3 Questions with... James Conley

Stunned. - Bruce Bennett

Today I talked to James Conley of Pensburgh about game 1, game 2, and punching. He gave us some pretty interesting stuff, so take a read:

1. You wrote about the Penguins trying to out-Bruin the Bruins. Teams keep trying to do that. Why is that?

I'm not sure how the Maple Leafs and Rangers approached their series' with the Bruins, but I definitely think the Penguins are making a point of being physical in the East Finals. Boston definitely strikes as a physical team. Chara probably has to duck at center ice to avoid hitting his head off the scoreboard. Lucic looks like he wouldn't be out of place in an Olympic boxing ring and I think a lot of people still remember them as the stark contrast to the floppy, softish Canucks in the 2011 Finals. But it grossly oversimplifies their game to call them physical and mean and whatever other adjective for churlishness you want to pin on them. The Bruins seems to me like a very structured, very patient attack. I don't think any team in the East works as a five-man unit quite like the Bruins, whose forwards have played together, and successfully so, for a long time.

Mike Colligan at The Hockey Writers has spoken about the Pens' physical attack, and seems to think Pittsburgh's physicality is a plan of attrition -- that Chara and the rest of Boston's defense will be worn down by the end of the series, so long as Pittsburgh remains committed to finishing their checks. It's not a bad plan. But if being that physical means the Pens can't continue to generate as many of the unlimited offensive chances that they had in Rounds 1 and 2, or that they're just too damned temperamental to play physically without losing their minds, I don't think it's a good strategy.

More than anything, I think lazy headline writers just love the easy consonance that "Big Bad Bruins" provides. Boston is a physical team, but it's not their predominant characteristic.

2. You must be pretty psyched about Matt Cooke going unsuspended. Did you think 5 and a game was enough? Did you think Marchand should've gotten the same?

Psyched, definitely, because Cooke is probably playing the best hockey of his Penguins career right now. He's a monster on the penalty kill and is anchoring an otherwise unspectacular third line, where Brandon Sutter is struggling and Kennedy, Morrow and others have kind of cycled in and out on the other wing.

Five and a game worked for me. It was a dangerous hit. I base it on no precedent, because hits like that have resulted in everything between non-calls and multi-game suspensions this season. I think Claude Julien's milqeutoast response to questions about it summed it up pretty nicely -- it was a penalty, and it should have been called as it was, but McQuaid saw him coming. Other hits like that have been judged less harshly because some of the onus is on the player being hit to protect themselves. McQuaid knew there was a forechecker oncoming. He probably could have done a better job of protecting himself.

As far as those two hits are concerned, the players need to know where the lines are. The officiating was horrific in Game 1, but only for the players' sake. Nothing in hockey is worse than the false equivalency of why your guy should get this because our guy got that, so along those lines I really don't want to talk about Marchand's hit in the context of Cooke's, and vice versa. It's great troll bait for angry fans, but the biggest problem with it was for players of both teams who have to know how big the strike zone is going to be, so to speak.

3. Saturday night was the first time the Penguins got shut out all playoffs. Do you think they respond with a higher level of play or can we expect to see the fights and penalties come out again?

No fights, no penalties. Rask was very good in Game 1, but the Penguins were unlucky in equal measure, at least early on. Those posts and near-misses aren't going to keep going all Boston's way. The Pens will come out with a more successful attack in Game 2.

I hate to be brash about the Pens and seem like a homer, but I do believe there's no reason to think they can't put four on Rask -- or any other goalie in the NHL -- on any given night. Ottawa was every bit the defensive stalwart that Boston was in the regular season, and outside of Game 3 the Penguins absolutely lit up Anderson. They can do it to Rask -- so long as they make it their focus. That's the problem I have with their plan of physical attrition. If they have to stifle their own offensive attack to put an extra five or ten hits on the Bruins over the course of a game, what's the point? Their 3.92 goals per game average in the playoffs isn't a fluke, and Shero didn't acquire Morrow, Jokinen and Iginla so that the team would play better defense and win a bunch of 1-0 games. The Pens have the horses to score like it's the 1980s. That's why I think any game plan that gets away from that is a misfire from the get-go.

I do expect the Pens to get on the board early. However, if Boston carries another big lead into the third, I wouldn't bet against another meltdown.

Thanks again to James Conley for answering these questions!

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