The NHL’s regular season is like a series of endless appetizers before the main course, which is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The warm bread that opens the meal is fine enough, as you haven’t eaten in a while. Then comes the salad. Meh. Oh look, someone ordered soup. Have to wait on that. Oh man, you got calamari too? Can we get just to the steak already?
The steak is being served today. Finally.
And Penguins fans only have to wait 30 minutes after the postseason begins to sink their teeth into it, as Pittsburgh will host the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of their first-round series at 7:30 p.m. The game airs on USA Network, presumably between Modern Family marathons.
Can the Penguins win another Cup? Can they even beat the Blue Jackets in the first round while missing key players? You probably have many questions, so I answered them in an exclusive 1-on-1 interview … with myself.
Q: Couldn’t it be an SVU marathon, Dave?
A: It was either a Modern Family, SVU or Chrisley Knows Best marathon joke there. I had to make a call.
Q: So are the Penguins repeating?
A: Probably not.
Q. What the f-
A: I mean, they can. Las Vegas has them installed as the third favorite behind Washington and Chicago and tied with Minnesota at 8-1, so it’s not as though they are a long shot, but it’s different than last year. The Penguins closed the 2015-16 season as the hottest team in hockey with new coach Mike Sullivan and all of their key players were healthy. None of that is the case now.
Q: Wasn’t Marc-Andre Fleury hurt heading into the playoffs last year?
A: OK, yeah, that was a big deal at the time. But the Penguins had a very nice first-round matchup with the wobbly Rangers, and Matt Murray had a team that was dominating at 5-on-5 in front of him. The loss of Fleury was nowhere as big a deal as losing Kris Letang for the entire postseason. And the Blue Jackets won’t be pushovers in the first round. The road is way harder this year.
Q: So the Penguins didn’t finish as strong this year?
A: In their final 25 games last season, the Penguins had a score-adjusted Fenwick of 56.6 percent; this year, it’s just 49.2 percent. A big reason for that is, yeah, all the injuries, but Letang is a huge driver of possession. So while you’re getting Trevor Daley, Olli Maatta and even Evgeni Malkin back, not having Letang is probably a global killer of a meteor hitting the Penguins’ season.
Q: How do the Penguins overcome not having Letang?
A: You can look to the 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes, the last team to win a Cup without a true No. 1 defenseman. They had a lot of good defensemen but not great defensemen, and that statement can apply to the Penguins now. The Penguins forwards are just as good as last year’s group that won the Cup, so if you get just enough out of the blue line at even strength and Justin Schultz can be Letang Lite on the power play, maybe…
A: Yeah, it won’t be easy.
Q: OK, but we can beat the Blue Jackets, right?
A: Oh sure. The Blue Jackets had their problems with elite teams this season, especially down the stretch, and even without Letang, the Penguins are obviously still elite. So this series will come down to two things, most likely.
Q: What are they?
A: First, it’s how much punishment the Blue Jackets dispense on Sidney Crosby and Malkin and how much of the illegal punishment is actually punished by referees. If Brandon Dubinsky is getting away with slashing, cross checking and the outright maiming of Crosby, and the Penguins aren’t getting power plays, it may be tough.
Q: What’s the other thing?
A: Murray can’t get thoroughly outplayed by Sergei Bobrovsky.
Q: Define thoroughly.
A: Like, if you see Fleury starting a game in this series, that’s bad. It’s probably over. If Bobrovsky is just playing a little better than Murray, that’s fine. Bobrovsky is going to win the Vezina Trophy and get some Hart Trophy votes, so you have to accept that if it happens. But if Bobrovsky is stealing games while Murray is giving them away — i.e. the Penguins are losing 3-1 when they outshoot the Blue Jackets 41-23 — that will be tough to overcome.
Q: So Penguins-Blue Jackets is a tossup?
A: Feels that way.
Q: Who are you picking?
A: Penguins in seven.
Q: That’s great. Once you win one series, that gets the ball rolling. That means in round two, we will very likely get the Capitals. We will beat them again, right?
Q: Why aren’t you making eye contact with me anymore?
Q. Look, if you think the Penguins can beat the Capitals, just make some sort of noise. If you think the Penguins can’t beat the Capitals, don’t say anything and just end this column.