I predicted the Pens over the Flyers in five, but they blew the fifth game and won in six, then I predicted Pens over the Caps in six, but they blew the sixth game and won in seven, so this round, why the hell not, I’ll take the Pens over the Canes in seven. Hopefully the Pens will rebound when they blow Game Seven in win this one in eight.
WHY I’M NERVOUS:
— Fleury. A lot of people talked about Fleury rebounding in Game Seven against Washington, which made no sense; he stopped Alex Ovechkin on a breakaway, which was a huge save, then the Pens went ahead 4-0 before Fleury had to even make 10 saves, and he still hasn’t strung together two consecutive above-average games this postseason. Saying he’s back on track because the Pens dominated one wacky game is like saying “my alcoholic friend made it through his son’s birthday party without drinking — I think he’s turned a corner.” Not really — when your alcoholic friend makes it through St. Patrick’s Day without drinking, then we can start praising him.
— Cam Ward is capable of stealing games in ways that Marty Biron and Simeon Varlamov simply cannot, and the Pens barely made Biron work in the majority of his series, and couldn’t bury pucks against the rookie Varlamov early off in the Washington series either (except Crosby). Given the types of ridiculous shot advantages the Pens had to rack up to just hang even with Washington’s effortless scoring, they could be in for some mounting frustration if Ward gets hot.
— Home ice advantage? The Hurricanes beat the Devils in New Jersey twice, including in a Game Seven, and the Bruins in Boston twice, including in a Game Seven. Obviously the Penguins would rather be home to open a series, but it’s not an automatic advantage if the Pens don’t seize the opportunity.
— The Hurricanes’ offense isn’t as deep as the Caps’ or Flyers’, but they do also have several right-handed players capable of roofing wrist shots (as does every NHL team). Hopefully this doesn’t prove to be an unsolvable problem again in this series.
WHY I’M CONFIDENT:
— Crosby and Malkin. Really, the only reason I’m confident in this series. Fedotenko has started finding the net, Scuderi and Eaton are coming off good serieses, the third line has regained its puck-possession ability, Gonchar’s back, and Miro Satan has even surprised, but really, as long as Crosby’s playing at this level, it’s just foolish to doubt this team. If Malkin returns to “Makes Opposing Defenders Look Like Little Nephews Trying To Steal A Football From Their Uncle In The Backyard” mode, it might not matter how well Cam Ward plays.
— As I’ve complained about many times, the Pens’ D allowed every 3-on-3 rush to turn into a 2-on-0 during much of the Capitals series, and Fleury continually just let random wrist shots in. This isn’t to say that the Pens necessarily will improve upon either of these things against a fundamentally sound team like the Hurricanes, but merely to suggest that the Pens haven’t even played their best hockey; they played mediocre D and Fleury didn’t play his best and they still came back from a 2-0 deficit to knock off the #2 seed in the East. If either of those aspects improve against Carolina, they could absolutely seize control of this series.
— Chris Kunitz is a proven playoff performer who can go to the net and pick up dirty goals when it matters. Oh whoops, meant to put this bullet point in the other section.
— I don’t professionally scout the Hurricanes or anything, but just from anecdotal observation, I’m not sold on Joe Corvo or Joni Pitkanen as playoff-caliber defensive defensemen. Given how often Crosby imposed his will on the Caps, if the Pens get the matchups they want against Carolina, there’s no reason to expect a drop-off in scoring chances, it’ll just be a matter of beating Cam Ward.
— Carolina is only scoring on 10.4% of its power plays so far this postseason and actually had a lower-ranked power play than the Pens this year (yep, it’s possible) — I still hesitate to mention this as an advantage, because they’re gonna score multiple power play goals by easily winning a faceoff and having Ray Whitney set up an untouched cross-slot one-timer to someone wide open to score within ten seconds of a man advantage in this series, I just hope they don’t come at crucial times.
— Both teams fired their coaches mid-season and went on incredible runs down the stretch. This isn’t an advantage for either team but just a cool factoid I wanted to reiterate somewhere in this post.
— And the #1 Reason I’m Confident: Cory Stillman isn’t on the Hurricanes anymore. Without Stillman’s career 9-points-per-period average against the Penguins to deal with, the Pens should be able to absorb Matt Cullen’s 2-goals-per-game career average against them.