NEW YORK — From the streets around Madison Square Garden, the Pittsburgh Penguins Round One series has gone far better than most anyone anticipated. Facing a faster team with a Vezina-worthy goalie, the Penguins had a puncher’s chance, but the best estimates for Penguins success were a long series and squeaking just a few past Igor Shesterkin.
Instead, the Penguins have 10 goals in the last three periods against Shesterkin and a chance to end the series in Game 5.
Five of the last six periods had a decided Penguins flavor. From the four-goal first period in Game 3 to the five-goal second period in Game 4. The themes of the Penguins’ success have been consistent.
It’s been a few years since the Penguins won a playoff series, but head coach Mike Sullivan now has more playoff wins than any Penguins coach. Sullivan is a coach who relies on the familiar, but they are still one of the best when his team is on their game.
“I thought (Game 4) might have been our best effort as far as our play away from the puck. I thought we did a better job at limiting some of the odd-man rushes. We were on the right side of the puck for most of the night, trying to make it hard for the Rangers to get quality looks,” Sullivan said Monday night. “…We’ve got to do our best to make them work for their opportunities. On the defensive side of the puck, it might have been our most complete game of the series, but certainly, it was a solid game on both sides (of the puck).”
4. Did the Penguins Rip the Heart from the Rangers?
The Penguins’ effort in the third period of Game 3 carried into Game 4. The Penguins pushed, and the Rangers responded with decreasing intensity. But the Penguins probably didn’t take the heart from New York.
However, perhaps New York lost a bit of its heart when Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Lindgren were injured in Game 1. Those absences lessened the physical push and took away one of the few players in the Rangers room with significant Stanley Cup experience. Goodrow has a pair of rings. Ryan Reaves and Chris Kreider have been to the Cup Final, but neither has a ring.
When the Penguins collapsed in the second period of Game 3, Sidney Crosby and the Penguins core rescued them.
“…That’s not an easy thing to do when you’re in the moment because these guys are proud guys, and it’s not a good feeling when you walk into that locker room. I think that’s where our experience and our leadership really came to the forefront. Those guys led the charge for us,” Sullivan said.
Who will rescue the Rangers if Shesterkin is mortal?
3. Strength, Physicality, and What they Mean
The Pittsburgh Penguins have some decided advantages against New York. While New York likes to dish hits, the Penguins have been better on the walls and have won the net-front battles.
Those two are far more important than crunchy splatters.
The Penguins, led by Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel controlling the low zone (and filling the net), cracked New York.
“We got away from it. One goal, two goals. We played soft, were soft all over the ice. That’s the biggest difference. We’re soft all over the ice,” said Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant as he ripped his team.
Cmon, Crosby, and Guentzel are on another planet. Crosby has scored multiple points in all four games. He’s done it with vintage Crosby determination in the dirty areas.
Did the Rangers play soft, or did the Penguins soften them?
2. Protecting Domingue
Louie Louie. In the PHN+ Penguins report card, we noted that the defensemen gave extra space to New York on the blue line. My notebook had the words “huge gaps” starred until a hockey source explained it was about letting Domingue face longer shots but taking away the high-danger chances and protecting the net.
It’s highly unlikely that Tristan Jarry is ready for this series. He took floating shots on Monday, but he was on his knees with his feet tucked behind him. That’s a long way from working hard on lateral movements and facing live shots.
So, don’t anticipate Jarry returning to the net in this series.
Protecting Domingue is important, and if it keeps the Penguins game simple…more’s the better. But let’s pump the brakes on the play Domingue over Jarry talk.
1. Keep it Simple, Stupid
Evgeni Malkin and Danton Heinen were almost unstoppable in Game 4. It was one of Malkin’s best games this season, and it may have been one of Heinen’s best ever. They blanketed New York. They controlled the puck and created offensive chances. Malkin was disruptive on the forecheck.
When the Pittsburgh Penguins play straight and simple, they’re a force.
New York is a step faster, but the Penguins’ strength and experience advantages are compounded when they pressure New York. The net-front has become Penguins territory.
It seems highly unlikely the New York Rangers will go quietly in five. They will have access to a level of desperation that the Penguins will not.
But if the Penguins keep it simple and play to their strengths, all bets are off. The Penguins have earned their 3-1 lead.