So many things come to mind in the opening series of a Stanley Cup run, full of speculative scenarios for each match-up. Arguably, the first assumption often erroneously made about the 1st Seed vs. 8th Seed series is that the top team should steamroll the bottom team. In a perfect world where only ranking would dictate the outcome, this could be true, but this isn’t a perfect world. That, and we’re talking about hockey.
The #8 team, in this case the New York Islanders, had to scratch and claw to break into the party, and even that wasn’t absolutely certain until the last possible second. The #1 team, in this case the Pittsburgh Penguins, after several years of ending up in the dreaded 4-5-seed series, had arrived in strength and style at the top of the conference with equally hard work, great chemistry, and phenomenal acquisitions despite being plagued by injuries to top players.
Neither team was a stranger to hard work, but the sheer fact that their positions served as the bookends of the conference teams that made the playoffs meant certain expectations. The juggernaut that was the Penguins should sweep the very young and playoff-inexperienced Islanders in 4 games, or take the series in no more than 5. It certainly looked that way in Game 1 when the Penguins were fairly flawless in all aspects of the game. Transition from defensive end to offensive zone was smooth. Defensemen were supported by forwards coming back and keeping Marc-Andre Fleury in a position where he could see shots and make saves. Passes were tape-to-tape, north-south and supported to the net. The power play was clicking and the beleaguered penalty kill from mere weeks ago was now tough to penetrate.
Since that first salvo, there’ve been a lot of spilled guts and not much glory in the way of a solid 60-minute game from the Penguins. While on the other side of the red line, the Islanders had found their intestinal fortitude and sought to smack the Pens in the head with it over the next 3 games that ended in a series tied at 2-2, including an eeked-out OT win by the Penguins that they were lucky to get.
The Penguins had been through this before, so there really was no need to worry until Game 4 hit them square between the eyes. While there was enough fault to go around, three players stood out as uncharacteristically off in their game. Kris Letang, while a very strong, fit skater, began with his average TOI in Game 1 at 25:20. His time went up to 29:04 in Game 2 and a whopping 33:33 in Game 3, keeping in mind that the game did go several minutes into overtime. By game 4, Letang’s play was off, slopping and unfocused in the Pens’ defensive end. One memorable indicator that something was wrong was when Letang tried to set-up the break from their defensive end and was thwarted on 2 pass attempts at their own blue line in bang-bang fashion. The bullet was dodged, but it was clear that Tanger was spent. Marc-Andre Fleury’s confidence waned in Game 4 with a couple of soft goals as a result of lost focus and lack of support in front of him by both defensemen and forwards.
Saving the worst for last, Evgeni Malkin showcased every bad habit he had in Game 4 with lazy passing, sub-par face-off production and petulant penalty-taking, including one that cost the team a goal. His pattern of gaining the O-zone has become so predictable that he is more easy to defend. In this game, Geno would take the puck and put on the burners through the neutral zone as his teammates attempted to catch up and get in position. Unfortunately, by then, he’d crossed the blue line and been stripped of the puck. Each time it happened, his frustration would build and he’d continue to try to bull his way forward to the detriment of the team. The solution (early) in the 3rd period would have been to pull him to the bench for a “conversation,” put Jussi Jokinen in as the 2nd line center and let Geno roll with the 4th line in a reduced number of shifts.
The good news is that Game 5 revealed a head coach that made the hard decisions by sitting Jokinen in favor of bringing in the high-energy, hard-hitting respectably face-off winning Joe Vitale. Tanner Glass took a backseat to Tyler Kennedy who always manges to score on the Islanders. The biggest and “puckiest” decision Dan Bylsma made was putting Tomas Vokoun between the pipes, a goalie who has had a strong showing against the Islanders in his career.
The result? A Penguins team reminiscent of Game 1. Clearly, all of them, Malkin most of all, had viewed a lot of film. A “reborn” Geno was a responsible Geno in all zones, in all aspects of his game. Tomas Vokoun was spectacular in goal with his own responsible, controlled play and puck distribution. The players in front of him were back to keeping the way clear for him to be able to see the puck and when he couldn’t, he was flashing the leather in a perfect shutout performance and earned teh ESPN moniker of having “the sickest mitts in the game” from John Buccigross who characterized the netminder this way: Vokouna Matata – No Worries. Adding the grit and energy of Kennedy and Vitale brought the oh-so needed physical element that spread throughout the team. A physical Penguins team is a dominant Penguins team. Goal scoring was also spread around with the exception of a goal by Sidney Crosby. Kennedy broke open the 0-0 tie with a huge shot, and the other 2 goals came from blueliners Kris Letang who looked rejuvenated and the big Crankshaft Douglas Murray who now has 2 goals in the series.
Sid’s “Statue of Mario” play had that spooky reminiscence of Mario Lemieux’s goal, now immortalized in stone in front of Consol Energy Center became even spookier when video replays split the screen and showed both the Crosby and Lemieux footage. That was kinda special.
Game 6: The Penguins need another solid, focused performance to a man to put away the Islanders. Game 5 momentum should carry over to this game if the team has learned anything not only over this series but over the seasons of playoff experience they have accumulated. They need to stay out of the penalty box, capitalize on the power plays they earn, be diligent in face-offs and responsible in their play. This is the game where the well-oiled machine that has become the Penguins needs to steamroll to victory and earn some needed rest for the next round. Let’s Go Pens!