Lacing Up: Don't Fear the Keeper
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul and Joshua Neal will publish email conversations periodically discussing a time-sensitive topic.
Matt Paul: After a nail-biter of a first round series against the New York Islanders, the Pittsburgh Penguins have survived to see another round. In the meantime, many have expressed extreme concern over their ability to go deep in the playoffs given their struggles against the 16th ranked regular season team.
Josh, from our discussion last evening, I know you and I are on the same page: new series, new team, new results. But is there any concern at all that the first round performance could be an indicator of the Penguins’ overall success this postseason?
Joshua Neal: I think that the first round performance is an indicator of just that – a first-round performance. We’re talking about a Penguins team that had very little to play for for about the last month of the regular season, and a team that has a much different makeup than the team that lost to the Flyers in the first round in 2012.
Was it the 4-game sweep or the 5-game domination that many people were expecting? No. Was it a poor performance? Not in all phases. The Islanders played like a team that had the confidence and enough skill to push the Penguins to the brink. Ironically, their goaltender Nabokov was likely their Achilles’ heel, as they were proficient in all areas of the game for large stretches of play during the series. The Game 3 and Game 6 wins that the Penguins claimed were undoubtedly wins that the Penguins managed despite being outplayed.
But to me, that’s more reason for excitement. We’ve seen touches of what this Penguins team is capable of doing, and I don’t think we saw much of it in Round One. Does that mean this team is suddenly incapable? I don’t think so. I think they’re finding their game with the evident adjustment in styles of game that come with the NHL Playoffs.
Speaking of adjustments, Matt, I have a feeling this debate will continue until the Penguins take the ice against the Senators: Marc Andre Fleury, who was pulled from the series after a 6-4 loss in Game 4 started the season and playoffs as the undisputed starter. Tomas Vokoun rode in to rescue the Penguins and escape the series. Now, with a new series on the horizon, who will be minding the net? And, perhaps more interestingly, why?
Matt: Josh, I really feel this series will boil down to goaltending, just as the first round series did. Against New York, we saw the Penguins make a goalie change and win two straight to close out the Islanders, while they watched Nabakov sink. Against Ottawa, the Penguins will face the opposite kind of goaltending: ridiculously good. It will be up to the Penguins’ netminder(s) to play strong and keep the team in games.
So, who should start? The goalie who won two straight. That’s who. Fleury may be the franchise goaltender, but he’s proven time and again that, come playoffs, his game slips big time. I’m not ready to write him out of the script just yet, but for now, Vokoun is the man who has earned the right to start the series against the Senators. Over the weekend I heard someone say “You don’t choose a goalie in the playoffs. The goalie chooses you.” Fleury and Vokoun, to this point, have dictated who should start. It’s up to coach Dan Bylsma to confirm.
At the other end of the ice, the Penguins will be facing the best goalie in hockey, Craig Anderson. Should we be afraid, Josh?
Josh: I don’t think so. I think that the Penguins definitely respect their opponent, and I also think that while Craig Anderson has put together some gaudy statistics, that it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s unbeatable for a few reasons.
First, Anderson has an incredibly high save percentage (.941 in the regular season, .950 in his first playoff series), but that can be a product of teams not getting a lot of quality shots against him. Look at his backup, Robin Lehner, who stepped in and put up similar numbers while Anderson dealt with injury during the regular season. That’s not to say that Lehner is inept, but much of the acclaim that Anderson has earned this season has come from a team playing great defense in front of him. And we all know how big of a difference that can make to a goalie’s statistics (see: Fleury, Marc-Andre).
Should we be afraid of Anderson? No. But the Penguins should be prepared to find ways into the zone. They can beat anyone in the league while they’re playing their game, so they need to find ways to do that. That’s what I think the Penguins were lacking against the Islanders: puck possession, mainly caused by turnovers and poor zone exits/entries.
Matt: I think you’ve nailed the problem, but what caused the problem? I truly believe it was the Islanders’ speed. By using their strength (which also happened to be a weakness for the Penguins), they were able to force turnovers, bottle-up the Penguins, and allow their players to throw hoards of low percentage shots at the Penguins’ goalies.
No team in the NHL, in my opinion, has the speed of the Islanders. That’s beneficial to the Penguins. Looking at the Senators, they’re clearly a better team than the Islanders, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Penguins will have as much difficulty with them.
The Penguins need to keep their emotions in check, as Ottawa will do everything possible to get under the skin of retaliators, such as Malkin, Neal, and Letang, while riling up guys like Morrow and Cooke. They also need to improve their defensive play, keeping the pressure on the Senators. While their not as fast as the Islanders, they have more fire power and certainly will make the Penguins pay if given the opportunity.
Josh, do you see any other critical components to this series?
Josh: The special teams battle is one that has silently led to the Penguins’ early exits in years past. In the pray round, both the Powerplay and Penalty Kill were world-class. Keeping in mind that Ottawa doesn’t surrender a ton of goals, capitalizing on PP chances will be huge.
But at the end of the day, I think it comes down to the Penguins playing their system. The reason they found themselves in a dogfight with the Islanders is because they got away from their game for long stretches. I (perhaps not so humbly) believe that if Penguins are playing their game over the course of a 7-game series that they will be good enough to win against just about any opponent.
Let’s see if they can get things off on the right foot.
Matt: Penguins in 5
Josh: Penguins in 6