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Blame Game: The Real Reasons the Penguins Face Elimination in Game 6

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The joyous anticipation of a Game 5 win at PPG Paints Arena evaporated not once but twice on Monday night as the Pittsburgh Penguins made ghastly mistakes. Absolutely horrendous “what are you thinking” mistakes. If we’re going to play the real blame game, first, you’ll have to stop reflexively blaming Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin for everything.

Yes, the Penguins are in deep trouble.

But let’s get the blame game right.

If you’re going to lay blame for any of the goals on Monday night, typically rock-solid defenseman Brian Dumoulin was the primary culprit on both regulation goals.

It’s outright silliness to blame Kris Letang for pinching late in the first period when Anthony Beauvillier scored the first New York goal. That’s the Penguins game; it’s their game plan, and Letang did so responsibly. The last-minute of the first period is no different than the previous 19. It’s not the last minutes of the third period.

It was Dumoulin who inexplicably tried to step forward at the red line and whiffed, leaving Jake Guentzel to play one-on-one defense. Yeah, the result was as ugly as it sounds.

Dumoulin tried to stickhandle on the second New York goal rather than make the easy, simple play to Letang, who waited for the puck along the wall. The Penguins breakout was set and in position. Dumoulin’s delay became Dumoulin’s turnover.

All I know, the puck was behind the net. It hit a skate, went to the slot,” Letang said postgame. “And everybody was coming back. I don’t know. I have to see it.”

The New York forecheck has been heavy, and for a moment, it got to the very reliable Dumoulin. If you’re going to gas up the flame thrower and spread the blame, there you go.

The Pittsburgh Penguins exerted one of the best efforts the team has EVER put forth and yet managed to lose. They had 84 shot attempts in the first four periods, which nearly doubled New York. At least Apollo Creed won on points in Rocky, but the Penguins did not receive such a fate. They earned a loss despite battering the New York Islanders for about 76 of the 81-minute game.

“I think we made a statement the way we played tonight,” Letang said. “We just have to not forget about it and go in there…and bring the same intensity, the same urgency, and I’m pretty sure we’ll get a better result.”

Maybe they will.

History has taught us, anything and everything can change in a moment. What is true as I type may not be true in 48 hours. The early 1990s Penguins that won a pair of Stanley Cups trailed 2-0 and 3-1 in early-round series and looked left for dead.

The 2009 Stanley Cup Penguins faced elimination once, too. But if this 2021 team is to win anything, it’s now or never.

But let’s focus on the bigger picture and the series deficit, too.

Lack of Playoff Performers:

One factor which hasn’t been brought up is the Pittsburgh Penguins lack of playoff performers. Compared to their Stanley Cup years, when a handful of key players elevated their games in the postseason, the Penguins are suffering from a lack of those big-game performances.

Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin, Matt Cullen, and Ian Cole played well above their regular season levels. That complimented the playoff gear that Sidney Crosby and the Penguins core also possess.

The current Penguins are suffering from a three-year letdown in the playoffs as too many players are playing at or below their regular season levels.

Jared McCann, Jason Zucker, and Mike Matheson are not producing the chances or points they did during the Nerf battles of the regular season. Even Jake Guentzel has been “playoff dry” for a few years after a ridiculous offensive start to his playoff career in 2017 and 2018.

Guentzel has one point in the series.

The elevating players include the Penguins fourth line–all three, Brandon Tanev, Teddy Blueger, and Zach Aston-Reese. Jeff Carter and Frederick Gaudreau, too, but they don’t seem to offset the losses from the others in more prominent positions.

We may have a long offseason to analyze why some players are not posting adequate production, but indisputably, they are not.

Pittsburgh Penguins Goaltending

Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov didn’t have it. The Penguins both tortured him and received copious gifts of soft serve. New York made a change and has won all three games with their young left-handed Russian Ilya Sorokin. 

One wonders if Casey DeSmith would have made an appearance by now if Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan had a choice. DeSmith is injured and does not appear close to return, as he has not yet participated in a morning skate or practice.

Tristan Jarry drank some of the river water potion that infected former Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s playoff game both early in Fleury’s career and again from 2012-2014.

Jarry has gone from a thief in the regular season to a goalie serving more pizzas than Milano’s on Fifth. I’ve never seen such a poor goalie stance as Jarry’s after his turnover.

He had the paddle extended out as if he was going to poke check (a player 20 feet away), his glove was down at his ankle, and he was already spread out. A shooter-tutor covers more space than did Jarry, who had ample time to reset. I don’t think my words could do it justice.

Pittsburgh Penguins, Tristan Jarry

 

Jarry’s glove is behind his pad on a top-shelf wrister. In the top photo, Bailey hasn’t yet shot it, and Jarry has thrown his pads out.

He panicked.

The poised, confident Jarry is struggling with the playoff pressure. He’s fighting the puck, serving rebounds, and not providing the reassuring backstop the Penguins expect or the Islanders are getting.

“He made a mistake … We will rally around him. He’s been a really good goalie for us all year long,” Sullivan said. “He’ll continue to be a good goalie for us moving forward.”

Game 1 was not a Jarry masterpiece, either.

There’s still time to turn that around. Jarry would not be the first goalie to need a series, a year or more to find his sea legs. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet, but Jarry needs to be better for the Penguins to bring the series back to Pittsburgh for Game 7.

And he’ll have to live with a good bit of blame if they don’t.

Officiating–Do they know Interference?

So, in a game where one team thoroughly dominates puck possession, wins nearly every wall battle and scrum, is skating at the highest level, and the other team is left to defend, there wasn’t a single interference penalty.

Well, not one that was called.

Inexcusable.

The playoffs are a time when each team may get two, at the most three, power plays in a game. That’s all you get, and that’s why I forever don’t worry about regular-season power play drama. It’s way down on the list for playoff success.

But the New York Islanders traffic in interference. The holds, grabs, and in one case, an outright tackle on Sidney Crosby behind the play, which nullified a scoring chance at the net, are akin to handing the Islanders a goal, maybe two per game.

The NHL is the only sport that destroys itself in the playoffs. Imagine the NFL referees swallowing the whistle on holding penalties, “Hey, it’s about the Super Bowl.” Or MLB umpires expanding the strike zone, “Hey, it’s the World Series.”

Yet, “That’s playoff hockey” is somehow a thing.

Sullivan doesn’t have much use for the media. It’s OK. Not every coach uses, abuses, and amuses us like Sullivan’s friend John Tortorella.

But Sullivan could and should use the media to raise hell about the officiating. The New York style is tight, grinding, and conservative. With a license to hold/interfere, that’s every bit as bad as giving the Pittsbugh Penguins a license to free skate by calling every little penalty knick.

By swallowing the whistles to the degree that NHL officials have, they’ve given New York a distinct advantage. If Sullivan doesn’t call that out publicly, we will.

It may be the first time PHN has ever taken officiating to task, other than weak or non-calls on predatory hits. We don’t take that lightly.

But it’s another reason that 50 shots and nearly unprecedented offensive zone time resulted in only two goals.

“That’s playoff hockey” will ruin the game that has seen a resurgence.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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