In the first of what will likely be many crossover posts between Fear the Fin and Pensburgh, I asked co-managing editor Hooks Orpik five questions about the Penguins ahead of the Stanley Cup Final. Head over to Pensburgh to see my answers to six questions (a bonus Paul Martin question, obviously).
1. What's the deal with Pittsburgh's power play? I look at the forward talent on this roster and think it should be a top unit in the league and it's...definitely not. What gives?
That's funny (in a sad-funny way) that you mention that. The Penguins power play is insanely skilled. They use Patric Hornqvist as the net-front guy, he's great at taking abuse and taking away the goalie's eyes. Then they have Sidney Crosby on the right-wall, Evgeni Malkin on the right point/floating towards the middle or right-wall), Kris Letang as the left-to-center pointman and Phil Kessel lurking on the left-wall. That's a great setup of talent.
The sum has been lesser than its parts for many reasons. Crosby's been one of the league's worst PP-faceoff players, which is surprising because he's really good at faceoffs. Kessel uses a stick that doesn't allow for many one-timed or quick shots. Malkin too often becomes stagnant and doesn't move. Well, all of them, really, as they pass the puck around the perimeter but can't find shooting lanes and seemingly frustration builds.
Fortunately the Pens PP hasn't been bad of late and is 23.4% in the playoffs, they've designed new breakouts and zone-entries (including a drop pass) that has worked well. They just need to continue to move and create more opportunities than they sometimes do.
2. What changed when the Penguins made that coaching switch?
Pretty much everything. The Pens started out the year with the coach proudly trying to have Crosby and Malkin play "200-foot games" and support the defense by adding heavy defensive responsibilities to their star centers. This became frustrating when they had to sit back, their points were at lows and the team just didn't fit the system. It would be like trying to hook a plow up to a Ferrari, it might get the job somewhat done but it's not a smart use of the right tool for the job.
Mike Sullivan came in and installed a very aggressive system. The Pens don't have many big or strong defensemen, but most are good puck-movers, so the system is designed to move the puck as quickly as possible to the forwards who are flying the zone (in a positive way) once Pittsburgh gets possession. It's way less defensive and reactionary and more trying to take the play to the opponent. It sounds simple and easy, but it also was effective.
The Pens were also boosted by mid-season trades like Carl Hagelin and adding some young players from the minors like Bryan Rust that made them a whole lot faster of a team than the one that started the season.
3. Who on the Sharks do you feel gives the Penguins the most problems?
Joe Thornton concerns me a lot. As you can tell based on my answer above, Pittsburgh does not like to spend time in their defensive zone. They're not built to defend. They're built for transition game, speed and out-possessing the opponent. But you can't do that if you have a big power forward, hogging the puck in his o-zone. I'm not sure the Pens have a ton of defensemen to match up well to get the puck from him consistently, if he's able to get it down low. Then, of course, Thornton with the puck means great vision and playmaking and probably scoring chances for Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl, so that's top-of-mind as well, but mainly as a by-product of what Jumbo is bringing to the table.
I'm also not too excited about Logan Couture probably matching up in a lot of minutes against the Penguins second defensive pairing, that could be an area that San Jose could exploit, though I think it's also fair to credit that Olli Maatta and Ben Lovejoy have been playing their best hockey of the season in the past few games, it just remains to be seen if they can continue to do so.
4. Between Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, who do Penguins fans feel most comfortable with starting on Monday night? Is there a chance we'll see a goaltending change if something goes wrong?
Murray for sure is the starter. Fleury's played 1 game in 8 weeks (Game 5 vs Tampa) and it showed, he was fighting the puck, gave up a goal because he was off his angle and just generally wasn't sharp, completely normal considering the circumstances. Murray was tremendous in Games 6-7 vs Tampa, stopping a total of 44 of the 47 shots he saw, and looking very confident and sharp.
After the fact, Coach Sullivan said that he sat Murray because the youngster played a ton of hockey and he thought he needed a break. Hopefully (from a Pittsburgh perspective) this pretty lax Cup finals schedule has enough days off to keep Murray fresh enough to go. I would think he has a relatively long leash, unless he has 2 terrible games in a row I don't see them going back to Fleury at this time. Murray's got a .924 save % in 15 NHL playoff games and has 11 of the team's 12 wins. He's a huge reason the team has made it this far, and he'll be pretty much the guy if they go any further.
5. What's one area the Penguins have to be successful in if they're going to win this series?
The starts of the game will be hugely important. The Penguins have firepower, but they're not really a "come from behind" team. It's an obvious statement that they would prefer to play with a lead (because, duh, who wouldn't) but it's important for Pittsburgh to start games well. The stats back this up, this playoff the Pens are 0-3 when losing after 1 period. That becomes 0-4 when losing after 2. Conversely, counting the regular season the Pens are 48-0-1 when leading after 2 periods. The way this team is built, they're like the horse that wants to break out the gate fast, push the pace hard to make the competition have to chase them and lead the pack the whole way. If they get boxed in traffic or have to make a move to take the lead come the final stretch, that's not their best situation and they're not built for success there.
I don't really know horse racing that well, so I'm not even sure if that's a great analogy, but it made sense to me. The Pens were the best second period team in the league this year, they seem to adjust and regroup really well. If they can also be good in the first period, the chances of them winning goes way, way up.