Penguins’ health crucial for playoffs

The Stanley Cup playoffs are here, and despite finishing second in the Eastern Conference, the Penguins are the fourth seed in the East. Due to the flaw in the NHL system that seeds teams by division winners before points or record, the Penguins are pitted against the fifth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers, who are actually third in points and were bumped out of the top three for the same reason as were the Penguins.

This matchup should prove to be one of the best first round matchups of the playoffs. Of the eight games the Penguins and the Flyers have played against each other, the last two happened in the past week. On April 1, the Flyers came to town and defeated the Penguins 6–4, but last Saturday, the Penguins finished the season strong with a 4–2 win.

The Flyers are 5–1 at the Penguins’ CONSOL Energy Center since its opening in 2010. Unless the Penguins can finally string together wins against their rivals on their own ice, history would suggest that this series could be quick in the Flyers’ favor.

In their last two matchups of the year, there has been no shortage of bad blood between the two teams. The game on April 1 erupted into a bench brawl in the final minutes. Both coaches got involved, and Flyers coach Peter Laviolette called Penguins coach Dan Bylsma “gutless” in a post-game interview.

This wasn’t the last time the Penguins drew the ire of their division opponents. On Thursday, the Penguins defeated the top-seeded New York Rangers 5–2. Rangers coach John Tortorella was furious because of a knee-to-knee hit by Penguins Brooks Orpik on Rangers’ Derek Stepan, which led to a five-minute penalty and a game misconduct.

In his post-game press conference, Tortorella referred to the Penguins as “one of the most arrogant organizations in the league.” He also called Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and assistant captain Evgeni Malkin “whining stars.”

The Penguins are riding a wave of momentum into the playoffs. Crosby is back to playing significant ice time after recovering from multiple concussions and neck injuries. The team is scoring at an unbelievable rate of three or more goals in its last 11 games.
The biggest concern for the Penguins is goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Although he was a major player in bringing the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh in 2009, he has only stopped 79 percent of shots in his last three games. This kind of struggle from a goalie going into the playoffs is the last thing a contender wants.

Fleury is an elite goalie in the league, but he has been pushed to his limit trying to help the Penguins get a home advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Penguins will hopefully eliminate the Flyers quickly; with the extra off days that come with the playoffs, Fleury should get enough rest to return to his top form. More often than not, the Stanley Cup is won by the team with the hot goalie that can get wins even on off nights. If things go south for Fleury, the Penguins have backup Brent Johnson, who hasn’t seen a full playoff game from between the pipes in over 10 years.

If the Penguins can get past the unfavorable and unwarranted first round matchup against the Flyers and avoid the red hot Rangers for as long as possible, they have a very good shot at making it to the Stanley Cup finals.

On paper, the Penguins look like a force to be reckoned with; some would even say they are the favorites to win the cup. With everybody healthy, nobody has more star power than the Pittsburgh Penguins, with All-Stars Crosby and Malkin leading the team. But unless the team can find consistent goaltending, home play, and health, Penguins fans could be blindsided by an early exit from the playoffs.