Some of the major questions are Penguins fans minds are, “who will be in net for the playoffs?”, “Where will Malkin fit in when he comes back?” “Is our team to injured?”. All very honest and frankly, panic induced questions. But let Coach Clint walk you through what the Pens staff needs from their players in order to be successful in this first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
First and foremost, it is quite obvious that Sidney Crosby needs to produce. He is the team’s captain and the best player in the world, it’s an absolute must that he battles through the clutching, grabbing, and dirty play that is playoff hockey. When he does battle through and gets to open space, 87 has to shoot the puck. This is not just the typical cliche of “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”, it’s a statistical fact. Statistically speaking, Crosby is held scoreless when he takes 3 or less shots per game. The Penguins captains plays on line with two guys that have no objections about going to the net. If Crosby even takes some opportunities to shoot for a rebound, it will most likely be found by Hornqvist or Kunitz. They both have a way of finding loose pucks and putting them to the back of the net. If 87 is doing what we all know he’s capable of doing and that’s taking over a game, he will not only make life difficult for the opponents but it he will elevate everyone else’s game as well when they follow.
Next up is Mr. Kessel. If 81 does not go into hiding, uses his speed, and helps his line produce, all will be well. There will not be a team that can handle his line, the Crosby line, and the relentless fore-check of the 3rd and 4th lines. It’s just too overwhelming as we’ve been witnessing this last month. But when Kessel disappears into the shadows, Hagelin loses options and Bonino gets trapped in no man’s land. When the second line doesn’t produce due to lack of Kessel’s effort, then it trickles down to the 3rd and 4th lines and then puts too much pressure on the 1st line.
The 3rd line needs to find it’s rhythm again. I couldn’t put my finger on it for a minute, as to why the 3rd line just hasn’t seemed the same and why Kuhnhackl’s offense has dipped. Then I realized that Rust has been injured and no longer on that line. Rusty’s speed, agility, and skill have been what is really making that 3rd line so great. Yes, Cullen has been doing what he can do and believe me it’s great. I know it, you know it, the Penguins coaches know it. But Cullen cannot continue to do it alone and Eric Fehr just doesn’t give the same pizzazz to that line that Rust does. However, I will give credit to Kuhnhackl for realizing the problem and making up for in other ways, and that has been in the defensive zone. He absolutely will have to continue to block shots every chance he gets to help his line be successful, especially without Rust.
As for the 4th line. Conor Sheary has been an absolute beast as of late. He’s speed and skill along with great defensive positioning will be very key. The Penguins coaches will want to roll four lines as much as they can and when the Sheary line is out there, they have to be defensively responsible first and attack when they get their chances, just like they have been doing. If they chip in on scoring too, great! However, when the 4th line is able to match up against one of the top two lines of the opposition, gain puck possession and hem them in their own defensive zone, that is preventing those top two from doing anything offensive. Not much else can be asked of from a 4th line, so when scoring happens, it’s an added bonus for the club.
The Malkin question still remains. The answer is…it’s a good problem to have. When Malkin returns (which still remains unlikely until the 2nd round) as we are being told, he will most likely be on the “Third Line”. Call it what you will, third line, second line, 7/16th line, what it really is though… a match-up nightmare for the other team’s coaching staff. Imagine yourself as the NYR coaching staff and you are trying to get your top defensive pairing out against the Crosby line. Then comes the “Speed Kills Line” and you want to at least get your second pairing out against them. Then comes Malkin flanked by the likes of Rust and Kuhnhackl over the boards. As a coach do you let your third defensive pair go and pray for the best or do you go back to your first pair? If the coaching staff would continue to try and do this, the Rangers top two pairs will all be playing over 30 minutes a night. Other than McDonagh no one on the Rangers blue-line is capable of logging those kind of minutes and he will be scratched for game one. At some point those defensemen need to rest and then anyone of the Penguins forward lines will be able to exploit that weakness. No matter what line Malkin is on, he will get the minutes he needs to be productive and threatening. After being injured maybe 3-4 less minutes in his first series back won hurt him. It will allow him to be fresh and even more threatening on the powerplay. But honestly, this should not be a worry as of now. Malkin only started shooting the puck today.
Moving on to the defense. Kris Letang, Justin Shultz, and Trevor Daley will need to continue doing what they’ve been doing successfully under Sullivan’s system. That is protect “The House”, make quick transitions and then join the rush. When these players are adding in on the offensive threat it becomes extremely difficult to defend against. The only issue here is that if the forwards are not doing their job keeping a third man high, the Penguins become vulnerable to odd man rushes against when the Rangers make quick transitions. The speed of such players as Mats Zuccarello and JT Miller in these scenarios can really hurt the Penguins. So they will need to choose wisely their spots and make them count. As for Dumoulin, Cole, and Lovejoy, they will need to be the pillar of solid shut down defensive play while adding quick and simple puck movement from the back end. While Cole had a rough start the beginning of his year, how many Pens players can say they didn’t, he has truly picked up his game under Sullivan. He finished off the season with a minus 3 rating that could have easily been worse if he did not find a resurgence after being a healthy scratch for a number of games. Young Brian Dumoulin as been the model of consistency for the Penguins blueline in his first full season in the NHL. His steady and plus 11 kind of play will indeed the calm of any storms the Rangers throw at the Penguins. As for Ben Lovejoy, honestly he needs to not be a liability. He is by far the weakest link on the Penguins defense and if he doesn’t give the coaching staff a reason to keep him in the lineup, he will easily be replaced when Olli Maatta returns (which may be very soon). What Lovejoy truly can contribute to the team is that he has a solid amount of playoff experience. Hopefully he can draw upon that and find a way to not be the pylon he tends to be more often than not. Unless something crazy happens, do not look for young Derrick Poulliot to be in the lineup. It goes without saying Poulliot’s skating ability and offensive prowess. However, his defensive play is inconsistent and as a player on the 3rd pair, defense is a must.
Now for the what now has all of a sudden become the biggest issue the Penguins have, goaltending. While Marc-Andre Fleury took some shots today at practice, he is still day-to-day on his return. When Flower got put on the shelf, the “trade Fluery and start Murray” bandwagon about broke with all of the jumping for joy. Those fans got their wish and were primed to see what Murray consisted of in the real life pressure situations of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. No problem, it seemed as though the cool demeanor of Matt Murray could hold down the fort until Fleury was back. Now Murray is hurt and day-to-day as well and some Penguins fans have thrown in the towel if Jeff Zatkoff has to start. It’s a little unfair for Pens fans to give up so quickly. I will not sit here and say that Zatkoff is at the caliber of Fleury or Murray, because that would be a lie. However, Zatkoff is a goalie like Marc-Andre Fleury in the sense that he needs to play more in order to find consistency and success. He was just never going to do that playing behind Flower. Also in the early part of the season, the Penguins identity was still unknown. They were not the team they have molded into the last few months. In turn the Pens will play better hockey in front of Zatkoff than they have in the past. It is not easy to come in cold as he did in Philadelphia on Saturday and overall Zatkoff played solid despite giving up two goals he absolutely no chance on. Playing like he did while having half of an AHL team in front him and Kessel floating around for most of the game, gives me belief that Zatkoff can come through with the help of solid play in front of him for at least a few games until Fleury or Murray are back.
This will be an entertaining series. One that some Penguins players have to be looking forward to in order to seek revenge from last year’s series. It will be a series though that is won in and around the blue paint. If the Penguins do what they did, when an angered Henrik Lundqvist flipped his net, and get to the paint and wreak havoc in front him, they will be successful. Meanwhile at the other end, not allowing second and third chances (especially if Zatkoff is in the cage) and making smart decisions with the puck will aid in the puck movement and put the puck on the sticks of the high powered and speedy forwards that will be donning the Black and Pittsburgh Gold. It’s going to be a fun one and so great to see those jerseys back in the playoffs. I get chills just thinking those colors being worn when the Pens won back to back cups. Oh the childhood memories.
Good talk! See ya out there! #LetsGoPens
Feel free to talk hockey anytime with me on Twitter @coachhagmaier2