One of the takeaways from the Penguins’ 5-1 Game 3 loss in Ottawa Wednesday night is that Mike Sullivan has some decisions to make at what feels like a critical time in the team’s 2017 Stanley Cup playoff run.
Oh, sure. He must name a starting goaltender for Game 4 Friday, a decision he said he had to “sleep on” after the Senators took a 2-1 series lead. That should actually be his easiest decision. Giving Matt Murray his first start of these playoffs is a solution looking for a problem.
Marc-Andre Fleury‘s goaltending is the primary reason Pittsburgh is three victories shy of reaching the Cup Final. Fleury was not good in the first period of Game 3, but he had 18 teammates of which we could say the same thing. There is no reason to believe he won’t bounce back. But Sullivan clearly has always preferred Murray to Fleury, so we’ll see. If he decides to go with Murray, the Pens are likely to get solid goaltending, too; Murray looked pretty good Wednesday night in his first action in almost six weeks. But if Murray starts and struggles. . . that’s a column for another day.
But three other problems are bigger and in need of another application of Sullivan’s proven ability to push the right buttons with this team. The first of those is finding some goals; the NHL’s highest-scoring team has three goals in three games against Ottawa, matching the Penguins’ second-lowest output in the opening three games of a best-of-seven series in team history. He knows they can’t win the series scoring one goal per game.
Problem 1: Crosby Line
The Penguins are getting no production from the Sidney Crosby line, which was also on the ice for three Ottawa goals in Game 3. Crosby recorded his first point in the series with a power play goal in the third period Wednesday when the game had already been decided, but with Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust injured, Game 3 was yet another reminder that the second-half regular season magic of the Sid and The Kids Line is truly gone.
Jake Guentzel has one goal in his last six games. Bless him, because the kid was never going to maintain the crazy pace he set for himself in the first two playoff rounds. Now he’s just missing instead of finding the net, ringing shots off goal posts with regularity. And he’s not getting nearly enough shots – 10 over the last eight games. He’s also taken three minors in the last five games and Wednesday seemed unnerved by the attention given him by Marc Methot. It’s Guentzel’s first Stanley Cup playoff run, and he’s been fantastic. But he’s hit a rough stretch.
Conor Sheary seems to have lost his confidence with the puck. He certainly has lost his creativity and his chemistry with Crosby, as was underscored when the two collided with each other behind the net in the first period Wednesday. Even the simple little drop passes and short saucer passes he was making and receiving earlier this season have eluded him. He’s gone 18 playoff games without a goal and may well be ready for a spot in the press box.
Crosby hasn’t quite looked like himself since the Matt Niskanen hit; he’s lacked a bit of spark in his skating. He’s working hard, but he hasn’t been shooting the puck much and certainly he’s made some plays that his linemates haven’t been able to do anything with. We may as well also open the door for yet another reminder that the one player he’s always had great chemistry with – Kris Letang – isn’t around to help.
If either Hornqvist or Rust can play Friday, one of them needs to join the Crosby line and that line – however it’s put together by Sullivan – has to start delivering some goals at even strength. If they keep going like this, it’s lights out. And if Hornqvist and Rust cannot play Friday, well, Sullivan will really have a challenge on his hands. Tossing the kids out there with Sid one more time doesn’t seem like much of an option at this point.
Problem 2: Malkin’s Emotions
Malkin has taken 10-minute misconducts in each of the last two games and – oh by the way – is now the Penguins’ all-time leader in playoff penalty minutes with 181. Everyone got a chuckle when Geno had to be settled down by Sullivan on the bench in Game 2, but I don’t think it’s so funny right now.
Hockey is an emotional game, and every successful team needs that emotion. Malkin has always played the game with his emotions on his sleeve, but right now he looks distracted and frustrated. He’s got too much emotion, and that is a problem. He’s having a great playoff run, leading the league in scoring, and he’s come up with a bunch of clutch plays, like the third period goal that sent Game 1 of this series to overtime and the third-period assist that set up Phil Kessel‘s Game 2 winner late in the third. But Sullivan needs to find a way to keep the big guy focused.
Problem 3: Poor Starts
They weren’t ready to compete again on Wednesday night, and the game was over within 12 minutes. This has been a recurring issue all spring, of course, and I would posit that it’s mostly up to the players to ensure first periods like that don’t happen. But the fact is most of their first periods this spring have been bad, and the players haven’t figured that out yet. So it’s time for Sullivan to try again to help stop it. It’s been his only failure in this playoff run.
The Ottawa Senators are not the best hockey team in this series. But they’re winning it, and they deserve to be winning it. That’s the great thing about the Stanley Cup playoffs: no matter how good you are, you have to keep proving it night after night after night. Given the injuries the Penguins have had to deal with, they’ve really done an impressive job to this point. But they’ve got to get to yet another level to win this series, and Sullivan needs to start that process by pushing some more buttons.