Thursday, April 29, 2010

Pens vs Canadiens Preview

Well, the first round is always fun, but now its time to get down to business. After several entertaining weeks of hockey across the NHL, it is time to once again start all over with a fresh round. Lets meet the Pens' second round opponent, the Bosto......wait, the Montreal Canadiens?
That's right I said Montreal Canadiens, the same ones that shocked the world Tuesday night by winning a dramatic 2-1 game and bouncing the top ranked Caps in the first round. This, combined with first round upsets of New Jersey and Buffalo gives the Pens the top seed in the Eastern Conference and a second round series against eighth place Montreal. Many fans, whether or not they had any personal interest in the series, will tell you the Canadiens won because of the superb goaltending of Jaroslav Halak. And while it is true that he stole Games 6 and 7 practically by himself, there are a few other reasons why the Canadiens were and still are so effective. Despite this, the Pens still won the regular season series 3-1 and looked relatively good against the Canadiens this season except for their final meeting on February 6th. Lets take a look at some of the keys to this series.
-Hal Gill, much like Volchenkov in the first round, is a critical staple to his team's defense. He was all over Alexander Ovechkin in the last series and essentially made him only a small factor in the series. Canadiens coach Jacques Martin is hoping he will do the same on the ice against Crosby and/or Malkin. It is not like Gill is unfamiliar to the Pens either. He was a member of last year's cup winning team and knows guys like Crosby and Malkin very well. The flip side of this however is that they also know him very well, and hopefully can use this experience to their advantage. The keys to beating Gill is to use his large figure and lack of speed against him and not to allow him to get down to block shots (his area of expertise).
-Halak showed flashes of brilliance late in the Washington series, and he stopped nearly everything thrown at him. The one Achilles heel that I spotted was his reaction to deflected shots that change direction. Most of the goals that beat him have been off tip-ins, screens, and just plain traffic in front of the net. To do this effectively, the Pens will need two groups of players on top of their game. They will need their gunners from the point (Gonchar, Letang, Goligoski) to be shooting and they will also need guys like Alexei Ponikarovsky and Matt Cooke to create traffic in front of the net. Assuming he continues to play the way he is playing, this will be the most effective way to beat Halak.
-Awareness will be another key for the Pens. The Canadiens were badly outshot in nearly every game against Washington, but they managed to weather the barrage of shots from the Capitals and then steal a breakaway or two when the Caps were not expecting it. The key for the Penguins defensemen will be to become involved in the offensive zone play but not so consumed with it that defensive responsibilities are neglected (much like Mike Green of the Caps). The Canadiens have a knack for scoring opportunistic goals, which can turn around an entire series.
-The lack of home ice advantage for both of these teams has been incredibly surprising so far. Both teams won 3 of their 4 wins on the road, and did not seem as sharp when playing at home. The likely explanation for this phenomenon has nothing to do with last change or fan support, but team mentality. Both of these teams have come out more motivated and "hungry" on the road. I do not expect this trend to continue, though, as Mellon Arena and the Bell Centre are both noted for having some of the most passionate fans in hockey.
-The round 2 schedule looks like this
Game 1 @PIT- Fri, April 30
Game 2 @PIT- Sun, May 2
Game 3 @MON- Tues, May 4
Game 4 @MON- Thurs, May 6
Game 5 @PIT- Sat, May 8 (if needed)
Game 6 @MON- Mon, May 10 (if needed)
Game 7 @PIT- Wed, May 12 (if needed)
Around the NHL the schedule looks like this.
Sharks vs Red Wings
Blackhawks vs Canucks
Flyers vs Bruins
Penguins vs Canadiens
Should be another fun one. As always, Lets Go Pens!