Q: Is it possible that Sergei Gonchar's injury was a blessing-in-disguise? Since his return and the implementation of dressing seven defensemen as a precaution, the Pens have played extremely well. Coach Dan Bylsma continues to say he prefers dressing six defensemen, but with seven he gets to put his best assets (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal) on the ice more often by rotating the job of centering the fourth line. It also allows for all of the defensemen to be more fresher and, in the up-tempo world of playoff hockey, that would seem to be another advantage.
Walt Leuzinger, Bushnell, Fla.
MOLINARI: Having your best defenseman injured -- especially when it's a knee problem that could, in theory, give out on him at any time -- most certainly is not a blessing, whether in disguise or on the surface or any other way, but the Penguins have made the best of a bad situation since Gonchar was hurt.
Having Crosby or Malkin, and occasionally Staal, center the fourth line makes it more of an offensive threat than a unit filling that role usually is -- especially when Miroslav Satan also is part of the mix -- and there hasn't been much danger of the extra wear-and-tear on those guys being an issue because the Penguins have played so few overtime games and because there have been so many off-days lately. (Whether that will continue to be the case in the Stanley Cup final isn't clear because, as of this writing, the schedule for that series hasn't been released.)
Trying to keep seven defensemen involved in a game is difficult, because the odd number makes it impossible to keep all of the pairings intact. (Unless the seventh defenseman is nailed to the bench for the entire 60 minutes, of course.) With seven in the rotation, defensemen occasionally are going to find themselves with a partner with whom they are not familiar, and that obviously has the potential to cause problems.
It will be interesting to see how Bylsma handles his personnel in the next round. As you noted, he prefers to go with a conventional 6-12 breakdown of forwards and defensemen and the suspicion here is that once he is completely confident that Gonchar's knee won't betray him, Bylsma will go back to that. However, the 11-7 configuration has served them well to this point, no matter what complications it might have caused on the blue line. At the very least, the Penguins have coped with the situation well enough that Bylsma doesn't have to feel compelled to go back to six defensemen until he's completely comfortable doing so.
Q: Early in the playoffs, Sidney Crosby was on a tear and looked to be the surefire MVP, should the Penguins win the Stanley Cup. Evgeni Malkin has stepped his game up considerably as well, and a strong case could be made for him to be MVP, as well. My question is, has there ever been co-MVPs?
Evin, Fort Hood, Tex.
MOLINARI: No, that's never happened, and there don't appear to be any provisions for splitting the Conn Smythe Trophy.
The Smythe is supposed to go to the player deemed to be most valuable to his team over the course of the postseason, but what an individual does during the Cup final invariably carries more weight than anything from the previous three rounds. Consequently, while guys like Crosby and Malkin might seem to be the frontrunners at this point, what happens during the final almost certainly will determine who gets the Smythe.
The Smythe recipient, by the way, does not have to play for the Cup-winning team, although it usually works out that way. A member of the losing team has gotten it five times since the Smythe was awarded for the first time in 1965, most recently to Anaheim goalie J.S. Giguere in 2003.