I haven’t been as convinced with the Penguins’ recent play as the majority of the Pittsburgh media has — granted, much of my skepticism likely stems from any fan’s inability to not be nervous about their team at all times (or unwillingness to do so for fear of jinxing their team), but right now, I’m really just not really sold on this current Penguins group’s chances against the Lightning.
Right now, the Pens’ offense isn’t producing 5-on-5, their defense has been decent but certainly not playoff-tight shut-down style, they have no forward depth, their power play is terrible, and their penalty killing has been suspiciously leaky over the past month and will be without Matt Cooke for the Tampa series. The Lightning, by contrast, are completely healthy, boast tremendous depth up front, are in many ways just as playoff-tested as this Penguins group, they’re extremely well-coached (as are the Pens), and their power play likely poses a larger threat against the Pens’ penalty killing than the Penguins’ PP does against the Lightning killers. The Pens have home-ice advantage, and will likely pack the stands in Tampa, but as we saw last season and pretty much every season, home ice is meaningless.
The only possible way I see the Pens winning this series is if Marc-Andre Fleury absolutely stands on his head (not literally, because if he does it literally they’ll almost assuredly lose), and I don’t foresee that happening for enough of the 7-game-series for the Pens to emerge victorious. I also don’t think Fleury is particularly more or less likely to steal games than Dwayne Roloson; to everyone who continues to point to the Pens’ marquee goalie as a huge advantage in this series, I refer them to the case of Niemi v. Leighton in last year’s Stanley Cup Finals — any goalie can get hot at any time, and any hot team can overcome an “elite” goaltender. Fleury posted by far the best regular season of his career this year, so it’s hardly misguided to hope that he can continue to dominate in the playoffs, but lest we forget, Fleury was a massive liability in last year’s playoffs, looking nothing like an above-average goaltender let alone a series-stealer. I mention this not for the sake of dispassionate skepticism or to disregard Fleury’s role in getting the Pens to where they are, I’m saying it to remind us all about the extreme volatility of the goaltending position; there’s just no way to confidently know how well Fleury or Roloson will play in this series, and while I’d certainly rather take my chances with Fleury, the difference doesn’t appear dramatic enough to tip the playoff scales back towards the objectively-outgunned Penguins.
Hopefully I’m wrong. Hopefully I’m subconsciously confident and my intellectual pessimism is just a gut reaction against getting burned by my overconfidence against the Canadiens last season. But right now, being objective as I can, I foresee the Pens’ special teams issues stalling and Fleury playing decently but not living up to our impossible expectations and the Pens entering an early summer accompanied by glowing Ron Cook columns about how resilient they were this season anyway.
Lightning in 6.
The rest of my 2011 NHL Playoff Predictions are after the jump: