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Sullivan Throws Sharp Elbow At Concern For Physical Toll

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The Pittsburgh Penguins’ East Division playoff series against the New York Islanders has been physical. Perhaps you’ve noticed.

The Islanders have been credited with 118 hits through two games, compared with 84 by the Penguins.

PHN on Wednesday asked Penguins coach Mike Sullivan about the implications of that before the team boarded a flight to Long Island, site of Games 3 and 4 Thursday and Saturday. (Injured center Evgeni Malkin traveled, but injured backup goalie Casey DeSmith did not.)

In a nutshell, Sullivan’s reply was, And…?

In longer form, it was this:

“I think this physical play is the nature of playoff hockey. … I haven’t seen a game in any other series that hasn’t brought a physical dimension on both sides,” Sullivan said. “Our series is no different than any other series that’s going on in the league right now.”

The Islanders rank fourth with an average of 51.81 hits per game in the playoffs, with Vegas topping out at 58.38. The Penguins are ninth among the 12 playoff teams that have played at 36.92. St. Louis and Colorado, which have played one game against each other, bring up the rear with 21 and 16 hits, respectively. New York’s Leo Komarov is tied with Vegas’ Ryan Reaves for the postseason lead with 20 each.

The response by the Penguins has varied from hitting back – that is, also playing a physical game at times – to putting up with the Islanders’ hits and related shenanigans in favor of making skilled plays.

The Islanders’ hit total includes 72 in Game 1 – perhaps because they were chasing the game a little more that day and threw their bodies around more to try to gain an edge. Komarov led the way that game with 14.

It was closer in Game 2, with the Islanders outhitting the Penguins 46-37, perhaps because the Penguins were more in control the full game in a 2-1 win that game the teams a split in the series.

However, there was some ugliness Tuesday in the second period. There were five roughing penalties, four of them coincidental – scrums between the Penguins’ Zach Aston-Reese and Matt Martin, and between the Penguins’ Kris Letang and Oliver Wahlstrom, as well as Wahlstrom’s standalone roughing penalty for some stickwork on the Penguins’ Jake Guentzel.

Pittsburgh Penguins/New York Islanders Physicality

Guentzel is a top-line offensive force. At 5 feet 11, 180 pounds he’s not exactly one of the larger players in the NHL. Yet he has become a poster boy for taking physical punishment to make plays, something Sullivan admires that a great deal.

“He plays the game with a lot of courage,” Sullivan said. “I think he’s as tough as they come. He’s willing to go to the hard areas to score goals and generate scoring chances, and he’s willing to take hits to do so – or crosschecks or face washes or whatever it takes. I think that’s the value that Jake brings. I think that’s why he scores as many goals as he does.”

Sullivan also noted that the Pittsburgh Penguins’ fourth line of Teddy Blueger centering Aston-Reese and Brandon Tanev brings a physical element.

As pertains to Tanev, that’s an understatement. He often is one of the biggest hit producers in the league, although he missed a considerable amount of time this season because of injuries. Tanev has been credited with 15 hits through the first two games of the Islanders series.

“The reason is because these teams want to win,” Sullivan said of the heightened physical aspect in the postseason. “The players that are involved are emotionally, physically – they’re totally invested in trying to win games. The physical part of the game is, I think, a byproduct of that.

“Our series is no different than any other one. That’s what makes playoff hockey exciting. I think our guys are responding extremely well.”

 

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Shelly is the newest columnist and reporter for Pittsburgh Hockey Now. She was a Penguins beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and remains a contributor to The Hockey News. Catch her on Twitter @_shellyanderson

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