It wasn’t easy, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are moving on the second round of the NHL playoffs. After fending off a hungry Islanders team, the Penguins have advanced for the first time in three years. After unlikely hero Brooks Orpik buried a point shot in overtime, Penguins fans could finally breathe easy. They have survived the Islanders. While they can celebrate their success for now, this comes with the caveat that the Penguins know they must play better if they want to win even one more round in the 2013 playoffs.
For the Islanders, this series was a coming out party—an announcement to the rest of the league that the New York Islanders are back on the map. While on paper they may just be another eighth seed victimized by a top team, the Islanders have one of the brightest futures in the NHL with a top-notch prospect pool, one of the game’s best stars, and a GM willing to do anything to put good players on the ice.
(Side note: It’s funny Garth Snow has gone from being a bit of a laughing stock when he signed that monster Rick DiPietro deal that really set the blueprint for the next five years of cap circumventing deals to being one of the bolder, more astute GMs. He got Brian Strait off waivers, stuck with Evgeni Nabokov and Lubomir Visnovsky even after both said they wouldn’t play on the Island, and now he has a playoff team with an upcoming new arena that he can add to. Funny how those things work.)
This team and its fans should hold its head high. In truth, they probably outplayed the Penguins for at least half of those six games, but they simply lacked the explosiveness of Pittsburgh. They could outshoot the Pens 10-2 for a ten minute stretch, but those two shots would be goals with the way things were shaking out. Of course, that’s how it goes when an 8 plays a 1. Next year, the Isles will no doubt be vying for a higher seed in the tournament.
As for Pittsburgh, this isn’t all song and dance. The Islanders have exposed flaws on this team, namely the goaltender. Marc Andre Fleury collapsed for yet another playoff series, and this time coach Dan Bylsma at least had the wherewithal to install Tomas Vokoun in net for Games 5 and 6. The move worked as Vokoun allowed three goals total in two victories. Still, Vokoun is a 36 year old backup, and Pens fans can’t feel great about riding him all the way. And if they can’t, do they go back to Fleury? Additionally, if this team does stick with Vokoun in these playoffs, does that mean Fleury is done in Pittsburgh? You start a goalie because you think he can win you a Cup. If the Penguins don’t think MA Fleury can win them another Cup, then they’ll have some serious offseason situations to consider.
There are plenty of questions for today and tomorrow in Pittsburgh. Will their defense be up to the challenge, knowing they don’t exactly have a brick wall in net either way? Will they be able to have as much success against Craig Anderson as they did against Nabokov? The Islanders were mean, but porous on defense. They gave up way too many odd-man advantages that ended up in the back of the net. The Ottawa Senators will not be so accommodating in their own zone though, and their goaltending will be even stingier. The Penguins can’t assume they’ll win a pair of 5-4 games to come out on top this time around. If they allow 3-4 goals per game, they will lose to Ottawa almost every time. The Islanders may have lost this series, but they’ve left a bloody nose behind and a blueprint for success against the East’s top seed.
Three Stars of Round One:
3) John Tavares – Hart trophy candidate John Tavares was his usual dangerous self in the series. After a slow start, he scored three goals in the last four games of the series. As the captain and clear-cut best player on the team, Tavares will be looked to for more playoff goals for years to come. Bank on him meeting that challenge.
2) Kris Letang – Hard to call a Norris Trophy candidate an under-the-radar player, but Letang probably doesn’t get enough credit for being such a smooth presence on the blue line. On a team that continuously broke down in its own zone, Letang was always there to quickly turn the puck back up the ice. He was especially prominent in both dominating wins in Games 1 and 5.
1) Evgeni Malkin – He drug the team back from trailing late in the third period of Game 6 with a great assist on Paul Martin’s goal, then he assisted on Orpik’s winner. Crosby is the more consistent player, but Malkin’s peak is unmatched in the NHL. When he gets going with that speed and that big frame, there is no one more imposing in the league. Without Malkin and his play this series, the Penguins may have seen a different script in this series.
We’ll see you for Pittsburgh/Ottawa when the teams clash in what should be an even fiercer series, if that’s even possible. Predictions? Comments? Leave them below and we’ll post the best for our Pens/Sens articles.