Quarterfinal Playoff Roundtable
As always, thanks to the writers that agree to participate with us for taking time out of their busy playoff schedules to join us for a thorough discussion about this series.
As always, we ask five questions and compare the answers of everyone. I would encourage all our readers to bookmark these sites if you haven’t already and follow each and every one of these writers on Twitter.
Here’s our panel for round one:
Brian Metzer of From The Point and the Penguins Radio Network. @Brian_Metzer
tPB Derek of The Pensblog. @tpbderek
Joe Depto of The PensNation. @JoeDepto
Sean Leahy of Yahoo! Puck Daddy. @Sean_Leahy
Zoe Hayden of Puck Huffers. @zoeclaire_
Sam Kasan of the Pittsburgh Penguins. @PensInsideScoop
Tecmo of PSAMP. @psamp
Mike Colligan of The Hockey Writers. @MikeColligan
Jim Colony of sports radio 93.7 the Fan. @JColony13
Jimmy Rixner of Pensburgh. @Hooks_Orpik
Tony Ferrante of The Confluence. @TheConfluence
Let’s get started.
Question 1: On the current Islanders roster, who poses the biggest threat to the Penguins success in this series?
Metzer: There are actually three names that came to mind immediately upon reading the question: John Tavares, Michael Grabner and Evgeni Nabokov. Nabokov is such a “been there, done that” sort, which is perfect for such a young team. He has 40 playoff wins, a sparkling 2.29 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. However the most impressive thing about his stat line — his seven playoff shutouts. He hasn’t posted great numbers against the Penguins this season, but he knows how to turn his game up a notch when the games mean more. Tavares is a star in the making, no need to dwell on his contributions other than to point out that he looks hungry. He is good for plenty of “OH MY GOD” moments each night and can beat a team singlehandedly during any shift. The wild card and the guy I am most concerned about, especially if the Penguins get sloppy with the puck, is Grabner. The guy skates like the wind and has a knack for picking off point-passes and taking them the other way. If the Penguins are not smart in their puck possession, he is going to burn them.
tPB Derek Matt Moulson. Moulson is delusional and has held it against the Penguins for not signing him out of college. Moulson doesn’t have great numbers against the Pens (5g/7A in 24 games) but he seems like he is always around the net against the Pens. With the Penguins focused on Tavares, Moulson could blow up.
Depto: The obvious choice here is John Tavares, but I have a lot of concerns about one of the most underrated two-way players in the game in Frans Nielsen. Nielsen’s strong neutral zone instincts and ability to match up well against any line gives Jack Capuano a nice Swiss Army knife of a player to use, particularly when Capuano doesn’t have the luxury of the last line change in Consol Energy Center. In any case, Nielsen’s four points in five games against the Pens isn’t too shabby either.
Hayden: Tavares, easily. I think the Islanders know they can try to frustrate the Pens if they get them in an early hole, and if Tavares proves to be a playoff performer, he’ll be a total villain for the Pens for years to come even if he only scores one or two huge goals. I almost said Nabokov but I think the Pens’ offense can run the table on him no matter who is scoring.
Kasan: Tim Thomas. Oh wait…nevermind. While John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Evgeni Nabokov will likely dominate the headlines, it would also behoove the Penguins to keep an eye on Michael Grabner. His speed will make you ponder Einstein’s wormhole theory (google it). The Penguins have struggled in the past with speed players, and Grabner will create a few chances for himself. He finished second on the team with 16 goals and is always a threat to score shorthanded. For the Islanders to beat the Penguins, they’ll need depth scoring and Grabner may fill that bill.
Tecmo: Let’s be real, if our Black and Gold faithful are amped up about Sid’s possible presence and what he brings, then we also have to accept New York’s young phenom. I was in the Coliseum when John Tavares scored his first career goal (a Pens win), and those fans are just waiting to go nuts should he score in the playoffs at home. Even if the Pens go perfect at home Games 1 and 2, Tavares on the Isle can do damage.
Colligan: Evgeni Nabokov. The Islanders don’t have the talent to go head-to-head with the Penguins, but a playoff series can be won by a hot goaltender. Nabokov has played generally well against the Penguins lately and has the potential to steal a few games.
Colony: Tavares could go off but, really, only Nabakov is capable of making a difference in the result.
Rixner: The biggest threat to me is the Islanders team speed, especially at forward. We all have memories of last playoffs when the Flyers quick forwards were able to effectively counter the Pens and bury goals seemingly at ease on odd-man rushes and quick breakouts. Thankfully, the Isles do not have quite that high a level of execution as Philly did last year, but if NYI can isolate on the Pens more limited defensemen in space (thinking Murray, Eaton and Engelland if he plays) and spring some stretch passes for guys like Grabner, Pittsburgh could have some problems. Again, I don’t think it’s a huge deal, but 2012 looms large until that demon is flushed away.
Ferrante: I think the easy, convenient answer would be Tavares of course. But the Pens have done a good job this season of keeping Tavares quiet, only one goal and one assist in five games vs. the Pens. The Isles have several sneaky good players, like Moulson, Boyes, Nielsen, Grabner, etc. So I don’t think it would be a matter of one player who would singularly have a huge series against the Pens, it would their top six utilizing their speed. And it would probably also take a Pens team taking them lightly, as well.
Leahy: The obvious guys are John Tavares and Matt Moulson. They’ve been carrying the team offensively throughout the season. Down the lineup, I would say Michael Grabner. He’s a very streaky player. He was third on the team in takeaway and can create his own chances. With his speed, he’s dangerous. While the Penguins’ power play unit is setting up to be an All-Star team in the five spots, Grabner combination of speed and defensive-awareness make him a threat when the Isles are down a man.
Question 2: Name one thing that has to happen for the Penguins to win this series.
Metzer: Attention to detail, Puck Possession and Hard Work. There were too many times this season where the Penguins entered a game against a perceived weaker opponent and were beaten or had trouble securing a victory. To a man, especially early in the season, they pointed to the fact that they didn’t have a built in rivalry or proper motivation against teams like Toronto, Winnipeg and yes, the NEW YORK ISLANDERS, which manifested as bad habits, poor puck possession and sloppy play all over the ice. I know it isn’t a huge concern when a team wins 36 of 48 games, but when you see each of those 12 losses (five of which came against non-playoff teams Buffalo and New Jersey) coming against those so-called perceived weaker opponents, it warrants a mention. The acquisitions of Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla should dovetail nicely with the leadership that was already here to keep the group focused, but that is one area I will be paying close attention to this evening.
tPB Derek: Make sure no one gets into a car accident before or after the game. Half of life is all about showing up. That means everything in this series.
Depto: I can’t stress enough how important the penalty kill is to the Penguins’ playoff hopes, but especially in this series. The Islanders know they can’t beat Pittsburgh playing strictly a skill-centric game – they’re going to come at Pittsburgh where they were the weakest in last season’s first round elimination – mental composure under physical duress. If a rivalry with plenty of bad blood like this one takes an ugly turn, how the Penguins respond physically is key. If they’re short-handed early and often, the Pens 25th-ranked PK unit could be cautiously tested against one of the top ten powerplay units in the league – John Tavares finishing the regular season with the fourth-highest PP goal total was certainly no accident.
Hayden: They have to kill penalties consistently. Again: I think the Isles’ game plan is going to be about frustrating the Pens. If they can goad Geno into a stupid slash, they will. They know it works. The Pens will need to be aggressive on these penalty kills, because while the Isles don’t exceed at making space for themselves all the time, they sure know how to score when the Pens just straight up give them space.
Kasan: Show up. Not only are the Penguins a more talented and deeper team, they’re also much more playoff tested. Of the Islanders 27 roster players, they have a combined 193 career playoff games (80 from Nabokov alone). The Penguins on the other hand have 1,159 career playoff games, 13 Stanley Cups and 24 Cup Final appearances. As long as the Penguins show up to play, I don’t see any hope for the Islanders.
Tecmo: Going along with my Tavares pick, the Pens need to win on the road, and get on the Islanders early. Since I live in NYC, I sorta go back to in-person memories. The Trevor Gillies game, the Isles fans were the scariest I have ever seen NY-area fans, any sport. They’re usually self-deprecating what with the recent history but here they were just letting out raw emotion after a few decades of failure. You think they aren’t gonna go berserk should the Isles take a commanding lead in Game 3? Gillies game, the Isles were up 4-5 goals before all the fights broke out. The Pens do not want those players and those voices in the crowd dictating things.
Colligan: Stick to their gameplan. It’s cliche, but it’s true. The Islanders do a surprisingly good job of strategizing against the Penguins (maybe this is natural because they’re in the same division). If the Pens happen to lose a game or two early in the series, they need to stick with their style of play. They have far more talent than the Islanders and over a seven-game series that should be enough.
Colony: Show up. And stay disciplined.
Rixner: Staying out of the box and just playing a good, clean game. The Islanders have a dangerous power play and Tavares and Moulson can do damage on it. But limiting their chances with the man-advantage should greatly limit the amount of time they have with the puck, since I expect the Penguins to control the pace of play and puck possession throughout most of the games. Stay out of the box, and don’t give the inexperienced Islanders a chance to calm down and catch their breath and I think things will be 100 times easier for the Pens.
Ferrante: We could go a few ways with this. If I had to say one thing, I would say that MAF needs to have a good series and get on a roll moving forward in the playoffs. Everyone has vivid memories about the last three playoff seasons. Not to say at all that MAF’s performance was the SOLE reason that the Pens got bounced, but it was one of the reasons. I think Pens fans worst fear is to have MAF get some unlucky bounces and/or soft goals get past him and get his confidence down.
Leahy: Make the power plays count. The Penguins were second in the NHL in power play success for good reason. They have the horses to make this a quick series if they want. The issues us sometimes the Penguins like to get a little cute or make that extra, unnecessary pass, and that could cause trouble. When you face a team that is an overwhelming underdog like the Islanders are, you can’t allow them to have any sort of life. Underdogs feed off opportunity. The Penguins can’t be complacent knowing they’re facing a lesser team.
Question 3: Of the acquisitions Ray Shero has made this year, which will have the biggest impact in the first round?
Metzer: All of the acquisitions will play huge roles, but Brenden Morrow is a guy who could leave a deep imprint on this series and any kind of run that the team eventually goes on this spring. He is one of those guys that you just don’t like playing against. He is physical, bruising and isn’t afraid to do the dirty work in front of the net and in the corners. He will wear down the defensive corps of the opponent by hitting them each time they have to retrieve a puck in their own zone — being hit five, six or seven times per night over the span of seven games take a lot out of a player. He will also contribute on the score sheet and in keeping guys focused. Let’s not forget that both Morrow and Jarome Iginla have had the unfortunate experience of seeing the Cup raised on their home ice… by the opposition. That kind of bad taste metastasizes in a group. Morrow and company will spread that pain and make not feeling it again the goal. Honorary mention: Jussi Jokinen – chameleon-like in his ability to blend in anywhere on the roster. Will likely center top line to start playoffs with Crosby not being cleared, can win faceoffs, kill penalties and play effectively in any situation.
tPB Derek: Jarome Iginla is the generic answer, and we’re okay with that. Iginla owns stock in Nabakov’s mind. Eight career playoff goals against him. Get real.
Depto: I think Brenden Morrow would be a fine choice here, but I have to go with Douglas Murray. The 2012 postseason exposed everything wrong with the Penguins blue line composition. Kris Letang has yet to prove he can consistently produce at an elite level outside of the regular season. Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen are very strong defensive options, but have yet to be on a Penguins blue line that has made it past the first round. Murray provides a level of physical intimidation and exists as a matchup issue for any opposing coach that thinks the Penguins still can’t roll three productive defensive pairings. To put it bluntly – Douglas Murray is everything the Penguins 2011-12 blue line wasn’t.
Hayden: I feel like Nassau Coliseum is going to be Brenden Morrow’s kitchen. Watching him set up shop in Nabokov’s paint is going to be a great thing to be a part of. I think play like Morrow’s will be key to winning the series—going hard at the Islanders even in frustrating situations. I trust that Morrow’s physical play, net front presence, and veteran attitude will be a big part of that.
Kasan: This is a hard one, but I’ve got to pick Brenden Morrow. When you construct the ideal playoff player, this is the guy you build. He’s all heart and guts (and can score, too). Morrow will be a net-front pest, play physical, battle for pucks and make the dirty plays it takes to win in the playoffs. Every time he steps on the ice, the Islanders will cringe. Morrow plays with the nasty edge that is needed in the postseason.
Tecmo: Brenden Morrow. Sure, Iggy will get a jillion goals or just blow 100+MPH slappers on net on the Power Play, but Morrow is focused. You see his eyes when he plays, the guy wants nothing more than to make the right play. There was some anecdote by a Dallas photographer after the trade, Morrow’s wife was sad about him uprooting but his daughter reassured her, saying something like “it’s only a couple months and he has a chance to win a Cup.” This is what is going on in Brenden Morrow’s life right now. He knows these chances aren’t always here.
Colligan: I won’t be the guy that says Tomas Vokoun. I have to go with Jarome Iginla. He’s been a streaky player his entire career, but when he’s on fire he’s unstoppable. I have a feeling he’s going to win a series by himself this year. Maybe it’ll be this one?
Colony: I’m thinking Morrow will be part of the line that handles Tavares but the beauty of it is that all 4 deadline guys will make a difference at one time or another.
Rixner: Jarome Iginla. If things go like they should, he’ll be playing with Sidney Crosby and he’ll be back on his natural right wing. Iggy’s looked good on the PP, but he hasn’t really looked comfortable or effective at even strength on his off-wing. Playing there, and with the best player in the world should make for a great series from #12.
Ferrante: I “want” to say Iginla, but man, Morrow in the playoffs with THIS team is gonna be fun to watch. He’s gonna be an absolute beast in front of the net and along the boards. He’s that net-front presence that Pens fans have been yearning for. He’s gonna part of what I think will be a non-stop barrage of forechecking by the Penguins’ forwards.
Leahy: Doug Murray. Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla are nice additions up front, but Murray will bring more toughness to the back. He’s not the definition of a “final piece” acquisition, he’s just going to complement a strong core and hopefully help a deny a recurrence of the defensive lapses of the Flyers series.
Question 4: What’s your biggest area of concern with the Pittsburgh Penguins right now?
Metzer: As I mentioned above, it comes down to working hard on a nightly basis. They have seemingly gelled as a group and have done a great job of integrating the new guys into the fold. They just need to go out on a nightly basis and play as if it their final game. If they do that day-in and day-out they will be fine. There is plenty of depth and skill, plenty of leadership and the team looks otherworldly when they play the way that they are capable of. When they don’t? Well that is when you see teams like the Sabres and Devils combining for five wins against the team. When they lose structure and start to run around, it is like they have already lost the game.
tPB Derek: The pressure. If the unthinkable would happen and the Isles would get a series 2-1 or 3-2 lead the pressure in Pittsburgh would close the city down. Luke Ravenstahl would probably declare martial law. We know the Penguins are the better team, but with this day and age, the pressure bubble in the series is already completely unreasonable.
Depto: I don’t have many concerns outside of the PK issues I mentioned earlier, but the Penguins have to stay as consistently hungry as possible. The current Pens roster seems far from the type of roster that is prone to chemistry issues, but these guys are human despite the “dream team” vibe that oozes from this roster. Pittsburgh is going to hear about how great they are with each and every turn. A series victory over the Islanders is only going to augment that. I also think the Pens are facing a lack of identity on the fourth line – who is definitely in and who is out? It may vary from game to game, and it’s probably a nitpick given the massive depth of this team, but I do think about it often.
Hayden: Penalty kill, as described above. Which also encompasses Fleury’s confidence. Then again, he did just get a baby. Could be a good sign.
Kasan: The Penguins most glaring weakness is their penalty kill. Pittsburgh ranked 25th in the NHL with a kill rate of 79.6 percent. If the Islanders have any shot at winning this series they’re going to need their power play to score and score often. New York had the 10th-best power play (tied) in the NHL and could be a major series equalizer. Pittsburgh held the Islanders to two power-play goals in 18 tries during the regular season. The Penguins will need that same success in the postseason.
Tecmo: How many people are gonna say MAF? Roundtable participants and/or readers? I mean you look at this team and criticizing any aspect is like looking at the Great Wall of China and being all “psssshhhh could be taller.” With that being said I guess I’ll say the guys sitting. Vitale, maybe Beau, maybe TK, Vokoun at first. Series can turn to hell quite quickly as we learned the past few postseasons, and Bylsma might need one of these guys in a pinch. Far be it from me to get on the guys playing, so hopefully if the odd men out get called to duty they can put on that evil Miro Satan grin and wreck house.
Colligan: Injuries. I have no major concerns about the Islanders besides Nabokov, but any additional injuries could have a lasting effect on the Pens Cup chances. Win the series and move on in one piece.
Colony: That somehow last April’s PK unit reappears
Rixner: As it always is in the playoffs, injuries are the concern for me. Aside from Marc-Andre Fleury every key player (Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Letang, Martin, Orpik) is either currently injured or very recently coming off an injury. The playoffs are a war of attrition and just brutal on bodies so hopefully the Pens can get in and out of a few series quickly like they were able to in 2008 and get a chance to rest their big guns as much as possible.
Ferrante: See question #2.
Leahy: The penalty kill unit has to do a much better job. Only the Capitals are ranked lower than the Penguins on the penalty kill among playoff teams. As the Trib noted, the penalty kill has decreased every postseason since 2008. The coaches and players can talk about how they’ll look at film and work on adjustments in practices, but that’s a glaring flaw over a 5-year span; one that can easily be exposed.
Final Question: Official prediction for the series?
Metzer: Penguins in five games.
tPB Derek: Pens in 5.
Depto: With all due respect to the Islanders, I see this as a very short series. Evgeni Malkin comes to life, Marc-Andre Fleury looks as motivated as ever and focused as ever, and the Pens win in five games.
Hayden: I wrote about my East predictions for She’s Game Sports in an unbiased sort of way (maybe). And I feel like since I said Pens in 5 there I can’t really go back on it. The more I think about it the less I am sure but I think Pens in 5 is a good prediction, right? Right.
Kasan: Pens in 3. Just kidding. Pens in 5. The Islanders will steal one, but the talent and experience of the Penguins is just too overwhelming.
Tecmo: Pens easy. 5 games, in and out. Isles have a chance to come out quick Game 1 or Game 3 but don’t get anxious. I’ve seen about 8 thousand Pens wins on the Island. Only really need 1-2 more.
Colligan: Pens sweep the Isles 4-0. This series doesn’t concern me. The second round is a different story…
Colony: Penguins in 4.
Rixner: I’m gonna say Pens in 5. I don’t have the balls to call a sweep, even though it very well could be. Pittsburgh is just too focused, too experienced, too deep up and down the roster for a young team like NYI to handle. Hopefully the Pens come out the gates really strong and never even give them a chance to know what hit em’.
Ferrante: I’m gonna say Pens in 5. I think that the Islanders could sneak out a win in one of the games on Long Island, perhaps if the Pens go up 3-0. But overall, if the Penguins don’t get too overconfident and nonchalant, they just have too much firepower up and down their lineup for the Islanders to compete with. In fact, I think if the Penguins play to their potential, this could be quite ugly. But I think the Isles are a hard-working team, and will give it their best shot to keep it close.
Leahy: Pens in 5.
Thanks again to everyone that participated. Enjoy this series!