Led by the best NHL player since the “Great One,” Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby with the Pittsburgh Penguins will always be a constant threat to take the Cup every season; so long as he is on the ice. This year’s NHL MVP and captain of the Olympic Gold-Medal winning Team Canada, Crosby is on a tear this season leading the league in scoring (102 points) by a wide margin (plus-16),. What is even better for the Pens moving into the playoffs this season is that he is completely healthy. Although Sidney Crosby’s terrific year has appeared to rub off on fellow line-mates, if the Penguins do not see a much improved postseason performance out of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury this season in comparison to his last four, do not expect the Cup to reside in Pitt next year.
2nd in Eastern Conference, 1st in Metropolitan Division
The preseason expectations this year for the Penguins was business as usual: take home the Cup or bust. Last season, the Penguins led the league in goals (165) and had a league-leading 15-game winning streak. With injuries plaguing the Pens to go along with shoddy goaltending, the last four years have resulted in the Penguins winning more games and scoring more goals than any other team during that time, but have zero Stanley Cup Championships to show for it. With Crosby and Malkin healthy, there is no reason the Penguins again would not be number one-seeded in the Eastern Conference.
Unfortunately for the Penguins, this season they had to settle for number-two in the Eastern Conference and number-one in the Metropolitan Division. This season, Crosby has reemerged as the best player in the league by a wide-margin. Malkin currently is currently injured (although he will be ready for the playoffs), but not before he put up a whopping 72 points in 60 games played. This season also saw Marc-Andre Fleury play well enough to be in Vezina Trophy consideration. All-in-all, the regular season was same-old, same-old with fans
Sidney Crosby’s dominance this season has rubbed off on key players like Chris Kunitz (who is third on the team in scoring with 35 goals and 67 points- both career highs) and Jussi Jokinen (who has seen his point total rise to its highest level since the 2009-10 season). Also, if James Neal can stay healthy and keep up his stellar regular season production- where he is averaging a point per game- into the playoffs and Evgeni Malkin can bounce back from injury and be the proven All-Star that he is, the Penguins will have the offensive depth and the talent to make a deep-run for the Cup this season. The Pens are sixth in the entire NHL in goals scored this season with 240- an average of 3.04 Goals per Game.
To go with their powerful offense, the Penguins also made moves to spruce up their defense. Like the offense, the Pens currently rank sixth in the NHL in goals allowed this season with 197- a total 2.49 GAA. The Pens also appear to have the perfect combination of offensive, defensive and two-way defensemen. With the emergence of rookie defenseman Olli Matta, who has 29 points this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins now have three good defensive combinations with Matta, Niskanen and Letang being paired with Martin, Orpik and Scuderi. Also, they even have more defensive depth off the bench than they’ve had in years with seventh-man Derryk Engelland, which leaves only one major- and repetitive- question mark for the Pens moving into the playoffs this season… Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury has always been one of the best regular season goaltenders a team could have posting a 38-18-4 record this season to go along with 5 shutouts, a 2.34 GAA and a .917 save percentage. Fleury also already has a Stanley Cup Championship under his belt, but over the past four postseasons, he has appeared to be a goalie that has cowered under the playoff spotlight. In just the past two postseason’s alone (11 games), Fleury has allowed 43 goals on 302 shots (.857 save percentage, 3.90 GAA). With a team as powerful offensively as the Penguins are and with Fleury now recently playing in one of his best regular seasons since winning the Stanley Cup, the confidence and swagger carried by a young Marc-Andre Fleury in 2009 appears to still be instilled in the 29-year-old. But what is different about Fleury this season that can make Penguins fans believe he will continue his regular season success in this year’s postseason? New goaltending coach Mike Bales.
Bales this season has apparently been somewhat of a “Fleury Whisperer.” Bales has made it his mission to calm Fleury down between the pipes and in between the ears. In the past few years, especially when looking at the last few postseason’s, Fleury has found himself constantly placed in peculiar predicaments where he has been found out of position or where pucks bounce awkwardly off of himself and into the net. This season, Bales has been able to calm Fleury down on the rare occasions that this has happened, instilling the value of being correctly positioned and contained in the net. This change has helped Marc-Andre to rely less on his sheer athletic ability and more on playing under control. Fleury has still at times this year shown a tendency to have a blow up or seven (see below), but it has been how he has responded after these blow-ups which has Penguins fans confident in Fleury’s ability to stay strong and bounce back from adversity this year:
From March 15th-20th (three games), Fleury allowed 12 goals on just 85 shots and was pulled in the first period in one of those games (.858 save percentage, 7.26 GAA). Fleury followed up that rough patch by allowing only six goals on 118 shots in the following four games after (.949 save percentage, 1.50 GAA). From February 27th-March 1st (two games), Marc-Andre allowed 10 goals on 69 shots (.855 save percentage, 5.00 GAA), but Fleury in his next three starts allowed only three goals on 82 shots, including one shutout (.963 save percentage, 1.00 GAA). From January 15th-January 20th (2 games), Fleury allowed eight goals on 56 shots (.857 save percentage, 4.00 GAA). In his next three starts, he followed up those lackluster performances by allowing four goals on 76 shots, including another shutout (.947 save percentage, 1.33 GAA)… This trend continued throughout the entire season.
As it stands now, the Penguins would face the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs, which is a great way to build Fleury’s confidence moving into this postseason as the Penguins are 5-0 on the season against Columbus. The offensive prowess of the Penguins proved to be too much for the Blue Jackets this season as they gave up 16 total goals in five games- a 3.20 GAA. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, last year’s winner of the Vezina Trophy, has had a solid year this year, but he could not help the Jackets take even one game from them this year.
If Fleury can keep his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde performances to a minimum and keep up his spectacular regular season numbers into the postseason, the Pittsburgh Penguins will easily get by the Blue Jackets and have another legitimate shot at hoisting Lord Stanley this year. However, if he reverts back to his old antics, expect to see another quick hook on the net minder before they are too deep into the playoffs. Still, the Penguins do not need much production from Marc-Andre Fleury in order to get by Columbus or even to win the Stanley Cup. In 2009, Fleury only posted a .908 save percentage and a 2.61 GAA. So if Fleury can just remain a steady course in net, not allow a blowup of three or four goals in a period and keep the game close, the Penguins have the ability and firepower to defeat anybody on any night that Fleury is in net. Look for the firepower of the Penguins to be too much to handle for the Blue Jackets, who are playing in their first playoffs since Rick Nash led them to an opening-series loss in 2009.
Penguins win series 4-1
Conn Smythe Prediction:
Sid “The Kid” has suffered some major setbacks in his young career due to injuries, being held to playing only 63 games in back-to-back seasons from 2010-2012. However, when healthy, Crosby will always be the best player on the ice at any given time as he averages an amazing 1.40 points/game- fourth in NHL history and first among active players. If the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Cup this year, it will be on the back of Captain Sidney Crosby.
Commentary by Ryne Vyles