There are several easy comparisons to be made between this year’s Penguins team and Pittsburgh’s 2009 title team, led by the mid-season coaching changes in each of those seasons and the two rivalry series (Philadelphia and Washington in 2009, the Rangers and Washington in 2016) that began playoff runs.
So if these two seasons appear headed down similar paths, will Penguins vs. Tampa play out in similar fashion to the 2009 sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals?
Let’s look back.
The 2009 matchup of Pittsburgh and Carolina had a few storylines, but not many (it was the first ever playoff meeting between the franchises):
-It featured Jordan Staal playing against his older brother Eric (the first meeting of brothers in a conference final since the Esposito’s in the mid 1970s)
-Carolina fans hated Brooks Orpik for a hit on Erik Cole which broke a vertebrae in his neck
-Former Pens Ron Francis and Tom Barrasso were behind the Carolina bench
-And former Steelers coach Bill Cowher had been sounding hurricane alarms to rile up fans in two previous Game 3’s in Raleigh.
The 2016 storylines for Pens and Lightning? Again, limited storylines. The two teams have played once before in the postseason, but it’s not a thrilling revenge epic: that was a seven-game series in 2011 where the depleted Penguins (the ‘replace-Pens’) blew a 3-1 first round series lead. You have the Victor Hedman check on Sidney Crosby that doubled up a concussion and the promise of a series matching the two fastest teams in the East as probably the top storylines leading the way.
The 2009 ECF pitted the number four seed vs. the number six seed in terms of Eastern Conference standings that year, so it was anti-climactic from the start, even if Carolina had been a Cup winner in 2006 (they had missed the playoffs both years afterward).
Here in 2016, technically Tampa is the again a six-seed opponent based on regular season points, although the comparison is not quite apples to apples thanks to the change in division and playoff format. Pittsburgh is technically the two seed, but as in 2009 it’s a pair of non-division champions meeting for a shot at the Prince of Wales Trophy so I’ll call that comparison a good one.
Both series share the thread of elite goaltending matchups, in somewhat unexpected ways.
In 2009, Carolina’s Cam Ward, at age 25, was thought of as the best goalie remaining in the playoffs with a Cup win on his resume, winning two Game 7’s (against Marty Brodeur and Tim Thomas in rounds one and two), and setting a career high with 39 regular-season wins. Marc-Andre Fleury, of course, had his doubters but was coming off elite play against the Capitals with a signature save on Alex Ovechkin in a Game 7.
This year, Tampa is riding 29-year-old Ben Bishop, a Vezina Trophy nominee but a somewhat unheralded superstar (the guy has allowed just one total goal in five clinching postseason games over the past two years). Pittsburgh has rookie Matt Murray at age 21 coming off series where he outplayed Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby.
But I think both 2009 and 2016 have enough juice to qualify as big-time goalie matchups.
Eric Staal was a superstar in 2009, with nine goals combined in rounds one and two that year, and Sidney Crosby had 12 goals and 21 points already in the bank by the time the Eastern finals started. This year, Crosby has been much tamer (three goals, 10 points), while Tampa is missing its’ big star Steven Stamkos due to his blood clot issue. Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov lead the way for Tampa in points this year, and while Kucherov’s nine tallies are impressive it’s hard to think of him as a superstar yet (although he’s getting there).
Tampa appears more built on quality depth, as Carolina was in 2009; Jussi Jokinen, Rod Brind’Amour, Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen and the like dotted the ‘Canes roster while this Tampa squad has the same scrappy veterans like Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, and Val Filppula.
So the roster makeups have some similarities.
Tampa’s coach, Jon Cooper, has done a remarkable job since taking over for Guy Boucher in 2013, with a trip the Cup Finals last year an impressive achievement. Carolina’s coach in 2009 was 42-year-old Paul Maurice, who took over an underachieving team December of that season and orchestrated a 33-19-5 turnaround. Maurice had been a coach with Hartford 10-years prior and lost in a Cup Final with Carolina in 2002 before Jim Rutherford fired him (Peter Laviolette coached the winning Carolina Cup team).
In short, I’m not sure the coaching storyline is very similar; Cooper has been entrenched for a while in Tampa while Maurice was a Mike Sullivan-esque transient.
Another difference, Carolina was a very disciplined team in 2009 with the fewest number of penalties taken in the regular season and the second-best PK in the playoffs. Tampa has taken 59 minors in the playoffs so far this year, the league’s highest total. And while the Penguins’ power play isn’t quite as elite as 2009 (13 power play goals in the first two rounds to 11 this year) it’s pretty close and it could be a big advantage for Pittsburgh in the series.
And finally, maybe the biggest difference, this Tampa team has finished its’ first two series in just five games (Detroit and the Islanders), while the 2009 Carolina team may have hit a wall after two seven-game series.
To summarize, there are some similar vibes this year to the 2009 Eastern Finals to be sure: the Penguins are favored against a team they don’t know very well after navigating two emotional series in rounds one and two, but their ECF opponent is not to be overlooked again with respectable recent playoff success to their credit.
The 2009 Penguins went on to blitz that Carolina team with scores of 3-2 (Fleury was excellent, Phillipe Boucher had the game winner), 7-4 (the Malkin hat-trick game, including his ridiculous around-the-net backhand roof job that ended a string of four ties and two lead changes in the contest), 6-2 and 4-1 to snub Cowher in Raleigh.
It’s awful hard to predict a sweep, but home wins by Pittsburgh in Games 1 and 2 will bring back those memories. Game 1 Friday night will be huge, as Tampa tries to send a message that this won’t be a 2009 repeat, this will be a series that lasts.