I’ve already gushed about the Blue Jackets making the playoffs (and I make no apologies), but it’s time to move past the “hooray they did it” phase and consider “what are they getting into?” You’re going to see countless preview articles, so I’ll join the chorus and start with a look into the Penguins. Specifically, it’s time to think about the biggest threats to Columbus winning the series.
When Malkin Returns, Their Top Two Lines Are Terrifying
Warm Body – Sidney Crosby – Breathing Human is a lethal line just on its own, but when the Pens follow up with Evgeni Malkin – James Neal? It’s an onslaught of over point per game offensive terror for 2/3 of any given game. That is the trick though: Crosby and Malkin average 22:58 and 20:04 time on ice per game, respectively (via Hockey Reference). If a team can somehow keep them in check and jump on the chances generated in that remaining 18-20 minutes of ice time (assuming no overlap, which happens sometimes), then maybe they can beat the system. Both parts of that idea are easier said than done, of course. Capitalizing on Pittsburgh’s lack of depth is crucial, but a team can still be at the mercy of puck luck (and that depth issue is somewhat mitigated when Goc is in the lineup). As for “keep in check,” if Bylsma opts to overload with Malkin-Crosby-Neal (or if the Pens get a powerplay)? Then the opposition is for a rough ride.
Oh, and it sounds like Malkin could be back for Game 1. Gulp.
With Martin and Letang Back, the Penguin Defense is Solid
The Pens are typically described as a run-and-gun, high octane offensive team. That analysis is not inherently wrong, but it ignores when Pittsburgh’s at its best: when it keeps the puck away from the other team. Unfortunately for Pens fans, that hasn’t always been a reality this year, thanks in part to a series of significant injuries and medical problems. Those pains have been felt hardest on the Pittsburgh blueline. Now that both Paul Martin and Kris Letang have returned, the Pens have a chance to return to their previous heights. Adam Gretz gives a good summary of the defensive impact:
Fleury is Below Average, but Sample Size Reigns
Perception says that Marc-Andre Fleury implodes in the playoffs and is a terrible goalie. The truth? Fleury has been quite poor in the playoffs (only two years with a save percentage over .900, an overall playoff save percentage of .903), but he’s also somewhat below average the rest of the year. Taking a look at his even strength save percentage for both the regular season and the playoffs:
Fleury’s two longest playoff drives (2008 and 2009) help to raise his percentages (.939 and .914 at even strength in those two years with plenty of shots against). Over the long term, we should expect Fleury to be slightly below average compared to other goalies.
The trick is that a playoff series is not a long term affair. Like any goalie, MAF can have wild save percentage variance. But there’s no way to plan for that, so a 4-7 game stretch could be defined by Fleury playing far above his typical level. Don’t believe it? His gamelogs from this season reveal a 13-game stretch (11/29 vs Tampa through 1/3 vs NYR) with 7 games above .930 and only one under .900. He’s capable of getting hot (goalies are weird that way), so the CBJ must hope that Fleury stays near his career averages.
There’s This Sidney Something Guy Worth Mentioning
I think I’ve mentioned it before, but Mr. Sidney Crosby is reasonable good. Expanding on that whole “Crosby is historically great” idea, he’s also among the best all-time in the playoffs. Call me crazy, but he might be someone to watch during this series. The players that Todd Richards uses to match up against Crosby are in for the roughest 4-7 games of their hockey lives.