Health of Fleury key for Pittsburgh

By John Mehno

For the Mirror

PITTSBURGH – Eighty-two games and six months later, it’s the Penguins vs. the New York Rangers in the playoffs again.

The Penguins will face the team that has ousted them in the past two seasons. The difference between this year and last is the Penguins head into the postseason on a 14-2 roll instead of barely squeezing in on the last day of the season.

Answering some important questions about this first-round match:

n Who will be in goal for the Penguins?

The series hinges on the answer to this. Marc-Andre Fleury practiced on Monday, which was a good sign. The Penguins continued their success after his second concussion of the season forced him out, but there’s little hope in the playoffs without the No. 1 goalie.

Even more scary is the (upper body) injury that forced backup Matt Murray out of Saturday’s season finale in Philadelphia. That presents a scenario where No. 3 goalie Jeff Zatkoff might have to start, backed up by Tristan Jarry, who has never appeared in an NHL game.

They badly need for Fleury to be ready.

n Will Evgeni Malkin play?

He might not be ready to open the series, but he could appear sometime along the way if it goes long enough. Malkin last played on March 11 before an upper body injury forced him out.

If he returns, what is his place in an offense that has been humming like a machine? That would be a pleasant problem for the coaching staff.

The Penguins showed they could win regular season games without Malkin. Can they do same in the playoffs? Maybe.

But wouldn’t his return give the power play a nice boost?

n Does the Penguins’ regular season success translate to the playoffs?

Pittsburgh took the season series, winning three of the last four. More importantly, it seemed as though the Penguins vanquished some of their demons against the Rangers and, more specifically, against goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

If nothing else, that should give them a measure of confidence that didn’t exist last season. They’ve scored against Lundqvist, which they hadn’t done often in the past.

Every coach will say the playoffs are a new season and everyone is 0-0. That’s true, but it seems like the success the Penguins had against the Rangers should help.

n Does the Penguins’ style translate to the playoffs?

A lot of people maintain that things change in the playoffs. There’s more intensity, and it’s different to play as many seven consecutive games against the same opponent.

Both are true. The Penguins’ success under Mike Sullivan has been built on speed. It’s not a new concept. When Badger Bob Johnson was here 25 years, he used to preach, “Attack with speed.” He correctly noted it was the one asset that helped on both offense and defense.

Speed is so fundamental that it won’t be affected by any differences between the regular season and playoffs. The Rangers could be missing two of their top four defensemen, so that makes Pittsburgh’s speed even more of a weapon.

n Did the New York Islanders try to avoid the Penguins in the first round?

It sure looks like they did. If that was the case, hats off to them. It was a smart strategy.

Much better to face the Florida Panthers in the first round than a team that went 14-2 down the stretch.

n What’s the pick?

If Fleury is available, the Penguins in six. If not, all bets are off.