Are they feeling nervous? Are they feeling lucky?
For our final angle before the Islanders–Penguins series kicks off — check the latest “bits” post for a roundup of several angles on this series — we spoke with Jim “Hooks Orpik” from PensBurgh to answer a few questions from the Penguins fan perspective.
(You can see my answers to his questions over here.)
LQuestion 1: The Penguins battled some injuries down the stretch. How are Malkin, Letang and Dumoulin looking and do you think their health is pivotal to the series?
Hooks: The Pens have had some good injury news and developments in the past couple of weeks, after a dreadful February-to-mid-March stretch. First, the easy one is Malkin, he got cross-checked in the ribs on March 16, sat out a couple weeks but returned for the last two games. He should be good-to-go in great form and maybe/hopefully have some fresh legs and be fresh for this time of year. Dumoulin missed the last three regular season games but practiced on Monday, officially is “day to day” and not 100% for Game 1, but almost surely will be playing in the series sooner than later, if not in fact in Game 1.
Letang is probably the one that still concerns me. He got his neck wrenched pretty quicked by those damn Flyers in the February outdoor game and missed 15 games. He came back in late March for three games, but left the lineup again saying he wasn’t “comfortable” with how he was feeling and missed a few more games. He did play the last two regular season games, and looked solid in them too, but overall I don’t know if he’s truly 100%. He’s definitely a guy I’d like to see not take a lot of hits, but he’s been openly defiant that he’s at his best when he does hold the puck and knows he has to take a hit to make a play a lot of times. Hopefully he can be cautious and smart in that trade-off, but who knows at this point.
#2: Speaking of which, I remember worrying for Matt Murray after that early-season concussion. How is his health viewed among Penguins fans? Something you worry about changing at any moment, or no?
Matt Murray has the earned reputation of being a bit fragile. He’s picked up more than a few injuries in his short career, some of them seem unfortunate or freakishly unavoidable in nature, but the sheer number of them make you wonder how or why he can’t seem to stay healthy for an extended stretch.
However, (KNOCK ON ALL THE WOOD) this might be such a stretch right now- he has started 20 of the team’s last 21 games down the stretch. All of them have been very important games as Pittsburgh needed a strong finish. Murray definitely gave them that excellent goaltending going 11-4-5 with a .928 save percentage and 2.33 GAA in those games. With such a great offensive team like the Pens, if they’re allowing close to 2 goals in a game, they’re usually going to win a lot of those games, and those numbers are pretty close to what he did in the 2016 and 2017 playoffs.
#3: It’s been an up-and-down season for the Penguins, but their second half largely erased any concerns, right? How are you feeling about this first-round draw — worried, or like they kind of got lucky with how things shook out?
Deep down I think the Pens were fortunate to finish where they did, and I don’t mean that as a dig at the Islanders. I mean it in the sense it looked very possible, even up to Game 79, 80, 81 that Pittsburgh could be a Wild Card team and draw Washington, or worse yet Tampa, in the first round. They were able to stay a few points ahead of the real fray between Columbus, Carolina and Montreal so it wasn’t a totally dire position; but it sure felt like the Pens were a lot more likely to get passed up by Carolina (a team that won a ton the past few months) than it felt that the Pens would finish in a high seed.
So, for that, I think the Pens have to be fairly happy with where they are. The injuries they went through made it tough to score goals or feel totally comfortable with the team; mainly thanks to great play by Murray, Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel they were able to grind out enough points to avoid the Wild Card, which is a better playoff path than if they hadn’t.
#4: Erik Gudbranson. Jack Johnson. How happy should the Islanders be to see them on the opposing blueline?
It’s the weirdest thing, but Vancouver Erik Gudbranson (aka one of the league’s absolute worst defenseman in any advanced stat category) is not what made the trip east after the trade. I don’t know if it’s blind luck, a fluke, a massive job sheltering, but Gudbranson has very shockingly been more than fine in his role in Pittsburgh. His Corsi For% in Pittsburgh is 54.7%. His High Danger Scoring Chance % is a wonderful 64.9%. He’s been on ice for more Goals For than Goals Against at 5v5, and has only been on ice for eight 5v5 GA in those 19 games, which makes for an impressive picture, no matter the player.
If you didn’t know his reputation and just watched him he’s shown out as a big, right handed defender, can skate a little bit, just makes simple plays with the puck and has been effective in the physical element of the game. In all, somehow he’s been a good addition.
Does that last at $4 million a year or mean more big picture? I can’t pretend to know right now, and perhaps this is all a mirage that fades. But for now, Gudbranson has helped shore up the defense, believe it or not (and I don’t blame you if you don’t). It’s not like he’s an all-star or anything, but for how he was panned as such a bad player in Vancouver, he’s actually been if you had to use a single word, it would probably be solid.
Jack Johnson, on the other hand, has been a disaster all season, as was predicted by his career-worth sample size of being a very poor NHL player. Johnson is by far the Pens’ worst defensemen and is WOWY metrics are almost uniformly astounding that he makes literally everyone else on the team worse too. That’s been a real issue since Johnson has played a lot down the stretch with Justin Schultz, a talented puck mover but the pair has been in the 43% Corsi For% range and pinned too much in their own zone, just like every Jack Johnson pair on all his teams have been.
If Johnson plays, that’s a big advantage for the Islanders to isolate and look to exploit. The Pens best hope may be with the defensive health that they’ve literally not had all season (Schultz broke his leg in early October and missed 50+ games) that maybe, just maybe, the coaches ditch JJ and run with Dumoulin-Letang, Maatta-Schultz and rookie Marcus Pettersson and the aforementioned Gudbranson. I’m not holding my breath though that they actually come to their senses and bench JJ since he has played all 82 games this season. But if they want to play their best six guys, it’s painfully beyond obvious that doesn’t include Jack Johnson.
#5: Describe your ideal dream and absolute nightmare scenarios for the 2019 playoffs?
Dream: Sullivan gets to shake Trotz’s hand on the good end this year after a hard-fought first series proves to be carried by the Pens skill. Then the Pens’ players complete their redemption by ousting the Capitals this year in Round 2. From there, whomever emerges from a vicious Tampa/BOS (or TOR) series is banged up and Pittsburgh is able to capture a fifth Eastern Conference championship in the Sidney Crosby era. The Pens see their old smiling friend Marc-Andre Fleury and Vegas in the SCF and light him up, winning the franchise’s sixth Stanley Cup and fourth in the Crosby era and once again sit atop the hockey world.
Nightmare: Losing in round one would not be fun for a team with aspirations of making a deep Cup run, but a more painful experience for the Pens and Pens’ fans would be losing for the second year in a row to the Capitals in the second round. Even though, in my opinion, Tampa is obviously likely to come out of the East this year no matter who they run into — it would be dreadful to watch Washington prove last year was no fluke and have a chance to repeat as champions. And the winner of PIT/WSH obviously takes a lot of momentum forward knowing that they’ve just defeated such a quality rival in what is always an emotional series, so if the Caps can beat the Pens again, their odds of winning another Cup would have to be pretty high at that point, which none of us want to see.
Thanks, Hooks. Worst of luck in round one!