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Gajtka: We’re Finally Seeing THE Penguins … But Is It Too Late?

The team Jim Rutherford worked to construct and adjust over the past year showed up Saturday.

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On Saturday night in Washington, the Penguins team that Jim Rutherford worked to construct and adjust over the past year finally showed up on the ice.

For starters, two of Rutherford’s in-season acquisitions (Derick Brassard and Jamie Oleksiak) combined for an early goal, but it wasn’t just about the new guys showing up in the box score. With Evgeni Malkin healthy and looking spry in his third game back from injury, Mike Sullivan could confidently roll four lines as he did in the past two playoff years. Phil Kessel isn’t healthy, but down-the-middle depth has been paramount to this potential dynasty as anything else.

My biggest takeaway from Saturday was stylistic, though. The Penguins were forcing turnovers left and right with their high-tempo forechecking game. Defensemen were pinching and pressuring to keep the attack alive in the offensive zone. The power play was consistently threatening, chipping in a pair of goals to claim the lead.

And then … all the work was wasted during a four-goal third period for the Capitals. Two of the scores were empty-netters, yes, but the defending champions have now squandered two third-period leads in the span of four games.

While it’s not easy to accept defeat at this time of year, it’s at least easier to understand when a bad game results in a loss. When an overall strong game gets spoiled by an errant play or two, the most a team can hope for is that there’s some margin left for error.

Now What?

As you know, there is no more room to absorb another ‘L’ for the Penguins, whose streak of nine playoff series wins in a row is looking rather endangered entering Monday night’s Game 6 at PPG Paints Arena. If they were running out of gas after all the high-level hockey they’ve played, we could certainly accept it and move on to 2018-19.

The problem with that mentality is this: The Penguins are still eminently capable of being just as dominant as they were during that remarkable churn to the 2016 Stanley Cup. They’ve demonstrated as much over the past two games, but especially in Game 5, which is what made that result all the more vexing.

After back-to-back games in which they didn’t generate as many opportunities as they’re accustomed to, the Penguins racked up 39 shots and 75 attempts on Saturday night, highlighted by a stunning 24-7 edge over the Capitals in high-danger chances, at least according to Natural Stat Trick.

It was difficult to argue that accounting, with several of those near-misses coming to mind immediately. Brassard, Oleskiak and Sidney Crosby were all denied point-blank by Braden Holtby in the first period. Patric Hörnqvist, Brian Dumoulin and Olli Määttä couldn’t convert from the scoring area in the third, with the last two of those especially gutting to the Penguins.

They’ll get no sympathy from Washington, of course, not after the past two years. You think the Capitals care about unfairness after two straight Presidents’ Trophy teams burned out in the second round to Penguins?

But point isn’t that either team should win this showdown. I’m simply stating that the Penguins have summoned their best selves in the back half of this series, but it might be too late to make anything of it.

In the Nick of Time

That worry might sound silly to you, and for good reason.

The Penguins have a must-win game on home ice Monday, with a win putting them in the same place they were at this time last year, facing a winner-take-all contest in Washington. Sullivan’s team is certainly capable of winning two in a row against the best of teams, but this is the first time since the 2016 Eastern Conference final that they’ve been in this kind of predicament.

We know how they responded to that particular challenge, with consecutive virtuoso performances to edge the Lightning for their first Prince of Wales Trophy in seven years. This year’s team has that same championship ceiling, but the hour of ‘must’ has arrived one round sooner.

That’s the negative side of this thing. The positive is that a repeat of Saturday’s process should produce a more savory — and season-saving — result. As Crosby noted from the visitors’ locker room at Capital One Arena, the Penguins have reached the appropriate level of psychological engagement over the past two games, even if their dictation of terms hasn’t translated to the scoreboard.

There are two ways this team can go with its three-peat goal on the line. They can be influenced by carryover frustration and throw caution to the wind. Or, they can stick with the game plan that’s produced so many good outcomes over the past 28 months.

I know where I’d put my money. And I know what I think we’ll all be following on Wednesday night. Spoiler: It won’t be Pirates-White Sox.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

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