Grove: Confidence And Creativity Fuel Pens' Stanley Cup Ambitions

By 93.7 The Fan

The Penguins' skill and creativity is what drives their Stanley Cup chances as they open the qualifying round tonight against Montreal.

Adding their confidence to the equation helps, too, but that's also the element that sometimes leads them into risk-taking behavior best avoided in the postseason.

It's the line they've always walked.

It's the line coach Mike Sullivan implores them to understand and respect.

He doesn't have to worry about Sidney Crosby; he likely worries a lot about Kris Letang.

Evgeni Malkin falls somewhere in between, although he's dumped more pucks into the offensive zone this season than any other in recent memory, evidence he's taken stock of his game and adjusted – despite his gift assist to Kevin Hayes earlier this week.

How the Penguins manage this kind of risk, especially crossing their own blue line as they attack and making decisions about puck support and distribution at the opposing blue line, will go a long way toward determining how long this playoff run can last.

They've got more playoff experience than any of the 24 teams still playing, and they should understand that score and time of game – among other factors – might dictate that "safe" decisions are the default in these areas of the ice. 

Tonight we'll begin to see what this particular team has learned.

In recent weeks, I've written about both the underachieving power play and what a healthy Jake Guentzel will mean to it, and the importance of secondary scoring that had dried up over the last month of the regular season. 

What are some other critical areas for the Penguins in this playoff march? 

Goaltending, of course, is at the top of the list: who provides it and how good is it?

Matt Murray figures to start tonight, but the feeling here is that Murray will have a short leash and Tristan Jarry will see playing time in these playoffs that goes beyond serving time in a relief role.

He's outplayed Murray this season, and we're all anxious to see how he responds to performing under the playoff microscope for the first time.

The Penguins are a good but not outstanding defensive team, and they rely on their goaltenders to save them a bit more than Sullivan would like given the kinds of chances they often allow (see risk-taking above).

Neither goaltender is playing for their NHL future, as both will be around for a while, but they may be playing for how much of that future is spent in Pittsburgh.

Both need new contracts this off-season, and with an expansion draft coming next summer, only one can be protected.

So chances are very good that how they perform in this playoff run will weigh heavily on decisions the Penguins must make about them.

Back in training camp, of course, Jarry was not expected to impact the Penguins' regular season the way he has.

Jared McCann, on the other hand, was expected to influence games a bit more than he did this season and enters this post-season as a player who could push the Penguins’ fortunes forward or backward.

It hasn't helped him that he moved a bit between center and wing this season, and over the final month of the regular season he was in a major scoring slump while his two-way game also suffered.

The third line he now centers with Patrick Marleau and Patric Hornqvist is an unknown for Sullivan, and how it functions will have a lot to do with McCann.

He wasn't noticeable at all in the exhibition loss to Philadelphia, and at 24 he has a skill set that suggests he's capable of much more meaningful contributions.

His faceoff problems are not likely to hurt too much in the series against Montreal, but they can be a factor if the Penguins advance.

And finally, which Conor Sheary will we see?

The one who has no goals in his last 13 playoff games with the Penguins, or the one who has looked quick and has been finishing plays both in the exhibition game and in intrasquad scrimmages during the recent training camp?

If Sheary can be productive enough to stay on the top line, it means his speed is a factor for more minutes every game, and that's important.

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