It is not coaching or team speed, though those reasons were put forth by others. It is not age, though the Pittsburgh Penguins core group of players are mostly on the wrong side of 30-years-old. The Penguins impending Round One loss to the New York Islanders is also is not the result of being snake bit or because of bad luck.
If you see those reasons posited, keep going. While they have sound logic, they have little truth.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are about to lose to the New York Islanders in Round One and perhaps be swept away like the dust bunnies of an era they both created but were then destroyed by. It’s a two-year sample size. The Penguins cannot adhere to the simple and fundamental necessities of the 2019 NHL game.
The Penguins are down 3-0 to the New York Islanders for a few reasons which are as simple as the New York strategy. The Penguins cannot play a clean, simple game no matter if their playoff life depends on it. They’ve tried. They’ve failed.
“There’s not a lot of risk associated with the Islanders game. They’ve got numbers back. They have a defense-first mentality,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “That’s been their identity all year. That’s what has brought them success.”
New York not only plays a structured game, they drive to the net in numbers, but only when it is safe to do so. You won’t see New York charge the net hoping to get lucky; they only swarm the cage when the risk is small. Otherwise, they have one or two players who fight to the net.
The Penguins have not done as much in the series. They have played with the puck in the high zone and created chances but not nearly enough ugly goals or wide open chances from an extra stick near the net.
So if a team can win without risk, what does that say about the Penguins chances?
It says the game will be played in the mud and the trenches. It says more teams are adopting a speedy, physical but simple game. Few of the 2018-19 playoff teams play a highwire game. Hockey is about suppression, adherence to the system and puck possession; not always but usually in that order and the first two lead to the third.
The Penguins won the 2016 Stanley Cup in a similar manner. They went after the puck with tenacious speed and pressure. They adhered to their system and spawned this next generation of hockey.
Now, they are victims of their own success and victims of too many players who make too many mistakes.
“Our identity is a little bit different. Having said that, we have to have a little bit more discipline associated with our game in the critical areas of the rink so that we become a team that is more difficult to play against,” Sullivan offered.
The thing is–the Penguins have known this issue exists. What do you do with a star player or three who have built a career on stickhandling around opponents, displaying dazzling offensive creativity which emulated the greats of the game in the heyday of offensive hockey? How do you cajole forwards who fundamentally don’t work the boards like a bulldozer at a gravel pit when the situation arises, especially when the opponent does?
That’s the unfortunate result of overcoaching and the squashing of creativity in hockey. But it is where we are. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford did amazing work with little resources during the season. The Penguins added Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad who fit the new game perfectly.
Bjugstad is especially adept at low, grinding play and creating chances from it, even if his shooting percentage is near 8%. McCann as well adds great speed, tenacity and puck pursuit which yielded puck possession.
The game is also coming to Sidney Crosby. The NHL game is almost a direct rip-off of Crosby’s low zone domination. The game is going away from others and the mistakes are piling up.
“Our guys care. They want to win. They understand what it takes,” Sullivan said.
Yet the scrappy New York Islanders have won three straight, including the must-win game Sunday. There is little doubt except on social media about the Penguins heart. Believe me, they care and they were angry at themselves, Sunday. However, that anger was also met with a certain degree of bewilderment.
This can’t be happening. It shouldn’t be happening.
“Hockey becomes a game of mistakes sometimes. So, we’ve got to do a better job of limiting the ones we’re making,” Sullivan concluded.
The Penguins had 43 turnovers in the first two games. They “only” had 16 Sunday. By comparison, New York had just eight giveaways.
In the regular season, the Penguins had three players with more than 70 giveaways; Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel.
The number of blue line turnovers while the Penguins tried to create more than was available could be stacked like bodies in a Tarantino flick. Such a turnover directly cost the Penguins Game One.
Not enough puck battle wins and not enough heavy, low play cost the Penguins Game 3. The New York Islanders yielded great chances but were in a position to defend them, too.
“We had some good looks around the net. Again, it’s a tight game. It’s a game of execution, but we haven’t done as good a job as they have,” Crosby said.
To be blunt, the Penguins can’t execute as well. If they could, at some point in the season, they would have done so. Their head coach tried. In fact, the Penguins lurch towards the simple game looked good. As the Penguins third line with Nick Bjugstad and Patric Hornqvist showed dominance in the low zone, the Penguins came together.
But they also did so without talented players who don’t excel at the simple game. It’s a sad commentary on the state of hockey but a reality check, too. A team which doesn’t make mistakes but has less talent can force a talented, mistake-prone team into more mistakes by playing simple hockey and waiting for the opportunities to fall in their lap.
Maybe the day when being coachable is as important as being talented has arrived. The New York Islanders 3-0 series lead and the Pittsburgh Penguins bewilderment offer a strong anecdotal case.