A question about the Penguins, who awoke Friday as the favored remaining NHL club in the Stanley Cup playoffs but are now weakened by the uncertain status of injured center Jordan Staal:
If, as general manager Ray Shero has said, “You win Stanley Cups with Jordan Staal,” what becomes of the Penguins’ title defense dreams without their Selke Trophy-finalist third-line center — likely out for the remainder of the postseason because of a surgically repaired severed tendon in his right foot?
They can keep dreaming big because the so-called Big Four, though reduced now to a Big Three, can carry them a long way.
First, the Penguins should look to the last NHL team to beat them in a postseason — the 2008 Detroit Red Wings, who won the Cup that year despite an injury to hulking goal-scoring winger Johan Franzen. He missed most of the Western Conference final and was limited during the Cup Final against the Penguins, scoring only once in that series after opening the playoffs with 12 goals in 11 games.
One player, no matter his dominance at a specific element of the game –defense for Staal, scoring goals for Franzen — does not lose a championship.
Two Penguins can make up for the loss of Staal, and they are the players any fan would suspect must raise their level of performance from mostly good to consistently great.
Center Evgeni Malkin and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury are up, starting at 2 p.m. today with Game 2 of a second-round playoff series against Montreal.
Malkin has scored four goals and recorded nine points through seven games. However, three goals and six points were produced on a power play that he has helped spark to a sizzling 11 for 32 performance. More production at even-strength will be required from Malkin, who last postseason led all scorers and was MVP.
Without Staal, who has teamed with regular left wing Matt Cooke to form the Penguins’ top penalty-killing forward pairing since mid-February 2008, Malkin must also continue to spur the power play — specifically by remaining a threat from the half-wall as a sniper.
Limited all season by a lack of productivity from his expected wingers — Ruslan Fedotenko and Max Talbot had scored 10 goals before Alexei Ponikarovsky was acquired March 2 — Malkin has historically increased his production when the Penguins have needed him most.
The prime example: Malkin’s 22 goals and 55 points in 37 games missed by top center Sidney Crosby over the past three regular seasons.
Crosby began Saturday as the playoff leader with 16 points. His left wing. Chris Kunitz, and right wing Bill Guerin had combined for five goals and 15 points.
Coach Dan Bylsma said during the opening round against Ottawa that either Crosby or Malkin could contend for the Selke Trophy, annually awarded to the league’s top defensive forward, if they so desired.
Still, to ask from them more defensive responsibilities would risk subtracting from the Penguins’ great advantage over remaining Eastern Conference playoff teams. The Penguins are at 4.29 goals per game, compared Philadelphia (3.17), Boston (3.00) and Montreal (2.88).
All remaining playoff teams save for the Canadiens have surrendered fewer goals on average than the Penguins, who are at 3.14 and have allowed at least four goals in three contests. San Jose, Chicago and Vancouver are the only playoff teams left to surrender fewer shots on average than the Penguins’ 29.1 per game.
Fleury is down in save percentage (minus-0.16) and up in goals-against average (plus-0.17) from a 2009 postseason in which he starred mostly by turning aside shots at key moments but also allowed at least four goals on just five occasions.
His defense corps is missing shutdown pairing Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi, which has created a void — save for Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik — regarding clearing opposing players from the net-front area.
Still, Fleury is the only remaining playoff starting goalie to have won a Cup, let alone backstop a team to the Final. He must find a consistency — especially with rebound control — that he has lacked since a strong October if the Penguins are to make up for the defensive hit from Staal’s loss.
Fleury has recorded a .906 save percentage over his past three games to approach his save rate from last postseason (.908).
Staal was operated on late Friday night after he was cut during a collision with Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban midway through the first period in a Game 1 win of an Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series against the Canadiens at Mellon Arena.
Bylsma said after a practice yesterday at Southpointe that Staal is considered “day-to-day,” though he will not play in Game 2.
However, Staal’s recovery time is expected to be weeks, not days. According to those closest to him in the organization, there is hope he could play in the Stanley Cup Final if the Penguins make it that far.
If they do and he can’t, Malkin and Fleury must join Crosby in really being big for the Cup to stay in Pittsburgh.
He can play “O,” too
A lot of focus will be on the defensive hit the Penguins will take with center Jordan Staal out indefinitely because of a right foot injury. However, his absence will hurt the club’s offense, too. A look at the Penguins’ top playoff goal scorers over the past four postseasons:
Player — Goals
Sidney Crosby — 29
Evgeni Malkin — 28
Jordan Staal — 15
Bill Guerin, Marian Hossa — 10
There appears to be a reasonable chance that Penguins right wing Tyler Kennedy will return to the lineup this afternoon in Game 2 against Montreal. Kennedy has skated for four consecutive days and said there is a chance he will play today for the first time since sustaining a lower body injury in Game 4 against the Senators.
One factor working against Kennedy playing is that fact that today’s game begins at 2 p.m. Given the afternoon start, the team will not have the luxury of a morning skate. Had the game been scheduled for evening, Kennedy would have skated in the morning and perhaps had a better gauge for his availability. The only hurdle left to clear, he said, is conditioning.
Eyes on Sid
The spotlight on Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is brighter than ever. With an excess of Canadian media members in town, Crosby is now sitting through two daily media sessions after practice, one for television and radio reporters, and one for newspaper reporters.
Any additional attention, of course, does not bother Crosby or his performance. He leads all postseason scorers with 16 points and has produced multiple points in six of seven games during the playoffs.
Leopold’s return nears
The Penguins held a light, 40-minute workout at Southpointe. Everyone except for injured center Jordan Staal (right foot) participated in the skate. Although it doesn’t appear that he will play today, defenseman Jordan Leopold, out since sustaining a concussion in Game 2 against Ottawa, appears close to returning. Leopold practiced for the first time Saturday without the “noncontact” jersey, a sign that he will return soon, perhaps as early as Game 3.
Light day for Habs
Montreal did not practice, instead opting to have its “taxi squad” skate at Southpointe following Penguins practice. A few Montreal players, and coach Jacques Martin, met with the media at a downtown hotel. Montreal also did not practice the day before Game 1.
Behind enemy lines
Montreal has quite a history of developing top notch defensemen, and the Canadiens are hoping a talented, young blue liner is ready to make an immediate impact. P.K. Subban is among Montreal’s most talented prospects and, after being recalled before Game 6 against Washington, has been impressive. He scored his first NHL goal in Game 1 against the Penguins and did not look overwhelmed by the stage.
“I felt pretty good out there. The game is fast at this level and the Penguins have a great team, but I felt comfortable. I hope to play better next game.”
— Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban
Subban’s solid numbers in Game 1, his first ever game against the Penguins
G — A — P — Shots — +/- — Ice time
1 — 0 — 1 — 1 — 0 — 19:40
Taking the lead
Getting a lead meant much to Montreal.
The Canadiens won four of the five games against Washington in which they tallied first — the exception in Game 2, when the Capitals overcame a 4-1 deficit by scoring three third-period goals and winning in overtime.
It isn’t as paramount for the Penguins.
They have allowed the first goal in four of seven playoff games entering Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal today at Mellon Arena, yet have won three of those contests and lost the other in triple overtime.
“Obviously, we’d like to start a different way,” winger Pascal Dupuis said, “but we’re pretty confident that if we play our style and we don’t panic and we stay focused, we’ll come back and get you.”
In other words, no lead is safe.
Not when the Penguins are leading the NHL in goals, at 4.29 a game, and have the best power-play percentage (34.4) of the eight remaining teams. Plus, they have the experience of two runs to the Stanley Cup Final and the character of a club coming off a Cup championship.
“We want to go out there and we want to play the way we want to play for 60 minutes,” defenseman Alex Goligoski said. “If we do that, we’re going to win a lot of games. That’s the thinking: that no matter what happens, you stick to your game. We have a lot of confidence in the way we play when we’re playing the way we should.
“Getting down early is not a huge thing for us.”
Penguins forward Craig Adams on his two playoff goals after not scoring in the regular season: “I wouldn’t call it amazing. Most teams need to rely on more than just two guys. It’s really important. We can count on those two (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) for lots of goals, but they aren’t going to score every night. Every team that is successful needs lots of people to score.”
Penguins forward Mike Rupp on the closely contested 2010 Cup playoffs:
“There are a ton of great series going on right now. I’m really looking forward to the Vancouver series against Chicago. That’s the series I’d love to watch. All these series are really great right now.”
Penguins left wing Matt Cooke, joking with a reporter who was sitting at his locker stall in an attempt to get closer to Crosby, who was surrounded by the media:
“Don’t worry about it. It’s just my seat.”
— Rob Rossi and Josh Yohe