by Mark Madden
Beaver County Times
Monday, April 11, 2011
The Penguins have had an incredible season no matter what happens in the playoffs. They've lost a goal per game since Sidney Crosby got concussed. Evgeni Malkin's absence also has had profound impact.
But the Penguins nonetheless labored to 106 points behind the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury and a penchant for winning one-goal games (24 victories, third-most in the NHL) and shootouts (10 triumphs, tied for most).
Even if the Penguins have a short spring, it's a year to remember.
If it seems I'm eulogizing in advance, there's probably an element of that.
It's difficult to indefinitely sustain what the Penguins have been doing. Hard to scratch and claw night after night after night. There are no shootouts in the postseason. Close wins can flip and become narrow defeats.
I'm not predicting that the Penguins will lose four straight one-goal games to Tampa Bay in the first round. But it could happen.
It helped the Penguins to have something to play for virtually until season's end. The extra exertion aside, the continued focus may prove crucial. The Penguins are in a very shallow groove, perhaps not one that would be easily rediscovered if they tumbled out of it.
It wouldn't be shocking to see the Penguins win four straight one-goal games, either. They have that kind of rhythm.
But the Penguins won't win 16 playoff games - not by any score(s) - unless Crosby resumes playing.
A word about Crosby: Much ink has been spilled and many gums flapped speculating over Crosby's return. Publications and websites implore the Penguins to shut down Crosby for the long-term good of hockey.
Reality check: This process does not involve choice. When the doctors clear Crosby, he'll play ... whether it's next week, next month or next October. The body doesn't have a gland that secretes immunity to concussions based on idle time accumulated. You're either ready or not.
Sure, Crosby could "play it safe" - by retiring. Otherwise, he's got to take a hit at some point. Doctors will determine when that's safest.
As a radio host, I rarely find something not worthy of debate. But this isn't. If Crosby is shut down, it will be because his recovery has hit a plateau, not as a precautionary measure. The Penguins won't rush Crosby back. You think ownership and management don't understand his long-term value?
Anyway, Penguins vs. Tampa Bay - taking into account that Crosby's return hardly seems imminent:
-- Fleury is light-years better than Tampa goalie Dwayne Roloson, 41. The Lightning got Roloson from the Islanders on Jan. 1 hoping to stabilize their goalkeeping, but Roloson has won 18 and lost 16. Roloson did maneuver Edmonton, a No. 8 seed, to the Stanley Cup final in 2006 before blowing out his knee in Game 1 of that series. But he's pedestrian.
-- The Lightning have a deep attack and a dynamic power play (20.5-percent success rate, sixth-best in the NHL). But the Penguins' penalty-kill topped the league at 86.1. Tampa sniper Steven Stamkos netted just five goals in his last 28 games. The Penguins' Zbynek Michalek is a top-flight shutdown defenseman, and the tandem of Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik has done well matched against the opposition's top lines. Martin St. Louis is Tampa's most consistent threat; he enters the series on a nine-game point streak.
--- The Lightning have stymied foes with a 1-3-1 trap. But the Penguins utilized quick, first-touch passes to decimate New Jersey's trap this past Tuesday. Coach Dan Bylsma doubtless has something up his sleeve for Tampa.
-- Hidden weapon: Mike Rupp got three goals and an assist in the Penguins' last five games. Rupp goes to the net. It's a good time of year for that.
-- Most belabored angle: Ex-Penguin/Upper St. Clair product Ryan Malone plays his first playoff game against his old team.
-- Result: Penguins in six.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).