It’s a great time of year to be a fan of Pittsburgh sports. The Pittsburgh Penguins clinched the #1 seed heading into the playoffs. The Pirates have a chance to set a club record for most wins in April with a win in either of the next two games. Life is good in the ‘Burgh.

The Penguins roll into the playoffs coming off of the inspiring 8-3 demolishment of the reeling Carolina Hurricanes, who entered the game a dismal 3-9-2 in April. So sorry, Jordan Staal. The team was led by the encouraging return of star winger James Neal, who led the charge with his third career hat trick, while collecting 8 SOGs and 1 assist in a mere 13:08 time on ice. Maybe it was the tinted visor. Linemate Evgeni Malkin assisted on two of the goals and potted one of his own. Jussi Jokinen continued his torrid pace since joining the ‘guins with 2 goals. Overall just a dominating performance.

The Penguins looked to right the ship after two previous disappointing losses to New Jersey and Buffalo, both non-playoff teams. While the regular season record was phenomenal, momentum is everything in these playoffs.

With the regular season behind them, the Penguins look to silence critics who constantly refer to the three premature playoff exits of the previous seasons. It’s a hard trophy to win, people. This season, however, the biggest concern is the health of star player and captain Sidney Crosby. While he was cleared to practice this past Saturday with the team, he still has to be cleared for game action by doctors. Crosby has said that if it were up to him he’d play, but the decision is not up to him. “It’s not really up to me to be honest with you,” Crosby said. “It’s something the (doctors) have to feel comfortable with the healing and that kind of thing. As soon as they say the word I’ll be ready to go.”

Brooks Orpik also remains sidelined with a lower body injury. He skated before the team took the ice this morning, but no updates have been provided on his condition.

The Pens will enter the playoffs facing the 8-seeded New York Islanders, who are ending a 5-year playoff drought. The emergence of assistant captain John Tavares as a legitimate star in the NHL has energized this team into a position not many sportswriters had them at early in the year. The Islanders have other top tier talent in sniper Matt Moulson, speedy winger Michael Grabner, veteran puck-moving blue liners Lubomir Visnovsky and Mark Streit, and ex-San Jose Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov.

Still, the Islanders are no match for the loaded Penguins. While they have young talent, they are undersized on defense and lack the physicality needed to agitate and potentially defeat the Penguins. If not a sweep, look for the Penguins to take care of this at home in game 5.

The potential line combinations for Pittsburgh assuming a healthy Crosby are astounding. Kunitz/Crosby/Dupuis, Neal/Malkin/Iginla, Morrow/Sutter/Jokinen, Glass/Adams/Cooke with any of Joe Vitale, Beau Bennett, Dustin Jeffrey, and Tyler Kennedy fair game to take a role in the third of fourth lines barring injury or lineup shifting. Good luck New York.

Across the river, the Pirates look to continue their amazing run following a dismal 1-5 start to the season. They face the division rival Milwaukee Brewers in the final three games of their ten game road trip before getting a much-needed break after 20 games in 20 days. The Bucs won the first two series, taking 3 of 4 from the Fightin’ Phills and 2 of 3 from the division rival Redbirds.

The Pirates head into Milwaukee having struggled mightily in Miller Park. Over a 42 game span the Pirates are an unbelievable 4-38 at “The Keg”. Not getting my hopes up here. Still, I have never bought into past statistics much and it’s a brand new season with a brand new team.

The Pirates come into the series 14-5 over their last nine games, good for tops in the league over that span as well as first place in the NL Central. The emergence of promising prospect Starling Marte, who is second amongst the Bucs with a .323 (trailing only Garrett Jones’ .324 start), has provided a major boost to an offence that struggled out of the gate. Marte leads the league in first inning hitting. Russell Martin has also been a major contributor, and was recently awarded MLB Player of the Week honors for the week of April 21-28 after hitting .375 with 4 blasts and 6 RBI’s. A big upgrade over Barajas if you ask me.

The Pirates are winning at an amazing rate despite struggles of star outfielder and MLB all-star Andrew McCutchen. Cutch has struggled out of the gate, with only 2 homers, 13 RBI’s, and a .216 batting average well below his career average of .287. His at bats aren’t as strong as last year. Much like last August and September, pitchers are avoiding anything hard and inside and forcing him to chase at fastballs off the plate. If the team can stay hot, look out for when last year’s MVP candidate heats things back up again. There is no doubt that he will.

It’s a wonderful time to be a Pittsburgh sports fan.

-Justin Culotta, TribLive Sports Intern Blogger

Posted in Pittsburgh Penguins, Pittsburgh Pirates

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