It was the best of teams…It was the worst of teams.
Both were the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 and then Game 2 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Best of Teams
On April 13, a play-off seasoned Pittsburgh team skated with authority and precision, an unrelenting assembly line of quick breakouts, bullet stretch passes and thunderous pounding. All of this after Marc-Andre Fleury shut the door time after time after multiple times in the early going, and Brooks Orpik put a stop to the Bolts’ shenanigans 2 minutes into the 1st period with a bone-jarring exclamation point of a hit on Steve Stamkos. With Fleury and Orpik setting the tone and sending a message, the rest of the team kicked into gear. What else worked:
- Alex Kovalev and James Neal contributing early - Much is expected from these two players acquired for their scoring ability. They have underwhelmed in this expectation though Neal has battled every game to get chances and has been of value on the backcheck in his first playoffs. Kovi needed to get the monkey off his own back, so it was encouraging when he opened scoring by capitalizing on a juicy opportunity off the stick of Neal.
- Jordan Staal ever present - Now you see him. Now you suddenly see him clear across the ice making a play…over and over and over again. He covers as much acreage as his dad’s farm in no time at all, and served to be an obstacle for Bolts players all night.
- Buzz Line - The new 3rd line of Max Talbot centering Pascal Dupuis and Chris Conner has been high voltage, high speed play that set the Bolts on their heels and had them scrambling. That kind of juice wears on a body.
- Stick-on-Puck - Such a simple but highly important concept. Making the effort to get the stick in the way of the puck-carrier and, at best, taking the puck away to transition the other way is crucial. All night long, from 1st line to 4th, from D-man to centerman and winger, the Penguins disrupted charges and breaks with aggressive stick work and good gap, often resulting in odd-man breaks the other way.
- Emergence of Asham - Arron Asham appeared around the corner of Dwayne Roloson and on a second attempt on his wrap-around, jammed the puck home for the Pens’ second goal of the night.
- Solid “D” – Coach Dan Bylsma has decided to lean heavily on his top four D-men with a smattering of Matt Niskanen and Ben Lovejoy. One standout has been Zbynek Michalek whose wiry frame does not look like it could withstand the kind of beating he takes nightly. Not only does he always seem to come out unscathed, but he has the kind of snaky style that finds him inserting himself in ways that befuddle Tampa’s forwards. Of the six blueliners for the Penguins, Michalek’s play has been the most consistent.
- Transition and Entry - Slick, quick Penguin puck retrieval in the defensive zone and that long, deadly stretch pass made the Bolts’ 1-3-1 more of a 1-0-1 because they didn’t have time to set up in the neutral zone. With Tampa Bay’s defensemen forced to turn around and go dig for the puck all night, their own trap and transition system never got going.
The Worst of Teams
Generally, if a team scores three goals in the final period of a playoff game, they take that momentum into the next game and build on it. Such was the expectation on April 15 at Consol Energy Center, but within minutes of the puck drop, penalties on both teams caused an awkward start and 3 Tampa Bay goals in the first period. From that point on, it seemed the Penguins could not get into their rhythm, and it didn’t help that both teams couldn’t help themselves in the penalty department. With Pittsburgh’s comatose power play, man advantage was really the last thing they wanted, and even strength seemed hard to come by for long enough stretches to get into the flow. Glaringly apparent:
- Anemic Power Play – Penguins went 0 for 7 on 8 shots on the power play. As the arena announcer tried to rally the fans with his hail of “It’s your Penguins’ Powerball Power Play!!!!!!” there was a better chance of winning the Powerball than scoring a goal.
- Mental Mistakes - Tampa Bay had too many odd-man breaks as a result of careless mental mistakes and sloppy breakouts and entries. Of note was Kris Letang who lapsed horribly. Lack of focus caused too many penalties. As Coach Dan Bylsma said in the post-game press conference, “Discipline and composure in the game were not great…We did not manage the game well.” He noted that at times, the team would gain its composure and start to focus, but then lose a draw that ended in a goal or take a penalty, and whatever focus had been built in that stretch of good play was basically negated. His team struggled against itself all night long.
- Stick-NOT-on-Puck - Tampa Bay dominated in getting to the puck all night long, which was very different from two nights before when the Penguins had the jump on each and every puck, and if it landed on a Bolt stick, it didn’t stay there long. The Giveaway/Takeaway numbers told the story. Tampa Bay notched 5 takeaways and only 2 giveaways; whereas, Pittsburgh committed 8 giveaways and managed only 2 takeaways. Lopsided when compared to Game 1 where both teams were about even on the GV/TK (Pittsburgh 3/2 and Tampa Bay 1/0).
- No Gap - Missed assignments in the defensive zone really hurt the Penguins in this game. On the first goal by Eric Brewer, two Pens defenders were set up in the middle of the zone vertically in a kind of high-low situation. While this gave Fleury clear sight of the shooter, there was no challenge by the defenders, allowing Brewer to walk in and pick his spot. The second Tampa goal by Vinnie Lecavalier exemplified a continual problem all night, that of missed defensive assignments on the backdoor attacker. Lecavalier was behind Kris Letang just outside the paint, slightly to Fleury’s left, but it was like Letang had no sense of his presence, and he played Lecavalier too loosely. The result was a goal because by the time Letang sees Lecavalier, his stick is behind Letang and Brewer is feeding him. Defenders, whether it’s blueliners or backchecking forwards have to not only be aware of aggressors in the crease but be close enough on them to jam their stick up.
While the game was not as stellar and flawlessly workmanlike as Game 1, it was much improved over Game 2. How does one beat the power play woes? Get a quick transition on a delayed penalty and score. Who better than Max Talbot, a gritty, nagging player that always finds a way to elevate his game during playoff time. The opening salvo showed that the Penguins were more focused, playing disciplined hockey rather than reactionary hockey. Seeing the delayed call, Penguins broke out crisply as Chris Conner took the center drive and Pascal Dupuis drifted far post ready for a rebound. None needed as Talbot beat Dwayne Roloson “like a rented mule.”
In a little over 40 seconds after Talbot’s notch, Arron Asham, also known as a playoff kind of guy, proved it on a sweet feed from Mike Rupp who passed the puck to himself off the wall, around Bolts Victor Hedman, and laid it under the belly of a sprawling Pavel Kubina to the focused Asham who pulled a Sidney Crosby knee-drag shot, burying the puck behind Roloson (James Neal, please take note). Asham is the only Penguin with multiple goals and is tied with Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang with 3 points each. Who’d o’ thunk it?
Not enough can be said about the Penguins’ 3rd and 4th lines. Where the 3rd line comprised of whirling, furious, thumping fire plugs, Max Talbot, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Conner has become the Buzz (or Buzz-Kill) Line, the 4th line of Mike Rupp, Craig Adams and Arron Asham has become the Anchor Line whether they are solid in their play or dropping down on any guy in a Lightning jersey. They have hit, pounded, ground down, done doughnuts around and frustrated Guy Boucher’s players. Mike Rupp has elevated his own play, making much of an average 8 minutes per game, and Adams continues to punish and work, shining in the post season.
And speaking of minutes, it was glaringly apparent that the 1st line in Game 3 was not necessarily the line that logged the most ice time. In order of unit time on ice:
- Staal-Kunitz-Kennedy – averaged 27 shifts, 18:27 of ice time
- Talbot-Conner-Dupuis – averaged 22 shifts, 17:04 of ice time
- Letestu-Kovalev-Neal – averaged 19 shifts, 17:04 of ice time
- Rupp-Adams-Asham – averaged 14 shifts, 9:14 of ice time
With 5 shifts and nearly 8 minutes less in time on the ice, the Rupp line combined for 3 shots, 11 hits, 1 giveaway and a +3. On the other hand, the Letestu line combined for 3 shots, 5 hits, 2 giveaways and came up even in +/-. The “top line” needs to find another gear if the Penguins hope to make any headway beyond this series. While Letestu is a face-off specialist, this line is really missing Dustin Jeffrey who had been building some chemistry with Neal and Kovalev before his injury and was proving he could score at this level.
Certainly, with a 2 games to 1 edge in the series, a couple other notables need to be considered. Even though Chris Kunitz is suspended for 1 game on the headshot to Simon Gagne, to this point, he has been a non-factor, and the likely insertion of Eric Tangradi could add a little more spark and more size to the Staal line that might ignite Staal who has played hard but needs to get in a goal or two as he’s known to do in critical playoff moments. Kennedy has finally broken into scoring in the post-season and can hopefully continue his consistent point contributions. Then, there are clear signs that Ryan Malone for Tampa is not 100%. It was most evident in Game 3 where Malone was absent for part of the game. Word had it that both his ribs and his shoulder weren’t good. When he did return, he labored on the ice and was less than his usual hitting, agitating self. This certainly bodes well for the Penguins.
The loss of Tampa’s Steve Downie on a 1-game suspension for his hit on Ben Lovejoy will remove a nasty irritant for the Penguins, opening up the ice for them a little more. Staying with Tampa Bay is a look at 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson. As Stan Savran put it on sports radio host Mark Madden’s show on April 19, Roloson “looks shaky.” In watching how he sets up to make saves and his demeanor after the Pens score, he looks like he is just holding on to his composure. His eyes say it all, bordering on panic (at the very least they have that “oh, crap” brand of strong concern), relieved to turn away a shot and grateful when play shifts up ice. In contrast, at the other end of the ice, while Marc-Andre Fleury will be the first to tell you Game 2 was not his finest effort, Games 1 and 3 as well as much of the season from October on shows commanding, calm, focused body language. His eyes are alert but not wild. For this position, it is a test of wills and stamina. While Roloson is a fitness nut, he cannot escape age, and the more the Penguins make him move east-west in the crease, forcing him to make saves in bunches, the quicker he will wear down in a game and in the series.
The mistakes of Game 2 were all the kinds of things that were “fixable” and more the result of a collective lack of focus than anything else with the exception of the power play. While the Penguin power play in Game 3 showed some interesting wrinkles in it that kept them in the offensive zone longer and elicited more shots than they have accomplished in recent memory, few drawn penalties gave them little opportunity to really put it into practice. Game 4 may tell better.
The Penguins’ destiny in this series is truly in their own hands. They know it. They should rise to it and emerge victorious.