It took the full-48 games, but the Pittsburgh Penguins finally found out late Sunday that they will drop gloves with the New York Islanders in round one of the playoffs.
Although the Pens come in as a heavy favorite by many — in no way should they discount the resurgent Long Island boys — who are seeing their first postseason birth since 2007.
The season series was won by Pittsburgh (4-1); however, if anybody understands how the NHL playoffs works, they would know that everything that has happened up until that time no longer matters.
They would assume nothing — and prepare every game as though it were their last.
If you ask any active Pens player who was on the squad last year, chances are they probably won’t discuss their disappointing opening round knockout.
A series that saw Pittsburgh skaters roped into playing the Philadelphia Flyers entrapping style of play — the Pens went into the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs with their minds on reclaiming the heavy hardware, only to be ousted for surrendering 30 goals in six games.
While goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t play well, the source of failure didn’t rest with him.
Getting caught sitting back, the defense in front of Fleury was extremely lackadaisical — and a penalty-kill that came in ranked first out of the entire NHL inexplicably vanished.
Thus — to the invigoration of wonder-GM Ray Shero – a few strings were pulled to ensure this wouldn’t happen again.
We know the acquisitions of Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow are well-documented, but those perhaps weren’t Shero’s best moves.
Turns out, forward Jussi Jokinen, defenseman Mark Eaton, Douglas Murray and goaltender Tomas Vokoun have upheld the Pittsburgh GM’s genius.
Adding Murray via the trade deadline, he brings physicality and a shot-blocking ability the Pens have missed since Hal Gill. Murray, who was traded for a few second-round picks, is now a valuable piece in their defensive puzzle.
Eaton, who was a forgotten man after his recent stint with the Isles, was signed to a player-tryout contract agreement by the Pens and skated with the team’s AHL affiliate (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) first this season before even arriving back in the NHL.
Having won the Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009, Eaton racks up a lot of minutes on the penatly-kill and brings back that gritty veteran presence, which is great for how he was re-acquired.
Jokinen, who was traded for a measly 2013 sixth or seventh-round pick, has come into Pittsburgh more revived than ever.
The final player brought in around the 2013 trade deadline, Jokinen is yet another versatile talent added — who just so happened to have played a significant role in previous playoff series’.
But the best transaction of them all was Vokoun.
Balancing out a solid 1-2 punch with Fleury, Vokoun was another forgotten talent in Washington.
Some thought it would put the pressure on Fleury because of what happened last year; but if anything, Fleury has flourished with the veteran backing him up.
Again, Vokoun was another example of profound shopping by Shero, because he too was brought in with the expense of a lone seventh-round draft choice.
Still, it doesn’t change the fact that they flopped last year.
But if the Penguins want to escape the first-round this year, the team must do the following:
- Stay Out Of The Box
Nothing is more imperative. The Pens got themselves into trouble last postseason, so they should be aiming to have high discipline. The Islanders were one of the best teams on the power play this season. Throughout the entire NHL, the isles finished 11th on the power play and converted 19.9% of the time. New York scored 31 of their 135 goals via the power play.
It’s every team’s goal to limit the amount of trips to the sin-bin, but for the Pens it may be the deciding the factor towards the outcome of the series. Pittsburgh got into trouble last year with this, hopefully they’ve learned their lesson.
- Limit Fast-Break Opportunities
The Islanders are a very good team when they’re on the fast break. What will be key is limiting turnovers. If the Pens start fumbling the puck and allowing the Isles to break out into man-advantage scoring chances, Pittsburgh is going to make it harder on their transition defense.
New York has a pool of fast offensive talents. From Michael Grabner to Frans Nielsen, the Isles are much more than just John Tavares. While the Pens have an abundance of offensive weapons as well, the team can’t get caught up in trading goals and must instill a formidable forecheck.
- Show Up On Defense
With a few new defensive faces on the squad this year, the men guarding Fleury’s goal-mount are more experienced than they were last season. Whether that is a comforting statement to make or not, experience is a word used by nearly every NHL analyst when they’re looking at the teams who were successful. And although it isn’t a forgone conclusion that Pittsburgh will hold up defensively because they’ve seasoned themselves better, it’s certainly a boost.
The only mistake the team can make defensively is playing exactly the way they did in their last playoff series. If the errors are limited and the defense controls the tempo, the Pens should be fine.
- Avoid Looking Ahead
It wasn’t the determining factor in their 2012 playoff exit, but the Pens must remain focused on one-game at a time and refrain from looking too far ahead. These are professionals, so it doesn’t take a genius to point this out. But because Pittsburgh goes into the playoffs as the favorite more often than not, it is specifically important to them that they treat each contest with the utmost urgency.
New York can definitely bring it. Finishing 7th in the entire NHL for goals scored, the Isles have what it takes to upset the boys of Steel Town. It’s crucial Pittsburgh sets the tone of the series in Game 1, Wednesday.
Everybody has either the Chicago Blackhawks or Pens in the Stanley Cup Finals — nothing is going to be given to them, they must work for it.
It’s safe to say the Pens have been waiting for their first-round matchup since the end of March. The team has collected the number one seed and put themselves in the best position possible to bring the cup back home to Pittsburgh.
The only thing left to do is take care of business.
Should the Pens execute their intentions, there is no reason they shouldn’t be eventually rewarded.
Hopefully once this series is over, Pens fans are still watching their team compete, sans last year. But It’s now or never for some of Pittsburgh’s skaters, for this may be their last ride in a Pens uniform.
Game one is Wednesday in Pittsburgh at 7:30 p.m.