As preparations begin for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Penguins eagerly await the challenges ahead. A quiet anticipation blankets the Steel City and the Penguins faithful hope for a long post-season run. Memories of the 2012 postseason—which saw tempers flare between the Penguins and bitter Atlantic division foe the Philadelphia Flyers—fuels the team to play harder, skate faster, and remain focused on snagging hockey’s ultimate reward.
The Penguins (36-12-0) will begin the opening round of the post season with a squaring off against the 8th seed New York Islanders (24-17-7). The first two games of the series will be played at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh—which serves as a major advantage for the host. The gritty Penguins, who sit atop the Eastern Conference with 72 points, are 18-6-0 on home ice. Conversely, the Islanders are 14-6-4 when on the road.
Jarome Iginla has found the scoring touch after joining the Penguins via trade in the latter half of the 2012-2013 regular season. The Alberta native has tallied five points (3G, 2A) in his last five games played and averaged 17:22 minutes of ice time. Iginla is a proven performer and can play quality minutes for his club. In 54 career playoff games with the Calgary Flames, he registered 49 points (28G, 21A) for a rating of plus-11.
James Neal has returned to the Penguins roster after sustaining a concussion on April 3, 2013 in a contest against the New York Rangers. Rangers blue liner Michael Del Zotto caught Neal with a high elbow, ultimately leading to an early exit for the Penguins forward. Despite missing three weeks of play, Neal effortlessly lit the lamp on Saturday night and recorded four points (3G, 1A) in 13:08 of ice time. It is without question that Neal’s heroics will come in handy as the Penguins begin the journey toward hoisting hockey’s holy grail.
Jussi Jokinen is another new addition to the already skilled Penguins roster. Making his debut on April 5, Jokinen impressed a sold out crowd at the Consol Energy Center with two goals—one in regulation and another in the shootout—that lead to a Penguins victory. The former Carolina Hurricane has notched six points (4G, 2A) in his last five games and has proven effective at the face-off dot. Face-off wins are key, especially for an offensively gifted club like the Penguins. Jokinen’s success on the face-offs grants coach Dan Bylsma the luxury of alternating between Sidney Crosby and others for the task.
Power-play: According to reports from Pittsburgh, the Penguins practiced with a power-play unit consisting of Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Iginla, and Letang. Collectively, this group has scored 64 goals and 119 assists this season.
In addition to offensive prowess, this group has the key parts of an effective power-play unit:
-Brilliant stick handling and passing
-Ability to win face-offs
-A defenseman that can carry the puck up ice with ease
-A swift and stick handling the high slot
-Quick to capture rebounds
-Strength to dig the puck out from the corners
Goaltending: Marc-Andre Fleury and veteran Tomas Vokoun comprise the goaltending tandem for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins set a franchise record for longest shutout streak this season with 208:24 minutes.
Fleury has shone in the regular season, playing with confidence and precision. The twenty-eight year old has won 23 of his last 33 games played this season, recording a save percentage of .916 and one shut out. Fleury has a career save percentage of .904 in the playoffs.
After struggling early in the season, Vokoun has improved tremendously and enters the post season with a .917 save percentage and three shut out victories. With 162:42 minutes, Vokoun set both a personal and franchise record for individual shutout streak this season. In the playoffs, his career save percentage is .922. Vokoun’s experience and advice for goaltending partner Fleury will be useful in helping to keep his nerves at bay.
There is no confirmed timetable for Sidney Crosby’s return, however, fans and the Penguins coaching staff hope the star center can return in time for Game One. Crosby will need no time to shake the rust off—as evidenced by his brilliant performance against the Islanders following a prolonged absence due to concussion symptoms. A natural goal scorer and competitor, Crosby will immediately play to the best of his abilities. Recall, the Penguins had a healthy roster for the majority of March and were unbeatable. Beware of the Penguins!
-Captain Crosby leads all skaters with 56 points in 36 games played. He continues to skate with teammates at practice but has yet to be granted clearance to play.
-Chris Kunitz is the team’s scoring leader with 22 goals in 48 games played
-In their last ten games, the Penguins are 8-2-0
-Game One is scheduled for Wednesday at 7:30pm EST
The Islanders will ultimately fall to the Penguins in five games.