Imagine the Pittsburgh Penguins playing Game 6 facing elimination in front of the rowdy, blood-thirsty New York Islanders fans at Nassau Coliseum. There isn’t a more forgotten-child organization or fanbase in all sports, and when the New York Islanders have a chance to stick it to the heralded Penguins, that place rocks.
Despite four Stanley Cups, my Islanders friends (looking at you, Mark Lazerus of The Athletic) who grew up in the Islanders culture still revel in David Volek ending the Penguins Stanley Cup reign in 1993. Sure, they mention Mike Bossy and Denny Potvin, but they love bringing others down more than they loved winning.
If the Penguins don’t win Game 5, they’re going into the aptly named Coliseum facing the lions, who by way of ethos, need to bring them down.
And to win Game 5, the Penguins will need to change a few things, or more specifically, a few things need to change.
What Pittsburgh Penguins Must Change
3. Balanced Scoring / Get Between the Dots
Jeff Carter has been scoring. Sidney Crosby has been doing everything that Sidney Crosby does. The Penguins fourth line have been doing their job to hold the New York top-liners off the scoresheet.
Everyone else is on notice. Nine Penguins, including Crosby, have just one point in the series. As noted by PHN on Sunday, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, and Jared McCann have been shooting from the rafters–but no closer.
The Penguins wingers must get between the dots. It won’t be easy, but you don’t win the series by shooting from 48 feet (unless there is heavy traffic in front of the net).
Guentzel had six shots in Game 4. Only one inside 25 feet. That must change.
Three Penguins, Mike Matheson, Teddy Blueger, and Marcus Pettersson, do not have any points in four games. Blueger and Pettersson get a pass. Points aren’t what they are paid to do, but the Penguins need Matheson to put some ink on the score sheet.
2. React the Right Way?
Head coach Mike Sullivan assured us the Pittsburgh Penguins have been through this physical playoff hockey before. They know how to react the right way.
But do they?
“…these guys have been through it an awful lot. So they know exactly what we’re what’s in store. And we’re well prepared for it. We’ve just got to make sure we react the right way.”
New York got the laugh in Game 4. The Penguins came for a street fight, and the Islanders pulled back into a disciplined, conservative hockey game until they cracked the Penguins. It was vintage 2019 when New York swept the Penguins with the same strategy.
THAT should worry you. If the Penguins are disciplined, New York wails on them. If the Penguins want to get chippy, New York pulls back. And THAT is why the Islanders have found a way to bedevil the Penguins.
Only six Penguins remain from the Stanley Cup victories (Crosby, Rust, Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin). Guentzel was a rookie and late-season addition in 2017.
Jeff Carter has a pair of Stanley Cup rings from Los Angeles.
Most of the Penguins players have not seen playoff success. Brandon Tanev has been a part of only one series victory in his five-year career. Jason Zucker has one series win in nine years. Zach Aston-Reese was a rookie on the 2018 Penguins team, which advanced to Round Two but was part of the Penguins’ last two cratering thuds.
Cody Ceci was a member of the 2017 Ottawa Senators that made it all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Penguins. Otherwise, Ceci has zero series wins in his eight-year career. Mike Matheson played in Florida, which hasn’t won a playoff series since Bill Clinton was a first-term President.
Frederick Gaudreau was a depth player on the 2017 Nashville Predators which lost to the Penguins in the Stanley Cup. He did play eight games and seems to have playoff blood.
But that’s a lot more failure than success above.
So, it’s an open-ended question. Do the Penguins know how to react the right way?
1. NYI Fourth Line
We are about to see how much heart the Pittsburgh Penguins have. We thought the Penguins cracked the Islanders in Game 3, but the Islanders played their best game of the series in Game 4.
There is no question the New York Islanders live for this; they feed on upsetting the teams, which get the attention and glory. If they were a superhero, they would be Underdog (not to be confused with Underdog Lady from Howard Stern).
The Penguins have not shown heart in the playoffs since 2018. They didn’t show the proper fortitude in Game 4 or channel it in productive ways.
Perhaps Evgeni Malkin should goad Casey Czikas or Cal Clutterbuck into penalties. The New York fourth line has been THE biggest driver of the Islanders’ attack. Far and away, they’ve been the catalyst, the spark, the straw that stirs the drink.
Sarcastically, I wonder if Malkin should take one of them off the ice because they’ve been the Islanders’ best line in the series, and not by a small margin.
The Penguins need an answer for them while creating more problems for New York.