The different world is colliding with the old, normal world as sports are on the doorstep of return. Canada sent the Toronto Blue Jays packing to Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh sent me packing to Toronto to cover the Pittsburgh Penguins, baseball is back with loose rules and testing problems. At the same time, hockey prepares for a giant bubble with board games, golf outings, and the weirdest Stanley Cup presentation in the history of a trophy, which was once upon a time lost to an old lady’s garden as a flower pot.
Worlds colliding. We’ll see if a George divided against itself can stand (Seinfeld reference).
The Pittsburgh Penguins are as tricky to read as wallpaper in the NHL return. They could be out by Aug. 7, or they could be playing on Oct. 2.
6 Penguins One-Timers
1. The Penguins achieved the fourth-best record in the league at the All-Star break, and they did so with rigid systemic play and overwhelming effort. When the Penguins are on their game and function as a unit, their speed and skill make them a top-five team
2. Evgeni Malkin was THE primary factor in the Penguins surge
There wasn’t a better player in the NHL from November through January. Malkin’s work with Jake Guentzel at even strength yielded more goals (21) than Crosby’s work with Guentzel (13).
Malkin’s game was better than it has been since 2012 when he won the Hart Trophy.
If the Penguins have a chance to advance past Round One against the best teams in the NHL, which includes Tampa Bay, Washington, and Boston, Sidney Crosby AND Malkin must be healthy and on their games.
3. The unique 24-team NHL return format could give the Penguins a much easier opponent in Round Two than in Round One. Here’s how: If the Penguins win Round One against one of the top four teams which earned the bye, and one of the three other top teams are upset, the Penguins would be the second seed and thus get to play one of the organizations which would have finished in the wild-card or even outside the wild-card.
However, winning Round One will be a stiff task as they could draw one of the best teams in the NHL. If they lost, it would count as their second straight first-round loss, too.
If there are no upsets, the Penguins could have the most hardened path to the Stanley Cup, ever as they might have to defeat the top four teams in the league. Imagine beating the Montreal Canadiens, then facing Tampa Bay, Boston, Washington, and St. Louis in succession.
4. Patric Hornqvist was a hammer and will be a potent power against Montreal.
In PHN’s video review of the Penguins vs. Montreal season series, it became clear Montreal could not defend Hornqvist, especially in the crease area.
“Patric is a big part of this team. You can always tell when he’s on the ice,” Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said on Wednesday. “He’s a really vocal guy. He’s a good guy to have around all the time.”
If Jared McCann and Patrick Marleau can get the puck to the net as the Penguins third line, Hornqvist could have a few markers Hornqvist was also one of the few Penguins who showed heart and pushback against the New York Islanders in the Penguins Round One loss last season.
“McCann can really fly, and he shoots the puck harder than anyone on the team,” Hornqvist said on Wednesday. “We have to make sure he gets the puck as much as he can in the middle, and try to feed my and (Marleau) on the side, play a lot of cycle game and take it to the net.”
Montreal doesn’t have a counter to that tactic with Hornqvist.
5. Also, the more film we watched, the more it became apparent the defensive pairing most at risk of being burned by the Montreal Canadiens was not the Jack Johnson – Justin Schultz combo, but the Marcus Pettersson – John Marino pair. Pettersson likes to hug the blue line and cut down the gaps, but Montreal is also quick. Montreal could get the edge on Pettersson, which scrambled the defense.
Against some teams, Johnson’s soft gaps at the blue line hurt the defense. Against the speed teams, Pettersson’s aggressive stance can be a detriment.
6. Reports from Montreal suggest Carey Price has been brilliant in camp. If that’s true, the Pittsburgh Penguins will need to own the puck. A scoring chance advantage or puck possession edge won’t be enough. The Penguins will need to dominate those stats.