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While happy to advance, Pens have concerns

| Monday, April 27, 2009

"We have to be a playoff team, and our expectations internally are higher than that. We want to have a good playoff, give teams a good challenge."

— Penguins GM Ray Shero in an interview with the Tribune-Review on Jan. 22


About 45 minutes after his club had eliminated the team once coached by his late father, Fred, Penguins general manager Ray Shero pondered a question inside the visiting locker room at Wachovia Center late Saturday afternoon.

"What did I learn about this team from this series?" Shero said following the Penguins' 5-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers to win their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series.

"We really needed the adversity. As close as we came to winning the Cup last year, we went to the final without a lot of adversity. The closest we came was Game 5 against (New York) Rangers (in the second round). If we had lost in overtime, we were going back to (Madison Square Garden), but we won.

"In this series, coming back from a 3-0 deficit on the road in Game 6, when we were looking at a Game 7 at home after leading the series, 3-1 — yeah, I think we needed something like that. It was a nice test, and we came through."

The Penguins are once again second-round bound, and they showed some good and bad in their six-game ousting of the Flyers:

THE GOOD: Third-line Terrors

Second-year right wing Tyler Kennedy failed to score in 20 playoff games last season. He netted two goals against the Flyers, and they were winning-tallies in Games 1 and 4.

Kennedy out-scored Flyers center Jeff Carter, who tallied only once in the series after scoring 46 goals in the regular season.

Interim Penguins coach Dan Bylsma's plan before the series was to match center Jordan Staal's line, which includes Kennedy and left wing Matt Cooke, against Carter's unit.

"I think he wanted us to play Carter and those guys even," Staal said. "Maybe we did even better."

Indeed. Staal, Kennedy and Cooke combined for two goals, six points and a plus-4 rating and dominated territorial play with its aggressive cycle in the offensive zone.

"All series, they were really our best line," center Sidney Crosby said. "Every shift, they dominated. They really set the tone for us in most games."

THE BAD: Outage on Power Play

The Flyers' mid-series surge — several Penguins admitted Philadelphia carried the majority of play in Games 3-5 — coincided with the Penguins' power play turning into a disadvantage. After going 3-for-13 in Games 1 and 2 victories, the Penguins finished the series on a 1-for-19 slide, including 0-for-12 over the final three games.

As it was during the regular season, the Penguins' power-play attack proved inconsistent against the Flyers. It scored as many goals after Game 2 as it surrendered, and at times the lack of net-front presence was alarming.

Before the playoffs, defenseman and power-play lynchpin Sergei Gonchar said "the power play probably will decide our playoff fate."

It didn't against the Flyers, but it's downturn over the final four games sure made the Penguins sweat.


A reason — no, the reason — the Penguins are a nightmare matchup for any playoff opponent is, as Flyers winger Joffrey Lupul said before Game 4, "They've got those big three, and those guys can win games almost by themselves."

Yep, it pays to employ Crosby, fellow center Evgeni Malkin and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Each of those stars left an imprint on Round 1 for the Penguins.

Malkin scored two of his four series goals and recorded five of his nine points in Games 1 and 2. His late third-period goal in Game 2 forced overtime.

Fleury was strong from the start, as his .922 save percentage suggests, but his 45-save performance at Philadelphia in Game 4 delivered the Penguins a commanding 3-1 series lead.

Crosby scored three of his four goals on the road, including the Penguins' first in Game 4 and a tying-tally in Game 6. He recorded eight points in the series.

"Sid, Geno and 'Flower' — they're our big guns, and they were firing," center Max Talbot said. "As long as we have them, I think everybody will tell you that we like our chances."

THE REASON TO WORRY: The Exhaustion Factor

The Penguins finished the regular season on an 18-3-4 tear, but most of them admit to feeling "playoff pressure" for the final six weeks.

The series against the Flyers was, as expected, a taxing affair. Throughout, Crosby stressed that "nobody said it was going to be easy," and the Penguins, though happy, seemed relieved more than anything after winning Game 6.

"You get hit with a punch in the gut, and you don't know how hard it's going to be," Bylsma said. "They put up a huge fight. They played great hockey against us and challenged us."

Counting Round 1, the Penguins have played 190 games 19 months - at least 15 more than any remaining Eastern playoff team before games Sunday.

Throw in a short summer because of their 2008 Cup final run and a near two-week trip to Europe to open the season, and perhaps it is no wonder the Penguins at times appeared to be skating on rubber legs against the Flyers.

"Honestly, I don't think anybody thinks like that," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "You want to be playing a lot of hockey every year. Once you get into the flow of a game, I don't think it's a factor."

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