The Penguins haven’t played like this since 2009. Can it last indefinitely? It did in 2009. Behold, refreshing Penguins notes that reflect the team's current glow. Bask in it. Wallow in it. Follow the guiding light to the Beltway for Game 1 vs. Washington. The Capitals don’t want you to get tickets. Get them anyway.
I’m glad the Penguins are playing Washington, not Philadelphia. The Flyers stink, but would have turned the series into a gong show. Penguins vs. Capitals could be a classic, and will be well-watched throughout North America.
Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin could also be a classic. They took over the Pens vs. Caps series in 2009, each scoring eight goals and matching hat tricks in Game 2. It was like watching Joe Louis and Mike Tyson slug it out. The Penguins won Game 7 in no small part because Ovechkin got stoned on a breakaway early, and Crosby scored the first goal. This won’t top that. Unless it does.
The Penguins held Ovechkin to zero points in five regular-season games this year. That’s amazing. It also won’t fluster Ovechkin.
Forcing Ovechkin to his backhand on the rush is elementary, necessary and not easy to do. Limiting his center, Nicklas Backstrom, is also crucial. The Penguins can’t allow Ovechkin time to shoot but also can’t allow Backstrom time to distribute. The latter so often creates the former. So, curbing Backstrom's playmaking might be more important.
Defenseman Kris Letang plays a lot of minutes, and should play lots of those minutes against Ovechkin in this series. Letang can skate with Ovechkin and compete with him physically. Letang also has the puck a lot, which makes Ovechkin chase.
The Penguins made the Eastern Conference final in 2013, but that team never played like these Penguins did against the New York Rangers. These Penguins fairly crackle with electricity, and the difference is the energy and enthusiasm of youth.
Matt Cullen is amazing. I felt he was a superfluous acquisition when the Penguins got him, but his performance speaks for itself and his speed, at 39, does more than that. Last year, Craig Adams filled the same role Cullen does now. That says a lot about the team's improvement. The old coach’s coffee buddies are gone.
What does it say about the depth of the Penguins’ excellence in the first round when Sidney Crosby gets eight points in five games and no one talks much about it?
Evgeni Malkin had a couple rotten games upon return, then two excellent games. Seven points in four games is strong, and Malkin wrecked the Rangers in Game 4 with two goals and two assists. But not only did Malkin start piling up numbers, he eliminated fundamental mistakes and bad penalties. That’s just as important.
Eddie Olczyk Jr. played college hockey with Conor Sheary at Massachusetts, and last year told me that Sheary could produce in the NHL. Score one for little Edzo, and Sheary is scoring a few himself and sparkling as Crosby’s linemate. Sheary is listed as 5-foot-8, 174 pounds. It seems folly to think he won’t get hurt. But he played 133 consecutive games at UMass. His speed and agility make him a difficult target.
The Penguins’ power play was 8 for 21 against the Rangers, and the penalty kill was 18 for 19. It’s impossible to lose given that kind of special-teams edge. Crosby, Malkin and Kessel had five power-play points each. Kessel now has 27 points in 27 career playoff games. Kessel can frustrate, but he delivers in the postseason.
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist tapped out. He started five games in the series against the Penguins, but finished just two. He played awful, and quit. That’s no-Cup Henry.
Marc-Andre Fleury’s continued struggle with concussion issues is terrible news on so many levels. It kills him to not play. A few months ago, I spoke with Fleury about Montreal goalie Carey Price’s knee problems, and I put forth the notion that maybe Price should be shut down. Fleury said, “No, you always want to come back as soon as you can because it’s so much fun to play.” He’s right. So this stinks.
Matt Murray leaked in a couple shaky goals in the first period of Game 5, but bounced back to play strong and, most important, win. Murray is 21, and has played only 16 NHL games. He’s far from proven. But he mostly played terrific in the first round, and it was good to see some resilience.
Don’t complain about the playoff system because the Penguins and Capitals are playing in the second round. Both teams are better than the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay, the other Eastern Conference matchup. But Pens vs. Caps might be a series for the ages and lots of fun to watch. The winner should feel good about its chances in the conference final.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).