Man that 4th seed seems to always work out just fine for the Penguins, doesn’t it? After upsets of the top 3 teams in the East during the first round, the defending Stanley Cup champs now find themselves as the top seed in the East and should be favored the rest of the way to the Cup Finals. Still, I don’t think Crosby and the gang will be taking the Canadiens lightly, especially after watching Jaroslav Halak absolutely own the Washington Capitals in three straight elimination games.
Offense: Clearly an advantage to the Penguins here. A reason I think they’ll be far more successful than the Capitals is their depth down the middle. Sidney Crosby leads all playoff scorers with 14 points. Evgeni Malkin is, without a doubt, the best 2nd line center in the NHL, if you can even call him that. Jordan Staal would be a great first or second line center on alot of other teams, but what makes the Pens so effective is that they can roll 3 high-quality lines, anchored by some of the best playmakers around. Montreal did a great job of containing the Capitals’ top line, and Alex Semin’s disappearing act helped shut down the Caps’ 2nd line. I don’t see the Habs shutting down all three lines. On the flip side, Mike Cammalleri headlined the Habs’ offense with a bunch of clutch goals down the stretch, and the rest of the Canadiens’ veteran forwards did a good job of patiently waiting for scoring opportunities and took full advantage of the few they were given.
Defense: The best blueliner for the Habs in Round 1 was Hal Gill, the former Penguin who did a tremendous job all series long. Gill, PK Subban and Ryan O’Byrne were the only Habs to record positive +/- ratings in the first series. Big Hal had 31 blocked shots to lead the team, as well. Sergei Gonchar is the key for the Pens. He notched a +7 rating and 6 assists against the Senators, and is probably the best powerplay quarterback in the league today. Jay Mckee did a great job filling in after Jordan Leopoldg was decapitated by Andy Sutton, and had 10 blocked shots in the 4 games he played. Brooks Orpik led all Penguins with 32 hits. This is a blueline that has been tested through the playoffs and knows what it takes to win.
Goaltending: Everyone who knows anything about hockey knows that Jaroslav Halak is the hottest goalie around right now. A ridiculous .977 save percentage over his last three games, coming back strong after being benched in Game 4 and an incredibly calm demeanor under the barrage of shots he faced has to have the Penguins a bit nervous. He’ll be tested early and often in this series, though, and it’s safe to say that the outcome will rest squarely on his shoulders yet again. Marc-Andre Fleury was a bit shaky in the first few games of the Ottawa series, but he buckled down, as he has so many times in the past three years, making the big saves when it mattered most. Fleury has tended to get better and better as the playoffs go on during the Pens’ last two runs through the East, and it will be interesting to see if that trend continues.
Special Teams: The Canadiens come into this series with the best PK in the league, after shutting down the NHL’s top powerplay unit 32 out of 33 times over the last 7 games. They also converted 20% of their own powerplay opportunities, finishing the series with 6 powerplay goals, none bigger than Marc-Andre Bergeron’s in Game 7. Pittsburgh’s powerplay should be much more effective than Washington’s, especially with Gonchar at the point. The Penguins’ PK was a bit of a soft spot against Ottawa, allowing 7 goals on just 22 opportunities. Word of advice to both teams: Just stay out of the box.
It feels like a no-brainer, but so did Washington. Halak will have to be on the top of his game again, but I can’t see Montreal being able to shut down Crosby, Malkin and Staal all series long.
My Pick: Penguins in 6