The cliches flowed from the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room Friday night but the stark reality is the Penguins face an undaunted opponent which has simplified the game to such a level that only matching their intensity and dedication will do. Cliches will likely flow from the locker room again Saturday, too. The other stark reality is the Penguins are in deep, deep trouble.
Led by head coach Barry Trotz, New York has a body on every puck and a body on every player. The time and space to be creative do not exist. The Penguins began to excel at the hard, low play late in the regular season but they didn’t face a team which clung to the system out of sheer desperation and rigid belief.
“The message, as I said to the players after the game, is that it’s the first team to win four games, not two,” head coach Mike Sullivan. “And so we’ve got to go back home, control what we can.”
Down 2-0 in the best of seven series means the Penguins have to win four of the next five games against the New York Islanders who are now emboldened by their success. And the Penguins have to feel just a little shaken.
New York was a team which was supposed to struggle. They lost their franchise player last summer. Making the playoffs was supposed to be a stretch, but 103 points in the regular season and a 2-0 series lead confirm their legitimacy.
It’s about grinding out goals and earning space, now.
“We’ve got to win one game and then we’ll go from there,” Sullivan said.
Despite the Penguins talent advantage, New York has earned a majority of the scoring chances during the competitive play. Excluding the final minutes in Game 2 in which New York was protecting a two-goal lead, New York has maintained about 52% of the scoring chances. In Game 2, New York also had 58% of the high danger scoring chances. They had 52% in Game 1 (all stats according to NaturalStatTrick.com).
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has nary expressed a hint of worry or concern yet. Not in his voice or body language.
“I think we just have to execute a little better but we generated some good chances, so we have to make sure we take advantage of the ones we get,” Crosby said. “That’s going to be the difference in games.”
In the first two games, the Penguins have not yet led for three minutes. Their first lead was in the second period of Game 2 but less than three minutes later, New York tied the game on another Penguins defensive miscue (Barzal undressed Marcus Pettersson at center ice and Erik Gudbranson was unable to defend two New York forwards who crashed the net for the loose puck).
“We would have at least liked to get one here but it didn’t happen. They did a good job here for two games,” Sidney Crosby said. “We’ve got to go home with the mindset to win a game.”
The New York Islanders scored the fewest goals of any Eastern Conference team in the playoffs. In the regular season, their offensive output put them near the bottom of the conference. Yet they have scored seven goals in the first two games.
New York was also the stingiest team in the league during the regular season. They allowed less than 200 goals. They’ve allowed just four goals in the first two games, which is keeping with their strategy.
To steal a line from my esteemed colleague Shelly Anderson, New York coach Barry Trotz hasn’t fired a shot or made a save in the series but his fingerprints are all over it.
The Penguins desperately need to get a lead and force New York to need a goal.
“We’ve got to go back to our building and worry about getting one game,” said goalie Matt Murray.
The “how” they win one game suddenly seems at issue. To do so, the Penguins will need the same coordinated effort which New York has each game. That one game seems to be a steep challenge and this is a situation these Pittsburgh Penguins have not overcome in a long time.
The Penguins will have to do things they don’t want to do; they will have to play ugly hockey without fail and without hesitation. At least until they change the series and force New York to play on their terms. Whether or not the Penguins can do that is still an unanswered question more than two games into the series.