The Pittsburgh Penguins need a hero and a spark for Game 6 or they will likely face a daunting Game 7. The Penguins have been outplayed in four of five games, in Round 2. The Washington Capitals have dominated shots, shot attempts, and puck possession. The Penguins have squeaked by on the scoreboard with timely goals and big saves by Marc-Andre Fleury. Lots and lots of big saves.
The Penguins lead the Capitals, 3 – 2, by virtue of professional efforts. The Capitals can similarly point to stupidity as a reason they are down. Penalties, bad penalties, and too many of each are a big reason the Capitals trail.
The Penguins had just 22 shots in Game 5, and just 33 even strength shots over the last two games, COMBINED. So much for a speed game with lots of shots, eh?
The Penguins are missing a spark. They’re in need of players to change momentum, or even create it. The Penguins have not been able to play “downhill”, which makes playing with the puck contagious. One year ago, the Penguins had the H-B-K line which was non-stop energy. Phil Kessel finished chances and played nearly 200 feet. Carl Hagelin was a relentless forechecker with a bit of finish and Nick Bonino became the maestro with a penchant for big goals.
Where have you gone HBK? Max Talbot? Muskegon Line? Hagelin and Kessel scored in Game 5, yet they were goats not heroes as they yielded more goals than scored. And they yielded those goals in the most crucial times with poor play.
Evgeni Malkin is the NHL playoff scoring leader. He has 17 points and 10 at even strength, yet has also been on the ice for seven even strength goals against. His turnover stats don’t belay the true number of giveaways.
With Sidney Crosby drawing the Capitals top line, Malkin is the most likely potential hero. But Malkin hasn’t yet found his “Malki-mania” form (RIP, Cy. The fanbase is poorer without you).
The Penguins need to find something beyond the stellar play of Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins tide has not risen in this series. They’ve scored enough goals to win three of five games, but at best they’ve neutralized play. The Penguins have not controlled play, despite the assertion of Mike Sullivan.
“We never felt out of control,” said Sullivan when a reporter for 93-7 the Fan asked him if they relied too much on the counter attack in the second period of Game 4. The Penguins had just one even strength shot in the period.
While the Penguins can use explanations such as, “that’s a very good team over there,” or “we played well,” they have not been able to assert their will against the Capitals for any discernible length of time. Stanley Cup champions are typically able to assert themselves over opponents.
The Penguins locker room continues to say they want to control the puck, despite statistically being the worst puck possession team in the playoffs. Mike Sullivan also spun forward the notion that, without Kris Letang, the Penguins are a counter-attack reliant team.
When Sullivan was pressed if the counter-attack offense was the Penguins new “normal”, he said the Penguins have to add more attack offense and other facets of their game AND they were happy with their ability to counter attack.
Sullivan could easily run for office someday.
The Penguins puck possession must start with better defensive play. Justin Schultz has been overhwhelmed by the Capitals attack. Ron Hainsey and Brian Dumoulin have sagged too often, which allowed the Capitals space and time to create offense. They did.
The Capitals have won two of the past three games. While Penguins fans may point to bad bounces and bad calls in Game 5, Capitals fans are pointing to bad calls in Game 4. For advanced stat devotees, the Penguins lead must be as perplexing as the Pirates decision to keep playing John Jaso in Right Field, the Steelers drafting a long snapper, or Penn State putting the great scandal behind them by putting Jay Paterno on the board of trustees. As perplexing as the NHL head office saying CTE is an NFL problem… I can keep going, but you probably get the point.
As perplexing as a triple hook bra to an eager 18-year old boy… OK, now I’m done.
If the Penguins do enough little things correct, they may not need a hero. They have found ways to win sans heroes. However, it seems a long road to win a Stanley Cup with grinding, professional efforts. A steep mountain to climb to keep winning without someone to carry the offense. And a tall order to simply beat the Capitals without someone to create some form of momentum.
It is possible to keep winning by doing just enough. It just isn’t likely. The Penguins need someone to tilt the ice, now. Or, the Capitals will continue to tilt it through Game 7.