Q: Last year, I asked if you thought Petr Sykora and Darryl Sydor would be enough to get the Pens over the hump and you didn't think so.
Obviously, it took a little from Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to do it, not to mention Hal Gill, but this year with the momentum generated from Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin, will it be enough to return the Cup to the Pens?
Chris Thompson, Glenshaw
MOLINARI: Yes, Hossa, Dupuis and Gill did contribute just a bit to the Penguins' success last spring, didn't they? Enough that, the thinking here is, the Penguins probably wouldn't have gotten particularly close to the Stanley Cup final without them.
The Penguins clearly did not add anyone with Hossa's world-class skills set at the trade deadline this year, but Guerin and Kunitz make them much more of a threat to be a force in the playoffs. Not only do they give Sidney Crosby solid, if not spectacular, linemates and add some badly needed grit and muscle up front, but they have made it possible for the coaching staff to restore balance to all four forward lines and use guys in roles to which their games are best-suited. (Pascal Dupuis, for all his energy and hard work and defensive diligence, simply is not an ideal first-line winger.) Contending for a Cup, however, is an daunting challenge for any team in any year, because of the grueling nature of the playoffs. One lucky bounce or ill-timed injury can be enough to alter the course of an entire best-of-seven series.
Last season, the Penguins had the benefit of home-ice advantage during each of the first three rounds, and went 8-0 at Mellon Arena before advancing to the Stanley Cup final. That's an edge they aren't likely to have this spring, perhaps in any round, which obviously complicates the challenge of getting back to the championship round.
With the start of the playoffs still two weeks away, the Penguins look like the kind of team that no opponent will be eager to be matched against, partly because of their core of exceptionally talented players and partly because they are performing so well as a team as they've gotten comfortable with the up-tempo style interim coach Dan Bylsma has them playing.
Still, it's hard to establish them as a clear favorite to return to the final, let alone to defeat the Western champion if they do. It certainly isn't out of the question -- after all, some team has to come out of the East, and the Penguins are one of many clubs with the personnel to do it -- but it's far from an even-money proposition, either.
Q: Do you believe the Penguins are in good shape, goaltending-wise, for the playoffs, in terms of backup Mathieu Garon getting enough preparation should Marc Andre Fleury be injured?
J.P. Perrine, Lancaster, Pa.
MOLINARI: In a word, no.
Garon has been with the Penguins for 2?? months, yet has made only three appearances during games, logging 146 minutes of work. By those standards, the guy he replaced as Fleury's backup, Dany Sabourin, was a veritable workhorse.
The Penguins acquired Garon from Edmonton because they believed -- and understandably so -- that he would be an upgrade on Sabourin, and might be able to push Fleury to elevate his game. While it could be argued that Garon's mere presence made the latter happen, he certainly hasn't had the playing time that anyone anticipated when he was brought in.
The problem, of course, is that the Penguins are (and have been) involved in a battle for a place in the Eastern Conference playoff field, along with the best possible seed once they officially lock up a spot, so every point that's up for grabs is critical. And because Fleury has been playing very well and the schedule hasn't been terribly demanding lately, there's been no real need to give him time off.
That won't be a major issue as long as Fleury is able to stay healthy and keep the edge on his game. If, however, he would be injured or slip into a serious slump and the Penguins would have to turn to Garon, it's hard to see how they could realistically hope to get the best he has to offer when he's had so little game action during the second half of the season.
Having to sit and watch for extended periods is an occupational hazard for backup goalies, but when a guy hasn't played for so long that he has to ask for directions to the crease, it's a legitimate cause for concern.