Round 1 of the 2010-11 Stanley Cup playoffs begins this Wednesday for the Penguins as they face the Tampa Bay Lightning. The number of storylines to discuss this series is a mouthful. The most notable being Ryan Malone's return to Pittsburgh. His father Greg, is also a scout for the Lightning. He was a scout for the Pens for several years, he helped find some guy named Goligoski during his Univ. of Minnesota days.
This isn't the run-and-gun Pens team we've been so used to seeing the past 4 playoff series. Albeit, they still forecheck and can control the offensive zone in similair fashion to those previous teams. But, never has there been a 6 man D core as good as this one. Nisknanen's play has been mediocore at best the past couple weeks but having him as a number 6 guy isn't a bad thing, especially with the way his partner Lovejoy is currently playing (3 assist game yesterday in Atl).
The Pens finished last season 4th in scoring, while their defense was near the bottom. Trade deadline acquisition Leopold didn't work out that great, Eaton was weak and sloppy, Gonchar became slower than Gill as the season progressed (remember Moen's goal in game 7?), and Niskanen is better defensively than Gogo. The biggest summer signings were Michalek and Martin. Big Z blocks, skates, and now shoots like nobody on this team. He is the only D-men who can get shots on net in a Gonch-esque fashion, aka hard slappers. Bylsma was quoted as saying Martin reminds him of Lidstrom, maybe if Martin suddenly became an offensive warlord, then yes. But, Martin does have a great stick and an ability to shut good players down while not being overly physical, in the same way that Lidstrom does.
The other thing the Pens have going into this playoff series, is a very very hot goaltender in Fleury. Since is 0-6-1 start, he has suddenly become a Hart Trophy candidate. His rebound control has been especially impressive this year and he's had to steal at least 20 games since Sid and Geno went down. Both have been out for 28+ games. Given the lack of scoring the Pens have provided, Fleury and the defense have given them hope. And then Kovy and Neal have been finishers in the shooutouts.
The Pens are much better on D and in goal then they were last year going into Round 1. The Senators almost took it to game 7 and the Pens played decent in the Montreal series before completely melting in game 7. Scoring will be and has been a big problem since Sid and Geno went down. But guys like TK, Dupuis, and Kunitz have really elevated their game. TK has a career high 21 goals, Duper who was horrible the first 3/4 of the season has heated up (16 goals) and created a nice 3rd line with Connor and Talbot.
The Lightning remind me of the Habs in some ways. They have some great role players: Moore, Hall, and Thompson. And they also have some game-breakers: Stamkos, St. Louis, and Lecavalier. Roloson is NOT halak, but his playoff numbers over the years have been very good. He lead the Oilers to a Cup Final appearance in '06 before going down with an injury. The Lightning D is also not as strong as the Habs. Gill, Gorges, and Subban were excellent last year. Brewer and Clark are the only defensive studs on the backend with Kubina having a big shot.
Part 2 of the preview will discuss possible matchups. But in the meantime, the Pens will need a scoring line they can count on. Letestu, Kovy, and Neal have been terrible. And the Staal unit has been matched up against the top lines of opposing teams. Kovy has been averaging a point per game the last 28 games in the playoffs, he'll need to continue his playoff production. And Letestu has started scoring but he needs to be visible. Will Neal start burying his chances? Kovy has given him ridiculous looks and he hasn't been able to finish. Getting a dirty goal would help. The Pens still can roll all 4 lines, and their 3rd line has been tenacious lately. Rupp and Asham have also found their games on the 4th line just in time for the most physical part of the year.
More to come, stay tuned...