As we get set for Game 1 -- looks like Sidney Crosby and Brooks Orpik are still out for the Penguins -- we exchanged questions with Jim (HooksOrpik at Pensburgh) to get his insight into the team Isles fans will somehow hate even more within a week or two.
Edited questions and answers are below. This is the first part in a series. Look for more later, as we trade thoughts on bandwagons. [Update: Here's part II.]
LHH: We'll start with where you think the Penguins are: Do you think they are better poised for a run this year than they were last year? Even for people who routinely rip Fleury, I'm not sure many saw that implosion coming.
I would like to say yes, the Penguins are in better shape. Last playoffs Sidney Crosby was only 2 or 3 weeks back into his (final) concussion comeback and no one was quite sure if or how long he'd hold up to playoff hockey. This year he's hurt, but on a very different freak injury that could have happened to just about anyone, so there's no real concern, to me at least, for whether or not Crosby can hold up.
LHH: Have the new additions done what Shero hoped? (I admit I'm surprised at Iginla's production thus far.)
Really, I feel like they're just scratching the surface with Iginla, whose first game as a Penguin was that March 30th game against the Islanders where Sid broke his jaw like 90 seconds in. So Iggy hasn't gotten to play with Sid and Malkin has been in and out of the lineup too and the Pens have experimented (without much luck) with putting Iginla on the left wing. Iginla still has that shot and has been pretty lethal on the power play, and it looks like he will be RW for Crosby, so I'm hoping that big things are around the corner.
LHH: If the Penguins somehow blow this, who takes the fall?
The biggest hot seats right now are probably for the goalie and the coach. The GM went and sacrificed prospects and high draft picks to load up for this run, the pressure is enormous, but that's always been the case (the Pens have been the Vegas favorites to win the Cup this year since the lockout ended), so I don't feel like it's too magnified.
Really, with the Penguins salary structure and the fact both Malkin and Kris Letang are a year away from UFA, this team as it is won't be the same for much longer. Useful vets like Pascal Dupuis and Matt Cooke are free agents, along with Morrow and Iginla. Most of those guys probably won't be back as it is.
Both Bylsma and Fleury are universally liked by management and players but this team has currently lost 3 straight playoff series. Losing a 4th, with this roster and with the regular season success they've had just cant be accepted.
LHH: Wow, from the outside, it's crazy to think Bylsma could ever be in jeopardy. But I guess that's how high expectations are played.
On Bylsma, I honestly don't know if he'd be fired, but I'd definitely say his job is in jeopardy depending on how things go. The Pens have dropped three straight series, two first rounds in a row, and with the aspirations they have (to be a contender) that is just not enough if one more early exit is added on.
I think everyone realizes Bylsma is a strong coach with a great system, but he's been too loyal to his foot-soldiers (like Deryk Engelland and Tyler Kennedy) and not quick enough to get talented rookies like Simon Despres and Beau Bennett more meaningful ice-time, too quick to juggle lines and made other decisions that could be questionable.
Do you think he'll be much quicker to pull Fleury if things go south this year? Seems like Shero signed Vokoun specifically to give Bylsma that option.
The $2 million backup, Vokoun. Last year the Pens were in free-fall but they had absolutely zero confidence in Brent Johnson, so they ended up trying to ride out the free-fall with Fleury. If Fleury starts these playoffs rough, or flounders at any point, who knows how Bylsma handles it?
They had a pretty regimented goalie schedule of which player they wanted to start each game mapped out, and stuck to it even during the long winning streaks. Bylsma has stuck to Marc being his goalie, but if he looks like he can't stop a beach ball or mentally seems weak, I would think they have to go to Vokoun.
Come back later for more from Pensburgh and tonight's preview, because playoffs, playoffs, playoffs!