The Art Of War
Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate. – Sun Tzu
Gamesmanship has become a large part of preparing for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Even as far back as Michel Therrien’s harping on the Detroit Red Wings ability to clutch-and-grab under the radar of the officials, coaches and players have been verbally grooming referees for quite some time.
Meanwhile, in the depths of CONSOL Energy Center, Dan Bylsma has remained somewhat quiet.
We spoke on this site last week about Bylsma’s focus and the need to ensure that the Pittsburgh Penguins are ready to play hockey.
Hockey: the actual game itself. Not chirping from some cavernous locker room; not the gamesmanship that occurs away from the ice.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, despite a rough patch that occurred just before the end of the 2011-12 regular season finale, appear to have worked the kinks out in advance of the 4 v. 5 series that will begin tomorrow night in the friendly confines of the CONSOL Energy Center.
A lot has been made of the Penguins inability to defeat the Flyers on home ice. Philadelphia is sporting a 5-1 record in the CONSOL Energy center, finally getting a notch in the loss column on Saturday afternoon when the Flyers closed out their regular season against the Penguins in losing fashion.
Dan Bylsma ended that game with his fourth line on the ice. To date, we haven’t heard a peep from Peter Laviolette in regards to how unacceptable that is.
In the mess that is the Penguins failure against the Flyers at home, many have lost sight of one daunting statistic that plays into the Penguins favor here.
No team in the Eastern Conference was as good at home cooking as the Pittsburgh Penguins. Their 29-10-2 home record speaks volumes to the ability of Bylsma to gain the proper match-ups and make teams tap out in the third period.
It’s important to remember here that Dan Bylsma’s goal is to see that the Penguins play 60/40 hockey, or more specifically, Bylsma wants his team to spend 60% of the game with possession of the puck in the offensive zone. The result is two-fold, not only do the Penguins continue to generate scoring chances, but they smother the opposition by playing keep away with the puck and punishing opposing defenses with a physical approach to the game.
Simply put, you can’t score when the other team has the puck. Welcome to the life of a road team trailing at the end of the 2nd period.
The last time the Penguins relinquished a lead after two periods at home was in November of 2010.
Now, it’d be remiss here to not mention how good the Flyers were on the road. It’s a classic case of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. The only change to this adage is that the immovable object has last change and can match his lines the way he wants.
The Penguins are fairly good on the road, as well. In the last 6 seasons, the Penguins have won at least 20 games on the road. That streak is good for 2nd best in the history of the NHL.
Bear In The Forest
The goal-tending match-up should feature two of the hottest goaltenders in the NHL right now.
The Penguins Marc-Andre Fleury went 23-5-2 in his last 31 starts. Although there were a few rough patches towards the end of the regular season, with the team playing better as a whole, Fleury should be able to continue his stellar form through the post-season.
Fleury sports a 41-28 record in the post-season, only one active goaltender (Brodeur) can lay claim to as many wins as the Flower.
The story on the other side of the state is similar, but started differently.
Ilya Bryzgalov, the Flyers 10 million dollar investment, looked like a giant flop to start the year. A late season game against the Calgary Flames would change all that. Bryzgalov went on a tear and became one of the hottest goaltenders in the NHL.
However, things changed when Bryzgalov was diagnosed with a fracture in his foot. The diagnosis officially occurred on March 29, but we expect to see Bryzgalov back in net for the Flyers come puck drop on Wednesday night.
For as good as Fleury’s statistics in the post-season are, the reverse is true for Bryzgalov. The Flyers starter is 12-13 in the post-season, a mark that seems even more dismal when you take into consideration the 3-1 record in a relief role for Anaheim when they won the Stanley Cup in 2007.
Earlier this week, reporters asked what What the biggest threat the Penguins have?
“You know, I’m not afraid of anything. I’m afraid of bears – bears in the forest.”
There is so much to be made of the Dan Bylsma and Peter Laviolette’s preferred match-ups in this series that you could write a Moby Dick length novel on it. We’ll try to sum it up a bit quicker than that.
Expect to see, especially in Pittsburgh, Jordan Staal’s third line taking major minutes against the Philadelphia pairing of Giroux, Hartnell, Jagr, Timonen and Carle.
For this defensive assignment, you might see Staal & Co. sacrifice a bit of offensive en lieu of shutting down one of the most dangerous lines in hockey. The onus is on Staal, Cooke, and Kennedy to have their head on a swivel and be sure that they can get the puck deep and keep it there.
For Malkin, it’s more of Flyers rookie Sean Couturier.
To date, the Couturier has seen more ice time against Evgeni Malkin than any other player in the National Hockey League. In the times that Malkin has been on the ice against Couturier, he has registered only 3 assists. Will Bylsma attempt to steer the Malkin line clear of the defensive duties of Couturier?
That leaves Sidney Crosby. For perhaps the first time in the history of his career, the attention doesn’t sit solely with the Penguins captain. If all shakes out the way the analysts are expecting it to, Crosby will be spending his time getting re-acquainted with ex-Penguin Max Talbot during this series.
Perhaps the X-Factor in all of this is how well Crosby can produce in the face of pressure. Crosby will be playing with Steve Sullivan and Pascal Dupuis.
Dupuis story is all-to-familiar to us, his point streak to end the year placed him in the annals of NHL history, and the last time Steve Sullivan had a week off to repair his ailments, he came back as one of the hottest players in the NHL.
Finally, expect more of the same in this series. We are already familiar with how the Penguins play. The Flyers will utilize an intense forcheck to pressure opponents into mistakes and force turnovers at each blueline.
Wait a minute, turnovers at the blueline? The same ailment that haunted Pittsburgh in the final two weeks of the regular season?
Skating and puck management are at the forefront of attention for the Penguins. The pressure will be there, you need to ensure that the puck is supported and that your teammates are receiving passes to their stick.
Put the fancy stuff away in the cupboard for next round. This is about sheer will and determination.
The good thing for the Penguins?
They practice this every single day.
Remember, the Penguins offensive system is predicated on getting the puck deep, taking the easy play along the wall away, and forcing teams into untimely turnovers.
Hot starts might be the key as well. The Penguins are 35-8-4 when scoring first, and are 32-0-3 when entering into the third period with a lead.
One of those overtime losses? It came at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Again, get ready for the unstoppable force versus the immovable object.
It all starts on Wednesday night. If you miss it, shame on you for 6 weeks.
Programming note: FF will be doing a live thread for the game on Wednesday from the CONSOL Energy center, and our annual Blogger Roundtable will be posted Wednesday morning.