Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Pens-Islanders Preview

OK.  I've been trying not to think, type, or even say this to anyone else, but I feel the need to speak what I feel is the truth... I think that the Pens are definitely going to win this series, the only question in my mind is whether it takes five games or six.

I know the Islanders aren't pushovers.  I know that only two points separate them and third-seeded Capitals (and fifth-seeded Maple Leafs).  If they had won a game here or a game there, or waited until overtime to lose a couple games instead of losing them in regulation, they would've been just as good as a third seed.  So, I know they aren't some puny 8 seed that should be easily dispatched by the top-seeded Pens.

I also know that the Penguins are extremely talented, surprisingly tough, chocked full of veteran leadership, very deep, and highly motivated.  They're also realistic.  They're quick to point out that you could've ascribed a similar description to them in 2012, if not 2011.  They've been knocked out in the first round the last two seasons and they're well-aware of the fact that talent and regular season accolades don't mean anything come playoff time.

On the other side of the ice, you have a young, but very talented Islanders team.  They have nothing to lose.  They're playing with house money.  Everyone expects them to get crushed, to be a speed bump for the Pens on their way through the Eastern Conference and into the Stanley Cup Final.  All the pressure is on the Penguins.

Thing is, all the pressure has always been on the Pens.  They've been in this position before: In 09-10 when they were supposed to roll over the Canadiens, in '10-11 to a lesser degree, and definitely last season, when they just needed to get past the Flyers and it would be smooth sailing.  Everyone looks at the talent on offense, the offensive defensemen, and the playoff-tested goaltender and assumes they're going to roll.

With the changes they made at the trade deadline and the guys they added -- not just big names, but talented two-way players that desperately want to raise the Cup -- the pressure is even greater and the assumptions are even more implied (you can imply an assumption, right?)

I get that they're being set up for a fall.  I get that the "Cup or Bust" mentality on this team puts a lot of pressure on the players, raises expectations for fans, increases animosity of opposing fan bases, and puts a target on the Pens (as if teams weren't motivated enough to win when the postseason starts anyway).

I get it, I do, I just don't think it happens this round.  The players are thinking one game at a time, they're not acknowledging the pressure, and they're fully accepting that it's their job to go out and win the games on the schedule, given that the front office and coaches have done everything in their power to set this team up a for a deep run. 

I heard an interview with Sidney Crosby on the radio the other day and he kept reiterating that everyone had been high on them in previous seasons, but they were eliminated in the first round.  I think he feels very strongly that this team has unfinished business and that they're not only fighting the Islanders, they're fighting the past.  If they can win this series, it will get a huge monkey off their back and they can go back to just fighting their next opponent.

Then there's this: They have three great lines (even without Crosby), a well-rested and proven goaltender, and six defensemen that are much better on defense than they are on offense (and that's saying something).  They have a potent power play that got considerably stronger now that James Neal and Malkin are healthy.  The penalty kill is an issue, but it's not as big of an issue as it was heading into last year's playoffs and it's much improved now that everyone's coming back and playing at a high level (especially Martin and Eaton).

That's a lot of compelling reasons for them to at least win the East, to say nothing of just winning this one series against a talented-but-inexperienced-and-definitely-overmatched Islanders team.

I read something online the other day that basically said that the Pens have no weaknesses, then backed down a little to say that they don't really have any big holes (and they have a lot of depth to move a problem guy out and replace him with someone as good or possibly better).  I don't think they're indestructible, but, like I said, I think they have more than enough going for them to win this round.  What I keep thinking of is the fact that, basically, every expert out there is saying that the only team that can beat the Pens is the team that, "Does what the Flyers did last year." 

So, an opponent would need to agitate the Pens stars, force them into committing penalties, and then convert 50% of those penalties into goals.  They'd also need to jump on Marc Andre-Fleury early -- in each game and in the series -- and get the defensemen to second-guess themselves constantly.  Also, Fleury needs to play like total crap.

That series was a perfect storm of bad matchups and bad outcomes.  I don't think it happens this series and I don't think it happens in the Eastern Conference side of the bracket.

Prediction: Pens in 5

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