Penguins Season on the Brink

Before the playoffs started, the Pittsburgh Penguins were the favorites to win it all.

Now, they may exit the postseason without a single win.

The star power of Sidney Crosby and company seems to have fallen by the wayside in exchange for poor decision making and horrendous defense.  Pittsburgh started out with a lead in all three games of this series, only to surrender it later in every game. They’ve managed to get 12 goals by Philadelphia net minder Ilya Bryzgalov to average four goals per game, but their defense has had the stopping power of a wet paper bag. Pittsburgh surrendered an unprecedented 20 goals to the Flyers so far. Gretzky’s Oilers couldn’t have won games if they were letting in an average of more than six every night.

As much as I hate to admit it, Marc-Andre Fleury is a key problem. He has looked shaky, given up soft goals on multiple occasions and he hasn’t risen to meet adversity like he has past post-seasons. Fleury used to give fans a gleam of optimism when the rest of the team was playing poorly. “At least Fleury looked good” was a commonly uttered sentiment after Penguins losses. But now, the Flower looks average and flustered.

But don’t put all the weight on Fleury’s shoulders. Even though he hasn’t played his best, the team in front of him hasn’t allowed him to. Every defenseman has made mistakes that have cost the Penguins goals. They have turned the puck over in all three zones, failed to get their sticks or bodies in passing and shooting lanes and they have been overaggressive in the offensive zone, stranding themselves behind the play. When the blueliners are out of position, the Flyers have been able to breakout with odd-man rushes.  And since Malkin, Crosby, Letang, Martin and others have all been guilty of turnovers in the neutral zone, all the Flyers need to do is wait. But they go a step further. The Flyers have been aggressive with the puck, even when they could probably sit back. They saw the Penguins surrender leads in the first two games because of complacency and Flyers coach Peter Peter Laviolette has never allowed his team to take their foot off the gas.

This pace has killed Pittsburgh. Even on occasions where they’ve managed to score quickly after Philadelphia has, they soon lose momentum and go back on their heels. How do they lose that momentum?

Penalties.

Chippy play and poorly-timed penalties used to be a characteristic of the Flyers. Now, the Penguins seem eager to get into the faces of the opposition to prove they aren’t intimidated at the expense of playing playoff hockey. Pittsburgh can play just as physically as Philly, but it can’t take them to the penalty box. Mistakes of frustration were highly evident in Game 3 and that left Pittsburgh shorthanded on the ice and the bench. Losing Letang was a huge blow. He runs the point on the power play and usually plays the most responsible and aggressive hockey of all the Pen’s defensemen. Without him, a bad defense suffered even more.

The team’s recent performance has come as a surprise to pundits and Pens fans alike, but it didnt come out of nowhere. During the final two weeks of the season, Pittsburgh seemed to lose some of its moxie and the team struggled to play the style of game it’s used to – north/south hockey with a high confidence level of the special teams. Now, special teams are a bigger liability than an asset.

The Pens have managed only three power play goals while allowing three shorthanded goals in the series. One of the hallmarks of this Penguins team is their stout defense on the penalty kill. Now, it looks like they are clueless shorthanded, allowing six power play goals in three games.

This series isn’t over yet. There is still a slim chance the Pens can win four in a row to defeat the Flyers. In the history of the NHL, there were three teams to come back from a 0-3 deficit to eventually win the series. But if the Penguins have any hopes of getting back in this series, there are three things they need to do:

  1. Fleury must be flawless. He cannot let in even one more soft goal. If he does, his confidence will be at an all-time low and the Flyers will take prey on him. If somehow, the Flower can return to his 09’ playoff form, his scorers should be able to net enough goals to win.
  2. The defensemen and forwards need to make quality decisions with the puck and not get over-aggressive. Dan Byslma’s system encourages the defense to move the puck quickly up ice and use speed to break into the offensive zone. This system only works if the players can use it smartly. The D needs to stay back and wait for the clean pass, not force the puck up ice. The forwards also need to hang onto the puck better and move the puck north, instead of making lateral passes across the ice. The Flyers take advantage of cross-ice passes and that leads them to odd-man rushes and breakaways.
  3. The Penguins need to stay disciplined. If you aren’t playing well on the penalty kill, you need to avoid putting guys in the box at all costs. If Fleury was flawless and Pens were able to get some shorthanded goals, they could afford to lose a man to an aggressive penalty every now and then. Right now, the PK is awful so they must stay disciplined.

The Penguins know they have the talent to win four straight and advance. It’s just a matter of mental fortitude and execution. If they can dig deep and play at the level they’re capable of, an epic comeback may just be possible.

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About Pete Dombrosky
Pete is a graduate of Penn State University and a life-long Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates fan. He covered men's hockey, golf, tennis, swimming and the enterprise beat as a reporter at the Daily Collegian, Penn State's award-winning, independent student-operated paper. He currently serves as the Assistant Managing Editor for Thrillist Media Group (www.thrillist.com).

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