The Pittsburgh Penguins found themselves in a desperate situation on Wednesday night as they faced the prospect of going down three games to none in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Washington Capitals. Less than two minutes into the tilt, that desperation reached a boiling point after an unfortunate misplay by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury that resulted in a quick goal by red hot Alexander Ovechkin. The resulting shock wave seemingly stunned the Penguins for the following 10-minutes of play as they fell back on their heels and let the Washington Capitals start controlling the puck in the Penguins end.
Once Dan Bylsma finally got his team to settle down, however, that desperation played into their favor as they started to play like a team on a mission……a mission to climb back into a series that was heading the wrong way in front of a sold-out, white-out crowd. Leading the charge like he was shot out of a cannon was an amazingly revved-up Evgeni Malkin who looked to silence any critics about his lack of production heretofore in this series. Leading all players in ice time (29:38) and shots (9), Malkin scored a pivotal goal 15-minutes into the 3rd period to break a 1-1 tie. Although the Capitals came back to score at 18:10 to send it into overtime, the Penguins all continued to feed off from the wellspring of energy brought to the ice by Malkin. As a result, the Penguins asserted control over much of the play in the 2nd, 3rd and OT periods and outshot the Capitals 42-23. Thankfully, the game time decision by Dan Byslma to include Kris Letang in the lineup paid a huge dividend halfway through the first overtime as Letang’s heavy shot deflected off from a Caps player and into the net behind Varlamove for the crucial game winner. It was the perfect culmination of a dominant performance by a desperate team.
The Penguins will need to take that desperation into Game 4 on Friday night and again on Saturday when the series returns to Washington. Capitals’ goaltender Simeon Varlamov has proven that his outstanding play is not just a streak of beginner’s luck. Varly has stymied the Penguins’ offense and given the Capitals what they have needed to keep games close enough to give them the chance to win every night. With opportunistic sharpshooters on the Caps bench, the Penguins can’t afford to sit back on 1-goal leads and expect to come out ahead. Momentum can change in a heartbeat, and just like that a series can be over.
To keep this series moving in the right direction, the Penguins will need Evgeni Malkin to continue to play with the passion that he displayed on Wednesday night. Pairing him with an energy player like Max Talbot paid huge dividends, and should be replicated on Friday night. The Penguins will also need to harvest some more offensive flair out of the Kennedy-Staal-Cooke line, similar to what was done in the first round against the Philadelphia Flyers. And let’s face it, Marc-Andre Fleury needs to return to form and become the better goaltender in this series. At the other end of the ice, the Penguins need put more players in front of Varlamov to wreak some havoc and screen the incoming shots, much like Bill Guerin did on the Evgeni Malkin goal on Wednesday night. There is still plenty of other work to be done by the Penguins to assert more positive control over the series outcome. In particular, they will need to continue to improve their performance in the faceoff circle and perhaps most importantly on the powerplay. No more playing pass the biscuit around the outskirts looking for the perfect setup and shot. It is time to crash the net and go for the mucking and grinding kind of goals that are achieved through hard work and sacrifice in the crease. This is what it will likely take to have success against a hot goaltender who has stymied the opposition repeatedly.
There will be little time to recover from Friday night’s game before traveling to Washington for Game 5 on Saturday, so the Penguins need to put forth their best effort of these playoffs in Game 4 and regain the upper hand on the series momentum. Let’s Go Pens!