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Penguins versus Hurricanes: In Depth Look

crosby staal

A ferocious storm descends on Mellon Arena tomorrow night in the form of the Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina enters the Eastern Conference finals as possibly the hottest team left in the National Hockey League, earning their spot by defeating two of the top three conference seeds. The Pittsburgh Penguins are not exactly cold though, winning four of their last five games to send the Washington Capitals packing.

There are many story lines surrounding this series, but none bigger than the matchup of Carolina’s Eric Staal versus Penguins center and younger brother Jordan Staal. Eric leads the Hurricanes with nine goals and 13 points while Jordan has only registered five points, but expect the Staal brothers to be seeing a lot of each other this series as the Penguins will try and neutralize Eric’s scoring ability with Jordan’s defensive presence.

Both of these teams have been to the Stanley Cup finals since the lockout, but who do the odds favor to return to hockey’s biggest stage?

COACHING

Pittsburgh–Dan Bylsma

Carolina–Paul Maurice

For the first time in the post-season the coaching advantage goes to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Bylsma showed great poise last series after dropping the first two games; he was not quick to change the lines and made the proper adjustments necessary to come back and win a tough game seven in Washington. Every series win makes the new Pittsburgh coach more confident, and his high aggression strategy made him look like a genius against the Capitals.

Maurice is in his second stint with the Hurricanes and is trying to make his first trip back to the finals since 2002. The main attribute that the Hurricanes coach brings to the table is that the players love him. He is the exact opposite of Bruce Boudreau in the way that he defends his players and stays behind them which gives them more confidence.

Maurice may have the experience, but Bylsma has the better team and the hot hand.

Advantage: Penguins

OFFENSE

Pittsburgh–Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin/Bill Guerin

Carolina–Eric Staal/Ray Whitney/Erik Cole

If there is one lopsided advantage for either team in this series it is the Penguins offense. Pittsburgh boast’s the playoff leader in points in Sidney Crosby, whose 12 goals already double his 2008 playoff amount. The trouble for the Hurricanes is that Crosby brings his best in the playoffs, and he seems to only get better as the post-season wears on. The Penguins’ Staal also figures to be a main contributor this series, as he is starting to heat up after scoring his first two goals of the playoffs against the Capitals. Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy came alive late last series, while Ruslan Fedotanko has been put up solid offensive production. Most importantly watch for Evgeni Malkin to take out his playoff frustration on the Hurricanes this series now that he is not being overshadowed by Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.

Carolina gets production from everyone, and that makes them a dangerous offense, as was evidenced by Scott Walker’s game seven overtime goal against the Boston Bruins. Jussi Jokinen and Sergie Samsonov have found some rhythm in the post-season after having average regular seasons, however the Stanley Cup Playoffs have a habit of weeding out the pretenders when it gets to be crunch time. Eric Staal is the main offensive threat of this team; he has recorded nine goals and four assists in these playoffs but does much more on the ice than statistics would indicate. If the Hurricanes want to make this a series they need to get better production from Erik Cole and Ray Whitney. Cole has been a disappointment thus far, recording only two points this post-season while Whitney himself tallied only two points during the Boston series.

Too many players are catching fire at the right time for the Penguins, look for all four lines to contribute during the Western Conference Finals.

Advantage: Penguins

DEFENSE

Pittsburgh–Sergei Gonchar/Brooks Orpik/Kris Letang

Carolina–Joni Pitkanen/Joe Corvo/Frantisek Kaberle

Neither of these teams’ strengths are their defenses, which means that either of these teams’ defenses can make the difference. The Hurricane’s Joni Pitkanen is a do-it-all defensemen who is playing his best hockey at the right time. He has seven assists in the playoffs and is a seasoned veteran who will not crack under pressure–Pitkanen is Carolina’s Sergie Gonchar. Joe Corvo and Frantisek Kaberle are both strong defensive presences who have the ability to turn the puck up ice and create scoring opportunities through quick movement. Even though the Hurricane’s defensive core is not exceptionally talented, they work hard and stand their ground. The Penguins offense should overwhelm them this series though, as Bylsma’s high-pressure system will force them into costly turnovers.

The Penguin’s defensive scheme in the conference finals must be the same three pronged strategy as it was last round.

  1. Sergei Gonchar must match the production of the Hurricane’s top offensive defensemen. Last series Gonchar recorded a point in every game he played in, while the Capital’s Mike Green only had four points in seven games. If ‘Sarge’ can match his performance from last round then Pittsburgh will have no trouble going to the finals again.
  2. Kris Letang must continue to play his best hockey. After a benching in the first round, Letang stepped up against Capitals Penguins HockeyWashington and scored six points in seven games, including the crucial overtime winner in game three. The positive here for Pittsburgh is that confidence is no longer an issue for the 22-year-old Penguins defensemen and his streaky play appears to have came to an end last round.
  3. Hal Gill must fight the urge to practice any of his MMA moves on Marc-Andre Fleury during one-goal games. Gill’s mistake in game six last round almost costs the Penguins the series,and another mental collapse like that should mean that Petr Sykora will have some company to watch the game with.

Advantage: Draw

SPECIAL TEAMS

If there is one bright spot for the Pittsburgh power play it is that the Carolina power play is worse. The Hurricane’s only clicked on 10.4% of their man-advantage opportunities–9.3 % below the Penguins. Carolina makes up for their poor power play with the second best penalty kill in the league though, which should make for an interesting matchup if the Penguin’s power play continues with the efficiency it did in games six and seven of last round where they went six for 13.

The Penguins are a disciplined team, so the advantage here goes to Pittsburgh. The Penguins seemed to have realized that you cannot score on the power play without putting shots on the net. Look for the Pittsburgh power play to be dominant in this series.

Advantage: Pittsburgh

GOALTENDING

Pittsburgh–Marc Andre Fleury

Carolina–Cam Ward

57338250CL004_Hurrica

fleuryThere are two different issues to be examined when looking at this category.

  1. Which goalie is playing better right now?
  2. Which goalie is better when playing their best hockey?

The answer to both of these questions are quite simple. Right now Cam Ward is playing better hockey, and has probably been the best goalie throughout the playoffs. Ward has recorded two shutouts and has an outstanding save percentage of .927–not to mention that he was the main reason Carolina defeated New Jersey in the first round. The Hurricane’s goalie is clutch when it comes to playoffs, never losing a series in his career and winning two game sevens in this year’s post-season alone. Ward also won the Conn Smythe trophy in 2006 as playoff MVP when the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup. Make no doubt about it, Ward is the best goalie the Penguins will face in the playoffs.

Marc-Andre Fleury on the other hand seems to have got back into the groove after his highlight reel save on Ovechkin in the first minutes of game seven. Many Penguin’s fans felt that Fleury had a bad series where in reality he was just outshined by Simeon Varlamov. The Pittsburgh goalie was not terrible in the Washington series, he just was not spectacular–which is how Penguins fans are used to seeing him. If Fleury and Ward both play their best hockey ‘The Flower’ will steal the show, but seeing as how the playoffs are based on what players are doing now and not what they can do, the advantage has to go to Carolina.

Advantage: Hurricanes

FINAL

The Pittsburgh offense has turned into a juggernaut and is showing no signs of slowing down–ask Varlamov who came into the Capitals/Penguins series as the hottest goalie in the league and left the series watching Jose Theodore reclaim his crease. The biggest danger for Carolina is that Pittsburgh won their first two series by not playing their best hockey until game seven of the second round. Too many Penguins are finding their playoff stride at the most crucial part of the season. Pittsburgh will overwhelm Carolina in six games, and it will only go six because Ward will steal one for the Hurricanes.

Advantage: Pittsburgh 4 games, Carolina 2 games

Bonds Should be High Priority for Pirates

barry bonds

The Pittsburgh Pirates are heading towards their record-breaking 17th consecutive losing season faster than Kirstie Alley heads towards the last piece of chocolate cake.  The problem for the Pirates owners is not that the Buccos haven’t broke the 75 win plateau since 1999, but is instead that the thrill of PNC Park has finally worn off on the Pittsburgh faithful. Last season the Pirates drew almost 1.2 million fewer fans than the National League average; apparently the marketing department did not schedule enough Styx skyblasts. (Renegade!!)

The Pirates only saw 9,775 fans enter the stadium during the last home game–of which about 4,000  must have been crammed in the bathrooms at the exact moment I turned on the television. However, the remedy to Pittsburgh’s attendance problem could easily be solved by using a method the Buccos’ owners have employed many times in the past–sign a ‘has-been’ who has nowhere else to go. Only this time it would be the MLB’s all time home run king. Pittsburgh’s front office makes Gilligan look like Presidential material when it comes to making the smart decisions for the organization, so do not get your hopes up Pirates fans. Instead, expect to see plenty more 1980’s pop culture bands combined with corny giveaways that make you miss the Cracker Jack prizes before you see Barry Bonds in a Bucco’s uniform.

The most confusing part of the Pirate’s situation is that the key to the Bucco’s lack of success over the past 16 years  hinges on their uncanny ability to draft world-class prospects and then trade them away at their peek for washed up veterans; however, it appears that the organization has suddenly forgot this tried-and-true strategy at exactly the wrong time.

An interesting aspect of this scenario is that if the Pirate’s were to actually sign Bonds then maybe some of the annual, early season hype would actually be warranted. Of course it would be unrealistic to think that the Bucco’s would break the .500 mark–since apparently that is the mark of success in sports–but at least it would give those 15 faithful season ticket holders something to look forward to. Ultimately the attraction of Bonds would be too much for Pirates fan’s to resist though, because for some reason yinzers still love baseball in this city. There are three main points to back up this conclusion:Cubs Pirates Littlefield Baseball

  1. Bonds would attract fans because every home run he hits would be another record. This is especially important given the fact that he has had recent injury problems and steroid allegations that could force him to suddenly retire at any point during the season.
  2. As mentioned above–and evidenced by Piratesfest every year–Pittsburgh is dying to have a baseball team that would actually beat Manatee Community College, which I’m sure is the cream of the crop when it comes to junior college baseball teams.
  3. With the acquisition of Bonds, the Bucco’s may actually be in the race for the division through the all-star break. The superstar slugger may be 44 years old now, but in his last two seasons he hit a total of 54 home runs and batted 143 runs in, both of which would be good enough to top the Pirates stat sheet this year.

While the ‘Bonds coming to the Pirates’ scenario is perfectly feasible, it is not realistic. Due to his unofficial blackballing by the MLB, Bonds would come cheap to the Pirates and most likely be more than happy to finish out his career in the ‘Burgh. However, if Pittsburghers have learned one thing about the Succos over the past 16 seasons, it is that the Pirates are more than willing to stick to their normal routine–which is highly dependent on a large dose of stupidity.

Panthers Send Nine to the NFL

Five Panthers were signed in post-draft free agency, boosting Pittsburgh’s total number of signed players to nine. Tailback LeSean McCoy was the only Panther to be taken on the first day of the draft, however day two saw linebacker Scott McKillop, tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling, and wide receiver Derek Kinder all sign NFL contracts.

LESEAN MCCOY, RBmccoy

Drafted By: Philadelphia Eagles

Pick: Round 2, pick 21

Analysis: MccCoy will not disappoint in the NFL. Slipping late into the second round may have been a blessing in disguise for the recording breaking tailback as the Eagles system will be perfect for the shifty Panther. Expect McCoy to thrive in the NFL now that he has an offense that is not solely dependent on him.

Positives: McCoy is a versatile back who can run with power or finesse and also step outside and catch the ball, which you can bet Philadelphia will utilize. The west coast style offense of the Eagles will allow McCoy catch defenses off-guard and break long runs. Waiting behind Brian Westbrook as the starter will give McCoy time to learn the NFL style from someone who is the same type of runner. The Eagles are consistently in the playoffs and will not be dependent upon McCoy’s play which will relieve any pressure he may have been feeling.

Negatives: The Pitt tailback was no doubt expecting to go higher in the draft to a team that would make him the starter, although after watching McCoy play the past two years I can only see him using this as motivation. The negative that comes with being drafted later is obviously a smaller contract, but really this is the best situation for the former Pitt standout. The biggest hurdle here is that he will be playing in possibly the toughest division in football.

SCOTT MCKILLOP, LBmckillop

Drafted By: San Francisco 49ers

Pick: Round 5, pick 10

Analysis: Expect McKillop to have a solid career in the city by the bay. Although he is not the fastest, strongest, or most talented linebacker, he has a nose for the football and makes big time plays in big game situations. The best possible outcome for McKillop would be to have a James Farrior type of career, but expect him to follow more in the footsteps of Paul Posluszny from the Buffalo Bills, which is certainly nothing to scoff at.

Positives: With a strong camp McKillop will have the opportunity to start for a team who could be in contention for the playoffs next season. Don’t forget San Francisco head coach Mike Singletary was one of the best linebackers to play the game. Learning under him will be a privilege and an advantage for McKillop.

Negatives: San Fransisco is on the rise as a team, but they build from the offense up, which does not give McKillop much to work with on the defensive side of the football.

LAROD STEPHENS-HOWLINGLSH, RB

Drafted By: Arizona Cardinals

Pick: Round 7, pick 31

Analysis: Stephens-Howling is a shifty back and a north/south runner, but his real forte is his ability to burn the defender with speed running to the outside. Work ethic is not an issue for this kid, as he is the ultimate team player–something that weighs heavily on coaches when they are making final cuts. If Stephens-Howling makes the team, expect him to see most of his action on special teams.

Positives: The Arizona coaching staff is well acquainted with the former Pitt tailback, as many of them saw him play for the Panthers while they were still coaching for the Steelers. Stephens-Howling can be a dangerous special teams player, and seeing a combination of Steve Breston and LSH returning kickoffs will make many teams think twice about squibbing. Arizona’s backfield situation is about as confusing as Mike Tyson’s tattoos, which leaves open the possibility of Stephens-Howling slipping into a roster spot to start the regular season. The best outcome, though it’s unlikely, for Stephens-Howling would be to start the season as the third down running back.

Negatives: Seeing as how LSH was a long shot to be drafted I would not expect him to make the team in his first season. That the Cardinals sport plenty of athletic backs and are considered a pass-first team does not bode well for #34.

DEREK KINDER, WRkinder

Drafted By: Chicago Bears

Pick: Round 7, pick 42

Analysis: It will be interesting to see what Kinder will do in Chicago with Jay Cutler as the new quarterback. Kinder suffered greatly from Bill Stull’s inability to throw the ball and his constant battle with injury problems. (See his Draftguys.com profile for more.) Skill is definitely not a question for Kinder, but suffering an ACL tear in 2007 and only totaling 427 yards in 2008 made his draft status take a major hit.

Positives: The Bears leading receiver last season was Devin Hester, who totaled 665 yards on 51 receptions–not exactly mind-blowing numbers. Chicago also finished 21st in the league in total receiving yards, so all Kinder is going to have to do is show that his hands are better than the current receiving corp’s. With a 4.46 40-yard-dash, odds look good for him to make the team. Don’t be surprised if he becomes a constant contributor for the Cutler and Chicago.

Negatives: Switching quarterback from Stull to Cutler is about as big of a difference as there is. Adjusting may be a problem for the wide out, but Cutler is a Pro-bowl quarterback which should play into Kinder’s favor. There really are not many negatives here, but the Bears did draft two receivers ahead of Kinder in Jauquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox. They’re not the same as Kinder, but there are so many roster spots to go around.

DAVE BRYTUS, P

Team: Baltimore Ravens

Pick: Free Agent

Analysis: Look to see Brytus make his Mixed Marshal Arts debut before his NFL one. His specialty is to punt the ball 30 yards into coverage and either have it hit off the oppositions blocker or let it bounce 30 more yards for a beauty.

Positives: Sam Koch will retain the starting job, but Brytus will stick around on the practice squad and may get his chance if Koch gets injured.

Negatives: There are only 32 starting punters in the league–not a good statistic for Brytus, then again if Mitch Berger can find a starting job I guess anything is possible.

C.J. DAVIS, OL

Team: Carolina Panthers

Pick: Free Agent

Analysis: Davis will make the (Carolina) Panthers squad after an outstanding senior year at Pitt in which he was a big reason why McCoy hit the 1,000 yard mark again. The former (Pitt) Panther offensive linemen should have been drafted but was probably overlooked because of his switch from his natural position of guard to center last season.

Positives: He goes to Carolina with fellow Pitt Panther alum Jeff Otah who will be able to show him a thing or two to improve his chances of making the team. The Panthers boast a solid run and pass game that takes much pressure off the offensive line.

Negatives: Carolina’s line is already solid, so Davis will have to impress in camp. If Davis returns to his natural position he should make the team, but if he stays at center don’t look for him in the 2009 season.

CONDRIDGE COLLINS, FB

Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Pick: Free Agent

Analysis: Collins was underutilized at Pitt but was a solid and sure contributor when he did get the chance to shine. Although he played fullback in college, he is a solid runner and may someday be converted to RB like Buc’s Earnest Graham. Collins was one of the NCAA’s best fullbacks but went undrafted because his position is basically disappearing in the NFL.

Positives: Tampa Bay has had running back issues the past and has yet to find their one true starter, yet the addition of Derek Ward from New York will knock everyone down a rung on that ladder. If there is a fullback position to be filled in the NFL,  Collins is more than talented enough to fill it, but do not expect him to stay at Tampa Bay long.

Negatives: The situation does not look good for Collins, as his position is disappearing and his blocking is not up to NFL standards. There is hope for CC though, because he showed dramatic improvement from his junior year to his senior year in the blocking category–this all came after being recruited as a running back in high school.

RASHAAD DUNCAN, DT

Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Pick: Free Agent

Analysis: Duncan showed spurts of talent and promise during his days in a Pitt uniform. He probably will not make the Bucs this season but with hard work and determination he may find a home somewhere in the NFL in the next couple of years.

Positives: He is a new style defensive linemen, meaning that he is small and fast but still strong enough to battle at the line. This type of player is taking over the linemen position in the NFL, which plays right into his hands.

Negatives: Duncan was wildly inconsistent at Pitt. This is his number one area to improve on, and in order to make a NFL team his work ethic and consistency must improve.

MARK ESTERMYER, Long Snapper

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

Pick: Free Agent

Analysis: Connor Lee was one of the best kickers in college last year, so it appears Estermyer has been doing a good job. He will probably make the Steelers team since they are looking to stabilize the position after last year’s inconsistency.

Positives: With Jared Retkofsky injured, expect to see Estermyer compete for the starting job with Greg Warren. He is accurate and coming to the Steelers at the perfect time.

Negatives: Everything looks in place for Estermyer to be in the NFL next season. There are no real negatives here.

**Note: 2006 Pitt graduate Adam Graessle signed as a punter with the Greenbay Packers.

Penguins versus Capitals: In Depth Look

washington-v-pittsburgh

The NHL‘s fantasy finally become a reality as the Pittsburgh Penguins face the Washington Capitals in the second round of the playoffs.

This is not just a simple playoff tilt between the Penguins and the Capitals. Rather, this series is a measuring stick that will show how far the NHL is behind the NBA, NFL, and MLB. If you are a true fan of the NHL’s success, then you should be rooting for this series to not only go seven games but for it also to feature multiple overtimes.

At this point the Penguins/Capitals series is make or break for the NHL: the league’s three biggest stars will be on display for the world to see, and they simply cannot afford for this series to be a bust. Penguins fans can be selfish, but in the end the importance of these playoffs is that the NHL makes its way back onto the map not that Pittsburgh wins the Stanley Cup.

So will Pittsburgh get past Washington? Here are the keys to the series…

Coaching

Washington: Bruce Boudreau

Pittsburgh: Dan Bylsma

Boudreau sports a rather impressive resume, having won the Jack Adam’s award in 2007-2008 for the NHL’s top coach. He has also led the Capitals to two consecutive Southeast Division titles, which is the equivalent of winning the gold medal in the javelin event at the special Olympics.

Bylsma on the other hand is coming off his first playoff series win as a head coach and has had the interim tag removed from his title. In my mind, this coaching matchup rests on three possibilities, all of which are related to how Bylsma responds to his recent three year contract:

  1. Now that ‘Disco’ Dan has received a three year deal, will he ease up on the reins, thinking he has three more years to win a cup if he cannot get it done this year?
  2. With a new deal all ironed out, will Bylsma’s coaching and confidence be boosted knowing the organization has faith in him?
  3. Most importantly, how will the players respond now that Bylsma is no longer an interim coach?

In my mind, the runaway winner of these three options is that Bylsma will actually be better in this round knowing that Mario Lemieuxf and company are behind him.

Realistically, coaching will not have much to do with this series since both teams are so talented. There are two main points each team has to focus on to win the series—and you don’t have to be an award winning coach to figure them out—if you are the Capitals, stop Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin; if you are the Penguins, stop Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.

Advantage: Draw

Offense

Washington: Alexander Ovechkin/Alexander Semin/Nicklas Backstrom/Mike Green

Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin/Bill Guerin/Chris Kunitz

crosby-ovechkin1

The Capitals were third in the league this season in goals scored and boast two of the most offensively talented players in the world. Ovechkin, Semin, and Green all were 30 goal scorers while Backstrom and Brooks Laich both scored over 20 goals this season. Ovechkin registered more goals than assists this year, which means everyone knows he is going to shoot. The problem though is despite accounting for the most shots in the league his shooting percentage ranked 253rd—good for just ninth best on Washington.

There’s no arguing that A.O. is dangerous—when a player scores 56 goals they tend to draw some attention—but the player to watch in this series is Semin. With eight points, Semin is leading the Capitals in playoff points, and he is usually the one making plays so Ovie can get on the score sheet.

The Penguins have six 20 goal scorers of their own, and everyone on both sides of the spectrum knows Crosby and Malkin are going to get their points. The question is, where will the help come from?

The key to advancing for the Penguins is to have players such as Petr Sykora and Jordan Staal step up and fill the void. Sykora has no points in four playoff games after tallying 25 goals during the regular season. Miroslav Satan did not catch fire when filling Sykora’s roster spot, so look for #17 to work his way back into the lineup and start pitching in offensively.

Staal has also been relatively silent during the 2009 playoffs. His defensive presence played a big factor against the Philadelphia Flyers, but at some point the Penguins offensemen have to start playing like offensemen.

If Laich has a better second round than his first round, Pittsburgh could find themselves in hot water. But the same can be said for the Capitals if either Sykora or Stall get going. I have to give the advantage to the Penguins here. Having two of the leagues top three scorers is just too much for a rookie goaltender.

Advantage: Penguins

Defense

Washington: Mike Green, Tom Poti

Pittsburgh: Sergei Gonchar, Brooks Orpik

With so much offensive firepower in this series, neither defense is going to steal the show. In a playoff round such as this, the main goal of each defensive unit must be to simply outplay the other teams defensemen because both sides will be getting carved up Jimmy Hoffa style.

Washington’s defense appeared to be stellar in the first round only letting up 23.7 shots per game, but facing the New York Rangers 28th ranked offense was certainly a big piece of the puzzle. Many have speculated that the Capital’s Green is purely an offensive threat with no defense awareness, this is simply not true though. He has the second best regular season plus/minus rating on the team at +24 not to mention that the best defense is a good offense—so if you score 31 goals that means you do not have to play as much defense.

It is important for Pittsburgh that Gonchar matches Green’s output, and that Orpik keeps up his superior playoff physicality. Also, look for the Penguins’ Kris Letang to step up this playoff series after a first round benching showed that Bylsma is not afraid to scratch Pittsburgh’s best defensemen.

Overall, Washington’s Green and Poti will have the upper hand in the series though, as the Penguins defensemen are simply too streaky to be trusted.

Advantage: Capitals

Special Teams

Both team’s powerplays struggled in their opening rounds, each failing to hit the 20% mark. With so many stars it is hard to imagine that neither the Penguins nor the Capitals will start to click with the man advantage. Most likely it will be Washington since they ranked second in the league during regular season.

The penalty killing units are very similar statistically, but I give the edge to the Penguins here since their high aggression style has been paying off lately.

Overall though, Washington just demands too much respect on the powerplay. A productive man advantage could swing the series in the Capitals favor. Watch for Boudreau to do whatever necessary in order to reclaim powerplay dominance

Advantage: Capitals

Goaltending

Washington: Simeon Varlamov

Pittsburgh: Marc-Andre Fleury

fleury

varlamov-2Washington sports a young, athletic, inexperienced goalie with loads of upside in Varlamov, while Pittsburgh is anchored by a young, athletic, experienced goalie with loads of upside in Fleury. Enough said: Fleury takes this one because of his experience and his knack for big performances in big-game situations.

Advantage: Penguins

Final

The NHL playoffs have proven time and again that without a top-of-the-line goalie a team’s playoffs chances are toast. Having an unproven rookie in Varlamov is not what Washington anticipated heading into round two, while Pittsburgh sits pretty with Fleury between the pipes.

Another deciding factor of this series will be Crosby’s play. Watch for Sid the Kid to explode after being left out of the Hart Trophy conversation. Rarely does Crosby not look like the best player in the world when it comes to games on the big stage. Combine that with the extra motivation of playing Semin and Ovechkin and the NHL will get exactly what they are looking for–a showcase of skill that will leave every viewer in awe.

Advantage: Penguins 4 games, Capitals 3 games

Steelers Should Stick With Stability at Pick 32

The past 10 years have proven quite fruitful for the Pittsburgh Steelers thanks in part to wise—and safe— drafting techniques. While fans of the New York Jets and Detroit Lions look for the next big star year after year, Pittsburgh waits for the perfect pick to fall right into their hands. Smart drafting is the reason Pittsburgh won SuperBowl XLIII, as first round draft picks from the last eight years played monumental roles in bringing home the Lombardi trophy.

percy-harvin1

Many yinzers are excited about the prospect of University of Florida wide receiver Percy Harvin dropping all the way to pick 32 now that he tested positive for marijuana. Honestly, I will be surprised if he falls to the Steelers considering he runs a 4.3 40 and is possibly the most athletic player in the draft. That said, Antwaan Randle El was also the most athletic player in the draft and he has yet to score more than four touchdowns in a season. Whoever takes him will be doing the Steelers a favor anyway. This kid has too many off-the-field problems, including an up-to-no-good entourage that rivals MC Hammer’s.

meinekecarcarebowlba-xrjiz3gllIf the Steelers are set on a wide receiver, Hakeem Nicks from the University of North Carolina would be a better fit than Harvin. Nicks has a solid foundation at 6-1 215 and has big time athleticism. He has more skill than many WRs in the draft, and his 8/217/3 against West Virginia in the Meineke Car Care Bowl proves it. The only knock on Nicks is that he is a junior and has not mastered the game of football; there are still many things he must learn in order to become the franchise receiver a first round pick should ensure. Most experts are predicting him to go in the second round, but the reach would be worth it to see a Santonio Holmes/Nicks WR core that could be one of the best in the league.

Look for Pittsburgh to rebuild a traditional strength by drafting two offensive linemen in the first two rounds—though there is an outside shot they’ll take a cornerback. Considering that Pittsburgh quarterbacks have been sacked 96 times in the past two seasons, it’s obvious that the offensive line is in need of serious help. The three best possibilities for the Steelers are center Alex Mack from California, guard/center Max Unger from Oregon, and tackle Eben Britton from Arizona. Do not expect Britton to fall to the Steelers, but if he does Pittsburgh fans will not be disappointed in the coming years.

eben_britton

california_alex_mack_sm

Here are three key things to look out for in this year’s draft:

  1. The Lion’s choice with the number one overall pick. Detroit has not yet realized that a quarterback will not succeed unless he has a solid offensive line in front of him. Watch on draft day as the Lions will most likely pick Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford over offensive linemen Jason Smith from Baylor. Then, stay tuned for the 2009 season when the Lions follow up last years 0-16 campaign by winning only two games, resulting in another first overall pick they’ll blow on a wide receiver.
  2. Quarterback Josh Freeman from Kansas State. This kid is going to be a big time player in the NFL. He has the arm strength, skill, and vision to become another Daunte Culpepper.
  3. A draft day trade between the New York Giants and Cleveland Browns to send WR Braylon Edwards to the Big Apple.

Penguins versus Flyers: In Depth look

For the second straight year the Pittsburgh Penguins will  host the Philadelphia Flyers the playoffs. The Penguins clinched home-ice advantage when the Flyers squandered a lead against the Rangers in the final regular season game. The ‘turnpike series’ promises to be a good one, but who has the advantages, and which team will find thier way into round two?

COACHING

Philadelphia–John Stevens

Pittsburgh–Dan Bylsma

This is a tough call. The edge probably has to go to Stevens since he took his team to the conference finals last year. The only thing keeping him from winning is that Bylsma is 18-3-4 in his 25 game stint with the Penguins. To put things in persepective, that  is the best 25 game total in Penguins history, the second best belongs to Scotty Bowman (13-8-4) in 1991–the year in which the Pens brought home their second Stanley Cup.

Pittsburgh looks like a new team with Bylsma’s “high-aggression” system, and the players seem to follow him much more than they did Michel Therrien.

Both of these men are qualified coaches, but the upper hand goes to Stevens. In his first full year with the Flyers, he improved the team by 39 points from the previous season and was named “The Hockey News” coach of the Year in 2008.            Advantage: Flyers

OFFENSE

Flyers–Jeff Carter/Mike Richards/Simon Gagne/Scot Hartnell

Penguins–Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin/Bill Guerin/Chris Kunitz

Offensively, the Penguins are deeper than the Flyers, case closed. The Penguins have two of the top three scorers in the NHL, and now that Sidney Crosby has line mates, he is even more of a threat. The problem for Philadelphia is that (thanks to a 2005 Darius Hatcher stick blade to the chops) he already kicks it up a notch against them thanks to a . Crosby has nine points against Philadelphia in six games this season and is coming off his second best statistical month of the year. Sid brings his best for the playoffs, as was evidenced by his playoff leading 27 points last year and 5 point performance in the 07-08 playoffs while playing on a broken foot.

Malkin is a whole new threat to the Flyers. He is relieved to have beat hated rival Alexander Ovechkin for the scoring race.This should help him play more loosely in the playoffs. The concern for Pens fans is if Malkin will burn out in this year’s post-season. It should not matter for this series though, because last year he looked brilliant in the first round and did not seem to slow until the Cup finals.

On the Flyers side of the ice, Carter, Richards, and Gagne are a potent mix, however Scotty Hartnell, conveniently for Pittsburgh, often comes down with the ‘Biron syndrome’. Anytime he faces the Penguins’ he inevitably does something stupid to lose the game. Richards, although extremely good and under appreciated by the NHL, is more of a threat on the penalty kill, however the Penguins should closely watch Gagne and Carter. The Penguins may have the advantage but Philadelphia is not exactly offensively challenged. They average 3.17 goals a game which is .02 more than the Penguins. In terms of pure offense though, Pittsburgh still reigns supreme, scoring 14 more even strength goals than the Flyers over the course of the season.                        Advantage: Penguins

DEFENSE

Philadelphia–Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn

Pittsburgh–Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang

For overall defense the nod has to go to the Flyers. The only reason Philadelphia has a better defense is because they have two really good defensemen and a solid core, whereas the Penguins have three good defensemen and a horrible core. Timonen and Gonchar are the same type of player; the only difference is that Timonen is better on defense. No offense to “Sarge”, but at times his defense is suspect. I will admit that his shut down “D” has improved this season–which means that he has not gone totally to the Brian Campbell end of the pendulum.

Timonen, on the other hand, is one of the best one-on-one players in the league and has a +19 rating to prove it. He is gifted offensively, and is as valuable to the Flyers special teams as a power wheelchair was to Christopher Reeves. Coburn has 28 points this year, but he is much more valuable on the ice than statistics would indicate–this is evidenced by the way the Flyers suffered last year against the Penguins after talking a Malkin slap shot to the face. Letang is the best all-around defensemen the Penguins have, but he is streaky. Pittsburgh will be in trouble if last year’s playoff version of Letang appears.                                 Advantage: Flyers

GOALTENDING

Philadelphia–Martin Biron/Antero Niittymaki

Pittsburgh–Marc-Andre FleuryBiron's mistake cost Flyers game

The Flyers goaltending is about as consistent as an 80-year-old man’s bladder, so the obvious edge goes to the Penguins who boast one of the leagues top goalies in Marc-Andre Fleury. The 2003 first overall pick has reached 35 wins in two of the past three seasons, all while having a suspect defense. Fleury’s best quality is his ability to make mind-blowing saves at crucial points in the game. It is important to note that Martin Biron can make some pretty impressive saves himself, the problem is that he usually offsets those by letting in a weak goal or making a costly mental error (ex. Crosby’s goal to win the game on Feb. 21). Philadelphia’s second goalie, Antero Niittymaki, is not dependable if Biron cannot get the job done. He is a solid number two, but he won’t steal any games, especially in the playoffs.                     Advantage: Penguins

SPECIAL TEAMS

Philadelphia–6th ranked PP, 6th ranked PK

Pittsburgh–20th ranked PP, 8th ranked PK

The statistics are all you need for this category. Richards also leads the league in shorthanded goals with seven, but with Fleury hot it will be much tougher to score a shorty on the Penguins. The real issue here is the Penguins powerplay. If Pittsburgh is hoping to make a deep playoff run, they cannot afford anymore 0-5 performances like the one in the regular season finale.                         Advantage: Flyers

FINAL

Most of the time on the rink is spent at even strength, and the Penguins have the advantage with goaltending and offense. If Petr Sykora can get hot, or even back to average, then the Pens will be even tougher to beat. I see this one going in six to the Penguins, they have too much fire power and the better goalie–which is critical to a deep playoff run.                               Advantage: Penguins 4 games, Flyers 2 games.