I recently caught up with Hooks Orpik over at Pensburgh to help shed some light on the upcoming Predators vs. Penguins Stanley Cup Final matchup. We thought it might be nice to have a Pittsburgh perspective on things.
Over at Pensburgh, you can read my response to their questions, if you like.
Here we go!
1. For any Predators fans who may not have kept up with the Eastern Conference side of the playoffs, can you give us a 5 sentence recap of how the Penguins got to this point?
Injuries and a tough bracket have made this spring probably the most unlikely of playoff run that the Penguins have had in franchise history. To start the playoffs Pittsburgh (as the #2 team in the league in the standings) had to deal with Columbus (the #4 overall team), without the services of Kris Letang (neck surgery before playoffs, out for season) and #1 goalie Matt Murray (groin injury that healed in the middle of Round 2). The Pens surprisingly with a rag-tag defense, powerful forwards and some stellar goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury blew the doors off presumptive Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky and then somehow Fleury made enough saves to beat the #1 team Washington Capitals in 7 games. After playing 2 heavy, aggressive checking teams, they had to deal with a patient, 1-3-1 trap in Ottawa and the best goalie they've seen so fair in Craig Anderson. The team went to Murray who's returned with a .946% in 5 games and have just seemed to "find a way" to overcome whatever challenge has been in front of them.
2. What has been the most rewarding part about watching this particular playoff run by the Penguins? What's been the most frustrating?
The most rewarding part has been just enjoying the ride. This is now the 4th SCF in the Crosby/Malkin era. Less than 2 years ago some main-stream media outlets in town were actively calling for a trade of Malkin. As recently as 12 months ago (when down 3 games to 2 to Tampa in last year's ECF) columnists were questioning the leadership and legacy of Sidney Crosby. That's so laughable now at this point with the show those two have put on and will be celebrated as 2 of the greatest players in franchise history, right up there with Mario Lemieux and probably past anyone else. Both Malkin (24 points, 1st in league playoff scoring) and Crosby (20, 2nd) have elevated their games so much. As always, since they're #1 and #2 in active player points/game in playoffs, but really enjoying the height of their careers and watching them create special moments seemingly each and every game has been an absolute delight.
The most frustrating part has been seeing them overmatched at times. The Pens were a 52% Corsi team last year, and aside from one really bad game in Washington, they were possession dominant last postseason. That was with Letang (who plays almost half the game come playoff time) and without him there to skate and pass the puck out of the zone and make life so much easier for the forwards, it's been a struggle at times. The Blue Jackets and Capitals both shelled Pittsburgh almost all series long. The Pens were at something like a 42% team at even strength this playoff against those teams. They both probably "deserved" to lose already, if not for Fleury. Not to sound spoiled but usually Pittsburgh under Mike Sullivan has been the talented team pushing the play. That hasn't been the case for much of this playoff.
3. What can we expect to see out of Jake Guentzel? Obviously leading the team in goals in the playoffs is quite a feat, but what are his strengths? Any similar players to guys in the Western Conference?
Guentzel has been a revelation. Basically for the last 12 years the Penguins have been searching endlessly for young, skilled, smart wingers to play with Crosby. And they finally found one in this 22-year old rookie. Guentzel's size is slight at 5'11, 180 (generous, both). His skating is adequate and a good stride but I don't think really eye-popping. Guentzel's main strength preached by all scouts and coaches is the way he thinks the game. He's a creative player who knows where to go and when to get there. He's got that knack for getting to the right place in the right time. That's the type of thing a generational player like Crosby can just feast with, since Sid will create so much for a player who can be on that level understanding and sensing out the game. So Guentzel usually gets at least 1 (if not 2 or 3) really prime scoring chances per game. He's got a great shot, and he's also a good passer in his own right.
As far as a Western Conference comparable, I'm not sure there's a perfect one but maybe like a young Jaden Schwartz type of winger. Perhaps a little step slower but just that type of smallish, really gifted offensively player that will get chances and do well to finish and produce quite a bit in the long-run.
4. Who are Predators fans going to despise the most in this Stanley Cup Final? In the first round, it was Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane. In the WCF, it was Ryan Kesler. Since there isn't a detectable rivalry between these teams as of now, which Penguin is most likely to get the rivalry started? (obviously for the Preds it will be James Neal)
For the first time in a while, the Pens don't really have a true heel. There's no Matt Cooke. Or James Neal. Or anyone really in that boat, Pittsburgh really doesn't even have any true physical players or brutes out there. I'm sure it will be Crosby, he's got a way to get under everyone's skin and he can probably be a little petulant at times, but he's also dealing with a lot of abuse and hacking and whacking against him so he's not shy about pointing them out. Plus, they don't boo nobodies as the famous saying goes and he's obviously a heat seeker just with his play and usually crowds dislike him since he can do so much to beat them.
5. Which of the Penguins defenders has been the biggest contributor since the Kris Letang injury? Who has stepped up the most?
The crazy thing is it's been everyone and no one at the same time. If you look at total ice time of the 6 regular defenseman, the lowest in the playoffs has 19:09 per game (Ian Cole), the highest has 21:55 (Brian Dumoulin) with the other 4 players in the middle. It's been amazingly even with 3 pairs all about the same talent level and literally all 6 guys pitching in and playing 19-21 minutes per night. The Penguins don't really have a true first pair but they also don't have anyone that they have to shield with favorable zone-starts or matchups. They just roll the pairs pretty evenly and it's been finding a way. There's no weak link on the chain, but there's also no "go to" guy and certainly no all-stars.
That said, Dumoulin, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley have all been in pretty good form of late. Those are the best puck movers on the defense, along with Justin Schultz who returned from injury for Game 7. But it requires a team effort for Cole and Ron Hainsey to make smart plays and help keep things moving.
6. Series prediction?
Call me a homer, and I am biased but I do think (and admittedly hope) for Pens in 7. Should be an epic series of strength of Nashville's defense+goalie going against Pittsburgh's strength of elite forwards. Both teams should play entertaining hockey. There will be wild swings and I can't wait to see the Nashville crowd try to cheer the Pens out of the building. That's a lot of fun already just imagining the atmosphere. I could easily see the Preds winning their first Cup and they are very worthy opponents. I just hope for good, clean hockey with no further injuries and that the refs don't manage to screw things up too badly one way or the other. In the end, I think the Pens have an experience edge and some generational talents that just will find a way to make the difference and win another title.
7. Expected lines for Game 1?
If they go based on G7:
Chris Kunitz - Sidney Crosby - Conor Sheary
Scott Wilson - Evgeni Malkin - Phil Kessel
Carl Hagelin - Nick Bonino - Carter Rowney
Jake Guentzel - Matt Cullen - Bryan Rust
However, Hornqvist is close to playing and possibly/probably will be back soon. Mike Sullivan often shuffles up (Guentzel/Rust were Crosby's wingers until he switched during G7 and that paid off big-time). I can update you in the comments but I expect things to be different, and even then in the middle of the game Sullivan is likely to switch things up to try and find some lightning in a bottle. Malkin+Kessel has been and will be a playoff constant, along with all the centers but otherwise all the other positions can and will be re-arranged.
Defense is more steady: