Penguins Gaining, But Risk A Net Loss

After posting my recent critique of the NHL’s so-far lackluster season, I’ve been making a concerted effort this past week to watch more games. And one thing stood out in the play I witnessed, something that’s reflected in the current standings: the Pittsburgh Penguins are starting to actually look like a two-time defending champion.

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Tristan Jarry: a potential crack in the Pens’ championship ice

The Pens have reclaimed the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, and they’ve looked good doing it. They’re riding a three-game winning streak (as of this writing), and they showed a smothering defense–particularly in the third period–in their win Wednesday night over the previously hot but now suddenly ice-cold Flyers. Combine a tight D with that team’s world-class offensive skill and the idea that we’re seeing a team in the midst of an Islanders- or Canadiens-like string of three or four consecutive Cup wins starts to look very plausible.

But that win Wednesday night revealed something else that may give Pens fans a moment’s pause: without the sidelined Matt Murray in goal, Pittsburgh may have a major problem in the playoffs, no matter how many snipers skate on their forward lines.

a DFR audible

The Pens showed a lot of strong play in their own zone in shutting down the Flyers Wednesday night. Philly was stifled throughout the third period, so much so that Pittsburgh’s two-goal lead looked, at first glance, to be insurmountable.

But that look was a bit deceptive. As a Flyers fan, watching Wednesday’s loss was a frustrating experience, because, had the home team been playing well, that game was there for the taking. And the chief giver, had the Flyers been able to take advantage, would have been Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry.

Jarry was the third goalie on last year’s Cup-winning squad, but with Marc-Andre Fleury now rolling the dice in Vegas and Matt Murray dealing with a concussion, he’s gotten the battlefield promotion to be the Pens’ main backstop–except for the “stopping” part, that is. Jarry got the win against the Flyers, but time and again he left juicy rebounds out in front of his crease. If the Flyers were playing better than they are, their forwards could have easily scooped up at least a couple of those ricochets and put them behind Jarry. A smothering loss could have been shifted over into a different column–an OTL and a point, at least, if not an outright win.

Perhaps the Pens looked so responsible in their own end Wednesday night was because of Jarry’s presence in the net. If you know your goalie is shaky, you tend to hustle a bit more behind your blue line to clear pucks and opponents away from the front of the net. And if that’s the case, maybe any potential trouble will go away when Murray returns from his concussion.

That is, if he returns. With a concussion, that’s no guarantee. If Pittsburgh is forced to go forward into the playoffs with Jarry as their number one guy in net…well, they’ll still be a major contender, especially with those very skillful skill players. Any shakiness from Jarry would only become an issue if the Pens had to play another team of exceptionally skillful, potent offensive players–guys who would not leave juicy rebounds just sitting their on the ice in front of the crease.

One wonders, then, who might be primed to take advantage if Pittsburgh has to rely on a goalie who’s less of a glove and more of a backboard. Just glancing ahead, we find that a likely second-round matchup for the Pens would be…

…the Washington Capitals. Hmmm.

Now, at this point in NHL history, only a madman would start making bets on the Caps performing well in the playoffs. And Washington goaltender Braden Holtby has been having his own scuffles in net this season. But the Caps do have goal scoring clout; any team with Alexander Ovechkin in the lineup is going to be an offensive threat, whatever the disappointments of the past may be.

Perhaps this is the year Ovechkin decides he’s tired of the postseason underachieving and just goes nuts in a series, racks up five or six or seven goals in four wins against a quality opponent–like, for instance, a quality opponent that doesn’t have its primary, Cup-winning goaltender in net for the playoffs.

This speculation is not merely a bit of contemplation suited for Pens fans; it will matter immensely come playoff time, because right now the Tampa Bay Lightning look like a mortal lock to make the Eastern Conference Final. They appear to be head and shoulders above everyone else in the east, and about the only team you’d expect to feel confident going against them in a Final series would be a team that’s been carrying around the hardware for two straight years.

But the Pens can’t show the Lightning who’s boss if they can’t get past the second round. And their fate there will be determined largely by whether or not it’s Murray in goal (doubtful, at this point), or a solid, impenetrable Jarry in the blue paint…or the ricochet machine we witnessed Wednesday night.

So will the Pens fly–or at least slide–to yet another Stanley Cup, or will the Capitals finally find open the door that has been slammed upon them so many times before? Dynasties live or die on just such questions, and we’re about a month away from getting an answer. Keep watching.

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