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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Game 28 or Remaining 29: New York Rangers at Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Penguins: 49-25-6 (104 points)

4th in the Eastern Conference

 

VS.

New York Rangers: 51-22-7 (109 points)

1st in the Eastern Conference

 

 

 

 

 

At this point, both of these teams have already clinched playoff spots. But they both have something to play for. Depending on how tonight goes, the Pens can potentially clinch home ice advantage with a win and a Philadelphia loss. The Rangers are in the hunt for the President’s Trophy, which goes to the team with the most points in the NHL at season’s end. If the Rangers emerge as the top team in the NHL, they will clinch home ice advantage in every round of the playoffs. Lately, the Pens seem to have the Rangers number, but this New York team is still the best in the East. My prediction: Pens LOSE.

My final 29 prediction record: 14-13

Game 27 of Remaining 29: Pittsburgh at Boston

Pittsburgh Penguins: 48-25-6 (102 points)

4th in the Eastern Conference

VS.

Boston Bruins: 47-28-4 (98 points)

2nd in Eastern Conference

The Penguins are heading on the road for this one, where they have already notched a victory against Boston earlier this season. We don’t know yet who will be in goal for either team, but you have to think that the backups are going to be getting some work during this week, considering that both teams have clinched playoff spots and both starting goalies have seen a lot of ice time down the stretch. My prediction: Pens WIN.

My final 29 prediction record: 13-13

Game 26 of Remaining 29: Philadelphia at Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Penguins: 48-24-6 (102 points)

4th in the Eastern Conference

 

VS.

Philadelphia Flyers: 45-24-9 (99 points)

5th in the Eastern Conference

 

 

This is likely a preview into a first rough playoff matchup. These two teams have a storied past and given the intense rivalry, expect this game to be violent at the least. Unfortunately, the Pens have had some trouble against the Flyers this year going 1-2-1 against them in four games. The Pens will finish the season on April 7 against the Flyers at home. I think Pittsburgh will split these final two games. My prediction: Pens LOSE this one.

My final 29 prediction record: 12-13

Game 25 of Remaining 29: Pittsburgh at Buffalo

Pittsburgh Penguins: 47-24-6 (100 points)

4th in the Eastern Conference

 

VS.

Buffalo Sabres: 38-29-10 (86 points)

8th in the Eastern Conference

 

 

 

 

The Penguins are coming off a pair of rough games, getting beaten twice in a row by the New York Islanders. I think Bylsma will light a fire underneath the behinds of his team for this one. It will be a playoff atmosphere in Buffalo as the Sabres are holding onto a tenuous 8th playoff spot. My prediction: Pens WIN.

My final 29 prediction record: 11-13

Game 24 of Remaining 29: Pittsburgh at New York Islanders

Pittsburgh Penguins: 47-23-6 (100 points)

4th in the Eastern Conference

VS.

New York Islanders: 32-33-11 (75 points)

13th in the Eastern Conference

Pittsburgh laid an egg two days ago at the Consol Energy Center against the Islanders, losing 5-3. Marc-Andre Fleury looked shaky (and was shaken up on a play in which he collided with defenseman Paul Martin) and the Pens’ defensive play was downright awful. Multiple players for Pittsburgh admitted that they have ignored some parts of the defensive game because of their high scoring abilities.  It’s true that if you can simply score more goals than the other team, you will win. But even if your team is the highest scoring in the league, you still have to play some defense. After all, the old adage is “defense wins championships.” One major problem with the defense right now is the injury situation of Kris Letang. The Pens just aren’t the same without him and reports say that he won’t be back tonight or tomorrow against Buffalo. Hopefully, the fill-ins from the Baby Pens can hold the fort while Tanger recovers. I picked the Pens to win last game and was wrong. I’m picking them to lose tonight and hoping I am wrong. My pick: Pens LOSE.

My remaining 29 record: 10-13

Game 23 of Remaining 29: New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins: 47-22-6 (100 points)

4th in the Eastern Conference

 

VS.

New York Islanders: 31-33-11 (73 points)

14th in the Eastern Conference

 

 

 

 

 

Even though the Islanders are nearly the worst team in the Eastern Conference, they are always dangerous at this time of year. It is a team that plays carefree hockey because there is no hope for a playoff berth. It will be aggressive and its players are always chippy when it comes to playing Pittsburgh. No need to remind anyone of the debacle that occurred on Long Island last season in which there were 65 penalties, including 15 fighting majors and 21 game misconducts, resulting in a total of 346 minutes. I wouldn’t expect that same type of game, but you can’t forget when a team has played that dirty in the past. This season, I don’t expect a series sweep by the Pens, but I think Pittsburgh will get the W tonight. My prediction: Pens WIN.

My final 29 prediction record: 10-12

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