While awaiting another flight to Tampa on Sunday afternoon, I figured an update was long overdue. But, before that – some notes and thoughts on this series between the Penguins and Lightning, a couple of personal messages:
= Happy Easter.
= God speed, Dad. Never have I wanted to cover a Stanley Cup playoff game less.
Anyway, now onto some hockey-related matters:
= At this point, anybody who claims to know how to read these daily developments of the Penguins’ injured superstar centers (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) is jerking you around. I don’t, and I’m in direct contact with their respective camps and team officials. As I informed a local media colleague Saturday during Game 5 at Consol Energy Center – truly, I don’t know what to believe anymore about the respective statuses of Crosby (concussion) and Malkin (right knee). All I can offer is this from a person with longtime ties to the organization. This person told me Saturday that – based off what he’s been told – he would expect Malkin back before Crosby this postseason.
Really, though, who knows?
I can offer this observation: A few weeks ago when the Penguins casually dropped notice that Malkin required surgery on just one of the two torn ligaments in his right knee, that information led to whispers within the organization that he might be able to play if the team went on a deep playoff run. I asked then what “deep” implied, and was told deep meant conference finals or Stanley Cup Final. Privately, nobody has backed away from the potential for Malkin to return, but I would be remiss if not passing along that several teammates of Malkin’s believe that potential is slim.
To paraphrase what one teammate close with both Malkin and Crosby said: Penguins players aren’t counting on having either for this postseason run – though, I do sense, generally, that the players are resolute in not wanting to allow their thoughts to go there, so to speak. If they get geared for a return of either player, and that return doesn’t happen, the emotional letdown would be an unnecessary obstacle to overcome at a time when there clearly are so many obstacles to overcome.
Finally, there is at least a decent chance that the Penguins could pull a fast one on everybody and play either Crosby or Malkin – probably Malkin, given the uncertain nature a concussion recovery – sooner than anticipated. After all, the Flyers dressed D Chris Pronger for Game 6 of their series against the Sabres, and this development came only days after he was reportedly guaranteed to miss all of Round 1.
This time of year the only thing anybody can believe about injuries is that believing anything is probably a mistake.
= To everybody who has asked me over the past 24 hours what I think about momentum as it pertains to this series: I don’t believe in the concept of momentum for ANY playoff series. Some reasons why:
- 2007: The Penguins lost three straight games, including Games 3 and 4 at home, after rallying from a blitzkrieg-loss in Game 1 at Ottawa to claim home-ice advantage with a surprising Game 2 win. The Penguins scored first in Game 3 – a riveting development at Civic Arena, which hadn’t played host to a postseason game in seven years – the day after that Game 2 victory, but they still lost Game 3 and 4 then bowed when the series went back to Ottawa. This was the first example of this Penguins era that experience matters in a playoff series, that teams that lack it often have a hard time responding to big road wins.
- 2008: The Red Wings were within a minute of winning the Cup on home ice in Game 5, only to see the Penguins pull even on C Max Talbot’s goalie-pulled score and win in a third overtime on RW Petr Sykora’s marker that was set up by an inspirational return from injury by D Sergei Gonchar. The younger and fast-gaining Penguins headed home for Game 6, and there was a real feel that they’d win to force Game 7. A soft goal allowed by G Marc-Andre Fleury changed everything, and as Game 6 wound down with the Penguins scrambling to pull even it was appearance that momentum didn’t mean much if the opponent the next game could call upon experience, as the Red Wings could. Another example of an inexperienced team not being able to back up a big road win.
- 2009: The Penguins finished off the Flyers and Capitals – perhaps the two Eastern teams more talented than them on paper – on the road after failing to clinch those series at Civic Arena. They rallied from a 3-0 deficit at Philadelphia in Game 6. In a Game 7 at Washington, in a building that was louder than anything I’ve experienced on this beat, they held off an early charge and turned that game on a dime with the combination of Fleury’s denial of Capitals LW Alex Ovechkin on a breakaway and a goal by Crosby that staked the Penguins a 1-0 lead. This postseason the Penguins were the experienced team, able to shake off a home loss with the series on the line to win a road game to seal the deal. Notice a trend? (Also, as I’m sure everybody can recall, the Penguins won back-to-back 2-1 games to close out the Red Wings after taking it on the chin, 5-0, in Game 5 at Detroit in the 2009 Final.)
- 2010: After losing in overtime in Game 5 at Civic Arena with a chance to bounce the Senators, the Penguins trailed, 3-0, in Game 6 at Ottawa before surging back for an overtime victory. I distinctly remember speaking with an Ottawa scribe between at the second intermission, both of us wondering aloud if the Senators could carry over these good vibes into a Game 7 at Pittsburgh. At that point a national writer interrupted to suggest we let the Senators finish off Game 6. They didn’t. They couldn’t even keep momentum in that game.
The residue from last postseason, when the Penguins dropped three of four against the Canadiens after going up 2-1, remains on the tongues of many fans. That is understandable. Still, even if they lose this series, I’ll contest this series represents an entirely different dynamic than the loss to Montreal season. These Penguins are playing a Lightning squad that is better on paper, and they went up 3-1 in this series because they were able to gut out two one-goal victories on the road. I’m convinced this Lightning squad is better than the Canadiens from last spring, and if that sounds like me setting up an excuse for the Penguisn to drop this series – well, not so fast, dear readers.
Beating a mentally tough team – and there is not one tougher in the NHL right now than the Penguins – three games in a row would be an impressive accomplishment for any opponent. I’m not sold yet that this Lightning team, though impressive is in its two series wins, is that opponent, even if momentum is seemingly on its side.
Teams that execute better win playoff games and the best team almost always wins a best-of-seven series. That is what I believe. Momentum is something that really doesn’t exist, which is why I wouldn’t rule out the Penguins winning a Game 7 even if they lost Game 6 on Monday by another wide margin.
= Fleury has gone 62 straight playoff games without losing three in a row in the postseason. Over that span he has only lost two consecutive postseason games four times, and the Penguins have split those series – winning an East semifinal and the Cup Final in 2009; losing the 2008 Final and an East semifinal last postseason. Sure, this is more of a team stat than an individual one, but it speaks to my confidence that this Penguins team is ready for a spot like the one this series has presented.
= Anybody shocked that the Penguins have been abysmal on the power play through five games was choosing to ignore obvious signs that such a performance was likely. They scored 12 power-play goals over the final 29 games without Crosby and Malkin, and three of those came in that fight-marred blowout loss at Long Island on Feb. 11. Three more came over the final three games, all against non-playoff teams. Against playoff teams over the last 29 regular-season games the Penguins went 2-for-48 on the power play. That is a 4.2 percent efficiency rate, comparable to their 4 percent rate this series.