When Sidney Crosby twisted, turned and squirmed around the Columbus Blue Jackets to set up Jake Guentzel‘s overtime goal in Game 3, the Pittsburgh Penguins statistical probability to advance skyrocketed to 97.8%. Only a few teams in NHL history have squandered a 3-0 series lead. While the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise is one of those unlucky few, that was 1975. Not even I was born, yet.
Now up 3-1, the Penguins are not in trouble, but danger is stalking them like hygiene challenged adults stalking their favorite faded 1990’s Sci-Fi star at a small town Comic-Con.
The Penguins did not play strong defensively in Game 3. They didn’t play well in any facet in Game 4. Actually, they stunk in Game 4.
The Penguins have become experts in “responding the right way.” Under head coach Mike Sullivan, they did not lose consecutive games in regulation for over one year. That string was finally broken this winter. With a staggering injury list, the Penguins kept winning, this season.
Adversity and the Penguins. They’ve met. If only all problems were as terrible as being up 3-1 in a best of 7 series against one of the best teams of the regular season.
No, the Penguins are not in trouble. However, they must win Game 5–at home–to avoid the adversity which dogged them this season and the danger which would result. The Blue Jackets are a young and streaky team. 16 consecutive regular season wins catapulted the Jackets to the top of the NHL, and losing nine of 10 from the end of the regular season through Game 3, put them in this situation.
The Penguins must not allow the Blue Jackets to get hot. The Penguins must also recommit to playing a five-man defensive game which served them well in Games 1 and 2. The glaring difference which crept into their game in Game 3 and was absent in Game 4, was the forward’s defensive discipline. Even Sidney Crosby was on the ice for three goals against.
However, the defensemen were a sore spot in the last two games. The blue liners managed enough clean break outs to maintain puck possession in Game 3, but the Blue Jackets forecheck was gaining on them. That forecheck caught the Pens defense in Game 4.
The Blue Jackets are the most adept at jumping the Penguins breakout plays. On the edge of your TV screen, you may notice encroaching Blue Jackets take away the walls. When the Penguins post a LW on the wall, it’s a figurative dinner bell for the Jackets.
The aggressive forecheck forces the lesser Penguins defensemen to play the puck more and use more complex breakouts with less time to do so.
Look Ahead: Game 5
It is an easy assumption, Crosby and the Kids will be better in Game 5. The Penguins third line, with Scott Wilson and Patric Hornqvist will most certainly need to be better. Hornqvist raised his energy on the power play, but his linemates were defensive spectators. Such lapses will not work well in Game 5.
Evgeni Malkin will also need to be emotionally engaged. He looked distracted in Game 4.
The Blue Jackets insertion of defenseman Kyle Quincey into the lineup paid dividends. Quincey was acquired at the trade deadline for his skating and puck moving ability, but his hard, physical play early in Game 5 against Guentzel appeared to derail Guentzel.
The Blue Jacket have learned two things: 1) To pack the defensive zone and breakout with force (four wide). 2) Go to the net. The Jackets have begun sending two and three to the net and shooting for rebounds. The Penguins defense has not been able to clean pucks, even when Marc-Andre Fleury directs the rebound.
Despite the Penguins collapse in Game 4, they nearly completed the sweep. The Blue Jackets have played stronger in each successive game, and figure to give the Penguins their best game of the series.
The advantages are still heavily in the Penguins favor; home ice, two game lead, and more talent. They will leave panic to the fanbase, but lose Game 5, and the fan angst may have some company.
(Dan Kingerski is a long time hockey reporter and host, including with NHL Home Ice and Sportsnet. Currently with 93-7 the Fan, Pittsburgh.)