The Pittsburgh Penguins have not yet led for five minutes in their Round One series against the New York Islanders. The longest the Penguins have been able to hold a lead was for just under three minutes in Game 2 and within 90 seconds, the Penguins lead became a deficit in Game 3. The New York pushback has not just been swift it has been overwhelming and effective.
And the Penguins response to a lead has been…underwhelming, to say the least.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan dismissed the first goal importance, “We’ve got to score one more goal than them,” he said.
As the Penguins team faces the end of the season and the Penguins dynasty faces possible extinction, Pittsburgh Hockey Now questioned the Penguins about holding a lead. Something so fundamental has thus far escaped the roster with a few three-time Stanley Cup champions.
“Those follow up shifts, we’ve got to put some emphasis on that if we do get the lead,” said Penguins defenseman Erik Gudbranson. “(We have to) continue that push and create some momentum from it.”
That would be a good start. Instead, it has been New York which has seized momentum from it. New York gobbled up the game after the Penguins dared to put a marker on the scoreboard. It’s also obvious the Penguins relaxed or got greedy.
“You can’t really pin it on one guy in particular,” said Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese, who also blamed himself for a turnover on the follow-up shift which led to the first New York goal in Game 3. “It just seems that the one mistake we make snowballs.”
In that fateful 90 seconds in Game 3, Aston-Reese didn’t really turn the puck over as much as fail to get the puck deep and get back. He placed a lion’s share of blame on himself but there was plenty to go around. On the following goal, just one minute later, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was double-teamed on the midwall and he too gave the puck up.
Then defenseman Justin Schultz pinched. It was a mistake and New York had another odd-man break, then a rebound chance, then a lead which they never relinquished.
“We can’t relax. We’ve got to make sure we’re really diligent with the puck. Make sure that we’re making smart decisions when we do get in that position,” said Crosby. “Make sure we’re not giving them any life and a chance to grab momentum.”
“That is something that hasn’t changed but becomes even more important when you’re playing in games like this.”
Games like this. Every team which makes the playoffs for 13 consecutive years faces more than a few elimination games. But the Penguins have been swept out only once in that 13-year span; the disastrous 2013 Eastern Conference Final which started an organizational spiral which hit bottom 12 months later.
The Penguins again face just a critical juncture in Game 4.
“Just play as a five-man unit. A lot of times, it’s just one little area that ends up the other way,” said Penguins center Nick Bjugstad. “If we’re backing each other and trusting each other, that’s the biggest thing.”
Bjugstad also said the Penguins held a team meeting in advance of their Game 4 showdown, in which a promising season is on life support with the plug dangling from the wall socket. One mistake, one more bad play could bring it to a screeching halt.
“It’s not over. It’s not anywhere near from over,” Gudbranson said. “It would be a special thing to come back but we’ve got to start with the game tonight. It turned it into a one-game series pretty quick, we’ve used up all of our mulligans.”
Gudbranson used a golf metaphor. Bjugstad earlier used a baseball metaphor to say the Penguins don’t need home runs, just singles.
What they need are fewer mistakes. This team made “resilience” a calling card en route to two more Stanley Cups will need more than they’ve ever shown.
Holding a lead, just one would be a start.