Heading in to tonight’s game 4 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pittsburgh Penguins are in a position that no one thought they would be.
Down 3-0 in the series, the Penguins have gone from being Stanley Cup favourites to possibly being the first team eliminated in this year’s playoffs.
A week ago they were entering game 1 high on expectations and high on promise. Seven days later, they are one loss away from having their season end in almost unfathomable fashion.
In game 4, the Pens are certainly up against it. They must find a way to stop a Flyers offense that they have had no answer for in all three games, and they are also faced with the task of playing without forwards James Neal, Arron Asham and Craig Adams, as well as defenseman Paul Martin. And oh yeah, they must also find a way to win on the road against a team brewing with confidence in front of their rabid home fans.
Neal-less In Game 4
Although the Pens will have little trouble replacing the likes of Craig Adams and Arron Asham, there will absolutely be no replacing sniping forward James Neal. A 40-goal-scorer in the regular season, Neal was the team’s best player in game 4 scoring two goals, one of the highlight variety. His absence (one game suspension) creates a big hole among Pittsburgh’s top 6 forwards and takes away a lethal weapon both at 5 on 5 on the Evgeni Malkin line and particularly on the power-play where his elite one-timing ability will be sorely missed. Tyler Kennedy is expected to take Neal’s spot on the line alongside Malkin and Chris Kunitz, and although he is a speedy and energetic player, Kennedy does not present the same matchup problems that a player like Neal creates with his size and scoring ability.
Fleury Carries Big Burden
It goes without saying that Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has not been himself so far this series. Fleury hasn’t looked comfortable in any of three games and hasn’t been able to make the saves he should be making, and unlike Ilya Bryzgalov’s incredible game 2 glove save, he hasn’t been able to make the saves when his team has desperately needed to him. Brent Johnson relieved him in the third period of game 3 and although there were some questioning if he should start game 4, there is no way that head coach Dan Bylsma can’t go back to Fleury in an elimination game. The Penguins will either sink or swim with Fleury in game 4 but unfortunately for the former Cup-winning netminder, unless the Pens are able to come back and win the series, he will take much of the blame for their failures.
Crosby and Malkin–and Staal
Starting tonight and what they hope will be extended to a game 5, Pittsburgh’s two superstars must take over and assert their dominance. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin must leave little doubt that they are the best players on the ice tonight and figure heavily in on much of the Pens offense. Yes they are good enough to get Pittsburgh back into this series by themselves, but without James Neal tonight they will need Jordan Staal to step up and give them some help. Staal has struggled in this series both offensively and defensively, but if he can find a way to generate some offense on the third line, his team will benefit greatly.
As mentioned, Paul Martin will miss tonight’s game, but Pittsbugh may also be without Zbynek Michalek who will be a game-time decision. The team has re-called rookie blueliner Simon Despres to replace Martin but if Michalek is unable to play then the Penguins will be down a defenseman.