Fleury, PK both critical for Pittsburgh in 1st round match against Islanders

Most pundits have selected the Penguins to easily cruise by the surprising New York Islanders, but as someone who was scarred for life by last spring’s 30-goals-allowed-to-Philadelphia debacle, my approach to fandom and blogdom this year is to adopt a “prove-it” approach.

At the end of March, a friend on Good Friday morning jokingly shook my hand and said, “Congratulations on winning the Stanley Cup”, in light of the Penguins’ surprise acquisition of Calgary captain Jarome Iginla. Pittsburgh had already added Dallas captain Brenden Morrow and bulldozing blueliner Douglas Murray of San Jose. Adding Iginla was almost overkill.

I merely laughed and reminded myself that the Cup is not awarded in March nor April. The Penguins will have to prove to themselves and their fans that they can even actually win the first round after having come up empty last year in six stunning games at the hands of hated rival Philadelphia and the previous year when an injury-depleted lineup fell to Tampa Bay in seven games.

The series between New York and Pittsburgh will not hinge on the Penguins’ ability to score. Their embarrassment of offensive riches – a rejuvenated Jussi Jokinen possibly on the fourth line! – this spring should allow them to sustain the possibility that superstar captain Sidney Crosby will not be available to start the series. Yet the Islanders are no joke when it comes to putting the puck in the net either. Potential Hart Trophy nominee John Tavares scored 28 goals, third-most in the NHL, playing in all 48 games of the lockout-shortened season. Along with Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews, Tavares led the NHL with 19 even-strength goals. The durable Matt Moulson, a former Pittsburgh draft pick who has missed just one game in his four seasons in New York, scored 15 goals in 47 contests, very close to a 30-goal per 82 game pace which Moulson achieved in each of the past three seasons on the Island.

No, it will not be about offence. This playoff series will turn on the one weak spot and one question mark in the Pens’ armour. Quite frankly, the Pittsburgh penalty kill, so strong the past three seasons, has been abysmal in 2013. Pittsburgh sank to 25th place (79.6%) this winter, ahead of just one other playoff-bound team, the Washington Capitals. Surprisingly little has been written about this glaring weakness in the Pittsburgh arsenal. In a way, this is understandable considering the main storylines of the season: the 15-game win streak, the return to dominance of Crosby and the armada of quality players the team acquired ahead of the trade deadline. To this writer’s eyes however, the Penguins could resurrect Rocket Richard, Valery Kharlamov and bring Mario Lemieux down from the owner’s box, yet it still will not  address the glaring error of last spring – the defensive blight of allowing Philadelphia to convert more than half of their power play opportunities.

The Penguins’ PK sorely missed defenceman Paul Martin who missed 14 games this season with a broken hand and the good news is that he will be available to start against New York. Ex-Shark defender Douglas Murray, a man who blocks shots and delivers ferocious hits, fills a role the Penguins may not have had since big Hal Gill patrolled their blue line during the two Cup runs of 2008 and 2009 – a massive presence who skates with the speed of a tortoise yet will efficiently remove and/or destroy anything wearing opposition colours from in front of his own net.

Lastly, the question mark that needs to be answered for the Penguins is goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, brilliant during the playoffs of 2008 and 2009 and subsequent regular seasons, but rather pedestrian in the playoffs since then. Against Philadelphia last April, he was historically horrible. As last spring showed, all it really takes in some years is a goalie to catch fire for two months to carry a moribund team from a low seed all the way to the Stanley Cup. Conversely, a meltdown by a goaltender can immediately sink a team overflowing with flashy scoring talent. Los Angeles, the #8 Western seed in 2012, was able to shock the President’s Trophy-winning Canucks in the first round because Vancouver realized too late that Roberto Luongo was flailing and failing in goal while Jonathan Quick was flourishing.

It should not escape anyone’s notice that this opening-round series will feature the two active goaltenders with the most playoff experience. Isles’ netminder Evgeni Nabokov has played 80 post-season games posting a slash line of 40 wins/2.29/.913. In 75 games, Fleury has 43 wins/2.68/.904. While the entirety of Nabokov’s experience occurred not on Long Island but on the opposite coast, behind some very good San Jose teams, his wealth of knowledge and perseverance, accumulated from squaring off against elite opponents such as Detroit and Chicago, cannot be discounted.

After a disappointing regular-season-ending loss to Buffalo, the 37-year old veteran chastised his teammates and cautioned them to prepare for what lies ahead.

“If we’re going to play like this, I don’t think we’re going to have much chance in the playoffs. Teams are so evenly built right now, so whoever has more edge, who goes to the net more, wins hockey games usually,” said Nabokov. “We’ve been doing a great job of it lately, but not the last two games. We have to get back to practice and get ready for the first game.”

Fleury has played behind varied Pittsburgh defences in his career – strong, veteran ones during the Cup years led by Sergei Gonchar, Gill, Mark Eaton and savvy Philippe Boucher, but inconsistent ones lately. However not all goals can be blame-shared with the blue line. Every Pens’ observer can remember soft goals allowed against Montreal in 2010 by Fleury and plain awful miscues last spring that compounded the problems of a shaky Pittsburgh defence.

Don’t be surprised if this series drags on and the Islanders determinedly earn league-wide respect with a valiant effort…

Penguins in 7.

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About the Author: Adrian Fung (@PenguinsMarch) contributes game reports, opinions, analysis and features, mostly about the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has covered the World Hockey Summit, Kraft Hockeyville, World Junior Championship exhibition games, CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, MasterCard Memorial Cup and NHL Rookie Tournament for Hockey Independent. twitter.com/PenguinsMarch

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