The Pens clinched the Metro division last night and officially eliminated the Winnipeg Jets from playoff contention. The Jets were unofficially eliminated from playoff contention when the Atlanta Thrashers drafted Ondrej Pavelec in 2005.
Is this cause for optimism, or can we bury this win in the Meaningless drawer along with many of the Pens' most recent losses?
Artistry is feeling somewhat encouraged about this team for the first time in weeks. Here's why:
1. We might need to give Paul Martin a new nickname: messiah. 24 minutes in his first game back, the game-winning goal, and his presence caused an unmistakable positive chain reaction. Suddenly, Brooks Orpik is a top-pairing defenseman. Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen were relieved of that burden, with Maatta playing a reasonable 18:47. And, finally, there is recognition that Rob Scuderi is at best a bottom pairing guy. I would argue he doesn't crack the top 6 even in a Letang-less lineup. There is no reason--none at all-- for the Pens to keep Simon Despres in the press box instead of seeing what they have with a Despres-Bortuzzo pairing down the stretch. There's legitimate upside there, whereas Scuderi is just a disaster right now. He looks like he's barely hanging on. (We covered Scuderi's struggles in more depth in response to an email from Charlene in Charleroi). Best thing that happens is the Pens live with a young defenseman making mistakes instead of an old defenseman making more mistakes. Worst thing that happens is they plug Scuderi back in for a tune-up game before the playoffs. It's a win-win.
(Finesse thinks that Charlene from Charleroi should come on the podcast).
2. Lee Stempniak, we salute you. Thank you for your service. Now grab a seat next to Brandon Sutter. Beau Bennett needs to play with Sidney Crosby and Christ Kunitz. He makes that line noticeably more dangerous and, I would argue, even better than the Crosby-Kunitz-Dupuis trio. Kunitz and Dupuis are excellent straight-line players, but Bennett brings something more intriguing: the rare ability to slow the game down in order to create space for himself. We saw a great example of that when he drew the penalty that led to his goal in Winnipeg. Just a subtle feint, and he was loose in the slot. With Sid in the middle, Beau should see plenty of single coverage, when the defense manages to put a body on him at all. Kunitz is going to be driving the net, and I see the right-handed Beau getting plenty of opportunities to open up in the slot for a Crosby feed. Those are three complimentary pieces, and they're going to give people fits. And the Pens are probably not going to do better with their third line than Sutter-Megna-Stempniak.
(Finesse would argue that it's very premature to declare Crosby's line better with Bennett than it was with Dupuis. 3 points in 4 games doth not a superstar make. In fact, Dupuis, whose injury conspicuously preceded an overall decline in the team's play, had 4 points in the 4 games prior to his season-ending injury! I'm in agreement that there is reason to be optimistic about Bennett, and I like him skating with Sid if only to avoid stunting his development by putting him in the Pens bottom 6. But I know that Pascal Dupuis reads this blog and I want to make it known that he's respected and appreciated. I do like having Bennett's right handed shot out there, though. Potentially huge playoff weapon.).
3. Sid was flying last night. He looks primed for the playoffs for the first time since 2009. He is in complete control out there (except when he's pulling WWE moves) and you get the sense there's another gear. As flawed as the team is, a healthy and driven Crosby can mask a lot of deficiencies.
(Finesse would point out that the same is true of Malkin. We've talked endlessly all season about the unfairness of the burden those two are expected -- nay, required -- to bear. But if any two players can do it, it's them.).
(Finesse also learned how to make GIFs on his phone last night, and wanted to share this one of Brandon Sutter.)
|This is not a joke.|