Ron Musselman | Powerful Penguins continue playoff march

May 26, 2013 

— The top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins continue their impressive march through the NHL playoffs after being bounced in the first round the past two years.

Two series down, two more to go in their quest for the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup championship.

The Penguins cemented their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance Friday night since winning their last Cup in 2009 by finishing off the punchless Ottawa Senators in five games at the Consol Energy Center. 

Next up, they will face the Boston Bruins, who eliminated the New York Rangers with a 3-1 victory in Game 5 on Saturday .

The Penguins have buried their first two opponents — the New York Islanders (six games) and Senators — with an avalanche of goals and a powerful power-play unit that is tops in the league.

Oh, yeah, let’s not forget the rock-solid goaltending turned in by Tomas Vokoun, the former backup who has gone 6-1 in net since replacing struggling starter Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the Islanders series. 

“They have skill, speed (and are) well-coached,” Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said after Friday’s 6-2 loss to the Penguins in Game 5. “They’re going to be a tough team to beat.”

The Penguins have scored 47 goals in 11 playoff games this spring and are averaging 4.3 goals per game. No team in the NHL playoffs in the past 15 years has scored goals at that dizzying pace during a postseason run that lasted at least two rounds.

“We have a lot of scary guys up front,” highly-skilled Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said.

The Penguins have scored at least one power-play goal in their past eight home playoff games and their power-play unit is 13-for-46, with a NHL-high 28.2 percent conversion rate.

They also have scored four goals or more in nine of their playoff games, during which they have gone 8-1.

Don’t look for that approach to change for the Penguins in Round 3.

“We’re going to keep going and do the same thing,” said winger James Neal, who had his first career postseason hat trick Friday as the Penguins secured their first series-clinching win on home ice in seven tries under coach Dan Bylsma. “We’re confident that if we keep playing the same way, we’ll get results.”

The Penguins’ high-powered offense has had a number of stars and snipers to date.

•  Neal has five goals and two assists in his past two games after a slow start to the playoffs.

•  Center Evgeni Malkin has 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) and is tied with defenseman Letang (three goals, 13 assists) for the team lead.

•  Letang, who has been a key player in working the point on the power play, had a league-leading nine assists in Round 2. And he is averaging 2:29 shorthanded minutes per game on a penalty-killing unit that is clicking at 89.7 percent, having snuffed out 35 of 39 penalties.

•  Center and captain Sidney Crosby has 15 points (seven goals, eight assists). His 1.5 points-per-game-average this postseason is a career-high.

•  Winger Jarome Iginla has 12 points (four goals, eight assists); winger Pascual Dupuis (team-high seven goals, three assists) is tied with Neal with 10 points; and defenseman Paul Martin (two goals, seven assists) and winger Chris Kunitz (four goals, five assists) have netted nine points each.

•  Feisty winger Matt Cooke has points in three consecutive games – all assists – to tie a postseason career high. Ditto for unsung winger Tyler Kennedy (one goal, two assists).

“The depth we have showed, different guys chipping in, has been impressive,” Crosby said.

Vokoun also has been a difference-maker in goal. He has a 1.85 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage in his seven starts since taking over for Fleury.

He is 16-2 in his past 18 starts dating to the regular season and has handled the heavy workload of the NHL playoffs nicely so far despite appearing in more than two games in a row just once during the regular season.

“We played great as a team in this series,” said Vokoun, who stopped 29 shots Friday. “A lot of unselfish plays. Players playing for the team, playing good defense.”

Despite his playoff success, Vokoun isn’t taking anything for granted. The 36-year-old goaltender knows he has to keep playing well to hang onto the No. 1 job.

“There’s nothing set in stone here,” Vokoun said. “I play every game like it could be my last. It wouldn’t be any different if they told me that, ‘No matter what’s going to happen, you’re going to play for the rest of the playoffs.’

“In this business, promises can only last as long as you're performing.”

Through two rounds, the Penguins have performed as well as any team in the postseason.

They need eight more wins to hoist the shiny hardware named after Lord Stanley.

Ron Musselman is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter@ronmusselman8.

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