Coming into the 2010 NHL season, the Penguins returned a great core of players from their Stanley Cup winning team, including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Sergei Gonchar. With few weaknesses many pick the Pens to repeat.
Will they? Not if Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals have anything to say about it. So, who will kiss the Cup in June?
Eastern Conference First Round
(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens—Too much Ovechkin and company in this one. Should be a sweep, but with the shaky goaltending situation of the Caps, I can see the Habs taking a game in this series. Capitals in five.
(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers—Paying close attention to the Penguins this season, I've noticed great things from Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur. However, at times, including the Olympic Games, Brodeur has looked average at best.
With the only threesome of center icemen in the league somewhat comparable to the Penguins, the Flyers have playmakers in Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and Danny Brier. The Devils, who incorporate a shutdown game in the neutral zone, will need to game plan around these three.
The key to this series will be the Flyers goaltending. Brian Boucher is capable of playing well. If so, I look for the Flyers to pull the upset in seven.
(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins—If Ryan Miller can find his same form from the Olympic Games, the Sabres should advance in this series. However, if he slips at all, look for the Bruins to win a few one-goal games in this series. Tuukka Rask has a 1.97 GAA this season. Goaltending more often than not, wins big games. Look for the veteran Miller to hold against Rask. Sabres in six.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators—The Senators started the season slow, but have emerged in the second half. As hot as they have been at times this season the Senators may be the most dangerous draw the Penguins could have come across. However, with the veteran leadership of Bill Guerin and the savvy play from Crosby of late (12 points in his final four games), the Penguins should hold of the scrappy Senators in five.
Eastern Conference Semifinals
(1) Washington Capitals vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers—The Capitals are too tough and too explosive for the Flyers. After a demanding series against the Devils, the Flyers won't have enough to contain all the weapons of the Caps who play game in and out. Look for the Capitals to advance in five.
(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (4) Pittsburgh Penguins—Plain and simple SID owns MILLER. Penguins in six.
Eastern Conference Finals
(1) Washington Capitals vs. (4) Pittsburgh Penguins—It is well known the Penguins were 0-10 this season against the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, including 0-4 versus the Capitals. This rivalry is nothing short of great and just what the NHL would hope for.
Last season in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Pens won game seven in Washington to propel them on their way to the Stanley Cup. Goaltending is key again in this matchup. The Capitals are a better team this year than last year. Jose Theodore will get the start for the Caps, and he won't have to win 1-0 games.
That said, Marc Andre-Fleury needs to be spectacular again for the Pens to advance to a third straight Stanley Cup final. With the sudden emergence of Evgeni Malkin late in the season the Pens can play with the Capitals. It's almost a coin flip, however, I think the Penguins are due against the Capitals. I like the Penguins in six.
Western Conference First Round
(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Los Angeles Kings—The Canucks have many weapons including NHL scoring champion Henrik Sedin. The Kings impose a solid defense. This series will be a question of whose is better than whose. Roberto Luongo should outplay Jonathan Quick. I like the Canucks in six.
(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Redwings—The feel good story of the NHL, or should I say surprise, Coyotes get the unlucky matchup against the hottest team in the NHL. Last season's Stanley Cup runner-ups have hit their stride, looking to get back to the final series for the third straight season. If it were any other lower seed, I'd take the Coyotes, but the Wings aren't just any other lower seed. Take the Redwings in six.
Western Conference Semifinals
(1)San Jose Sharks vs. (4)Detroit Redwings—Does it not always seem as if the Sharks fold fast in the playoffs? With the likes of Thorton, Marleau, and Heatley on their squad, the Sharks will finally play to their potential. The Redwings aren't the same Redwings from seasons past. That said, this one could go either way. I'll take the Sharks in seven in overtime.
(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (3) Vancouver Canucks—Great scoring comes to mind with these two teams. Goaltending will tell the story, like a broken record, and nothing else. With 26 wins each, Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi lead a formidable Blackhawks team in to the Western Conference finals in six over the Canucks.
Western Conference Finals
(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (2) Chicago Blackhawks—Chicago wins. Goaltending and an incredibly explosive offense will prevail the Blackhawks in five.
Stanley Cup Finals
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Chicago Blackhawk—Well, they say the third time is the charm, but is there a curse of Marian Hossa? The Blackhawks winger has lost in two consecutive finals. This series would show off some of the league's best young talent, with the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp, opposing Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal.
Add Hossa to the mix and the Blackhawks are set up to have the scoring to defeat the Penguins in a historic series. Even though they are not as solid as last season, I believe the Pens defensive unit is better than that of the Hawks. If the Penguins can get continued production from Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang on the power play, the Pens will win. If not, the Blackhawks will get redemption from the 1991-92 finals which they dropped to the Pens.
The key for the Pens is their power play. Much of the season, they didn't seem to click on all levels. However, as of late, they are producing more on the man advantage. Do the Pens have the durability and stamina to win it all, again? Yes.
Take the Penguins over the Blackhawks in six.
Conn Smyth Winner—Sidney Crosby 12G/19A - 31Pts