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:
Rangers over Capitals in 7.
I’m not sure if I actually believe this pick, and I don’t have any intellectual justification for it, but something about the matchup just doesn’t seem right — all the pressure will be on Washington, and even though they’ve certainly played lights-out for most of the season’s second half, I just can’t shake visions of randomass Ranger forwards netting huge playoff goals, Henrik Lundqvist stealing two games, the pressure continuing to mount on Washington, and an ultimately messy end.
If this were a movie, right now I’d be seeing discolored, sepia visions of “Mats Zuccarello shoots…off the defenseman and IT GOES IN! Zuccarello wins it in overtime for the Rangers!” which will become clear as the film unravels. Or not because Washington will crush them. “That’s why’s they’s plays the games, forks!” – Famous Yogi Berra quote.
Flyers over Sabres in 6.
One month ago, I wouldn’t have given the Sabres a chance in any playoff series against a top Eastern Team — they’re basically a good version of Florida, with a bunch of small, quick, pretty-skilled forwards, a first line that isn’t particularly distinguishable from their third line (which is both good and bad), and a solid goaltender. Everyone seems to be picking the Sabres in this one, though, based on their super-hot play over the past two months coupled with the Flyers’ completely inverse two-month malaise and everyone’s need to pick at least one upset in each conference. Still, the Flyers are not only far superior to Buffalo on paper, they’re also a far more specifically-equipped playoff team; they’re experienced, they’re much better defensively (if Chris Pronger is healthy, which I imagine he will be, he’s just doing his “old guy regular season rest”), and they’re far more physical (read: dicks).
I’m a big fan of Tyler Ennis, but I just don’t see him and Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville and Brad Boyes functioning effectively in tight playoff quarters. If Philly plays like they did in their last Penguins matchup, when they were giving up odd-man breaks like it was 80s Throwback Night, then Buffalo has a shot, but I’m willing to bet that their recent play is mostly a combined result of being a little hungover from their 2010 run mixed with having wrapped up a playoff spot in like November, and they’ll snap out of it once the puck drops in front of the crowd at Wells Fargo.
Also, to those people talking about Buffalo’s huge advantage in goal, remember that 1) Buffalo got knocked out in the first round a year ago by Boston when they were the higher seed and Tuukka Rask was in goal for the Bruins, and 2) NIEMI V. LEIGHTON in the Stanley Cup Finals. I can’t stress that enough.
Bruins over Canadiens in 7.
I’m glad that one of these annoyingly defensive teams will get bounced in Round One this year, and this matchup won’t be nearly as boring as it should be thanks to the super-watchable hatred between these two teams. Montreal fans boo like crazy when their team loses a faceoff that wasn’t perfectly dropped — I can’t wait to see how loudly they boo Zdeno Chara the second he begins taping his shin guards. In the end, it’s gonna be a bunch of 2-1 and 3-2 games leading up to a toss-up of a series, but I give Boston’s scoring depth the edge over Montreal’s oldness and their injuries on D. Though the Playoffs are always Carey Price’s time to sh….. (CIRCLE ONE: “ine” or “it the bed”)
Canucks over Blackhawks in 5.
I don’t think Vancouver is invincible by any means, and if they’d drawn Anaheim or someone hungry and super-physical in the first round I wouldn’t have been as confident, but Chicago just looks like they’re doing the classic “lag the year after a long playoff run.” The Hawks aren’t nearly as deep as they were a season ago, and despite what I said about unpredictable goaltenders in every one of these writeups, Roberto Luongo vs. Corey Crawford is about as big a disparity as you can get in the playoffs. Vancouver’s still got some injuries on D, but this is the deepest they’ve ever been, and they seem poised to meet the Sharks in a “One of these teams has to not choke” Western Final.
Sharks over Kings in 4.
This is literally the only series where I feel confident in my prediction, which should probbbbably be a giant red flag for the Sharks. With their recent injuries, the Kings seem like the clear weakest team in the West, and the Sharks look deeper than ever; San Jose hasn’t gotten as much buzz this year since they didn’t finish the season with 480 points or whatever, but their top 3 forward lines may be the strongest of anyone’s in the playoffs, they’re still solid on D, and they have a little less pressure on them than they’ve had in seasons past. I can very, very plausibly foresee them being this year’s “Always got close, finally breaking through when they’re a little more experienced and under the radar” team. Or this year’s “OH YEAH, they’re the Sharks” team. But I’m betting on the former.
Red Wings over Coyotes in 6.
Phoenix did take the Wings to 7 games last year when no one gave them a chance against the Big Red Machine, and this year Detroit is even more beat up with injuries, including a recent one to Henrik Zetterberg. Still, I have trouble seeing Phoenix generating enough offense in this series, even with the breakout performance of “annual Phoenix guy you learn” Keith Yandle, and Detroit always has some random dude ready to step up and
interfere the shit out of the goalie deliver when it counts. Speaking of which, did you know Dan Cleary scored 26 goals this year? Scott Gomez scored SEVEN in 80 games. Wh..a.a…a?
Ducks over Predators in 5.
The least marketable series in the first round may turn out to be one of the most exciting, as the super-physical and red-hot Ducks match up with the always-somehow-there Predators, with the Ducks looking to make another one of their every-other-year runs and Nashville desperately looking to not lose to Detroit in the first round again (I’m still thinking Detroit is somehow gonna enter this series and knock them out). Nashville possesses one of the league’s strongest defensive corps, and they’re well-coached and solid in net, but Anaheim just seems like a prototypical Playoff team, and short of a (very possible) goaltending meltdown, should be able to assert themselves early on in this series.
For a Cup Finals prediction, I’ll very very unconfidently say Sharks over Bruins in 6. When both teams lose abruptly, I’ll come back into WordPress and delete this sentence, because I can. But what was the point I was in the middle of making? Oh yeah – the Penguins power play is terrible. Kinda went off on a tangent there.