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This Ain’t Your 2008 Penguins!

Posted By Ian Altenbaugh On Jun 5 2009 @ 5:07 pm In Pittsburgh Penguins | No Comments

After getting their clocks cleaned by the Red Wings in Detroit, the finals moved to Pittsburgh where the Penguins returned the favor.

On home ice, the Penguins played a more physical style of game, with a surgical penalty kill and a lethal powerplay. Which is so crucial if you consider the few calls being made so far in the series.

In game three, the keys to the Penguins victory was their constant physical play, a willingness to get in front of both nets to either block or deflect shots, and their ability to finish prime scoring chances. The Penguins were so dominant in the scoring and passing lanes that Detroit captain Nick Lidstrom was held without a shot. Another thing that helped the Penguins immensely is the brilliant play of Evegni Malkin and Max Talbot.

Game four however Malkin turned it up to another level. In period one alone, Malkin generated four shots, a goal, and delivered three body checks in 8:38 of play.

It was the shorty the Staal picked up in the second period of game four that was particularly impressive. Evgeni Malkin has just been denied on the pk of a breakaway chance and more than a few people in the stands felt that there should have been a penalty shot. The point was made moot several seconds later however as Staal buried a shot behind the shoulder of Chris Osgood. If the goal by Staal was energizing for the Penguins, the goal shortly thereafter by Sidney Crosby was deflating for the Red Wings.

The Penguins played with vigor after Crosby’s goal, routinely beating marquee players like Lidstrom, Hossa, and Zetterberg.

By the end of the second period of game four, the Penguins big three, Crosby, Malkin, and Staal, all had at least a goal and an assist.

Interestingly, Zetterberg, Kronwall, Lidstrom, and Hossa have been matched up against either Crosby or Malkin and have been effective in limiting the Penguins star’s chances. Still, Crosby and particularly Malkin have been dictating their wills for much of game three and four, with Dan Bylsma not appearing to make a conscious effort to avoid the matchup. It seems that while the star forwards for the Penguins have seen maybe fewer chances than they did against Carolina, the effort to shut them down has rendered the Wings two biggest scoring threats, Zetterberg and Hossa, moot. Combined they have 1 goal, 5 assists – one goal less than Malkin’s total for the series.

A Case for Depth

When the Staal line is scoring it gives the Penguins second-line quality scoring depth on their third line. The guy who makes things go, Jordan Staal, is locked up for another four years at a cap hit of 4 million a year. His linemates, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy will also be under contract for the next two seasons, which should only mean good things for the Penguins.

There is a movement afoot that believes the Penguins will eventually trade Staal to acquire a scoring winger for Crosby, and many in this movement, feel it should happen sooner rather than later. To them I say, “You’re crazy!” As was witnessed in game four of the Stanley Cup Finals, Jordan Staal has the ability to be absolutely dominant down low, even more so than Crosby or Malkin. At twenty-years-old, 6’4, 220lbs, and a veteran of three NHL regular seasons as well as over 45 post-seasons appearances, Staal is a commodity that will only increase in value over the course of his contract. Because of that, the urgency to move the big center seems bizarre. Much of these feelings were born after those who regularly watch the Penguins saw Marian Hossa sparkle alongside Sidney Crosby. Immediately, the chants to trade Staal for a stud winger to grow with Crosby began. Never mind that at Jordan’s age, he had done more than many ever had in their careers and is still at an age where many of his contemporaries are finishing an overage season in juniors. Another major complain was that to date draftmates Jon Toews and Nick Backstrom have posted more prolific numbers than Staal. At least in the regular season.

So what kind of player will Staal develop into? He was projected as a potential first-line center when drafted and there is nothing in my mind to diminish that potential. Playing alongside Cooke as opposed to a forward like Chris Kunitz or Ruslan Fedotenko has limited Staal’s abilities to post scoring line totals but his 22 goals, 27 assists, suggests that he could easily post numbers in the 60-70 range. Especially if linemate Tyler Kennedy remains healthy and continues to progress. We saw flashes of this player in game four when Staal was occasionally dropped between Guerin and Kunitz while Malkin and Crosby played alongside Fedotenko.

Most importantly, Staal brings to the Penguins an absolutely unique presence – a scoring forward who can be used as the primary penalty-killer and shutdown forward without limiting the Penguins top two lines in any way. We have witnessed during the finals how the Red Wings rely on primary scoring forwards like Henrik Zetterberg to take on a great deal of the defensive duties including killing penalties. This has a way of wearing down on an athlete. Mike Babcock has responded by reducing Zetterberg’s penalty-killing duties but that only makes the Penguins a greater threat on the powerplay. All because Jordan Staal is an elite penalty-killer.

Notes from Game Four:

One of the more interesting one-on-one battles during game four was that between Cleary and Orpik. It boiled over at the end of the game when Cleary mugged Orpik with seconds left on the clock.

The Wings have no choice but to play Pavel Datsyuk. If he does not play in game five, than he is far more seriously injured than anyone realizes.

It is worth noting that many of the young players on the Penguins’ taxi squad, Ben Lovejoy, Dustin Jeffrey, Luca Caputi, John Curry, and Alex Goligoski should all be given first crack at starting jobs come next September. Even if viewing from afar, this type of experience tends to accelerate a player’s development. The Penguins have done this in the past with draft picks on ATOs during the AHL playoffs and they seem do be doing the same in the NHL.

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