PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins are heading into the playoffs as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, just as they did when they won the Stanley Cup last season.
Again, they usually win when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin show up frequently on the scoresheet, and often lose when they don’t. Dan Bylsma is still behind the bench. Marc-Andre Fleury remains in net.
As far as similarities go, that’s about it.
Unlike last year, when they jetted into the playoffs as one of the NHL’s hottest teams, going 18-3-4 in their final 25 games following Bylsma’s hiring, the Penguins are playing erratically. After beginning the post-Olympic break with a four-game winning streak, they won successive games only once more in their final 16 games.
The playoff opponent is very familiar – this is the third time in four seasons the Penguins and Ottawa Senators meet in the first round. Pittsburgh lost in five games in 2007, its first playoff appearance since 2001, but won in a sweep the following season.
Maybe playing the dangerous Senators will “drive us into playing some good hockey,” centre Jordan Staal said, starting with Game 1 on Wednesday night.
The Penguins had only one challenging round while winning the Eastern Conference the last two seasons, needing seven games to eliminate Washington last year. In 2008, they lost only two games, one each to the Rangers and Flyers, in three rounds.
The route to the finals appears to be much more difficult this year. As challenging, perhaps, as it has been for the Penguins to “get to our game” – one of Bylsma’s favourite phrases and a rarely reached goal of late.
“I like our guys in terms of being playoff tested and playoff proven,” Bylsma said. “We know how we are going to need to play.”
The biggest concern: The Penguins’ inability to beat the conference’s top two teams. They lost all four to the Washington Capitals, two in extra time, and all six to the New Jersey Devils. Should the top four-seeded teams advance past the first round, the Penguins might have to beat both teams – each time without the home-ice advantage – to return to the finals for the third straight season.
Even if a team went 10-0 against another, Crosby said it wouldn’t matter once the playoffs arrived. Regardless, the Penguins haven’t beaten Washington since Game 7 last year or the Devils in more than a year.
Maybe fatigue is becoming a factor, even for a relatively young team that accumulated 101 points this season, the fifth-most in team history. The Penguins have played 290 games since October 2007, 246 in the regular season and 44 in the playoffs, with another two months of post-season games possibly remaining.
Add on the Olympics for Canadian gold medallist Crosby and four other Penguins, and it’s probably beginning to seem like a season without end.
Even with only two days between the end of the season and the start of the playoffs, Bylsma gave his team the day off on Monday.
Challenging for a second Stanley Cup in as many seasons would seem to be incentive enough, yet the Penguins struggled down the stretch against non-playoff teams. They lost 1-0 to Atlanta on Saturday, 10 days after an even-worse 2-0 loss to Tampa Bay that led to a post-game team meeting and an 8:30 a.m. practice on a scheduled day off.
As Staal said following the Atlanta loss, the Penguins currently are missing “a whole bunch of things.”
Is motivation among them? It’s easy for a team to say it can flick the switch and put its game into overdrive whenever it wants, something the Penguins did in April and May the past two years. Whether they can do it again may decide how deep into these playoffs they go.
Perhaps the biggest difference between these Penguins and last season’s Stanley Cup champions are the lack of a shutdown defensive duo. Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill usually matched up against an opponent’s top line last spring, but both signed elsewhere during the off-season.
Sergei Gonchar is a legitimate No. 1 defenceman, but mostly because of his offensive abilities. He usually plays alongside Mark Eaton, who is consistent but is not regarded as a premium defender. Brooks Orpik, a member of the U.S. Olympic team, is enjoying an excellent season, but Alex Goligoski is not. The recently re-signed Kris Letang also has been unsteady.
The absence of ancillary scoring is another problem. Never has the Penguins offence been so reliant upon Crosby (51 goals), who shared the NHL goal-scoring title with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, and Malkin (28 goals).
Max Talbot, who scored both goals in Game 7 against Detroit in June, has been hurt, has only two goals and is a minus-9. Ruslan Fedotenko (11 goals) is a minus-17. Alexei Ponikarovsky has scored two goals in 16 games since being traded, and is getting little ice time with planned linemate Malkin.
Malkin scored five goals in his final five games but missed eight of the Penguins’ last 13 games due to a bruised right foot and illness. He finished with 77 points, 36 fewer than he did while winning the NHL scoring title in 2008-09.
“We are going to get tested by the Senators,” Bylsma said.
As the playoffs begin, that might be the least of the Penguins’ worries.