Q: Do you think it's wise for the Penguins to play Gary Roberts over some other players who are in better game shape and who contributed mightily in his absence? I know that his experience and presence could be a plus in the playoffs, and I know he's a fitness freak, but at his age, do you think he has any chance of getting into game shape just like that? Seems to me it would serve mainly to disrupt any cohesiveness the young players have.
Stan Capper, Waldorf, Md.
MOLINARI: Roberts' appearance in the Penguins' 2-0 loss at Philadelphia Sunday was his first in a game since Dec. 29, when Buffalo's Tim Connolly fell on him, breaking Roberts' leg and giving him a high ankle sprain. It was difficult to assess his performance against the Flyers, mostly because neither team was very sharp or played with much intensity.
Still, this is the time of year when Roberts' value should be at its highest, even at his advanced age of 41. That the Penguins are facing Ottawa -- a team Roberts routinely tormented during his days in Toronto -- during the first round also mitigated in favor of playing him against the Senators. He isn't suited for steady work as a top-six forward anymore, but there's no reason to question that he'll be as physical and as mean as ever once the playoffs begin.
In fact, while his game still figures to have some rough edges after such a protracted layoff, Roberts actually could benefit, in some ways, from not playing for more than three months, because that should eliminate any possibility of him running out of energy in the foreseeable future.
Q: Some hockey pundits are saying that as far as the Senators are concerned, the Pens are the best matchup. With Daniel Alfredsson out and the Senators generally on the decline, I'd rather have the dirty cheap-shot Flyers and the red-hot Capitals batter each other first. And given the home-ice advantage and last year's playoff score to settle, I'd say it is the Pens that got the best match-up for the first round. Do you agree?
Ed Lytwak, Arlington, Va.
MOLINARI: To a degree, yes, on both counts.
The Senators not only are dealing with significant injuries to key forwards like Alfredsson, Mike Fisher and Steve Kelly, but have been spiraling through the standings for months and, after getting one of the finest starts in NHL history, actually were in danger of missing the playoffs last week before settling into the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference. But for all their miseries this winter, the Senators still found a way to beat the Penguins twice in eight days little more than a month ago. Ottawa's 3-1 record in the season series, coupled with its convincing five-game victory in Round 1 in 2007, might well mean the Penguins are the only team against which the Senators might have genuine confidence at this point.
Conversely, while the Penguins would have been favored to win a series against Philadelphia, there's every reason to believe it would have been so physically and emotionally draining -- and might well have produced an inordinate number of injuries -- that it could have had a profound impact on their chances of getting through the second round. In that sense, playing Ottawa is decidedly preferable for them.
There's reason to suspect that the Senators are in the Penguins' heads, at least a bit, because of how Ottawa has fared against them during the past 12 months, but a strong start in the series would be the perfect antidote for that. If the Penguins can win the first two games at Mellon Arena -- particularly if they do it convincingly -- Ottawa will be forced to focus on the immediate mathematical realities facing it, not on what it accomplished a month or a year earlier.
Couple that with the Senators' injuries and their lackluster goaltending, and the Penguins could put themselves in a position to close out the series as quickly as Ottawa did last spring. Of course, if they give Ottawa a chance to believe it actually can win the series, the Penguins might find themselves reliving the nightmare they went through during Round 1 a year ago.