Hooks Orpik, the managing editor over at Pensburgh (SB Nation's Pittsburgh Penguins blog), came up with the idea of doing some Q and A to help set the stage for the Rangers and Penguins first round series. Joe is currently under the weather, so I stepped in to pinch hit for the Banter and field some questions (you can find my answers to Hooks' questions over at Pensburgh) and ask a few of my own.
Without further adieu here is Behind Enemy Lines: 5 Questions with Pensburgh.
1. What did you guys do to deserve all of the injuries you've had this season? Did you offend a sorceress? Did you swerve your car to avoid a black cat in the road and drive it underneath the world's largest ladder and straight into a mirror-making factory? How bad did things get towards the end of the season when the Penguins were dressing 5 defensemen?
I know, right? The Penguins have been a star-crossed team with injuries before and that trend has continued again. But, at this point you gotta play with the guys around, so it won't help much to bellyache about it.
Playing with 5 defensemen was really tough. Pittsburgh had to do it in 4 of the last 7 games. And it wasn't just defensemen who were out, it was Kris Letang (Norris Trophy caliber season) and a couple of top-four defensemen in Christian Ehrhoff and Olli Maatta. Which ended up pushing everyone left- like Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole and Rob Scuderi into playing 22-26 minutes a night, which is way above what you would want for players of that capability.
As a result, the Pens would start most of their games with an early lead, and then watch it fritter away in the 3rd period because they had tired defensemen that just couldn't keep up with the play. Sucks, but that's how it goes sometimes. Luckily, with no salary cap in the playoffs and Ehrhoff practicing, the Pens will get some relief and at least be able to ice a full and normal lineup.
2. I know that this horse will very shortly be beaten to death by analysts, bloggers, and hockey fans everywhere, but what do you expect from MAF in this series? How good does Fleury have to be for the Penguins to reach 4 wins before the Rangers do?
Fleury is going to have to be very good for the Penguins to beat the Rangers, I don't think there's any doubt about that. And, truth be told, he had a fairly good series last year- only allowing 15 goals in 7 games to NYR. Normally that should be enough to win, however the Pens allowed goals early and the Rangers clamped down and Henrik Lundqvist was amazing, but there's no need to tell you that.
A lot of folks felt Fleury might have had his finest regular season of his career this season. His numbers don't pop off the page, but his consistency is perhaps the best sign for Pittsburgh fans. He used to be prone to high peaks and low valleys, but ever since the Pens have hired goalie coach Mike Bales, Fleury's game has leveled out and has save percentage has been much more stable, and he almost always plays winnable hockey games.
However, facing a great goalie like Lundqvist, just "winnable" isn't enough. Fleury will have to be really good. I think it's fair to hope he can perform, and mentally he seems a long way from 2010-13 when he was a very bad playoff goalie, so who knows. It won't be a big margin of error going against Lundqvist, which is not encouraging.
3. There are plenty of household names in the Pens' lineup, but who are some of the guys that Rangers fans might not know about that could make a big impact in this series? Who is your pick for a guy that can be a big factor in the series without showing up on the score sheet?
I would have said defenseman Derrick Pouliot, but he too is hurt and not yet practicing, though when he was injured last week it was classified as day-to-day.
The Pens aren't a team of surprises, it's really Crosby/Malkin and then just a bunch of guys. I think Rangers fans are really not going to like Patric Hornqvist. He finished the season with 18 points in his last 19 games, plays right in front of the net and will be spending a lot of time getting up close and personal with his fellow -qvist there in front of the net. That could be Pittsburgh's best game changer, if Hornqvist can provide enough traffic and aggravation to allow pucks to go by Lundqvist. If Hornqvist has a great series, I think the Pens have a chance. If the Rangers can quiet him, and if Lundqvist can fight through him and stop a lot of pucks, the Pens probably don't stand a chance.
4. What do you think of the Patric Hornqvist and David Perron trades now that some time has passed? Which contracts are hurting the Penguins the most?
I talked about Hornqvist above, Perron has been more polarizing. He's goal-less in his last 12 and has bounced from line to line and wing to wing a little. He's right handed but prefers the left side, however it seems like he'll start the series on Malkin's right wing. The Pens have put Perron back on the top power play, and with his shot/release, they need that offense. Perron is a good offensive player, I really have no problem with the trade, but his production hasn't been as consistent as many would like.
The Pens have a ton of bad contracts. They're paying Brandon Sutter $3.3 million dollars, and he gets crushed at Corsi, isn't a very good playmaker and is tall but not very effective along the boards. He did score 21 goals this season and was one of the better forwards lately, I think he's prone to get too much criticism in some fan circles, but compared to the league average 3rd line center, Sutter is probably overpaid and under-productive.
Rob Scuderi has 2 more seasons left and he's basically on his last legs. But, like Sutter, Scuderi has actually been playing reasonably well down the stretch, so I'm not going to bury him too much. Nick Spaling gets paid $2.2 million to be a decent but usually totally forgettable piece of the puzzle. Chris Kunitz makes $3.75 million and his production has fallen off a cliff after an in-season broken foot injury. Those are the type of guys that the Penguins probably need to move this summer and look to cheap free agents to replace for those types of supporting roles so they can free up more money for skill players.
5. Your series prediction? If the Penguins were 100% healthy, would it be any different?
I could really see this series going three different ways:
One- The Rangers are too deep, too fast and just blow by the Pens and make short work of them. If Lundqvist is dominant and doesn't give any life, it could be a fairly easy trip for them as they move on to what's next.
Two- The Rangers are too much of a handful, Pittsburgh gamely fights on, maybe even extends it to a 6th game, but at the end of the day, NY is too good and Pittsburgh has too much to overcome through injuries.
Three- Pittsburgh finds a way to keep extending the series. In some ways, it would be like a reversal of last year, when it looked like NYR was finished after 2 shutouts in Games 3 and 4 but kept rallying, kept finding ways to stay alive and played at their best with their backs against the wall. The longer the series goes, if it can get to 6 or 7 games, the more I think that Pittsburgh could feel like they have a chance, and who knows, maybe they can actually pull it out.
My head tells me scenario 2 is probably the most likely, but the reason we watch and love the NHL playoffs is that the third scenario just might happen, so that's what I'll personally be cheering for- just to find a way to scratch and claw in games and keep extending the series.
Note to self: if the Rangers stop Crosby, Malkin, and Hornqvist, they will win the series. As Hooks pointed out, Marc-Andre Fleury has had an exceptionally good season. Whether or not that carries over into the 2015 Playoffs remains to be seen, but if the Flower can hold his own in his duel with Henrik Lundqvist, the Pens will have a real chance to advance and upset the Rangers.
As Kevin pointed out yesterday in his series preview, the absence of Kris Letang from the lineup is devastating to the Penguins' chances in the series. It looks like Christian Ehrhoff is on the mend and the Penguins might be getting Derrick Pouliot back at some point, but the number of big injuries the Penguins have coming into this series looks like it will simply be too much for them to overcome. Even over at Pensburgh, the Rangers are the favorites in this series between two Metropolitan Division powerhouses.
Thanks again to Hooks Oprik and the good folks over at PensBurgh. Remember, if you go over there to talk hockey, please be respectful and courteous and don't be a dope. You're a guest when you go there, don't forget that.
Let's go Rangers.