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Friday, April 4, 2014

Playoff Preview: @Penguins v @DetroitRedWings by @polemiclisence

Breaking Down Playoff Opponents: the Detroit Red Wings

Despite their injury woes, the Pittsburgh Penguins have locked up the inaugural Metropolitan Division crown and will likely enter the 2014 NHL playoffs as the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

With the rest of the Metropolitan playoff teams and the wild card entries still up for grabs, the Penguins could potentially square off against four different opponents in the first round.

In the first of four breakdowns, here is how the Penguins stack up against their most likely post-season foe, the Detroit Red Wings.

Pittsburgh Penguins (#2 seed, Metropolitan Winner) vs. the Detroit Red Wings( #7 seed, Wild Card 1)

Injury Report:  Some would rush to call this series a “Rubber Match” in reference to the 2008 and 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, but calling Pittsburgh/Detroit the “ER Match” would probably do both teams’ seasons justice.

Pittsburgh and Detroit have been devastated by lengthy injuries to star players for the bulk of the season.  Detroit has been without the services of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg ever since both suffered injuries in the Olympics, while the Penguins have been missing Kris Letang, Paul Martin, and Evgeni Malkin.

Both teams should be entering the post-season on a relatively healthy uptick, though Zetterberg’s availability remains a question mark.  Detroit also has several other key injuries that hamper their depth, most notably Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm.

Advantage:  Pittsburgh

Offense:  The Penguins were once again buoyed by Sidney Crosby and his 100+ point scoring touch.  The Penguins will also have a rested Evgeni Malkin to go along with James Neal and a finally available Beau Bennett.

The Red Wings have found lightning in the bottle in the form of Gustav Nyquist, whose recent goal scoring binge may have single-handedly saved Detroit’s 23 year playoff streak.

The return of the aging Datsyuk provides the Red Wings with some more offensive punch, but the Penguins still have more weapons at their disposal.

Advantage:  Pittsburgh

Defense:  The Penguins are finally getting healthy, and with Bylsma giving rookie sensation Ollie Maata some games off, their blue line may be serendipitously rested for a long playoff run.

The Red Wings obviously miss the services of a retired Nicklas Lidstrom, and the trickle down of defensive talent leaves them trailing the Penguins, although don’t tell that to the other Niklas (Niklas Kronwall).

Advantage: Pittsburgh

Goaltending:  For all of Marc-Andre Fleury’s post-season struggles, he still has his 2008 and 2009 success weighed against Detroit’s Jimmy Howard ‘s less-than-stellar playoff numbers (only 20-22).

While it’s true that Fleury hasn’t advanced the Pens beyond the first round by himself since 2010, Howard hasn’t shown himself to be a goaltending stalwart either, having never advanced beyond the Conference Semi-Finals.

Advantage:  None.

Special Teams:  The Penguins spent the majority of the season on the cusp of completing a sweep in both power-play and penalty kill rankings, and currently rank #2 with the man advantage (23.3%) and #4 without it (85.3%)

The Pens have seemingly finally realized that rotating Crosby and Malkin around yields better results than trying to force them to play the near and far walls against their wishes, and the proof has been in the pudding (and net).

Detroit’s struggles on the powerplay have coincided with Datysuk and Zetterberg’s absence, and they currently convert at a meager 17.6%. 

Even an injury depleted Red Wings roster will still be dangerous with the man advantage, so the Penguins will have to stop their recent parade to the penalty box to maintain their edge.

Advantage:  Penguins

Series Prediction:  If the Red Wings had their full complement of players, then both franchises could treat fans to a last hurrah between the Datsyuk/Zetterberg and Crosby/Malkin eras.

However, given that both Datsyuk and Zetterberg will enter the post-season with injury question marks and the Red Wings will have to rely on scoring contributions from either too-old or rookie sources, the Penguins should have enough in the tank to maneuver past Detroit.

Penguins in six.

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