, roll the dice and take our chances. Everyone recognizes the value that Crosby and even a slumping Malkin had to this lineup, and they understand that it’s a different team – perhaps limited in certain ways – than what we’re used to seeing. That doesn’t mean they can’t win.
It’s not going to be an easy series for the Pens, but that’s the playoffs. It’s back and forth. It’s ebb and flow, momentum swing after momentum swing and it almost never goes smoothly.
For every time you see a Pens player throw a puck at the net and hope see the puck dent the twine behind Roloson, you’ll cringe when someone fires a shot at Fleury.
Every rush up the ice by the Pens is met with an adrenaline jolt and a shift to the edge of your seat. Every rush by the Lightning carries that little twinge of dread.
It’s the best postseason is sports, and this is the best time of the year. This is why you never take these for granted.
Be good, Pens. Get it right.
Let’s start this over.