The time is now. No one knows how this series will end. History and statistics are on the side of the Pittsburgh Penguins who are up two to nothing. If it gets to three nothing, the team with that lead wins almost all the time. But games aren’t decided by historical statistics, they are decided by the men on the ice.

If Pekka Rinne remembers not the last couple games, but the last couple months and plays the way he did against Chicago, and Anaheim, and Saint Louis, he’ll be a completely different player. If James Neal can recall that he’s capable of thirty and forty goal seasons, and focuses on the game he might, might just score a goal for the first time in seven games. Similarly Victor Arvidsson who ran the board in the regular season hasn’t scored since April, in the first series, against the Chicago Blackhawks. Whatever jitters he has need to die as thorough a death as the notion Nashville isn’t a hockey town.

Arvidsson, Neal, and Rinne aren’t alone on the ice and aren’t even the only problems. The number of penalties the team has taken needs to be addressed. While I’m all for physicality, and on ice leadership and will never complain about two willing combatants going after it, Subban is a huge part of the team’s success both offensively and defensively. He’s not the first guy to punch Malkin in the face, he won’t be the last, but even on a defense as stacked as Nashville’s Subban is not a player you can lose when your back is against the wall, you’re already down your best center and you’re in the fight of your life with no one stepping up.

This team is better than the part time effort they are putting in. They haven’t played a sixty minuted game since maybe game six in Anaheim, and they won’t be winning their last game of the season if they play 37 to 40 minutes a night until the series is over.

Every game teaches lessons. Sometimes the lesson is subtle, it might apply to just one player, just one matchup. Or it might show the balance between various units on the opposing teams.

What they should have learned:

Pittsburgh Penguins

  • Use your speed through center ice.
  • Five men pack in the defensive zone to support the puck.
  • Don’t underestimate the speed of the Predators, especially their defense.
  • Trying to play counter punch hockey with a team faster, and about as offensively gifted is perilous.

Nashville Predators

  • Don’t get distracted by officiating.
  • Never, ever take your foot off the snake.
  • Support Rinne, especially when there are long gaps between shots on net.
  • You can play with the defending champions.

It’s pretty simple at this time of year. You either reset and recover after a grueling loss or you are sure to suffer another one.

Three to Watch:

Predators:

  1. P.K. Subban, he’s hot right now, when he’s on a hot streak he can take over and dominate, and he’s got the perfect complements in the rest of the Nashville defense to do that.
  2. James Neal he said before the series started “they didn’t want me” in regards to his former team the Penguins. He’ll love making them pay in multiple ways.
  3. Pekka Rinne he has not allowed three or more goals in back to back games all post season, and after his last four goal game he only allowed one.

Penguins:

  1. Phil Kessel, zero shots on goal is not a common occurrence, and no one should expect a sequel.
  2. Justin Schultz he had a very quiet sixteen minutes of ice time, well below his normal twenty one range.
  3. Matt Murray, like his counterpart he needs to be better to give his team a shot at winning. An .885% isn’t good, it isn’t even average and on any night the opposition plays respectably it’s a loss.

Check out the most recent Two Man ForeCheck on iTunes & TuneIn.

In three games the Pittsburgh Penguins have allowed six goals and scored three. It’s not surprising that they are a game in the hole to the Senators in the Eastern Conference Finals. Some have blamed the boring  style of play Ottawa head coach Guy Boucher instituted when he took the helm. That’s immaterial, unless Sullivan can force a change in the games, Boucher has no incentive to alter how his team plays.

Others have blames the battered blue line for the Penguins failure to be up three nothing and sixty minutes from a second Stanley Cup Final appearance in the Sullivan tenure. This is a much better culprit. The defensemen on the ice have failed to get the puck out and through the neutral zone with regularity. Given the injuries to Letang and the other top blueliners it isn’t as shocking as it might otherwise be. But it is still a problem. 

It is a huge problem, perhaps an insurmountable one. The question of “Where do I find, skilled, smooth skating smart passing defensemen to help win a Cup?” is not a question that can be answered in May. You either have guys who can carry the load or you don’t. 

What might be a better question is: Why aren’t we using more of our forward depth? Why can’t the Penguin’s dress five, or even four defense and load up the other side of the roster. If they play with four forwards and a defenseman on a regular basis, they are likely to generate more mismatches, more turnovers, and more scoring opportunities. Yes it will make the lone defender more vulnerable, but is that really any different than what we’ve seen through three games?

Is calling up Kevin Porter, or Jean-Sebastion Dea and giving them some extra time going to make matters worse? Is Josh Archibald so bad his 10 games this season where a critical failure for the organization? Be honest, the Pittsburgh Penguins have never been a team built on defense and many of the blueliners they’ve thrown over the boards in the last two decades have been indistinguishable from forwards anywhere other than the media guide. This is just the next step.

The Pittsburgh Penguins picked up a 1-0 win over the Ottawa Senators. This should be a grave cause of concern for the boys from the steel city. As a whole, Craig Anderson is statistically having his worst playoff run in terms of save percentage. Yet he is still in the Eastern Conference Finals. Lifetime the Park Ridge Illinois native has a .929 playoff sv% and that’s a pretty staggering number considering some of the teams he’s played behind.

This season his total is .920, and there’s been an enormous spike in the last three games where he’s seen an average of 33 shots per game, and had final numbers of .949, .964, and .966. Against the Rangers he had no consecutive games with a save percentage over .900, and he still dragged the Senators past their New York series. The Rangers put a lot more shots on net than the Penguins have managed. The only game of that series in which he faced less than 33 per game was the one he was pulled.

With Craig Anderson heating up, and Bobby Ryan looking like the guy who justified the “still there at two” appellation Brian Burke bestowed on him in his draft year, that’s alarming all by itself. Mike Hoffman has also been a pretty consistent points producer, and him going more than two games without getting on the score sheet is a rarity. Jean Gabriel Pageau has also proven to be an unsolveable riddle for defenses in the second season potting goals against the two previous goaltenders, both Vezina winners, and Fleury doesn’t seem to have an answer either.

Even leaving aside Ryan the three time 30 goal scorer, and both Pageau and Hoffman, the second scariest reason after a hot Anderson the Penguins should be worried comes in two bodies. Dion Phaneuf who seems to finally have learned not to take himself out of position for his earth shattering hits, and Erik Karlsson who has yet to produce a point in this series. Karlsson entered the Eastern Conference Finals one of a handful of skaters and the only defenseman with more than a point per game production. I don’t think it’s likely he’s going to stay off the board much longer.

Wednesday night the NHL playoffs will open. This year there will be five Canadian teams ready to dance when the puck drops, two California teams, and only one Original Six matchup.

The Montreal Canadiens vs The New York Rangers

Unlike last year the Canadiens have a playoff berth. Also unlike last year they now have Shea Weber, Carey PriceAlex Radulov, Andrew Shaw and a cup winning coach behind the bench in the person of Claude Julien, The edge in this series is going to belong to which ever team can force the other to play their game. The Canadiens allowed fewer goals, the Rangers scored more. The Rangers aren’t far removed from a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, but no one is talking about them. The Rangers head into the playoffs remarkably healthy with no major players on the injury report. The Canadiens have the best pairing of top end number one defenseman and top flight goalie, and no one is talking about them either.

For the Canadiens it is really simple: Can Gallagher, Galchenyuk, and Radulov play in the Rangers end and score?

For the Rangers it is equally simple: Can they shore up the aging and infirm Lundqvist?

Biggest Strength

  • Canadiens: Goaltending
  • Rangers: depth of scoring

Biggest Weakness

  • Canadiens: goal scoring
  • Rangers: coaching

 

Minnesota Wild vs Saint Louis Blues

This series will get written off by many as “low key” and “boring”, don’t believe it for a minute. Both teams are happy to have avoided the Blackhawks in the first round, and the two central division rivals have been going at it since the Twin Cities reentered the NHL.. Special teams could be where this series is decided. The Blues and Wild each finished the season at over 21% on the powerplay. Expect a good amount of physicality. Vlad Sobotka has returned to the NHL in time to play for the Blues, Charlie Coyle and Nino Neiderietter will be there to deliver hit for hit.

In pure stats, the Wild have a marked advantage on both sides of the puck. That may well be offset by the invigoration former Wild coach Yeo has brought to the Blues who had a strong run to the end of the season.

Biggest Strength

  • Wild: balance
  • Blues: momentum

Biggest Weakness

  • Wild: Iffy and arguably overplayed Dubnyk in the last six weeks of the season.
  • Blues: Scoring depth

 

Edmonton Oilers vs San Jose Sharks

This series can be subtitled A Tale of Two Cities, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. The Oilers charged hard and climbed into a home ice advantage in the first round. The Sharks were grabbed by the undertow and yanked from a nine point lead in the division to making people doubt they’d see the second season with their skates on. The Sharks are built around an aging core, the Oilers are a team for whom the oldest members of the core are in their early twenties at the latest. The Oilers haven’t been in the playoffs in a very long time, and the Sharks were within reach of getting their names on the Cup last year.

For the Sharks to move on they have to find scoring. Their bottom six, their defense not named Burns will all need to pitch in.

For the Oilers, they will need to expand their core and learn how to play in the playoffs from the guys who have gone deep.

Biggest Strength

  • Oilers: Offense
  • Sharks: Experience

Biggest Weakness

  • Oilers: Penalty Kill
  • Sharks: Depth

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Columbus BlueJackets

This might just be the best, hardest fought series in the first round series this year. The Pittsburgh Penguins have to be considered the Columbus BlueJackets biggest rivals at this point, and I don’t think the Penguins like the Jackets very much either. It goes beyond Dubinsky versus Crosby. It’s going to be Bobrovski versus Murray, Seth Jones against Phil Kessel, Jack Johnson against Bryan Rust. This series will get personal, and will feature some of the best play in the NHL playoffs.

This is likely the the most evenly matched series in the east. The Penguins are better offensively, the Jackets defensively.

Biggest Strengths

  • Jackets: Defense and goaltending
  • Penguins: Offense

Biggest Weakness

  • Jackets: Inconsistency.
  • Penguins: Dinged up defense

 

Anaheim Ducks vs Calgary Flames

The Ducks and Flames both played strong at the end of the year. The Flames are highlighted by the dynamic Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano on the backend, and Johnny Gaudreau the Boston College alumni. The Flames are a pretty balanced team, they aren’t very good or very bad at anything. The Ducks team needs to find some offense from their best players. The Flames need to be consistent sixty minutes a game. This is likely to be the lowest scoring series in the first round.

Biggest Strength

  • Ducks: John Gibson
  • Flames: Balance

Biggest Weakness

  • Ducks: Scoring
  • Flames: Netminding

Don’t forget to listen to this weeks Two Man ForeCheck and look for part two around noon eastern on Wednesday for the rest of the previews and some predictions for the first round.

Earlier today we learned a little bit more about the NHL’s Department of Player Safety and their modus operandi. They handed Brad Marchand a two game suspension for his blatant spearing incident. We have to ask a couple key questions, and then look at the sum of them.

Number one:

What does it mean for the Bruins?

Number two:

What does it mean for Brad Marchand

Number three:

How is this consistent for the NHL?

 

For the Boston Bruins it largely means that they got an enormous emotional boost in a game where they were flat, listless and maybe even disinterested before the incident. From the start of the penalty to the end of the game they played forty of the best minutes in a while. The five minute kill was spirited, deft, and smart. The team clearly wanted to win both for Marchand, and for themselves. When he comes back he’ll be rested and that’s always a good thing. There’s little to no chance of him being injured in the last two mostly meaningless games. The only thing they need to do is avoid the Capitals in the first round. Beyond that, there’s not much difference in their chances of success with or without home ice advantage, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, or the Ottawa Senators. What they’ll also get a look at one or two prospects, and returning injured players.

For Marchand it means the next time he’s punted from the lineup it is likely to be six to eight games. It also means he might get run a couple times in his next Tampa Bay Lightning. As above, it means he has two nights off to get rested, work on his stick handling and decompress. He may even have time to figure out a way to keep a leash on his temper. It also means he will have to wait until next year or later to join the forty goal club.

The NHL had two options with this situation. Go big, or do nothing. Marchand is a repeat offender. It was egregious. It was something Marchand didn’t even deny. The NHL chose to go small. They could have gone for two regular season and two playoff games. They could have done nothing and pronounced the game misconduct and five minute major sufficient, particularly since Dotchin was able to continue the game.

What’s worse is that the league once more enunciated to the furthest corners of the galaxy that there are two sets of rules in the NHL. One for most of the NHL. One set for Sidney Crosby. Of the two incidents Crosby’s is clearly worse to any objective observer. When Marchand committed his infraction he was engaged in a clear, close, and physical battle. He was crosschecked high on the back, and arguably on the base of the neck. Crosby was a full stick length away. He had to go out of his way to reach out with his arms and stick fully extended for his amateur attempt at sexual reassignment of Ryan O’Reilly.

Where is the censure here? No penalty was called. No league call. No fine. No suspension. It’s clear Sidney Crosby did a better job neutering the front office of the NHL than he did Ryan O’Reilly. The NHL Wheel Of Justice Spins on.

Don’t forget to check out this week’s Two Man ForeCheck

The Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes has been the most interesting off ice story in hockey for almost a year. His choice not to sign with the rising Nashville Predators his irked some, and left others salivating in the hopes that he would play in their favorite franchise. The rumor and fantasy mills have focused on three seeming front runners, The Toronto Maple Leafs where he has a brother in the system and a father on the staff, the Buffalo Sabres who have his rights currently, and of course his home town Boston Bruins.

New Jersey shouldn’t be overlooked when evaluating where he might want to end up. One of the things that is most striking about his choice not to go to Nashville is that the narrative all along has been that he wanted to choose his own destiny, and forge his own career. While some might see this as a fit of pique, I think it shows an understanding of the NHL and what it takes to succeed; skill fit, wit, and chemistry.

If he goes to Toronto, he gets to play in a hockey mad city that lives half an atom outside the skin of its resident avatars of the state religion. It’s a pressure cooker, its intrusive, and it has no history of success in his life time. The current leadership aside, the head coach isn’t used to building teams, the current general manager is used to being the whole show, and the team President is best known in his post playing days as the Dean of Discipline to the NHL. One might very successfully make the case that’s a potentially if not inherently volatile mix at the top of the organization. Should he sign there he will be making it harder for his own brother to get a shot at the NHL. Yes, it is quite unlikely they would both be aimed at the same position, but there are only so many slots on the roster. There is also the specter of nepotism that will hang over him if he does land there, no matter how good he is.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are pretty much a non starter not because he wouldn’t want to play with Phil Kessel, Malkin, Crosby and Letang, but because from a cap perspective its comes pretty close to attempting to scale Everest in flip flops and a loin cloth. In order for him to get into the top six, they likely need to move a well known, expensive player. Chris Kunitz is well known, well respected and thirty six years old with only this season under contract. Pascal Dupuis’s contract is potentially trade able, but they would likely have to give up a good piece to go with it. After that is the question of moving either Carl Hagelin or Conor Sheary, financially Hagelin being moved makes the most sense, talent wise, and long term cap implications are debatable.

While many would list the Boston Bruins as the default choice, there are issues there too. Playing in your hometown is an enormous amount of pressure with zero down time, summer isn’t safe to be home, after a bad game everyone is upset, after a win everyone wants to buy you a drink, and everyone knows someone who knows you. Add to that the Bruins have coach with (an overblown) reputation for being tough on young players, one of the top ten left wings in the game in Brad Marchand, and the fact that the team desperately needs defense good enough to be paid well, and Vesey is probably not a priority to the Bruins. Another factor might be how many current local boys are in the system. I’m sure he’s friends with some, rivalries or worse, that started in early childhood can be hard to leave behind.

And then there is Buffalo. The Sabres have quite a bit of impressive young talent. Including Evander Kane, a left wing who has scored 30 goals in the NHL at a young age, plays physically, and is locked into a top six position, unless a coach is feeling like moving on to warmer pastures. They also have veteran Matt Moulson, another left wing, a three time 30 goal scorer who has had a down couple of years but can almost certainly be expected to be a big part of the leadership group both on and off the ice. The scrappy utility forward Tyler Ennis will hold onto a top 9 position one way or another as well. It is unlikely Vesey considers his chances of being more of an impact player in season one than Evander Kane, and a healthy, motivated Matt Moulson is nothing to sneeze at, which exclusive of Ennis, and other prospects makes his chances at significant minutes slim.

What does New Jersey offer?

  • They are close enough to home to be a short flight,  and manageable train or car ride for himself, friends, and family.
  • A big enough city to have night life and amenities.
  • Far enough down the media frenzy food chain to have breathing space.
  • High end team mates like Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique.
  • A team that is without him better than the Leafs and Sabres
  • Highly respected veteran leaders like Cammelleri, Zajac, and Fiddler
  • Less competition for dollars against the cap in the mid term future.

In short, for a lot of reasons the New Jersey Devils might just be team he lands with. They aren’t the sexy pick, the easy pick, or the one what might just let him ride coattails to an early career Stanley Cup, but they have a lot of things none of the other teams have. Realistically, the Devils could have won a half dozen of the games they lost in regulation last year. With 96 points, and just three of the wins coming in regulation, they would have beaten out the Philadelphia Flyers for the second wild card spot last spring.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have gotten off to a great start this season. They lead the Metropolitan Division with a game in hand. They are the only team in their division with a double digit goal differential. No one has a better or even a comparable powerplay, and their goaltender is having a career year. Sidney Crosby is producing at a rate he never has before, and he, Hornqvist and Malkin are all producing half or more of their points on the powerplay.

That’s the problem. Most of this is completely unsustainable. The Penguins powerplay is rocking along at 35.6%. Going back all the way to the 2005-06 season, the best a powerplay has finished is 26.8%. That’s 9% below what the team is rolling along at, and still well above the 21-22% the top powerplays have finished at in the last decade. When you consider that they are 13th in 5 on 5 scoring, you have to wonder how hard the fall will be.

Marc-Andre Fleury is saving a noticeably higher number of pucks than is normal for him. A career .911% save percentage with over 500 games played and no full season higher than .918, means people shouldn’t fall in love with his current .924. Through 12 games played he is also facing more shots per game than anytime in the last five years.

While there are lots of reasons for the decline, the Pittsburgh Penguins are near the top of the league in scoring in the first and second periods, and twentieth in third.  In the third period they’ve also allowed more goals than in any other period, 30% more goals than in either the first or second period. Is it conditioning? Is it desperation by the other team? Or are the Penguins just getting caught playing passively and running out the clock as happens to many teams?

Unsustainable powerplay, high reliance upon it for scoring, weak 3rd period, a goaltender fighting above his weight class all on one team add up to a team that will slide backwards at some point soon.

There are three clear things to understand about what Jim Rutherford has done. First, he signed a player who was art of a Stanley Cup win, in a lot of minds that’s important. Second in keeping Marc-Andre Fleury in the fold he has a known quantity in net for the foreseeable future. Third and most importantly, he has decided he doesn’t want to correct one area of opportunity via the draft or shrewd trades.

The contract itself is actually team friendly. Fleury will get a reported $5,750,000 per year for four years. That will put him in the same range as Corey Crawford, Cory Schneider, and Jimmy Howard who are, about average NHL netminders. These teams have all decided they want to go with good enough at the goaltending position, and make various attempts at the best in other positions and in system execution. None of them are likely to win the Vezina this year or next year, but they aren’t likely to

What are Marc-Andre Fleury’s numbers like when it counts? In the last five NHL playoff runs he had 13 games (Columbus 6, Rangers 7) and a .915%, going back to the previous year he had 5 games played (Islanders) and lost the starting job to Tomas Vokoun after turning salarya sv% of .883. The year before that was a seven game series (Flyers) where he turned in a performance that can’t be accurately described with a nice word than putrid for his .834%. In 2010-11 his .899 sv% was good enough to lose in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning. And courtesy of the wayback machine we know that back in 2009-10 his .891 sv% got the Penguins out of the first round against the Ottawa Senators, before he and the Penguins fell to the Montreal Canadiens in seven games, the final of which he played just twenty five minutes of and allowed four goals on thirteen shots.

The key to the deep playoff runs when they won the Stanley Cup (where he still allowed more goals than anyone) were a better defense than what has been seen in Pittsburgh since. If the Penguins who between Letang, Crosby, Malkin and now their netminder have $31,200,000.00 committed to just those four players can spend money on quality defense first defensemen, they might do better in the future than the recent past. With a total salary cap currently at $69m, spending almost half of it on four players, only two of them elite, seems like it might not lead to a long tenure for General Manager Jim Rutherford.