We said it last season after the loss to the Flyers, and it's a no-brainer to mention it again now. That series changed us. For as far back as we can remember, there has never been a time where our guts were ripped out like that. The enthusiasm everyone had going into those playoffs was destroyed. People were wiping away tears while shaving their beards. It shook us to our very core. Never again, we said, would we look at the playoffs the same way.
And now here we are. As fun the regular season was, this was the bright light in the distance. It took a whole year and ton of shit to get back.
It's still up in the air what Crosby will be all about. With the playoffs starting, it'll be tough to fight the temptation to rush Crosby back from injury. But if there's a series in which the Pens can afford to be cautious, this will probably be the only one.
The Pens have one of the best problems you can have at this time of year: a plethora of forwards. Brenden Morrow will be on the third line, for God's sakes. We aren't head coaches in the NHL, and while it's fun to go back and forth about how we'd want the lines to look, it's basically like holding your wiener.
All we'll say is that we can't envision a universe where Jussi Jokinen is on this team's fourth line. He's played a major role in the Pens' winning ways since arriving on the ship. Actually, his 7 goals in 10 games as a Penguin adjusts to 57 goals in 82 games. The Pens will put arguably their hottest goal scorer, and hypothetical 50-goal scorer, on the fourth line?
That being said, a big factor in how far the Pens go will be how quickly and how well every player up and down the lineup takes their Bylsma-dictated role in stride. The Pens are stocked with playoff veterans and leaders. With the talent overload, you have to depend on a guy like Brenden Morrow taking a role on the third or fourth line and packing a lunchpail before every shift. You have to depend on a guy like Jussi Jokinen not feeling slighted when he's sent to the third or fourth line.
Now, these combinations below aren't even our opinions on how the lines will look. Just want to put the names down:
The eternal question, regardless of how line combos will be, is who will fill that last forward spot. If Kennedy's spot in the lineup is safe under Bylsma, and it looks like it is, these will be the 12 forwards. Bylsma also has Bennett, Glass, Vitale, and Jeffrey to play with. If there's ever a time to break Bennett in, experience-wise, it would be this lopsided first-round matchup.
We almost didn't even want to preview the forwards. There are so many things that could happen that it makes our heads spin. Hell, Crosby may not even play against the Islanders. We'll just ride or die as fans with whatever HCDB decides to do.
First big move
Kennedy replaced by Beau Bennett. Let's be real for a second. TK has 67 playoff games under his belt. We could be wrong, but no way that gets overlooked. But if any playoff series gets rocky, this will be the first switch made.
Who scores a big goal?
Jarome Iginla. This first series has Iginla written all over it. The Isles are going to be balls deep on Crosby and Malkin. Iginla can basically do whatever he wants.
Huge stat alert: When people throw that "Crosby and Malkin haven't scored on Nabokov" shit at you, come back with this one: Iginla has 8 goals against Nabokov in two playoff series head-to-head. There's your stat. Iginla.
The offense will put up goals; there's no question. But on the nights where the posts behind opposing goalies are throwing red paint chips everywhere, it will be up to boys in blue to keep the Pens in the hunt.
The last three years, the Pens' defense has been suspect. Not this year. This is the best defensive unit the Pens have had since the Cup in 2009. It is going to be interesting to see what the coaching staff decides to do. Will there come a time and/or an opponent that will necessitate rolling 7 defensemen? Who knows. We may even see 7 D right out of the gate, but that's not likely.
First big move
The top five D-men are untouchable. Martin, Letang, Murray, Orpik and Niskanen all day. If we had to put money on it, we'll say Eaton rounds everything out for Game One. Really, the biggest move here will be Simon Despres watching from the press box every game unless HCDB thinks the opponent is leaving the door open for defensemen joining rushes.
Huge series coming for Matt Niskanen. He is going to get a ton of chances because of how shitty the lower lines of the Isles are. Already on the lookout for him to score a monster goal.
Two of the past three seasons, Brent Johnson was between the pipes when the horn sounded signaling the end of the Penguins' season. Woof.
In 2009, Malkin had a lot to prove in those playoffs after coming up limp late in the 2008 playoffs. He answered by taking home the Conn Smythe. Like it or not, multiply that pressure by 10, and that's what Marc-Andre Fleury is staring down the barrel of. Some people will say that's an exaggeration, but the Penguins obviously don't think so, especially not after MAF's series against the Flyers, where he put up the worst NHL playoff goaltending stats in like 17 years.
MAF's stats this season beat his career averages and dwarf his stats during the 2009 Cup run, so that's good. The Vokoun acquisition and the curious signing of Eric Hartzell recently were both reminders to MAF of what's going on.
All this said, are we worried that MAF and/or the Penguins will have a repeat of last season's debacle? Nope. But these are the biggest playoffs of MAF's career.
If there's anything that will make our buttholes clench tighter than a nun's, it will be the first time the Pens' PK unit steps onto the ice. Again, we harken back to last year against Philly. We still have nightmares of the Flyers scoring on the power play at will. The Pens' PK crawled back to Pittsburgh with a 47.8% success rate, which was the lowest we could find dating back 15 years, and we would bet it's the worst playoff PK percentage in NHL history.
But, hey, it's a new season, a season that saw the PK end the season at 79%, 25th in the NHL. We wanted to chalk that up to a bad start to the season because we thought that the Pens' PK performed at a much better rate since the beginning of the winning streak in March. But sadly, since March 1st, the Pens have killed 65 of 82 penalties, which puts them at...79%. The scariest part is that when a team gets the PK's number, they really get their number. We can recall games against the Lightning, Rangers, and Panthers that turned into gong shows. Imagine if every game in a series is like that against a team. We don't have to imagine; we saw it last spring.
The Pens' power play, however, has been lights-out for the majority of the season, and they will be cycling two PP units that could easily pass as number-one units on any NHL team. The nightmare scenario is where the Pens lose both special-teams battles.
We don't want to get all doom-and-gloom, but special teams are kind of a big deal.
The Pens' system is what it is, and it's not going to change. Bylsma has the best group of horses at his disposal since 2009. Aside from some gripes about who he's dressing or how he's dressing, there probably won't be a lot of criticism thrown his way. Dejan had a good write-up about this.
We have a decent look at the Isles and some other stuff coming before puck drop.