With the lockout done and the schedule for this shortened season already decided, The Devils’ Den will give you an in-depth look at the team’s opponents this season. We kicked things off with a look at two Northeast division teams, but today we’ll move south for our preview of the Carolina Hurricanes.
There’s a renewed sense of optimism surrounding the Carolina Hurricanes.
Despite missing the postseason for the third straight season, and finishing last in the Southeast Division, the Hurricanes were one of the teams itching for the lockout to end. A draft-day trade for Jordan Staal gives the team a big weapon down the middle, and the addition of sniper Alex Semin could turn into one of the best bargain signings by general manager Jim Rutherford.
Kirk Muller took over after a 4-10-2 November swoon last season, and brought the Hurricanes back from dead. At one point, the team sat just five points out of the playoffs before losing four of their last five games.
Carolina had a ton of momentum carrying them before the lockout. Can they find it again and contend for a spot in the top eight?
In the continuing “Eastern Conference Playoff Preview” series, I’ll take a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins, who lead the Atlantic Division with 95 points. The defending champions have had an up and downseason, including dropping all six games to the Devils. Can the defending champions repeat their performance and hoist Lord Stanley again?
When healthy, the Penguins have arguably the best two lines in the N.H.L. The top two centers, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, consistently rank near the top of the league in scoring. As of today, Sidney Crosby leads the scoring race, tallying 47 goals. But it’s not only the top two lines who can score. Jordan Staal continues to improve year in and year out, and has 21 goals on the season. Deadline day acquisition Alex Ponikarovsky can move the puck and set up teammates, leading to his 29 assists. And he plays on the fourth line. This depth is one of the strengths of the Penguins. Good scorers, like Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin, fly under the radar because of their depth. I believe that, without a doubt, the Penguins arguably the best depth among their forwards, ranking with Washington atop the conference.
The blueline is where things get interesting. Sergei Gonchar, one of the Pittsburgh’s best defenseman, has only played in 57 games this season. Gonchar, who’s one of the leaders on the powerplay, has far underperformed the team’s expectations. After finishing sixth in goals against last season, they’re currently ranked in the 20th. Kris Letang has taken a backseat this year, and the rest of the defense is underwhelming. They also don’t have a big, physical presence on the blueline. The Penguins lack of depth could hurt them in the playoffs. They’re going to lean on their forwards to succeed, and this strategy isn’t the best.
Marc-Andre Fleury is one of the solid goaltenders in the N.H.L. In 62 games, Fleury is 35-19-6, with a 2.65 goals against average and a .906 save percentage. Fleury can always make the great save, and his presence in net brings a calming influence to the defensive zone. In the past few years, he’s began to deal with injuries. It seems that Fleury is good for at least one injury per season, which is an added worry in the playoffs. When healthy, Fleury can steal the Penguins a few games. But he needs to remain healthy to give the Penguins an added edge.
So, what can we expect from the Penguins come playoff time? The team is going to play hard, gritty hockey. They’re forwards are clearly the strength, but they do have questions along the blueline. They’ve also struggled against the top teams, losing all six games to the Devils and struggling against the Capitals. Not only that, but significant players have missed time with injury. But they are the defending champions, and the will still be champs until someone knocks them out of the playoffs. Even with their problems, Pittsburgh will be a tough opponent in any playoff series.