Round 1: A Review

1
The Pittsburgh Penguins have eliminated the New York Islanders from the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs in overtime of game 6. I want to take the time to detail what the Pens did right, what they did wrong, and what they need to do in the next round. I also want to address the issue of expectations and fan reactions.

Fans Need to Stop Freaking Out (A Bit of a Rant)
No, I don’t mean not to freak out when we win. After all, I was the last one left at the big screen last night and was crying and throwing up in the parking lot because I was so excited. I had to wait an hour to go home because I wasn’t fit to get behind the wheel of my car since I was so worked up. That’s not the kind of freaking out I’m talking about. This series (and last years) has really brought out the worst in the fanbase. After game 1, almost every post I read was guaranteeing an easy series win. People were being downright rude to Islanders fans, which leads me to this public service announcement. PLEASE, if you are going to argue with someone from another fanbase, do so respectfully. Use facts and logic to get your point across, and don’t resort to name-calling. Also, realize that some people will never listen to reason. Don’t waste your time and energy on someone who isn’t going to listen to what you have to say. A lot of conflicts would be resolved if everyone did this. I’ve spoken with a lot of fans from numerous fanbases this past week, and got a lot of complaints about Pens fans being rude. I understand other fans have been rude too, but please keep in mind that when you engage in an internet argument about hockey you represent the entire city and fanbase, and some fans really make the rest of us look bad.

The rest of the series resulted in our fanbase being bipolar. Fans moods would swing after every game before taking the time to analyze the game. However, that’s not so much the problem as everyone’s opinion on the expectations for this series. Following last night’s series win I’ve read several posts, by both Penguins and Islanders fans, about how surprised they were by the series. Quite frankly, these posts annoyed me because I saw this coming from a mile away. So many posts say things like, “Everyone expected the Pens to sweep.” and “No one thought the Islanders could hang in there with the Pens.” The only logical explanation for statements like these are that they didn’t get very many opinions before lumping everyone into one mindset. Anyone who watched the Islanders at all in April would have known the Pens weren’t going to sweep. Also, anyone who watched the five games played between the two teams this season would have known the series would be tight. Besides the teams play in the regular season that pointed to this series going more than four games, this is the playoffs. Series aren’t going to be easy; including this one. I understand the Pens are the better team, but I’m really not sure why there was this idea that it was going to be an easy series. And to be honest, I’m glad it wasn’t. This notion of not necessarily wanting an easy series was highlighted for me earlier this week during a conversation I had with a Blackhawks fan. The Chicago fan told me that she was interested in seeing who came out of the East, but that she didn’t see any obstacles for the Blackhawks to have to overcome to make the finals. Note: I’m not saying this is the mindset of all Chicago fans, but her statement brings up exactly what I’m talking against. Let’s imagine her scenario plays out and the Blackhawks make the finals without any stumbling blocks. Let’s also imagine the Pens are the ones to come out of the East, but have had hard fought series along the way, similar to the series we just experienced. I would rather my team have faced and overcome adversity before the finals than coast to the finals. It would most likely result in more determination and drive from the team that has overcome tough series. (Not saying this is guaranteed to be the case, but it could happen for sure).

Thirdly, this series has caused some uncalled for panic and confidence for fans, depending on the team you root for. First, I understand in this series we did not play our greatest hockey. However, it is no reason to panic. Good teams find a way to win even if it isn’t pretty and the Pens did just that. Which is why it annoys me when I see posts from Islanders fans making statements like, “see, the Pens aren’t as good as everyone says” and “wait til you get to the next round. You’ll get crushed.” Many of the individuals making these statements also claimed the Pens didn’t deserve to win all those games. To be honest, they’re right to an extent. We didn’t deserve all those wins. However, I can point to any team that has won the cup and point out numerous games that they probably didn’t deserve to win. But like I said before, good teams find a way to win even when it is unlikely. Also, the “wait til you get to the next round” statement is just ignorant for multiple reasons. First, the series against the Islanders was difficult because the elephant was still in the room; the elephant of not making it out of the first round since 2010. Finally the Pens have been able to get the monkey off their back. I believe this will allow us to get back to our game. I think we put a lot of pressure, not always positive pressure, on ourselves during the series with the Isles that caused some mental mistakes. Secondly, we actually match up better against the Senators. The reason the Islanders made it difficult for the Pens was because of their speed. The Sens (as a whole) don’t have that. This should result in less goals off turnovers, although hopefully we’ll adjust and prevent the turnovers from happening.

To wrap up my opinion on fan reactions and expectations, I urge you to keep things in perspective. Don’t get cocky when the team plays well and don’t jump off a bridge when the play bad. After all, keeping emotions in check is really the only way to physically survive the playoffs. And believe me, I learned this the hard way. Last year when we lost to the Flyers I had to stay home from school and be put on medication. Don’t let it get that far.

Now Onto the Actual Series: Individual Performances

Sid
You can’t really write an analysis of the Pens without starting with Sid. Although somewhat rusty in terms of stamina, you couldn’t have asked for a better return. Crosby picked up right where he left off with three goals and six assists in five games. And let’s not forget the crucial penalty he drew in overtime of game three, which led to a goal he set up. The only time in this series that Sid seemed less than great was in the first period of game 6. His passes weren’t as crisp and he lacked his usual attention to detail. However, Sid knows better than anyone when he doesn’t play up to his potential. He showed that in the second period when he came out with possibly his best period of hockey since his return, the highlight being his “Mario Statue” goal. Not to mention that goal came moments after Tavares tried a similar move at the other end and was denied. Overall, Sid played a very solid series and really displayed his skills as captain by leading the team.

Geno
I’m not sure if I have ever seen a player score so many points in a six game series and still play as bad as Geno did over the last six games. Once gain, Geno did not backcheck like a coyote. I also lost count of his turnovers. Additionally, Geno made several poor decisions with the puck that stifled offensive rushes. The only time I can point to in this series where he seemed to play to his potential was for moments in game four when he found Neal to tie the game early on, and later when he scored on a rush. While I was tempted to strangle him most of the series, he did somewhat redeem himself over the last period and a half yesterday. He assisted both the tying and winning goals in game 6. He also came up with a huge block with just under ten minutes left in the second. This was by no means Geno’s greatest series. It may have been his worst, actually. On the plus side, a bad series for Geno still means he puts up team leading points. This has somewhat been a recurring theme ever since Geno came back from the KHL. Some people think his play has drastically decreased, and others are defending him like there’s no tomorrow. I’m somewhere in the middle. On one hand, he wasn’t as good as last year. There’s no denying that. However, it would be extremely hard to maintain the same level he had during his MVP season. So the expectations were a bit high. This season can go down as a decent season for Malkin, but he’ll have to better in the next round, and I think he will.

Fleury/Vokoun
I decided to put the two goalies under one heading because you really can’t talk about one without the other in terms of this series. However, I’m not going to dwell on the goalie situation because I previously made a post where I went into detail over the issue. For the second year in a row Fleury didn’t play to his potential and had a mental collapse in goal. Luckily for the team, unlike last year, we have a backup that can actually stop a puck this year. Last year I felt Fleury was forced to stay in net despite bad play because the Pens coaching staff didn’t have confidence in Johnson. This year is completely different. While Fleury may be the better goalie physically, mentally Vokoun has the advantage. It was nice to see him come in and play the way he did. We didn’t need him to be spectacular. We needed him to be solid; and that’s what he did. And despite having a slip up on the third goal (although bad plays by Niskanen and Letang also led to the turnover) he was quick to regain his composure and came up with two huge stops on two-on-one rushes by the Isles late in the game and in overtime. Game 6 was one of those games, kinda like game two of round one in 2009, that we really didn’t have any business winning, but our goalie stepped up and stole the game for us. So now the question becomes who do you start in round two. Honestly, I don’t know. I’m glad I’m not the coach in this situation. On one hand, Fleury is your starter. If his head’s on right he has the ability to come up big and steal games. Unfortunately he hasn’t done this in the playoffs for a few years. Vokoun has won back to back games and has played solid, but if you want to win the cup you will most likely have to go with your number one goalie. Also, Vokoun has had the Islanders’ number all season and in the playoffs. Would he have the same success against Ottawa? Only time will tell.

Iggy
I am so pleased with how Iggy has played this series, and also with what he has said off the ice. You can tell the desire to win is there, and his selfless play has really paid off. But before I talk about what he has accomplished on the ice and his new line, I want to talk about something he said during the press conference after game four. This was during the stage of the series where most Pens fans had the bridge jumper mentality. Iggy finally managed to put things in perspective and stated that a few rough games could end up being good for the team. I like to think he was right. This goes back to what I discussed in the beginning of this article about the Blackhawks fan saying she didn’t think the Hawks would have any problem getting to the finals. Iginla’s statement about adversity being a good thing also coincided with a turning point in the series. We rebounded and won the next two games to win the series. Now onto what Iginla’s been able to do on the ice. Not only did Iggy put up 9 points (2 goals and 7 assists), but he also came through in crucial moments. Both of Iginla’s goals this series tied the game shortly after a goal by the Isles. Not only does this affect the score, but it also shows the maturity of his mental game. It shows he’s a veteran that doesn’t get rattled. It would be easy to get frustrated after giving up a goal, and I’m sure they were frustrated. But Iginla’s response to goals by the opposition is the thing that has impressed me most about his play in this series.

In other news, Bylsma FINALLY decided to take him off Malkin’s line. The two had zero chemistry. The lack of chemistry also led to several of Geno’s turnovers. Finally Bylsma did what most of us were expecting before Sid’s injury. Olympic linemates were reunited and Kunitz was put back on a line with Geno and Neal. These line actually work! Which leaves the question, why did it take til game six for Bylsma to figure it out? I can dwell on this question all I want, but it’s not going to change the past. I’m just going to be glad they finally got it figured out and have found an effective spot in the lineup for Iggy moving forward.

Letang
Letang was playing like a Norris Trophy candidate…..until he became a Norris Trophy candidate. Letang made some good plays in the first two games. He handled the puck well and played smart hockey. Ironically, that all changed the day he was named a finalist for the Norris Trophy. He became sloppy and turnover prone. At times he was an accident waiting to happen while on the ice. He was also the opposite of Matt Niskanen. While Niskanen was overthinking every play, Letang wasn’t thinking hardly enough. Kris is a player that has to elevate his play if the Pens are going to win the Cup.

Vitale/Kennedy/Adams
I decided to group all these players together because they fulfill similar roles and had similar results this series. Next to the play of Crosby, this line impressed me the most. They’re not a line you would expect to put up numbers, but they did. They are the perfect example of hard work paying off. They also showed the most heart of anyone this series. You can tell they wanted to win and instead of acting like they were guaranteed a series win, they went out there and fought for it. They were one of the only lines to establish an effective forecheck and hustled to negate icings. Good job guys!

Sutter/Morrow/Cooke
Not a whole lot to say about this line. Mostly because they were nonexistent through most of the series. The only time they did anything notable was taking careless penalties. But they weren’t necessarily a bad line. They just weren’t a good line either. They were just kinda there. They didn’t turn the puck over as much as the second line but didn’t establish a forecheck, either. I expect a lot more from Morrow against Ottawa. He’ll have to produce more for the line to be effective. He was a minus three against the Islanders, and was held to a single assist. Morrow played well the last time we played the Sens and I think he’ll step up in the next round. As a veteran leader he has to.

Orpik
I’ve been on Orpik’s case all season. He hasn’t played nearly as well as he has in the past. However, I give credit where credit is due. Obviously his highlight of the series was the series winning overtime goal, but he played solid defensively the entire game and most of the series for that matter. He has shown veteran leadership by stepping up when it counts. ‘Merica.

Dupuis/Neal/Kunitz
Well, they’re the only forwards I haven’t talked about yet (besides Bennett, Glass, and Jokinen who haven’t played as much). First off, you can’t ask for anything more from Dupuis. He went to the net, he has excellent chemistry with Crosby, and he has been by far the Pens most consistent player with five goals in six games. He’s also one of if not the fastest skater on the team. This helped us keep up with the Isles speed at times. Honestly, there’s not much else to analyze. He was awesome. That’s all there is to it. Neal was fine when he was in the lineup. He took a nice feed from Geno for a goal as soon as he came back, but he hasn’t done a whole lot else. That also means he didn’t hurt the team. By putting Kunitz back on that line, expect Neal to play a big part in the Ottawa series. Last point about Neal, WHY IS HE NOT ON THE TOP POWER PLAY UNIT?!?! He led the team in power play goals (well tied for the lead) and led the league in 2012. The reason he’s so effective on the power play is because he’s not afraid to shoot the puck. He’ll shoot from anywhere on the ice and it more often than not results in a goal or a juicy rebound. Lastly, Kunitz was also just okay. He had an important goal to tie game three, but also made his share of mistakes. I’m looking forward to seeing him on a line with Geno and Neal for the rest of the playoffs.

Looking Ahead to Ottawa
I’ll write a preview for the next series in the next couple days, so I’ll keep this short. The reason I want to address the next series is that I’ve seen lots of posts from multiple fanbases saying that since the Pens barely beat the Islanders then they could get crushed in the next round. Personally, I like our matchup with Ottawa better than New York. They’re slower and their power play is less effective. This series will also be tough, but unless the Pens beat themselves I think the only way they lose this is if Anderson gets hot. Lastly, both teams need to ignore the Cooke/Karlsson incident. Ottawa needs to move on. I’m really not sure why this is even still an issue, but apparently Eugene Melnyk feels it still needs to be. In the last meeting between the Pens and Sens in the regular season the Pens played their brand of hockey while the Sens focused on Cooke. Going into the second round the Pens have the advantage, but they’ll have to bring their A game. Nothing less is acceptable in the playoffs.

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