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Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray (30) will have to be red-hot in goal for the Penguins to advance far in the 2018 NHL Playoffs. (Gene J. Puskar AP Photo)

Many years ago, at the Civic Arena-or the Mellon Arena-or whatever its designation was back then, before the Pittsburgh Penguins started their succession of 14 million sellouts, Penguin management had to entice patrons into those God awful orange seats…not to mention some God awful Penguin games.

Well, there, I just mentioned it anyway.

The lure was giveaways, in the form of bobbleheads and the like.  My wobbly head collection ranges from Mario Lemieux and Kevin Stevens to Alexei Morozov and Johan Hedberg. Unfortunately, most of these replicates look nothing like the men they are designed to represent.

My prize is my Mike Lange talking bobblehead, which looks nothing like Mike Lange, but sounds exactly like him…given that they just inserted into the base a recording of his goal calls. He stands on my dresser right next to my Myron Cope, and my dazzling Bob Prince talking bobblehead, which looks like a clone of the iconic Pirates broadcaster, right down to his oversized head sporting oversized glasses, and his somewhat imperious plaid sport coat.

Then there is my 6-inch high Stanley Cup, the coolest giveaway if ever there was one. I’ve been cupping my Cup into the press box for every game since these prodigious Pittsburgh Penguins won the whole kit-and-caboodle in June of 2016. And I am to retire it to my bobblehead collection only when the Pens no longer own the Cup, which concerns me presently.

Despite the Penguins recording 100 points this season, so have at least eight other teams with more. It’s an uncompromising year with a profusion of talented teams to beat.  From October to New Years, we could have collectively said… “not much chance of cupping the Stanley Cup again,” as the team had 19 wins and 21 combined losses. In January and February, we could have collectively said…”three peat,” as Pittsburgh went 17-6.  In March and April, I would say…”your guess is as good as mine,” as the Pens have won 11 and have a combined loss of 7.

The Penguins’ first round opponent wasn’t decided until the last of the 82 games of the season. That team is the highly loathed Philly Flyers, whom the Penguins just happened to have swept this year, scoring five goals in each of the four contests.

What does it take to win a Stanley Cup championship?  Well, there is offense assuredly. You can’t win if you can’t score. The Pens have that abundantly, scoring four goals in 16 games, five in 19 games, six goals four times and seven goals once.  Then there is stout defense absolutely, but the Pens rank 20th in that arena.  And there are special teams, where they had the number one power play conversion rate in the regular season, setting a team record with 26.4 percent. We all know what “the regular season” means…not a damn thing in the playoffs. And the Penguin penalty kill continues to struggle.

Without stellar playoff goaltending, there is no hope. Look at every Cup winner and you’ll see a tender who was not merely good, not merely great, but merely extraordinary. A goaltender has to stand on his head, which is exactly what Matt Murray did the last two Mays and Junes, with some equal assistance from Marc-Andre Fleury, who could very well be defending goal against the Penguins for his new team, the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Now with the playoffs approaching fast, so it remains to be seen what Matt Murray brings forth, but if the last eight games that Murray has played in since his return from injury are any indication, this team may be in for a struggle. By Murray’s own admission, his play has been “average.” Murray has given up 27 goals in eight games for a Goals Against Average of 3.37…not the stuff of which championships are made. In comparison, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, whom Murray beat last year to win the Cup, has a GAA of 2.27. Nashville also recorded 115 points this season to win the Presidents’ trophy for the first time ever…no accident there, given Rinne’s play. And it could easily be Rinne, the Finnish goaltender we may face again in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Frequently, Penguin TV broadcast color man Bob Errey and play-by-play guy Steve Mears gush over Murray and his spectacular saves at the right moment, although he has given up the first goal early in many games since he came back from a concussion suffered in practice in late February. Obviously, Murray, with 27 goals allowed in eight games, is not making enough spectacular saves in the right moments.

Errey is a former number one pick of the Penguins in 1983 and a very capable color man. They don’t call him Eagle Eye Errey for nothing. And to be fair to Murray, he is playing behind that 20th ranked team defense. And that is precisely why this team needs an out-of-his-mind goaltender.

Is there an ace in the hole in case Murray fails to deliver headstands? Two years ago, a back-up rookie goaltender named Matt Murray rose to the occasion after Fleury went down. Can back-up rookie goalie Casey DeSmith (who rang up his first NHL shutout in game 82 last Friday, April 6) do the same…just in case?

Although the Pens have been winning because they are scoring four and five goals on a regular basis, will that be enough in the playoffs? Giving up 3.37 goals per game may get you through the early rounds, if that, but it will not get you a large silver trophy in June.  The playoffs start this week and I’ll be keeping a running tab on how this team fares because I so want to be cupping my little 6-inch silver trophy around for the next 14 months… and more.

Lee Kann is a media producer and freelance writer for the New Pittsburgh Courier.  Contact: shooting16bl@gmail.com

PENS FIRST-ROUND PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Pittsburgh Penguins (Metro 2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (Metro 3)

Wednesday, April 11, 7pm: Flyers @ Penguins | NBCSN

Friday, April 13, 7pm: Flyers @ Penguins | NBCSN

Sunday, April 15, 3pm: Penguins @ Flyers | NBC

Wednesday, April 18, 7pm: Penguins @ Flyers | NBCSN

*Friday, April 20, TBD: Flyers @ Penguins | TBD

*Sunday, April 22, TBD: Penguins @ Flyers | TBD

*Tuesday, April 24, TBD: Flyers @ Penguins | TBD

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