From Friday, a scary sight as we imagine Evgeni Malkin here is trying to remember what day it is and what city he's in. - Justin K. Aller
It's quick and challenging turn-around for the Lightning this weekend as they are in Pittsburgh tonight to face the Penguins. The Pens are near the top of the Eastern Conference, but reeling from the uncertainty around Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin who crashed hard into the boards in the game Friday vs the Panthers. We checked in with SBNations' PensBurgh and the blog's Managing Editor Hooks Orpik to see what those forward lines might look like in his absence, whether goalie Tomas Vokoun was a good add, and if it's true that Dan Bylsma's job on the line this season.
Thanks to Hooks for taking the time to answer our questions!
1. I guess it's a little soon to ask about Malkin's prognosis from the injury Friday night. But even a couple weeks out of commission might be a challenge for the Penguins in this shortened season, one would think. In the past couple years, when both Malkin and Crosby were in and out of the lineup, the Penguins have had Jordan Staal's big game and speed to fill in at center, and admirably. Is Brandon Sutter ready to step up to the top six, and, if so, what is the domino effect of that promotion in how Bylsma uses his third line to shutdown opposing team's top offensive lines?
Based off practice lines, the biggest change looks like moving James Neal (who's tied for the league lead in goals and has been a Malkin linemate) to Sidney Crosby's line. This is necessary, because Neal plays best with a playmaking center, but it's also going to really make the Pens a one-line team that will be pretty easy to get matchups on, because if you can stop that first line with your best checkers/defensemen, it's going to be tough for the other lines to add a lot of production.
But, like you said, the Penguins unfortunately have a lot of experience playing without star centers in the past. And they have played really, really well to a man, and their record over the past few years has been admirable. I'd expect the Pens to put their eggs in the Kunitz-Crosby-Neal basket, and maybe they can keep cashing in on the power play, where they're #3 in the league (27.4%) and can maybe get a goal out of Kris Letang, Paul Martin or Matt Niskanen from the blueline.
2. Tomas Vokoun is well known to Lightning fans from his years in the Southeast Division with the Panthers, then the Capitals. He's now in Pittsburgh in his quest to get an opportunity to compete for a Championship. Ignoring that silly game Wednesday vs the Flyers, how's he working as a backup for Fleury? Has this been a good signing?
I think the Vokoun signing has been great for the Penguins. They just had no confidence at the end of the year in Brent Johnson, and when Marc-Andre Fleury melted down in the playoffs they had to stick with him because they didn't think Johnson could stop the puck either. I also think Fleury is the type of goalie who needs a challenge and needs to be pushed mentally in order to be at his best. When he's the clear #1 guy, he's not as focused or sharp on the ice as when he knows he needs to play well or he won't play.
To that end, the Pens alternated Fleury and Vokoun early in the season, but Fleury has really taken over lately, going 7-1-0 in his last eight games with a 1.88 GAA and .930 save percentage. Fleury's been great lately, not solely because of Vokoun hanging over his shoulder, but so far the goaltending situation has worked out pretty great for all parties.
3. The Penguins opened the season 3-3-0, and didn't win at home till their third try. With preseason expectations high, the slow start recalled the inconsistency that permeated the team's play at the end of the 2011-12 season. While all seems on track now, I was surprised (shocked actually) when things weren't going well in January that there were scatterd calls from the fans to get rid of Head Coach Dan Bylsma. How widespread is this doubt for the Bylsma's ability to return the team to glory? Do you think he has any cause to worry if the Penguins don't make a deep run in the post season this year?
Bylsma can be on the hot seat with a vocal segment of fans, but I'm not sure management shares their concern. Really it boils down to winning the playoffs, and the Penguins haven't done that lately. Going back to the 2010 playoffs they have lost their last three playoff series, including of course the 7 game series in 2011 to Tampa. For a team with Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Letang, Fleury and a pretty good supporting cast of Kunitz, Dupuis, Orpik and so on that's just not acceptable. The Penguins fancy themsleves a Cup contender, so they can't be losing in the first round of the playoffs.