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Five teams that Penguins may have to hurdle on way to Cup

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Sunday, April 28, 2013, 12:33 a.m.
 

Ray Shero knows what it is like to win the Stanley Cup.

“It's really, really hard,” he said.

Those words were offered in September 2009, about three months after the Penguins won the Cup to cap a playoff run that included two two-game deficits and Game 7 road victories, a stretch of games for which seven defensemen dressed and a championship clincher that featured captain Sidney Crosby on the bench for all but one shift over the final 30 minutes.

“Things need to work out for you, and a lot of things are out of your control — injuries, bounces, you name it,” Shero said. “It's hard to win a (playoff series). It's really hard to get to the Final and really, really hard to win the Stanley Cup.”

The Penguins arrive at these Stanley Cup playoffs as overwhelming favorites to reach the Final, and a best bet to reclaim the Cup.

They are deep, with third-line forwards — Brenden Morrow, Brandon Sutter and Matt Cooke — that have combined for over 460 NHL goals.

They are motivated, coming off three consecutive postseason losses to lower-seeded opponents, two of those series ending at home.

They are grittier — because Douglas Murray is on defense — and more dynamic — because Jarome Iginla is a top-six forward — than the pretty-playing squad that was ousted last spring by Philadelphia.

They are ready because leaders from winger Pascal Dupuis to goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had this postseason on their minds during those four-a-week practices in an NHL lockout that ran from last September into January.

They are intensely intent on composing a Redemption Song over the next two months.

If they are healthy, these Penguins will go top of the chart unless one of five teams forces a sour note.

BOSTON BRUINS

The 2011 Cup winners are physically imposing, constructed to grind out wins in long series and suited for typically tightly called postseason play.

WHY THEY'RE DANGEROUS

Captain Zdeno Chara, though no longer a lock for Norris Trophy contention, remains the rare shutdown defenseman who can also dictate offensively. Jaromir Jagr, acquired from Dallas during the trade-deadline period, is expert at cross-ice passes that have devastated the Penguins' penalty kill — a team weakness.

PLAYER TO FEAR

Center Patrice Bergeron is a faceoff master, winning more than 60 percent of draws. A right-handed shooter, he is a particularly tough assignment for Crosby, who is the Penguins' top drawing center.

DIGGING DEEP

The Bruins have rated no lower than second on the penalty kill most of the regular season, and they were just below 90 percent at home.

FROM THEIR BEAT

“The Bruins have been beaten down by a brutal second half of the 48-game regular season, and they're missing the single biggest piece to their Stanley Cup team in AWOL goalie Tim Thomas. There's a sneaking suspicion the Bruins are saving their best shot for the playoffs after fizzling in the first round last year, and they still have the vast majority of their Stanley Cup-winning nucleus. ‘‘

— Joe Haggerty of Comcast SportsNet New England

THE PENS PUSH

A winger such as Chris Kunitz — fast, physical, and comfortable working along the boards — is a nightmare matchup for Chara. The Penguins have a winger like Kunitz on each of their three scoring lines (Iginla, Morrow). The Bruins' famed physicality would not be a factor because the Penguins can match it, and Boston would not overcome its struggle to score goals.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

The 2010 Cup winners roll four lines that can create, expertly possess the puck, skate well on the backend and win games of any style. They won the President's Trophy for a reason.

WHY THEY'RE DANGEROUS

Captain Jonathan Toews combines Crosby's leadership and drive, Evgeni Malkin's size and ability to play in tight quarters and Jordan Staal's defensive prowess. He is arguably the most complete center not playing in Pittsburgh. Still, right winger Patrick Kane was probably the NHL's best club's MVP candidate.

PLAYER TO FEAR

Kane is the prototypical small, fast and skilled forward that has tortured the Penguins in recent playoff series. See: Claude Giroux (Flyers, 2012), Martin St. Louis (Lightning, 2011) and Mike Cammalleri (Canadiens, 2010).

DIGGING DEEP

More than 52 percent of the Blackhawks' games were decided by one goal, and Chicago paced the NHL in those close victories.

FROM THEIR BEAT

“If goalie Corey Crawford can overcome his postseason woes from last year, the Blackhawks have an excellent chance to work their way through the Western Conference playoffs to set up a potential date with the Penguins. If they do meet, the Hawks would prefer a wide-open style where they can use their speed and superior puck possession play from the likes of Toews, Kane and Hossa.''

— Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune

THE PENS PUSH

The Blackhawks will be bested only by an opponent comfortable playing a contrasting physical, gritty style. The Penguins became that opponent with trades for the likes of Murray, Morrow and Iginla. Also, the Penguins' MegaPowers (Crosby, Malkin) are better than the Blackhawks' Dynamic Duo (Toews, Kane). That is the distinctive difference.

LOS ANGELES KINGS

The 2012 Cup winners possess size, skill, speed, depth, and, in Jonathan Quick, a goalie who has proven capable of stealing not just a series but an entire postseason.

WHY THEY'RE DANGEROUS

The Kings are the champs, so somebody has to beat them. That is a challenge, because they won as the No. 8 seed last season, so they know how to win on the road. They went up, 3-0, in every series last postseason.

PLAYER TO FEAR

Center Anze Kopitar is capable of imposing his will on a series in a way that perhaps no one else but Malkin can. His size-skill blend makes him nearly impossible to defend against when he is playing with confidence.

DIGGING DEEP

The Kings won eight playoff games in which they scored first last postseason and topped the NHL in winning percentage in that category during the regular season.

FROM THEIR BEAT

“Adding Robyn Regehr shortly before the trade deadline to replace Willie Mitchell has restored the (physical, gritty) elements the Kings needed, and the return of Matt Green has brought back another playoff-tested, rugged defenseman. Quick has been sharp, mobile and confident the past month. In addition, players who played bit roles last season, such as Trevor Lewis and Slava Voynov, have improved immensely this season and have played major roles.''

— Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times

THE PENS PUSH

Unlike the Bruins, the Kings score just enough to win. However, despite their depth down the middle, they do not generate enough offensively to excel when playing from behind. The Penguins scored first in more than 60 percent of games during the season. A power forward like Iginla could alter an otherwise even series even that would place enormous pressure on goalies to handle crease traffic.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

They lost the 2011 Final in Game 7 — on home ice — and were bounced from Round 1 last spring. Their top-end talent at forward, on defense and in goal remains formidable.

WHY THEY'RE DANGEROUS

They still have the Sedin twins (Henrik and Daniel), who can create nightmarish matchup problems. They are under the radar. Most important, the Canucks' desire to finally win the Cup provides an intangible that may not easily be measured by opponents.

PLAYER TO FEAR

Center Ryan Kesler takes the Canucks from good to great. If healthy, he is a two-way stud who can dictate offensively, disrupt defensively and dominate a short series with power and precision.

DIGGING DEEP

The Canucks were one of the NHL's stingiest clubs in first-period goals-against, ranking in the top five all season. They had a better goal differential on the road than at home.

FROM THEIR BEAT

“It's hard to know what the Canucks have, because they haven't iced their complete team all season but should have it together for Game 1 (of the playoffs). This is potentially a formidable lineup. (Coach Alain) Vigneault has options, and goalie Cory Schneider has been really good of late. This may be the sleeper team in the playoffs.''

— Ed Willes, The (Vancouver) Province

THE PENS PUSH

The Penguins' physicality — especially the Morrow-Sutter-Cooke line — likely would rattle the Canucks in a way similar to how Vancouver was taken out of its comfort zone by the Bruins in the 2011 Final. Neither Canucks goalie (Schneider or Roberto Luongo) would deal well with nuisances such as Kunitz, Iginla and Morrow; and Vancouver's defensemen would not impede those players' pursuit of pucks.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

The perennial playoff underachievers rallied from a dreadful start to win the Southeast Division. Under first-year coach Adam Oates, something seems different for these past upset victims.

WHY THEY'RE DANGEROUS

Alex Ovechkin is back. His move from the left to right wing was no easy transition, but over the last six weeks of regular season he was inarguably the dominant offensive player in the NHL. As he goes, so go the Capitals. He is going as good as he has since his dominant goal-scoring days.

PLAYER TO FEAR

Center Mike Ribeiro is as productive as he is pesky — a legitimate scoring threat whose jabbing and gabbing can get under the skin of even the most poised opponents.

DIGGING DEEP

The Capitals were fourth in winning percentage when trailing, behind only the Penguins, Blackhawks and Ducks — the NHL's three top teams all season.

FROM THEIR BEAT

“(Alex) Ovechkin's switch to right wing took a while to bear fruit, but Washington's captain took over the NHL goal-scoring lead and led an improbable midseason turnaround. Defenseman Mike Green's return from injury means the Capitals can get offense from everywhere, and goalie Braden Holtby showed in last year's playoffs he can frustrate offensively gifted opponents.''

— Stephen Whyno, the Washington Times

THE PENS PUSH

The formula from an epic 2009 Round 2 series would work again. Ovechkin cannot win the series by himself, especially if Crosby goes goal-for-goal against him. The Penguins would rely on Malkin and Letang to be better than center Nicklas Backstrom and Green — not to mention a big experience advantage in goal with Marc-Andre Fleury or Tomas Vokoun — in another wild and wonderful playoff showdown.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

 

 

 
 


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