Similarly, I asked him five questions about the Penguins and their mindset heading into the playoffs. You'll find the answers below. A Flyers blog and Penguins blog working together? Uh...
1. Kris Letang has been out indefinitely since suffering a stroke at the end of January. It doesn't look like he'll be able to return this season, despite starting light workouts a couple weeks ago. How has the backend looked in his absence? Thoughts and plans for Niskanen going forward?
Letang is now back to skating on his own, and he isn’t officially ruled out for the year, though there is no time-table for a return. The doctors have given him a seemingly sunny diagnosis so far - no surgery is needed, and he’s on blood-thinners now. No one seems to really know what the future is, but it seems like, coming from the player and team, that he will play again.
The defense has struggled without Letang, compounded by Paul Martin’s absence due to his broken hand in the Olympics. They are the Pens' top two minutes eaters, and two of the three best puck-moving defensemen, so predictably, the teams' possession numbers have suffered. It’s been more difficult for the Pens to get out of the zone, and they’ve suffered more shots against and less shots for lately.
The Olli Maatta/Matt Niskanen pair have had to pick-up the slack, but, recently, the coaching staff split the two in order to boost the performance of Brooks Orpik (now with Maatta) and Rob Scuderi (now with Niskanen). That’s seemed to work of late. As far as Niskanen goes, he just set a career high in points, has the best plus/minus in the league and has the highest PDO for defensemen in the entire league outside of the Phaneuf/Gunnarson pair in Toronto.
Niskanen has been terrific this season, but he’ll never have any more value than he does right now. I hope the Pens can keep him, but if he wants to cash in on the open market, he’ll certainly be a very, very rich man (albeit on a new team.)
2. The Pens are a essentially a lock to reach the postseason for the eighth straight year, and it's only mid-March (seriously, the team still has a 89.7% chance of making it even if they go 0-17-0 over their final 17 games, per sportsclubstats.com.) How does the team and coaching staff approach the final month of the season? Any kinks that need to be worked out?
The mindset since the Olympic break has seemed to be "let’s gear up for the playoffs." The Pens floundered and didn’t look terribly interested in their first few games post-Sochi, but, lately, they've come alive with 2 wins in as many nights against the Capitals this week. With Philly on the schedule for another back-to-back, hopefully the same effort and compete level will be there.
And there’s also the Bruins. Pittsburgh and Boston have been jockeying back and forth all winter for the No. 1 overall seed in the East for home-ice advantage through the playoffs. The Pens are currently up by one point. That’s a relatively unimportant, but at least tangible, goal that they can shoot for and something the coaches can use to push them down the stretch.
3. Olli Maatta's looked incredible, and almost every Philadelphian has been keeping their eyes on him throughout the course of season. It's worth noting that he'll have played more games once this season comes to a close than over any other point in his career (a little less than 90.) That's a lot for a young kid. Is there any concern there?
Not much concern with Maatta at all, really, which I can’t even believe I’m saying about a teenaged defenseman. I’ve never seen a defenseman as well-rounded as Maatta at the NHL level at his age. Burnout and the "rookie wall" are always threats, but Maatta has gotten stronger as the season has gone on. He’s earned more ice-time and more shifts as he’s gained the coaches respect with his steady play. Maatta’s point production (8 points in the last 11 games) is higher now than at any other point in the season. If anything, he’s gotten stronger as the year has gone on.
And, as you note, Maatta played a combined 86 games last year, between his junior team (London – OHL), that had a deep playoff run, plus Finland WJC’s team at the U-20 plus three playoff games in the AHL. He’s no stranger to playing a lot of hockey. Of course, the NHL is a huge step up from that level of competition. We don’t know how he’ll react as the playoffs start, but he does have a history of playing a ton of games in a season, which could be a positive to draw off of.
4. Which team/teams would you *not* want the Penguins to have to face in the opening round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Great question. Sports Club Stats has the Pens facing any number of potential first round opponents, with the highest odds at the moment going to Toronto, Detroit, Montreal, New Jersey and your Flyers.
Ranking them from most to least favorable, I’d go: Toronto, Detroit, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Montreal. Any team with a great goalie that has potential to heat up (like Carey Price or Sergei Bobrovsky in Columbus) is one I’d hope the Pens avoid. Any team with a lax defense that would allow the Pens time/space (Toronto, Ottawa, etc) is one that would be a much better matchup for the team, on paper at least.
As far as a potential matchup with the Flyers, I don’t have a clue what to think when these teams get together. If we get "Regular season MAF," then I’d think Pittsburgh would be just fine. But no one really has any clue or confidence that it won’t be "Playoff meltdown MAF", in which case forget about it. If Pittsburgh isn’t smart and tries to get into after the whistle scrums, like in 2012 or the Bruins series last year, they’ll probably lose. If they can keep their minds right and just focus on playing hockey, they’ll have a much better chance of success. That, of course, is easier for me to say than for an NHL team in an emotional, physical game to do.
5. For the upcoming home-and-home, what's the one key you're looking for? If the Penguins can ________, they should be successful.
Score first. It’s cliché and boring, but it’s true for the Penguins. They’re 31-3-1 this season when they score the first goal of the game (compared to 13-14-3 if they go in a 1-0 hole.) If Pittsburgh takes a lead into the first intermission, their record is 22-2-1. If the Pens are ahead after 40 minutes, they’re 28-3-1. Generally, Every NHL team has a pretty good record if they are playing from ahead (for obvious reasons), but the Penguins are almost automatic if they are able to get out to a lead.
Thanks again to Jim for answering our questions about the state of the Penguins. Our preview for the game will be up on the website tomorrow morning. Go Flyers.