For the first time this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins served defenseman Jack Johnson a plate of press box nachos. For Game 1 of the Penguins Round One series against the New York Islanders, Johnson was a healthy scratch in favor of Olli Maatta or March Pettersson. Johnson played all 82 games in regular season, played on the right side when his team needed someone to take one for the team, and then played on his natural left side, was a prominent penalty killer and dished more hits than any Penguins defenseman in a decade.
But Johnson sat in Game 1.
The Penguins coaches chose Olli Maatta to anchor the left side of the second pairing with offensive d-man Justin Schultz, instead of Johnson who has helmed the spot since Schultz returned in mid-February. The Penguins coaches chose Maatta’s slightly superior mobility and puck movement over Johnson’s heavy, steady and defensive game.
“There were (defensive lapses) at times, but it’s a five-man effort. We’ve got to do a better job supporting them when they’re under pressure,” head coach Mike Sullivan said.
Beyond the lapses, Maatta was also overpowered by the Islanders prominent fourth line. Casey Czikas brushed off Maatta in the first period in one of several more grinding shifts which were uninterrupted by the Penguins defense which was not able to compete with the Islanders physicality.
Just 33 seconds into the game, Maatta and Kris Letang retreated in fear of the mighty Tom Kuhnhackl who suddenly channeled his inner Connor McDavid. Despite surrounding Kuhnhackl four-on-one, Maatta retreated despite being the high defenseman who could have thwarted the chance by stepping forward. The black arrow below is the right play. The red…was the wrong play.
Had the Islanders not been offside due to a trailing forward making a line change, it would have been 1-0 before the game was one minute old.
The space for the wicked shot was the result of sagging to the circles. We’ve highlighted the open space Maatta yielded:
Just 50 seconds later, the Islanders victimized Maatta for real. This diagram is a little more complex. Dumoulin is guarding the puck and Mathew Barzal on the left wing. As the puck progressed around the outside, Dumoulin trailed the man towards the circle. Sidney Crosby had eyes on Mathew Barzal in the slot and was in good enough position to make a play, even though his stick is only slightly visible in the screenshot.
By over-committing, Maatta left the front porch unguarded, and Eberle was too happy to snag the Amazon packages. A gaffe like gave the Islanders an even bigger boost and quickly soothed the nullified goal. Given their tight-checking style of play, a lead only emboldens the Islanders to squash their opponent’s space.
The turnover below directly led to Nick Leddy’s go-ahead goal in the third period. Again Maatta retreated deep into his own zone and gave the puck carrier worlds of space. By looking at the still below, you may think Maatta was coming over to help, but Maatta and Valtteri Filppula received the puck at the blue line as Maatta was within a few feet. Maatta yielded the play.
A long-range shot from the wall would not ordinarily be a big deal. And this one should not have been a bother, either. Matt Murray neatly kicked the rebound right back to Maatta who had an easy chance for a transition game. Maatta had two plays–a simple touch ahead to Sidney Crosby who would transition to offense, or pending the backside situation he could have simply knocked it off the end wall. Maatta chose to take space which didn’t exist and turned to play the puck ahead.
Before Maatta could make the turn, Anthony Beauvillier swept across Maatta to steal the puck and continue the play. Seconds later, the Penguins trailed 3-2 later in the third period.
The New York Islander forecheck was not too quick for the Penguins and should not have been too relentless. However, the gaffes of the defensemen, Maatta notably, put a couple of goals on the board. A couple more were nearly posted on the scoreboard because of the Penguins inability to clean the crease. The Islanders have a couple of large body players on their famed fourth line, but Tom Kuhnhackl should not be a player the Penguins cannot move.
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However, that was the case in the third period. Here are a couple of angles of the same sequence. The Penguins defensemen, in this case it is Maatta, needed to clear sight line for Murray. Instead, Murray had a good look at the back of Kuhnhackl’s sweater. The shot whizzed past the net, but Murray never saw it.
The Penguins crease was frequently littered with Islanders forwards who annoyed and screened Murray. The Penguins defensemen also left a few Islanders forwards uncovered in the low scoring zone.
Wednesday night, the defense just was not good enough. We picked on Olli Maatta specifically. We could have chosen Marcus Pettersson or Brian Dumoulin for the chalkboard but Maatta’s errors were more egregious, and I wanted to give clarity to the criticism. There was and will be plenty of criticism of Maatta, and I am not keen on adding to the bonfire.
The Islanders also targeted the Penguins defensemen for physical play which typically resulted in an increase in activity and intensity for New York.
Just as I tempered the Jack Johnson effigy which lasted months and is still burning amongst the true believers, I’ll also temper the negatives of Maatta. He had one bad game, but it was a really bad game.
I didn’t even show the third period whiff in which Kuhnhackl (seriously, the Penguins coaches implored him to play to his offensive strengths and he tacitly declined) turned Maatta inside out to get a clear shot at Murray from 20 feet.
Maatta is a better puck mover and a slightly better skater than Jack Johnson. However, Johnson’s physical strength and defensively reliable positioning might be a better fit in the series than Maatta who was run over. The Penguins need Jack Johnson so that Murray can see.
If the Penguins defense has another shaky game as they did in Game 1, Murray may not be seeing pucks and Penguins fans may be seeing red.