Over the last four periods, the Pittsburgh Penguins have resembled a desperate marathon runner struggling to reach the finish line. From their knees and out of energy, the Penguins are crawling towards the line, stretching for the final inches while the Washington Capitals sprint to the line.
The Penguins have the look of a tired team which doesn’t have enough left to fight back. From the exhaustion are mental mistakes, as well.
Anything can happen in Game 7s. Blah blah… In order to win Game 7, the Penguins cannot whistle past their own graveyard, they cannot assume the Capitals will lose. They cannot continue to try to use the wall to break out of their own zone (the Capitals have taken that away). And the Penguins cannot give up the puck to avoid hits.
Every great fighter has one great fight left in them. This is the Penguins big fight. Now or never.
While the Crosby line will draw the unenviable task of defending Burakovsky-Backstrom-Oshie, the Malkin line must create offense.
While the Penguins coaches like the Malkin-Kessel combo, it also has a downside. If either is not playing well, it becomes contagious and mistakes multiply, quickly. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan should have a quick hook if the line begins compounding poor play.
Conversely, the line also has a chance to win the game for the Penguins if they play well. Chris Kunitz will get the draw as LW on the line, which is a good move. Kunitz has played with purpose in the series and will provide proper puck retrieval for the line. You don’t think Kessel is going to dig a puck out of the corners, do you?
Sullivan has figuratively put his chips on the table with this line.
More Line Shuffling
Sullivan again shuffled the lines, Tuesday. However, it appears the Penguins are getting further away from success.
Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust beside Sidney Crosby is an interesting experiment. However, Game 7’s aren’t usually a good lab for experiments. The line will be fast, but can it defend Burakovsky-Backstrom-Oshie? The Penguins should worry about this match-up. Not only is the Capitals top line playing very well, the Penguins don’t seem to have the horses to win puck battles or defend the Capitals on the top line match.
One reason for continued line shuffling has been the invisible play of Conor Sheary. While Sheary has perhaps earned some press box nachos, the coaching staff has tried to find space to trigger the small, scoring winger.
Sheary will skate with center Nick Bonino and Patric Hornqvist. This line could draw the Eller-Ovechkin combo, which means again, the Penguins are fighting a losing battle. Bonino lines were victimized by the Evgeny Kuznetsov line (Johansson-Kuznetsov-Williams) in Games 1 and 2, when Caps coach Barry Trotz specifically targeted that line.
Carter Rowney appears to be getting the tap ahead of Tom Kuhnhackl on the fourth line, with Matt Cullen and Carl Hagelin. While the Penguins fourth line appears to have an advantage against their Capitals counterparts, Carl Hagelin has been fighting his game for most of the season, but especially in the playoffs.
Hagelin had just six goals this season and has one in five playoff games.
Defense and the Net
As noted, the line match-ups do not favor the Penguins. The same is especially true for the defense pairings. Olli Maatta was a standout in Game 6, and Chad Ruhwedel was solid, before wearing down. Enough has been written about the Penguins defense.
The Penguins are in trouble.
How to Win Game 7
I’ve recommended at several points through the playoffs, the Penguins consider reverting to their 1-3-1 trap and counter attack. If their forecheck remain ineffective, and their defense exposed, the neutral zone trap is the right way to go.
The Capitals ride momentum like a drunken cowboy on an angry bull; it’s wild, intense and there’s a chance someone will get hurt. The Penguins could protect their defense and slow the game at key points.
Short of tactical changes, the Penguins need to convert early. The Capitals were gripping their stick too tightly through Game 5. The Penguins best hope is to return the Capitals to feeling doubt. Score first then keep attacking or trap when the Capitals fight back. Frustrate the Capitals and accept the power plays.
The Penguins will also have to rebuild Marc-Andre Fleury’s confidence. That means keeping the Capitals beyond 15 feet. If the Capitals can see Fleury’s eyes, they’re too close.
Since the transition game and breakouts have been non-existent for six games, the Penguins must take care of the puck. They must stop turning the puck over at the offensive blue line or deep in their zone. If they halve the number of preventable gaffes, they will at very least hang in the game.
The victory so many were counting just a few days ago now seems an impossibility. But that’s why they play the game. Who knows who will be the next franchise hero. Perhaps Carter Rowney has a big goal in him or Bryan Rust delivers yet another big moment.
It’s a likelihood that when the final horn sounds, pieces of the Penguins core who have won two Stanley Cups, sold countless jerseys and bled for the franchise will have just played their final game as Pittsburgh Penguins. Marc-Andre Fleury and Chris Kunitz have earned their stead.
Perhaps they will be the heroes who get the Penguins over the Capitals and again break the DC fanbase’s heart.
Game 7. Game on.