Many of you may remember that, the last time these two teams met in the playoffs, I recorded a podcast with half Matt Wagner and half Hooks Orpik (Jim Rixner) from Pensburgh. Since that was a nice break-down of that series, I thought it would be good to do it again.
Only problem is I don’t do a Cannon podcast anymore, and I’ve been a bigtime slacker with the DKM guys this year. What to do?
Jim and I decided to convene a GChat and fire some Q&A back and forth in an effort to appease both fanbases as we prepare for the start of the series tomorrow. Without further ado, here’s our part of the Q&A. You can read the other half over at Pensburgh.
Dan P. - Housekeeping out of the way: we know about Kris Letang, obviously. How are the rest of the banged up Pens right now?
Jim Rixner - Well, how much time do you have? Evgeni Malkin has been skating and is expected to play Game 1, but they certainly held him out all the way down the stretch. Luckily, and as expected, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley were able to return from their six-week injuries and should be ready to go.
Carl Hagelin has been skating, and may make an appearance at some point in the series, but I wouldn't expect him in Game 1. Chris Kunitz is now on crutches, so I'm assuming a broken foot from blocking a shot and that he will be unavailable for this series. (Disclaimer: this is an assumption since of course NHL teams don't actually give any real information.)
DP - I think we all assumed Malkin was just resting up.
JR - They cited his blocked shot as a reason to be out, but he's been seen on the bench flexing his wrist at times—which has been taped—so yes for the rest. But, there's probably multiple underlying reasons at play. Malkin missed Game 1 of the playoffs last year (torn UCL in elbow) and jumped right in and played well from Game 2 on so I'm assuming he will be his "good old self".
DP - Malkin’s "good old self" = "ugliest guy in the league" per Scott Hartnell...
JR - Ha, he's one to talk with that mop of hair...
DP - I know. I'm sad he didn't just let it go this season, especially once it was clear the CBJ would be in the playoffs. Has anyone been able to step into the void of Letang (knowing that he's impossible to "replace")?
JR - Replacing Letang seems like the million dollar question. He only played 41 games this season with various injuries, so the team is somewhat used to the roles they have to play when he's out. If there's a small silver lining, that would be it: it won't be a huge shock or unknown for guys like Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole and Justin Schultz to step up. There's no real one guy replacement; just more responsibility for the group.
DP - It seems safe to say that, if there's an area to "exploit" Pittsburgh, it's the blue line. Is that a fair assessment?
JR - Probably, in the sense that the forward group is definitely the strength of the team. I also worry about the PK (just 20th in the league at 79.8%) and think that's an opportunity for Columbus as well.
DP - It would be, if our PP hadn't fallen into the abyss post-winning-streak. Apparently, if you do the exact same zone entry every single time, teams start to pick up on it.
JR - Haha, I thought I heard that in my research that the PP has been struggling lately.
DP - That's an understatement. They're somewhere in the 10% neighborhood since the winning streak ended, or something like that.
JR - Oh, yikes. It will definitely be the resistable force against the moveable object, then.
DP - Let me ask this rather rhetorical question: is there any real fear of the Blue Jackets within the Penguins' fan base at all? Put another way: is anyone genuinely concerned that Columbus can win this series?
JR - Definitely. Obviously, any and every large fanbase has a lot of varying opinions, but generally I would say the typical Pens fan knows that Columbus had the 4th most points in the league, the goalie who had the best season in the league, and so forth. Anytime a team can win 16 straight games (including a 7-1 win against Pittsburgh), that has to catch your attention and command respect. Or, if it doesn't, it certainly should.
But, overall, I wouldn't think the average Pens fan thinks of Columbus as a true rival yet. Certainly not on par with Philly, Washington, or the Rangers.
DP - The Pens obviously deserve a ton of credit for the way they've played in the face of all of the injuries. Even though you (clearly) would rather have guys like Geno in the lineup, is there a chance that the return of a few guys, coupled with the minutes-management in the playoffs, affects the play of some of the younger guys who stepped up? You know, like how the Washington Sentinels played better with Falco at QB instead of Martel after he crossed the picket lines?
JR - That remains to be seen, but I think there’s good reason to think it should be OK. The main “young players” are Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel, who have formed a wonderfully successful line with Crosby, so those guys will be staying there even when/if health comes back. Hopefully the return of Malkin and/or Hagelin just helps add depth and balance. It may even help the younger guys, since [Crosby’s line] won’t be the only line a defense has to worry about.
DP - Of the depth guys that Jackets fans maybe don't know by name yet, who has potential to surprise in this series a la Brian Gibbons in '14 against us? (Remember that we *signed* him that following summer for some unknown reason... oof.)
JR - I would say Guentzel for sure. This is his rookie year. He's split time between the AHL (where he was dominant) and the NHL, where he scored 33 points (16g+17a) in 40 games, including a goal in 5 straight games to end the season. But since he's first line, that almost feels like cheating, so my off-the-radar pick would be Scott Wilson, a typical 4th line player with a big motor, but one who also has some nicer hands than you might think (8g+18a this year).
DP - Re: Guentzel, I think I'm legally required to ask: how much of that is "he's good" vs. "he plays with Crosby every night"?
JR - If you check his WOWY, Guentzel's GF/60 is 4.48 (absurdly high) without Crosby....And 3.51 with Crosby. So Guentzel has been helping the Pens score more goals without Crosby. It's fair question to ask, and certainly true that Crosby makes players better (like your boy Brian Gibbons), but the stat split does show that Guentzel had success and was productive with or without #87.
DP - Damn. We assume Matt Murray is the clear-cut #1. How long of a leash does he have? (Assumption is very, very long...)
JR - Yes, I would assume Murray's job is safe. If you look at start splits, Murray played way more than Marc-Andre Fleury (just Murray was injured twice during the season), aside from March where the team had 16 games in 31 days. Murray and Sullivan both started with the Pens in the AHL last year, and Sullivan is solidly in his guy's corner.
This, though, surely won't stop a large, vocal segment of the Pens fanbase from rallying for Fleury (a really nice gentleman, great teammate, longtime team member). But, barring really bad performances, I don't think there's any doubt about Murray being the #1 guy.
DP - Overall, if you had to rate this year's Pens team compared to last year's team on paper (so, taking chemistry and emotion out, if possible), are they better or worse than the Cup team?
JR - Banged up and no Letang has to make them worse. Also, last season some key players (Dumoulin, Daley, Nick Bonino, Hagelin) were playing so wonderfully, and this year all have struggled at times. So, unless a lot of players step up, it's difficult to see them at the exact same level.
DP - [Dan P. trigger warning/rant alert] What are your thoughts on the NHL's playoff seeding system? Is this year just an aberration with the Metro being so good, or is it time for it to go? I guess I get the logic of it re: rivalries. But I think, in this case, it punishes teams for being in a good division, which is no fault of their own.
JR - You’re certainly not wrong there, at all. I think it’ll be interesting to see if this is somewhat of a one-year aberration or a sign of things to come. Personally, I don’t really mind it. I know it’s unfair, but I do like that they try and force rivalries in early rounds in playoffs and I think it makes the playoffs more exciting when a team most likely has to play a division opponent (and that’s usually a rival, or one that can build into a bigger rivalry).
If the NHL went traditional "division winners get a 1 or 2 seed", the 3v6 matchup this year would be Pens vs Senators. As a fan, I'd much rather play a division foe like CBJ rather than a random Atlantic team. But I realize I'm pretty much in the minority for that position, and it's not my hill to die on.
DP - For me, how is it a reward to finish with 108 or 111 points like the CBJ and Pens did, when the Senators get to host Boston, and then play Montreal or the Wild Card Rangers if they advance, whereas the winner of our series most likely gets the President's Trophy team? But, that's really a product of recency bias (and homer bias), because what are the odds that one division is going to have four of the best six or seven teams in the league in it every year?
JR - Obviously, it's a bum deal that one of the Pens or Jackets will be out after the first round. But that's the playoffs: good teams get eliminated all the time, and I don't think the playoffs should be designed to protect the stronger regular season teams. And you'll have to beat great teams eventually anyways if your team is going all the way.
The NHL also has a (well, for now) 14 team conference that has eight playoff teams and then one with 16 for only eight. That’s not fair or even, either. To me, that’s just life and adversity, nothing goes perfectly.
DP - It angers me that Columbus has 10 more points than Ottawa, but doesn't even get to host a first round series.
JR - You have a point about the home ice. That’s unfortunate. I guess, on the bright side, long-term the Jackets could get home ice in the future should they advance. But yeah, you’re right that isn’t quite a fair deal.
DP - I feel like it was like this in the Central for awhile. Oddly, I feel like the biggest impetus to change it would be if Columbus somehow gets hot and knocks both Pittsburgh and Washington out, lol. (I'm totally bitching for the sake of bitching, I know.)
JR - Yeah, I mean the fourth place team for the Metro is setup pretty nice. They would only have to play at most one of the three best teams in the East in a hypothetical ECF. The Pens and CBJ will probably have to beat the other 2 best teams to make it.
The easy answer seems to be: just finish first like Washington and then you only have to beat one of them. Easier said than done, and it’s certainly not an ideal path for the others in a year like this.
DP - When the CBJ had the outside shot at catching Washington before crapping out these last couple of weeks, that was my hope: that Gary Bettman would see the opportunity missed by having the Pens/Caps in round 1. I can also admit to not looking forward to reading the national pundit types who will say, "See? Columbus STILL can't win a playoff series!" if we lose, ignoring that we're playing arguably the best team in the league. But I'm petty like that.
JR - I don't blame you one bit! Whoever loses between the Pens and CBJ probably is a better team than one that makes the ECF [from the other bracket]. Which sucks as a fan of them.
But I'm also of the mindset that if you lose, you lose. Doesn't really matter if it's first round or last, the championship caliber team will rise to the top and find a way.
DP - Right, it's not like we could win a Cup this year without playing Pittsburgh and/or Washington at some point. Might as well get it out of the way early when you're at your freshest, lol.
JR - Hey, this wouldn't be the first time this decade Washington won the Presidents Trophy and lost to an 8 seed in the first round. (Though I don't think they will.)
So, have you thought about a prediction yet?
DP - Shit, I knew you were going to ask that. I have, and it changes hour by hour.
JR - Haha, OK with the listed caveat that you are allowed to still change your mind.
DP - OK, if Werenski is 100%, I say it goes seven games. Pens win at home in Game 7. Without Werenski, Pens in five games.
JR - Very interesting. I also am leaning Pens in seven but seventh games are such coin flips. I also feel like that's kind of punting by me to say it's just even, but it looks to be a really even series across the board. Which, again part of the seeding thing, but I would think Pens or CBJ are favored in any other playoff match-up (aside from Washington).
DP - I think the home ice plus a Game 7 would favor the Pens, just based on experience. That, frankly, is the big area that separates these teams.
JR - Pens are also 31-6-4 at home this season, not sure if that's widely known. And they almost never blow leads after the 2nd period, the mark of a veteran team that just chokes games out to your point about the experience. I think that's an obvious but huge key for Columbus: don't play from behind. I think the longer games are tied or close the more an inexperienced team gains confidence that they're "hanging in there", you know?
DP - Yep. The home ice thing really felt like a huge blow to the Jackets. They did kinda mail it in once it was clear they'd lost it. Which begs its own questions.
JR - Pens are 76-1-1 when leading after 2 periods since start of 2015-16, if you want to use that stat.
DP - I want to pretend that stat doesn't exist, actually.