The fourth-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins begin their defense of the Stanley Cup title tonight at Mellon Arena in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the fifth-seeded Ottawa Senators, and there is one thing that comes to mind for the Penguins to advance out of the first round: consistency.
The Penguins have probably played anything but spectacular hockey the last month after starting the post-Olympic push to the playoffs 4-0.
In the past two years, when the Pens started the playoffs, March and the early part of April have been a great time in the season for them, as they were one of the hottest teams coming into the playoffs the last two years.
Last year, when coach Dan Bylsma took over the team after Michel Therrien got fired, the team went 18-7 after Bylsma was named the coach. This year during that stretch: 10-9 with the team limping into the playoffs. Not exactly the best time of year to be playing that kind of hockey.
But there are many differences between this year's team and last year's team that knocked off the mighty Detroit Red Wings in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Final in Detroit.
By the way, the Pens and Wings have met in the last two Cup Finals, with Detroit winning on Pittsburgh's home ice in six games in 2008. This year's team looks possibly more tired and fatigued due to the condensed schedule the Penguins have played due to the Winter Olympics this year in Vancouver.
The Pens and Wings have played the most games in the National Hockey League (NHL) the past two seasons, as I have already mentioned, due to the two teams meeting in the Final the last two seasons. The Pens had to play countless back-to-back games before the Olympics even started. Let's also not forget that the Pens had five players that represented their countries in the Olympics.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik represented the USA, star center and 51-goal scorer this season Sidney Crosby represented Canada, as well as goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, although Fleury never played, and star winger Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Sergei Gonchar represented Russia.
The Olympics are a big deal for these players and their countries, especially Canada. Canada was the host country for the Olympics, and hockey is the No. 1 sport in this country, so anything less than a Gold Medal would have been a failure.
These players spend so much energy during these games, so by the time the NHL season resumes, fatigue could set in, which could have been the case with Orpik and Crosby, as these two only had two days in between to get ready for the final month and a half of the season.
Crosby led Canada to the game-winning goal in the gold medal game as his squad knocked off Orpik and the rest of the USA squad in overtime, 4-3. That was on a Sunday, and the Pens were back on the ice in Buffalo two days later. Actually, there was a game the day after the Olympics ended, with the Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche playing.
Injuries have also been a factor.
Countless players on the Pens this year have been injured, with the most recent ones being Matt Cooke, Gonchar out with an illness, and winger Chris Kunitz. Malkin also missed almost all of March due to a foot injury and also an undisclosed illness.
When Malkin is off the ice for the Pens, the team looks dramatically different and nowhere near is good as when he is on the ice. Crosby usually has to pick up the slack since the scoring production from other contributors off last year's team has dropped off.
Veteran winger Bill Guerin, who has been on the top line with Crosby most of the season, has only four goals since March 11 and has been a minus player most of that time. Third-line center Jordan Staal is maybe one of the few players that has been consistent most of this season and has been a vital force with Cooke commanding the third line, which is maybe one of the best in the NHL.
Malkin has not been getting much help from his second-line players either. Winger Ruslan Fedotenko, who usually starts producing at this time of year, has only three goals since the Olympics ended, and recently acquired gritty winger Alexei Ponikarovsky has two goals since coming over to the Pens and is still trying to get acclimated with Malkin and to the system.
The defensemen have not helped out much either. Besides Gonchar, Alex Goligoski and recently acquired Jordan Leopold must be more consistent in the playoffs, especially Goligoski. Goligoski, who many thought would turn into a great young defenseman, has been anything but this season. With Gonchar out of the lineup a lot this season, Goligoski did not do his part.
I understand he is still young and learning and can only get better, but things like getting the puck stolen away at the blue line for a breakaway and not being able to hit the net when trying to score are things that will not help your team in the playoffs. It will hurt your team severely if it keeps up.
Leopold has shown he will almost do anything for the team and go to the net and do the dirty things, but he needs to score a couple more goals than he has so far since coming over to the Pens. He did have a breakout, two-goal game last week against the mighty Washington Capitals, but other than that he has two goals.
Goaltending especially has been shaky at times. Marc-Andre Fleury has more playoff victories than any goalie the last two seasons other than the Red Wings' Chris Osgood. But Fleury has been not nearly as consistent this season as he was last season, which does not bode well heading into the playoffs, as goaltending is by far one of the most important things when it comes to winning a Stanley Cup.
Fleury has given up countless soft goals this season and has been pulled from as many games this season that I can remember ever since he started his career as the No. 1 draft pick in the 2003 draft. However, I will give Fleury the benefit of the doubt; not all of it has been his fault. The defense in front of him has been soft at times, giving opponents too much time and space to skate in for either a breakaway or and easy goal.
Backup and veteran goaltender Brent Johnson has been solid at times as well but also has given up his fair share of soft goals.
Don't get me wrong—the Pens would not be where they are this year with 101 points without Fleury, and he has played a lot of very good games, but he has to be more consistent in the playoffs.
The Pens still do have their combination of shot-blockers and tough guys. Defenseman Jay McKee is one of the best shot-blockers in the NHL, and Michael Rupp and Erik Godard are the players to look for when someone is taking a run at Crosby, Malkin, or any of your players, but especially your star players.
Going back to defense, Kris Letang, who recently signed a big contract, needs to start producing more and has to be able to hit the net from close range, which he has not in recent games. I love the contract though, and Letang has proven that he is starting to develop into one of the best young defensemen in the NHL.
Mark Eaton, who did play well in the playoffs last year, must feel left out to dry a lot due to the fact that Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi have moved on after last year's championship team. Gill is now with the Montreal Canadiens, and Scuderi is with the Los Angeles Kings. Those two players were one of the best shutdown defensive tandems in the NHL and in the playoffs last year, as they played against every opponent's top line last year.
The Pens, in my mind, still have not adequately replaced those two and may not be able to for a while. Instead, they look to Letang and Goligoski, the young guys, to step it up.
No doubt though the Penguins are still the favorites to win the series against the Senators—maybe not heavy favorites though. This will not be an easy series, as the Senators and the Pens split the season series 2-2, and the Senators have been one of the most consistent teams over the past month and a half.
I know Alexei Kovalev is not playing, but the team still has one of the best lines in the NHL with Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza doing the damage, and let's not forget, the Senators did win 11 games in a row at one point during this season.
It would definitely help if the New Jersey Devils lost in the first round to the Philadelphia Flyers and the Canadiens knocked off the heavy favorite Capitals, who many think will win the Stanley Cup this year. That would work out in the Pens' favor big-time because the Pens' record this year against the Capitals and Devils is a combined 0-10. But the Pens have to take care of their business first and be at the top of their game.
The Penguins should beat the Senators, but you never know because anything can happen in the playoffs. I will tell you one thing: If the Pens do not play better and more consistent than they have during the past couple weeks, their defense of the Stanley Cup will all be over in the first round.