Getting to know the Pittsburgh Penguins
The anticipation is building for this year’s Eastern Conference Finals between the Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Some of that is surrounded by hype, but the teams have been eagerly waiting to begin Game 1 after clinching their respective series against the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators, last week.
The Penguins, who will have eight days off between games, come in as the favorites. But the Bruins, who will play their first game in seven days come Saturday, aren’t as much of an underdog as you think.
To break down the Pittsburgh end of things, however, we welcome Brian Metzer, host of Pens Week, writer of the BC Times and contributor to numerous sites including NHL.com and From The Point. You can follow Brian’s work on Twitter at @Brian_Metzer.
Bruins Daily: Thanks again for taking time out of your busy schedule. Clearly there’s a lot more than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the Penguins and we’ll get to that as the Q&A progresses. But it’s no secret that these are the two best players in the world. What makes the duo stand out to the rest of the league? And what type of challenge will the Bruins defense have in trying to stop them?
Brian Metzer: Crosby and Malkin earned the moniker “The Two-Headed Monster” early in their tenure with the team and for good reason. Yes, most NHL players have the ability to take over shifts or periods, but these guys can simply take over games or playoff series. There are moments when you can simply see the frustration level of the opposition rising as they try to process what is happening and even more so when they simply have no answer for it.
Crosby has earned his spot at the top of the league honestly. He work ethic is unquestioned, his talent otherworldly. He might not be the biggest or the fastest, but his ability to think the game two-steps ahead of other players is what makes him lethal. He has already figured out how to beat the second defender before he’s even pulled the puck around the first. His stickhandling and shooting has gotten better every year that he has been in the league and he has made himself a force in the faceoff circle after he was criticized early in his career for being a bit of a pushover in that regard. At the end of the day, he is the one player that I feel privileged to watch on a daily basis.
Malkin is a bit different. He has all the god-given talent on the planet and has the size to be dominant. His wing span allows him to be a very dangerous one-on-one player and almost looks Lemieux-esque when he gets into those situations. He is a tremendous passer and has an above average shot. The frustrating thing about Malkin is that you know he is a former Hart Trophy candidate and winner, yet there are nights where he just has these egregious dips in play. It isn’t for a lack of hard work or passion either, as he cares more about the game than most, but it happens more than anyone would like. When he is rolling he is near unstoppable, but he does a good job of stopping himself from time-to-time. He has yet to play a full 60 minutes in these playoffs, yet he is among the leading scorers – that pretty much sums him up. Tremendous player, tremendous guy, but a little too inconsistent at times — more year-to-year, than game-to-game in that regard.
BD: The Jarome Iginla storyline has gotten its share of buzz (again) as the two teams prepare to meet. What has Iginla brought to the Pens during this postseason run?
BM: We have all heard the tales about Jarome Iginla being, not only a great player, but a tremendous human being and that is exactly what we have gotten here in Pittsburgh. He has been great on the ice in terms of production and attention to detail and has also been one of the first players to jump into a scrum to support a teammate. One play in the Islanders series immediately leaps to mind – defenseman Brian Strait laid a big hit on Crosby and Iginla was there in a flash to lay a huge check on the young rearguard that left him lying in a heap.
If he has been great on the ice, his off-ice contributions have been even more so. He immediately gave the Penguins another presence in the room, another captain type to alleviate any pressure that might be mounting on Crosby or anyone else. The scrum around Jarome rivals that of Crosby and he isn’t shy about saying what is on his mind. He is always calm, cool and collected and has an almost “Badger” Bob Johnson-like ability to find the silver lining in any situation. Heck, he referred to the Islanders series as being “fun” and “good for us” in the midst of the team’s struggles following the first four contests. Overall, he has been just what the doctor ordered and seems to be thriving in a situation that doesn’t call for him to be “the guy” near as often as he had to be in Calgary.
FYI – Boston fans, don’t blame Jarome for the mishandling of that situation. Blame Jay Feaster. Yes there was a list, but the onus is still on the GM to go back to the player to find out what his intentions and thoughts are before leading on one of his peers. All evidence, speculation and banter points to the fact that Feaster didn’t do due diligence and made himself and his player look foolish. Looking at this situation in an Iginla sort of way — you got to keep Pittsburgh’s own Matt Bartkowski!
BD: Of course the Pens have their share of secondary options, too. Pascal Dupuis, James Neal, and others have contributed to the team’s playoff run. How much will they need to use that depth against a Bruins team that is also pretty deep?
BM: For all of the greatness I mentioned in terms of 87 and 71, the Penguins need support from all four lines if they intend to win this series. Truthfully, getting contributions from up and down their line-up is how they were able to knock off the B’s in three straight games during the regular season. They received points/goals from guys like Brandon Sutter, Joe Vitale, Craig Adams, Jussi Jokinen and Deryk Engelland.
Dupuis has been one of the best forwards on the team during the first two rounds and is playing well above his $1.5 million salary. I’d look for him to be a big contributor in this series, as players who work hard are typically rewarded in series between two hard working teams.
After picking up just three points in his first seven postseason games this year, James Neal has collected seven more (five goals) in his last two games. That is bad news for anyone who has to defend him. He is a pure finisher, probably the best finisher the Penguins have had in many years and he possesses a wrist shot that gives goaltenders fits.
BD: Tomas Vokoun has done a pretty good job filling in for Marc-Andre Fleury since the Islanders series. There has been talk by some (including Mike Milbury, yes we had to bring that up) that Fleury could return in the postseason. Is there any chance the Flower returns between the pipes or is it Tomas Vokoun’s spot to lose?
BM: Interestingly enough, there is still a good bit of speculation in the city that Fleury could see the ice in this series against the Bruins. However, based on the fact that the Dan Bylsma has long lived by the adage “strong play gets rewarded,” I just can’t see him yanking Vokoun unless he were to have a couple of bad nights. The guy has done everything you have asked him to do. He is 6-1 in the postseason and has gone 17-2 in his last 19 appearances going back to March 2. I can’t see making a move unless his wheels suddenly come off.
The team plays a more relaxed and confident game in front of him. He is a very calming presence and it has rubbed off on the group. This is exactly why Ray Shero brought him in and it is why I can’t see him coming out of the cage unless something goes awry. Fleury will be ready for the challenge if called upon, though.
BD: The Penguins power play has been lethal this postseason converting at a hare over 28 percent and it sure helps to have as many weapons as they have – Crosby, Iginla, Malkin, Letang, and more. Are the Bruins going to have to stay out of the box if they have a chance of stealing this series?
BM: I think you would agree, but that is one of the battles that I am most looking forward to. The Penguins power play against the Bruins penalty kill should make for some great theater! The Penguins went just 2-for-10 against the Bruins in the regular season, though the power play is a vastly different animal than it was back then. The version that you saw on April 20 is a bit more indicative of what will be seen in the series and that is the one that scored the two goals.
The Bruins should definitely limit the time that they spend shorthanded, but I don’t think it is a hill that they wouldn’t be able to overcome if they had to make a couple of kills each night. There are some speedy forwards on the PK for the Bruins and both the Senators and Islanders showed that the Penguins can occasionally be victimized shorthanded.
BD: Both teams will have several days off between games to prepare for the conference finals. Do you think the rest would help or hurt the Pens or do you think it won’t have much of an effect?
BM: I really hate this layoff in terms of what it will or could be doing to both teams. It is a great thing in terms of getting guys rested and licking wounds, but I fear that we are in store for a crap Game 1 because of it. Both teams were riding waves of momentum and now there will be a rust factor to contend with.
There are guys on both sides who probably got a great battery charge out of it though and that list is headed by the likes of Zdeno Chara and Brenden Morrow. Graybeards occasionally benefit from these layoffs.
The Penguins don’t always thrive in situations where they are coming back from a long layoff, so it may benefit the Bruins a bit more, at least early on.
BD: One of the guys who will be making another conference finals appearance is Jaromir Jagr, his first since 2000-01. What are some of your favorite Jagr memories while he was a member of the Penguins?
BM: I take heat from my girlfriend for still having a “love affair” with Jagr – I prefer to call it an appreciation for what he accomplished as a Penguin!
Double J, Triple Excitement, as a much younger me used to call him, is one of four reasons why Pittsburgh has been blessed by the hockey gods. You can point to a ton of bad that has gone on here in terms of finances and bankruptcies, but Mario Lemieux, Jagr, Crosby, and Malkin are just an embarrassment of riches. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed that one franchise could have had them all or that they have all overlapped at times during their careers!
Anyway… some memories…
He scored a penalty shots against John Vanbiesbrouck during the run to the Stanley Cup in 1992 that sort of served as his coming out party. Then scored a huge goal, cutting across the slot, on the backhand, in Game 1 against the Blackhawks that helped them overcome a huge deficit and win the game.
The 1999 series against the New Jersey Devils – he pretty much singlehandedly won it by helping the Penguins scream back from a 3-2 series deficit, while skating on one leg. He had a bad groin injury, played through it and was the best player on the ice! I was at Game 6, where the Penguins trailed 2-1 late in the game. Jagr scored the game-tying and overtime game-winning goals. Just an amazing performance.
He went through a period of time in the late 90’s in which he simply could not be stopped. There were hundreds of moments during those two or three seasons that are all on loop in my head right now. He was just so damn strong that he would power past the defense and get into a one-on-one situation with the goaltender. He rarely missed in those situations.
Ok, I admit it… I still missed good old Y2J! Actually still have a blog post written on “From the Point” and saved as a draft that I was going to launch when he “re-signed with the Penguins.”
BD: Before we go on for the predictions and keys to the series, I want to go off topic for just a second. How can a Pittsburgh bar ban Sam Adams, even for two weeks?
BM: Haha… well, the funny thing about the bar that is planning to ban Sam Adams products is that it is in a little part of Pittsburgh called Bloomfield – my hometown! I grew up there and actually lived in Bloomfield until late last year.
Really just a tongue and cheek opportunity to get the locals lathered up about the series. Little did they realize that for a long while Jim Koch actually had a deal with Iron City Brewing that saw them brewing some of the product! The brewery was literally a two minute drive away from Howler’s, the bar who posted the sign. Great stuff!
If it is any consolation, I have a fridge full of Sam Summer Ale at my house right now. It is one of my favorite summer beers and I will be imbibing your exports throughout the series!
BD: Always appreciative of the support for Sam Adams, but now its time to get down to business! What are your keys to a series victory for Pittsburgh?
BM: Get to Tuukka Rask, as they have done to each of the goaltenders that they have faced, and get to him early. He is a talented guy and rattling that cage often is important.
A strong forecheck – Bylsma’s system calls for playing in the offensive zone for extended periods. When the game is end-to-end and O-zone time is to a minimum, the Penguins struggle.
Smart, efficient breakouts – they revised how they were exited their own zone in the Senators series and it helped them win pretty easily. The stretch pass just isn’t as effective as it was earlier in the season and in past seasons. Forwards have got to come back and support the defense or they’ll have Vokoun and their D-corps under siege and dealing with odd-man breaks.
Find a way to win faceoffs against some of the best in the business. Puck possession is likely going to be important in this series and that is the first step towards achieving that goal.
BD: Finally time to make your pick. Who moves on to the Stanley Cup Finals and in how many games?
BM: Your readers are about to call me a homer, but – Penguins in six games. I fully believe that Boston is capable of winning this one, but the Penguins ability to come in waves is a headache for any team to deal with.
Lastly – I can’t believe that we got through this without one Kris Letang mention! Keep your eyes on him. He is absolutely on fire right now.