Collier: When it comes to playoffs, fear can take bite out of fun dreams


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Almost as if it had been long predetermined, the Penguins glide into the playoffs tonight at the same little cove from which it seems they traditionally shove off, right there along the water line between the problem with Crosby and the worry with Fleury.

Sidney Crosby mentioned somewhat ironically Tuesday after one of the final rehearsals for the New York Islanders that any hockey player in his position would be chomping at the bit to get back on the ice, but if Sid could really chomp at will he wouldn't be in this position.

He's on the heal from busted chompers.

Marc-Andre Fleury again has begun the postseason by snapping metaphorical glove saves on questions about why his common regular-season excellence has recently wandered into a playoff netherworld somewhere between pedestrian and dreadful.

You all but knew this is where it would start; the larger question is where it will end in still another hockey spring where all the empirical blossoms seem to indicate a hard charge toward Penguins summer.

As ever, Crosby and Fleury will absorb the great preponderance of focus while few among the national audience will notice that Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz enter the postseason with a combined plus/minus rating of Plus 61.

Plus 61! .

Might that indicate the presence of two pretty good players on a team that was last seen scoring eight times in one night without Crosby in uniform?

Dupuis smiled that modest I-wouldn't-say-that smile.

"It means we're on the ice when we're scoring goals more than when we're scored on," he said.

Yes, by a margin of 61.

The club's demanding audience will now commence at volume to voice its constitutional right to a Stanley Cup parade in one breath while gasping at doomsday scenarios with the next. Those aren't hard to find.

The Islanders might have come as close to washing out of the playoffs as possible as the Eastern Conference's eighth seed, but they're hotter than a Montauk August at the moment, having stacked 26 points in their final 17 games, exactly as many as the Penguins over the same period. Their goaltender, the redoubtable Evgeni Viktorovich Nabokov is as likely as anyone to take over a series, which would be a compelling little storyline for anyone who ever wondered if one day there would be an NHL playoff series that hinged on which team had the superior Evgeni.

The other somewhat more quizzical Penguins factor as the playoffs begin is this condition that has caused Dan Bylsma's team to have been outshot in nine of the past 13 games. Boston outshot 'em by 16 (40-24) and still lost, 3-1, April 20.

"Our coaching staff breaks it down into scoring chances," Kunitz said. "If you can limit their guys to the ones from outside, and not getting many rebounds, and you can play in front of their guys, that's the main thing.

"If the goalie has to make diving saves against 2-on-1s or if guys are getting to rebounds, those are the ones you can't give up."

The Penguins wound up averaging 30 shots a night, substantially fewer than what an ultra-talented offensive team ought to generate in this view and less than one shot per night more than their opponents.

No one should argue with a record of 36-12, you wouldn't imagine, but maybe you've heard the playoffs are different, so maybe a return to some core philosophies is in order. These would include, as the audience will tell you, habitually, regardless of circumstances, "Shoot the puck!"

Brilliant.

"When you have the puck and you're shooting it, that means you have more offensive-zone time, you're making that team tired, and the goalie is going to have to work real hard," said Kunitz, whose four goals in five games this season against the Islanders included a March 22 hat trick. "You definitely want to outshoot that team [any team], even for the morale of outshooting a team, going in and getting your chances.

"You don't want to feel like you're on your heels all the time."

Only about a third of the league allowed more shots per game than the Penguins, but Dupuis and Kunitz are such reliable two-way players and the defensive depth the organization has fostered has become so robust that opponents no longer concentrate on throwing the puck at Fleury and hoping for some trash pickup. The Penguins are forcing the puck outside, and they really don't care if you shoot 50 times from out there.

"If the shots are from the outside, they're usually not quality," said Dupuis.

"If they shoot from the outside, perfect. We'll box out their forwards, and their defenseman are going to have to come from outside, so they're not getting second and third chances. If they shoot from the outside, we'll take it.

"Our goalie's been good enough."

Absolutely true.

Until today, when nothing is the same, nothing as it seems, or so we're told.

Fret responsibly.

mobilehome - penguins - genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com. First Published May 1, 2013 4:00 AM


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