In the wake of a stunning Game 6 and on the brink of a decisive Game 7, this is familiar territory. The Penguins have never done anything the easy way. They impress with brilliance and solid focused play on one night and fall apart the next, and just when you think they are sunk, they rise above and find a way. This is the expectation of the hockey-knowledgeable fans, and it is the expectation of the Penguins players and coaches. Now, they just have to execute rather than be executed.
The Penguins – Lightning series is a real unpredictable battle. It’s the Number 4 Seed/Number 5 Seed Series bringing together the two most evenly matched teams within the top eight seeding. It’s a dog fight replete with lopsided wins and the seeming home-ice advantage being a strange non-factor.
So, for the Penguins, it comes down to these things:
- Road-game Mentality - When they keep their game simple and focused, they dominate and excel. There is no shame in simplicity. It would not hurt if Dan Bylsma said to the boys, plan on spending Tuesday night in a downtown hotel, team meals are on order.
- Finish What You Start - This team knows how to set up house in the offensive zone. Nothing is more maddening than to spend inordinate amounts of time in Tampa’s end, wearing them down, forcing them to ice the puck again and again only to lose focus for the split second it takes for Tampa to go the other way and score. They need to continue to dominate and not let up, make smart line changes, get in Dwayne Roloson’s face continuously, and communicate. It’s not new to shoot the puck off a goalie’s pads for the off-side winger (or high forward) to come in backdoor and bury it in the open net. Do it. No standing around.
- Take It Away - Jay Caufield, telestration expert for Root Sports and former Penguin told Mark Madden in an interview, “take away the body, take away the stick.” Part of that is maintaining good gap to impede progress and take away passes as well as shots, but the other part of that is by way of aggressive, legal action. Penguins registered a paltry 22 hits in Game 6. They are effective when registering better than 30. They need to initiate body contact to disrupt the puck carrier and get the stick on the puck at all times. By being first to the puck and on the puck, flow is disrupted, creating odd-man-break chances. Pens also need to take away the middle by tying up play along the boards. When players are forced to waste time battling along the boards, they cannot set up and establish their game plan.
- Stay Out of the Box - Hooking, tripping, and holding are “fatigue” penalties, caused because the other guy beat his man. The beaten man, having lost a step, is out of position and makes a desperation play. Pens need to pay attention to their shift time, knowing when to get off before strength is overtaxed so they have a better chance of being in position to take their man properly.
- A Failure to Communicate - The Penguins have been known for their communication. It’s not hard to hear them even if watching the game on TV. They have been called one of the most communicative teams by analysts. When they fail to do this, play breaks down defensively, offensively, transitionally. Constant, good communication lends itself to keeping all players focused. Lose communication, lose focus. Lose focus, make mistakes. Make mistakes, other team scores.
- Doing Something is Better than Doing Nothing - Tampa is almost ecstatic when the Penguins go on the power play (well, except for Ryan Malone, maybe). For their part, the Penguins show dreaded trepidation. It should be the other way around. Keep it simple. On the entry, they have a couple of good ideas, but execution is horrible because they haven’t seemed to buy into the fact that these ideas could actually work. While Kris Letang is not the worst choice for lugging the puck on entry, the Pens might want to look to one of their more effective puck-carriers, Jordan Staal. In even strength situations, he breeches the distance in the neutral zone with speed and force, and he manages to come across deep over the blue line with control. He’s hard to impede when he enters the offensive zone. If they set four guys across the blue line, Staal might be better suited to bust through. Better yet, they can do a sharp Murphy Dump to the corner, but then they have to chase hard once the defense is turned around. The Penguins have stopped utilizing the trapezoid behind the goalie. With Roloson’s twitchiness, that kind of set-up keeps him having to shift side to side, turning his head and his body, which would tire him out and set up good chances in front of the net.
- Insertions or Infusions – When teams are winning, coaches are loathe to make any changes in personnel, but when winning ways cease to work and losing ensues, a serious evaluation is required:
- Deryk Engelland: It’s time. Either Matt Niskanen or Ben Lovejoy has to sit. With Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek struggling a bit, the Penguins need another big Orpik-like defenseman on the ice banging bodies and clearing the crease for Marc-Andre Fleury. Deryk Engelland knows how to clear bodies and thus clear the vision of his netminder. Some might argue that Engelland doesn’t have the hands of Niskanen and Lovejoy, and perhaps that is true when it comes to finesse; however, the Penguins have been employing a tactic of launching the puck directly on the goalie from as far back as the red line. Only Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang have that kind of muscle. Engelland does too, and his slap shot is enough to make guys wince. Occasionally, he scores. He can drive the puck in hard at the goalie from anywhere between the red and blue lines to get Roloson moving. Quick forechecking should create better scoring chances. Tampa has also been matching big Vincent Lecavalier against the Niskanen-Lovejoy line. A big boy like Engelland who knows how to shadow and shut down is a better physical match-up against Lecavalier.
- Eric Tangradi: The “1” in the 1 for 30 stat of the Penguins’ power play was a direct result of Tangradi’s netfront presence. He understands his role there, likes to work close around the net, and the rest of his game ain’t too shabby either. When he was inserted for the suspended Chris Kunitz, Tangradi was noticed every shift he played. In his first NHL post-season debut, Tangradi led the team with 5 hits. He was ranked fourth on the AHL Baby Pens with 33 points (18G, 15A) in 42 games, so given the opportunity, he can score. He’s big, rangy, tough on the boards, physical and a total nuisance for Roloson. The question is who sits? It does not seem that he can replace a center like Mark Letestu since he’s listed solely as a wing. That leaves an examination of Alex Kovalev, Chris Kunitz, and Chris Conner, all of whom have underperformed in this series. While James Neal has also underperformed, he has seemed to find new confidence to the side of Jordan Staal who was responsible for Neal’s first goal, the all-important double-OT, game-winning goal. It was a good situatoin for him; it should be continued.
The Penguins have it in them to pull this out. Only they can say when the game is over. It is theirs to lose, but it is also theirs to win. What we have here…is an opportunity.