I’m sure Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan would denounce a question that won’t leave my brain. He would point to a new group of players. The lack of carry-over from year to year, how talented the Penguins are, and the number of good things the Penguins did on Sunday in their Game 1 loss to the New York Islanders, 4-3 in OT.
I could ask the question on Tuesday morning, but Sullivan prefers questions about the specific game at hand on game days, and I already know the Penguins coach would bristle at even the query.
Some questions are best asked rhetorically.
Is Barry Trotz in the Penguins’ head?
Sullivan would be correct to bristle at such a notion, but there is also no denying the Pittsburgh Penguins have lost 10 of their last 11 playoff games, including the last seven against Barry Trotz teams.
Trotz’s Washington Capitals ended the Penguins’ three-peat hopes. Trotz’s New York Islanders summarily dismissed the Pittsburgh Penguins in a four-game sweep in 2019. The aftershocks of the loss broke open a schism within the organization, which saw the Phil Kessel trade and nearly an Evgeni Malkin trade.
It’s not that the Washington or New York teams were better than the Penguins, either. No, especially not the 2019 Islanders team, which was as rag-tag as playoff teams get, and were subsequently swept in the following round.
But they sure ate the Penguins lunch and asked for seconds, too.
That 2019 Round One series not only ripped open the Penguins’ flaws but also began with a 4-3 OT loss in which the Penguins hit crossbars and nearly won it several times.
New York won the next three, too.
One controversy in that series you probably didn’t hear much about–a New York Islanders player, who I will not name, told a TV colleague the Islanders knew the Penguins would buckle if they waited them out. The Islanders were so sure they could create mistakes by being patient, the player said, the first goal didn’t matter as much to them.
The New York organization was displeased that a player would publicly admit it, and there was some question if it should have been off the record. But what was said was said. And reported on television. Lou Lamoriello teams do not like prying media, and that admission went over like a sandpaper swab on a COVID test.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins have not disproven it, either.
Sullivan Said It
There is the glass-half-full approach to the Pittsburgh Penguins Game 1 loss. PHN identified three things to build on. The Penguins got on their heels in the third period and quickly responded.
“…There were moments in the third period when they had some momentum. We had some push back as well,” Sullivan said. “(Kapanen) scores a big goal for us to respond right after they scored. That’s a huge point in the game. You know, a lot of teams probably would have been extremely deflated. And I thought it was a great response by our guys.”
And it was. The Penguins showed character and resilience.
Nor could they close the deal. New York weathered a little storm to begin overtime but generally had more scoring chances and better chances.
“…From a process standpoint. I know we have more to give. I know we have the ability to be a better team,” Sullivan also said. “…There were moments when we were really good in the game. I thought there were moments when they had it…”
But for the seventh straight playoff game against Barry Trotz and the fifth straight playoff game with the New York Islanders, the Islanders had more of “it” and won.
The Penguins need to beat the hard-nosed coach who can instruct his team to bear down at key times and who obviously have enough confidence to weather Penguins’ storms and win. At this point, there are no surprises.
“The more you play a team, the more there’s familiarity. You try to play a game that allows you to play to your strengths. With technology and the preparation process as it is, I also think the amount of times that we played one another this year and with the schedule set up the way it was, I don’t know that there are any secrets,” Sullivan said. “I think the Islanders are well aware of the identity of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and I think we’re well aware of their identity as well and how we need to play to have success. So it’s really about effort. It’s about execution and making sure that we try to get to our game as early and as often as we can.”
The Penguins surely cannot go down 2-0 on Tuesday night, having lost both games at PPG Paints Arena. There will be 9,000 screaming, passion-overflowing fans, many of whom have not seen a hockey game since February of 2020.
It will be emotional. It should be LOUD. And the Penguins must win, or I will have to ask the question out loud of those involved. And many of you will join me.
Is Barry Trotz in the Penguins’ heads?