The good news is the Pittsburgh Penguins will repeat as Eastern Conference champions. They will beat the Columbus Blue Jackets who have gone ice cold, they will control the puck and their emotions against the Washington Capitals, and score enough goals against Carey Price or Craig Anderson to again skate for the Stanley Cup.
The bad news is the Penguins will not beat the best of the Western Conference, which is likely the Chicago Blackhawks or dark horse St. Louis Blues. Like the 2009 Detroit Redwings whom the Penguins vanquished for their third Stanley Cup, the Penguins will get to the precipice of legend, but fall just short.
You didn’t think I would pander or sugar coat it, did you? It’s a straight gut feeling from years around this game. Intuition gleaned from learning unseen trends and from explaining predictions gone wrong. Nothing more. Last year, this gut told you to ride the Penguins Stanley Cup train.
Round 1: CBJ
The Penguins intensity, resilience, and indomitable drive as personified by their captain Sidney Crosby make the difference. The Penguins will find a way to win four games against every Eastern Conference opponent.
The Penguins path through the Eastern Conference will be largely predictable. While I have been bullish on the Blue Jackets all season, it became obvious their offensive drought and recent struggles were the result of something sinister: They don’t have enough left in their legs. Teams new to the big stage often spend too much energy, too soon. Proper preparation and consistent play come with experience.
The Blue Jackets are a heavy team with swift skaters, a very good defense, and an excellent goalie. They’re also led by a coach, John Tortorella, who is adept at unleashing an aggressive forecheck and already has a Stanley Cup ring.
However, as the Blue Jackets seek to punish the Penguins and properly channel the waves of emotion which come with playoff intensity, the Penguins will exploit the Blue Jackets inexperience. A few years ago, the Penguins barely escaped a series against the Blue Jackets, but those Penguins were far more easily effected by a physical onslaught.
The Penguins experience and offensive talent will rise above the slobberknocker which awaits. Sergei Bobrovsky will steal at least one game. The Penguins defensemen who are not yet in playoff game shape or in rhythm will yield another game.
The Penguins will advance in SIX
The hockey world thinks the Washington Capitals will finally slay their dragon and advance past the Pittsburgh Penguins. Just as I was right and the hockey punditry was wrong last season, this season will be the same.
The Penguins will thrive in those crucial moments in which the hair on the back of your neck stands up. The Penguins excel in those moments when even your knuckles are white and you cannot breathe.
The Capitals do not excel in those moments. The Capitals, on paper, should lay waste to the Penguins. Kevin Shattenkirk on the Capitals blue line should mean several fewer goals for the Penguins and a few more goals for the Capitals. Braden Holtby is a few goals better than Matt Murray. The Capitals are faster than last season and their forwards are one of the deepest and most solid groups in the NHL.
Coaching and big-game temperament will get the Penguins past the Capitals. Again. This time, however, it will take a Game 7.
Eastern Conference Final
For the fourth time in recent history, the Pittsburgh Penguins will need to get past the Ottawa Senators. It would be easy to pick the Canadiens, but consider this one of the upset picks (Those who spent a few shekels on Dan’s upset picks last year repaid this writer in gift cards and beer).
Ottawa’s solid blue line led by Erik Karlsson and Dion Phaneuf and deep forward crew are superior to both the Canadiens and Bruins. If Craig Anderson holds the fort, the Atlantic is Ottawa’s to have.
The Penguins will decimate the Atlantic winner. The structure of the Canadiens and Bruins, nor depth of the Senators will be a match for the Penguins. After surviving the Metro, the Eastern Conference Final will be an anti-climactic look ahead to the Stanley Cup Final which has been eight years in the making:
The Penguins vs. the Chicago Blackhawks (probably. I have a funny feeling about the St. Louis Blues, however. More below).
The Blackhawks rapid retooling has been a surprise to many. The ‘Hawks excel in big moments, yet are young and fast. Really fast. Faster than the Penguins. The well-coached Blackhawks also play a complex defensive scheme which emphasizes position. And, they have talent up front and shutdown defenders on the back end.
The only team better than the Pittsburgh Penguins is the Chicago Blackhawks. The NHL will finally get their clash of titans and public relations bonanza. National hockey media will beat the Jonathan Toews leadership story into the ground, resurrect it only to beat it into the ground again. The same media will lament the loss of Kris Letang and the Penguins shorthanded crew.
The Chicago Blackhawks will win the Stanley Cup but not without prying it from Sidney Crosby’s hands.
–The Penguins will yield an early game to the Blue Jackets. Matt Murray will be legitimately questioned, for the first time. Prediction: Murray will rebound and the team will circle around Murray, at least in the first round.
–Marc-Andre Fleury will make at least a couple starts in this postseason.
–Evgeni Malkin occupied space during last year’s playoff run but was not physically able to contribute much. Look for Malkin to unleash hell and storm the playoffs. It will seem like the puck is glued to Malkin’s stick. Malkin is the player who can make the biggest difference. And he will.
–Josh Archibald and Tom Kuhnhackl will make their mark on the playoff run. Each has been fantastic in the closing weeks. Each provides speed, jam and a little spark, which will get the Penguins over the hump, in at least one game.
–Olli Maatta will finally look like a rookie again. That’s a good thing. His rookie season was by far his best. His mobility is back.
–Columbus is the best team in the Eastern Conference. They’re deep. Strong. Heavy, yet fast and with offense depth. Consider this their “learning year”, like the 2007 Penguins, or more aptly, the 2010 Bruins. Like those 2007 Penguins, the Blue Jackets will have a puncher’s chance. Quite literally.
This could be the best series of Round 1. It should be. Enjoy!
**Don’t forget to Check out today’s Notebook–a daily feature here on Pittsburgh Hockey NOW: Backchecking the Pens