Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Pens dispatch Blue Jackets in 6 games with well-disguised ease; Reasons for optimism, thoughts on Brandon Sutter, and much more

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

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There are definitely some things to be worried about coming out of the Pens' first round series win over Columbus, but there is much more to feel good about.  Consider:

- The Pens outplayed Columbus for the vast majority of this series, especially at even strength.  The only time Columbus outplayed the Pens for any sustained period of time was in the 2nd and 3rd periods of Game 4 after the Pens had already built a 3-0 lead.  It ended as a 6-game series, but it was a 5-game series on merit.  This is exactly why the Pens were lucky that Columbus edged out the Red Wings in the wild card race: because the Pens are definitely better than Columbus.

- Though the Pens took some penalties they shouldn't have taken, they mostly came within the context of actual hockey.  There were very few, if any, truly selfish penalties (Sid's Game 6 slash on Anisimov a glaring exception) and this represents a marked improvement in discipline over the past two playoff seasons.  The only way the Pens could have let CBJ play on an even footing would have been to play down to Columbus and engage in scrums and personal battles where talent doesn't really matter.  Bylsma deserves a lot of credit for getting his message through on this front.

- During the regular season, Crosby, Kunitz, Malkin, and Neal combined to score exactly 50% of the Pens' goals (121/242).  In Round 1, they combined for 28% (6/21).  Role players aren't necessarily expected to score in the playoffs, but you're not going to win the Cup if they don't.  Niskanen, Sutter, Jokinen, Bennett, Gibbons, Stempniak, Adams, Orpik, and Letang combined to score 15 goals in only 6 games, an average of 2.5 goals/game.  That's more than the L.A. Kings averaged per game over the course of the entire season.  This series was a complete team effort.  Just three more to go.

Much more after the jump, including some extended thoughts on Brandon Sutter...

- Brandon Dubinsky's career playoff record against the Pens is 3-8.  He's a good player, but if he's your second best player, you're probably not going to win a lot of playoff series.

- Our displeasure with Brandon Sutter over the past two seasons is well-chronicled, but he played very well in the first round and is a big reason the Pens won.  If he misses time or is limited in the second round, it's a huge blow.  As encouraging as it is that he's played so well -- and as necessary as it is that he continue to play well in Round 2 -- it's important not to canonize him after a few good games.  (NOTE: it's not actually important what we do).

If Sutter has proven one thing true, it's that he's a much better player when he's not with Tanner Glass, although that's like being more accurate off the tee when you aren't getting punched in the face by your caddie.  And if Sutter has shown that one thing might be true, it's that he might be a legit long-term solution as a third line center if he plays with good wingers.  But therein may lie the problem.

The "three-center model" -- a term invented after the Pens drafted three centers because they thought those three centers were the best three players -- requires that the centers basically be able to play their best regardless of who they are skating with.  In a weird way, that's revealed in Jordan Staal's relative struggles as a top-sixer in Carolina: he's probably a 40-50 point guy regardless of who he is playing with.  Is Sutter the 26-point runt we saw in the regular season, or is he the 45-point(ish) cerebral third liner with soft hands that we've seen in Round 1?  The Pens need a better answer than "it depends."

In Games 5 and 6, his best of the series, Sutter skated most of his even strength time with James Neal and Jussi Jokinen, both legitimately (very) good NHL players who just happen to count a combined $8 million against the salary cap.  If you want to keep Sutter and pay him close to $4 million (this is what Mike Colligan estimated would be his price in arbitration), you're either overpaying for the 26-point skate-with-bad-wingers version of Sutter, or you have to invest in the neighborhood of $10-12 million on a third line to get the Round 1 version of Sutter.  The latter is financially impossible for this team, and the former will only become a wise investment if Shero can find inexpensive good players to put around Sutter, something Shero failed miserably at doing this season.

It's entirely possible that Sutter's turned a corner and it certainly seems like he's playing with a new-found confidence, but it's not like he's a completely different guy -- in Game 3, Columbus had 17 of their 20 shots during the 13 minutes that Sutter was on the ice, meaning Columbus had 3 shots during the other 47 minutes. And while his goals and assists were far from lucky, the fact that he strung so many so close together is, shall we say, out of character.  Sutter didn't have 5 points over any single 6 game stretch during the entire regular season, and his 23% shooting percentage in round 1 is significantly higher than his 10% career shooting percentage.  If Sutter doesn't score on any of his next 17 shots, he will fall back to his career average of 10%.  Based on his regular season rate of 1.77 shots per game, it might be another 9+ games before he gets those 17 shots on goal.  So if Sutter does nothing in Round 2 -- literally, nothing -- it would be disappointing, but hardly surprising.

Here's what I'm going to do with Sutter: let the postseason play out a little bit longer and then try to figure out just how good (or not) he is.  What I want to do is avoid being one of those people who deify a guy after a few good playoff games.  There's a name for those people: Maple Leafs.

- There's lots of chatter about maybe the Pens using the adversity they faced in this series as a lesson going forward.  We thought the same thing last year after the Pens survived a much more perilous series against the Islanders.  But there are only so many times you can learn the same lesson, so the lesson we've learned is that there are no lessons, especially with this Pens team.  If the Pens get a multi-goal lead against the Rangers, have they learned a lesson in how to protect it?  Has Fleury learned a lesson about giving up bad goals?  Has Crosby learned a lesson about actually scoring goals in playoff games?  Who could possibly know the answer to these questions?

- Speaking of not learning, what was Kris Letang doing on that center-ice faceoff after the Jackets cut the game to 4-2?  I know what I'll do.  I'll line up way wider than any defenseman ever lines up and not tell anyone ... no one will ever expect this!

- There were two defensemen on the ice when CBJ scored its third shorthanded goal of the series (Scuderi and Letang), which should hopefully put to bed any notion that two defensemen are necessary to prevent short handed goals.  What's necessary is that everyone on the ice tries hard in the defensive zone, even if it means getting more tired and having to come off the ice sooner than he would like.  The Rangers have a really good penalty kill (85.3% in the regular season) and a really good goalie -- muffins from Paul Martin are not as likely to find their way through a PK unit trained by the Splinter of shot-blocking, John Tortarella.  What will find a way through are 20ft snipes from James Neal.  If the Pens want to play two-D on the first PP unit in order to spread the talent around for the 2nd unit, that's a legit strategy that can be debated.  If it's to stop short handed goals, then the Rangers are already winning.

There's no point in discussing the special teams matchup if the Pens play the Flyers.  All bets are off.

- Excellent points here by Brandy about the key takeaway from the CBJ series and the key to winning the next series: special teams.

- A quick unscientific theory offering two reasons why the Pens have seemed to struggle on the PK in the playoffs: talent and urgency.

Craig Adams and Tanner Glass are Designated Penalty Killers at this point in their career, and they usually do a fine job because, quite literally, that is their only job.  They aren't in the league if they don't kill penalties well.  Take a random November game against Carolina -- Craig Adams' entire career depends on killing those penalties, but Eric Staal's career doesn't depend on scoring on those power plays.  In the grind of 82 games, that urgency can carry a PK to 85%.

The problem is that when the playoffs come around, the opponent not only maintains its edge in talent, but it also equals Adams and Glass in urgency.  Those loose pucks that Adams and Glass get to in the regular season aren't as easy to get to when a more talented player is trying just as hard.

- The Pens got the right result against Columbus and rather than merely surviving (like against the Isles last year), the Pens actually seemed to get better as the series went on.  Nothing about the Rangers or Flyers is going to be easy in Round 2, but take some solace in this fact: they're not going to be too excited to play the Pens, either.


  1. Some of us are more accurate off the tee when getting punched in the face. Sutter just isn't one of those guys.

  2. I don't know how much to expect from Crosby going forward. He doesn't look like himself. HATE to buy into the idea of an injury no one's mentioning, but that's where I'm at with him. Hopefully it's an injury on the mend, if an injury is indeed his problem. I was really pleased to see Malkin owning the ice. Keeping my fingers crossed that he's turned a corner and will keep producing without taking TOO many stupid penalties. Also crossing my fingers that the NYR win their series because I'm not emotionally stable enough to watch a Pens-Flyers round.