The New York Islanders brought the extra levels of playoff physicality in the second period of Game 2 and the third period of Game 3. They discombobulated the Pittsburgh Penguins for those periods. The Penguins were able to regroup and claim those games for a 2-1 series lead.
But Game 4 was a much different story.
The Islanders didn’t bring the extra-legal and extra-curricular activity. They patiently played a tight game, and it was the Penguins who had a beef. The Islanders were disciplined. The Penguins were not.
“I think this is just playoff hockey. You know, the emotions are high. It’s physical hockey. It’s like that every year,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “And and 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.”
The Islanders won Game 4, but the heavy physicality in the series appears to be taking a toll on a couple of players, and there’s one more who needs to step forward for the Penguins to break their two-year running opening-round exit streak. Thus far, not everyone is reacting the right way.
Pittsburgh Penguins Who Must Elevate
3. Jake Guentzel
The Penguins top-line winger made a name for himself as a rookie in 2017 with a hat trick and by filling the net on the Penguins’ march to their second-consecutive Stanley Cup. He knows how to score in the postseason.
In 49 playoff games, Guentzel has 25 goals and 47 points.
But he has just two goals in the last three years.
On Saturday, Guentzel had a team-high six shots. That sounds good, but just one shot was within 25 feet. Guentzel had one shot from 26 feet away (outside the dots) and Guentzel had four shots from 48 feet and beyond, including one from the other end of the rink.
He had a single shot from the scoring zone, a wrap-around attempt.
In other words, Guentzel had shots on goal, but only one of them was meaningful. The Penguins winger was kept to the perimeter and didn’t do enough to break the New York dominance of the areas needed to score goals. Scoring goals is Guentzel’s primary job.
In four games, Guentzel has only one assist. The Penguins need goals. The Penguins need Guentzel.
2. Bryan Rust
Early in the season, head coach Mike Sullivan loaded up his top line with Bryan Rust. The Pittsburgh Penguins gritty, speedy forward has developed his offensive game. For the second straight season he crossed the 20-goal mark and scored 22 markers in this shortened season.
He, too, made a mark early in his career during the Penguins Stanley Cup runs by scoring big goals.
In the first four games of the series, Rust has one point (1-0-1). Saturday, he had only two shots on goal but did catch the outside of the post on another attempt. However, Rust’s closest shot was from 19 feet away.
Kingerski, why does it matter how many feet away? The point I’m driving home is the Penguins allowed New York to control the scoring area between the dots. Rust’s shots from 19 feet are better than the long-range Guentzel shots, but he needs more than one or two.
The Penguins top line is their driver. If the top liner has only one point in the series, the Penguins are in trouble.
1. Jared McCann
At first blush, McCann’s game should flourish in the playoffs. He’s got a wicked wrist shot. He’s fast, tenacious, and knows how to turn defense into offense.
However, in 10 career playoff games, he has three assists. That’s it. McCann has been a part of the last two Pittsburgh Penguins playoff flameouts and was a healthy scratch in Game 3 against the Montreal Canadiens last August.
For a shooter, three assists over three years isn’t good enough, especially when center Jeff Carter has been on his game. Perhaps McCann gave little hint to his struggles last week.
McCann was asked about the difference in playoff experience between him and Carter.
“I think it’s just probably just a bit more nerves. You know, I feel like once you get that experience and kind of get that mindset of what you’ve got to do every night, it settles you down,” McCann said. “I’ve talked to Jeff about it, and I’m going to continue to talk to him about it, just kind of pick his brain about what he does and what I can kind of take from him.”
McCann has not yet conquered those nerves if that is indeed the issue.
With Evgeni Malkin on a gimpy leg, Jason Zucker’s hot and cold offense, and the top Penguins line being bottled up, the Penguins desperately need McCann to put one past the goalie. And then another one, too.
Long-range shots for all of the above Penguins wingers just won’t cut it. The Penguins have shown the resilience they lacked in 2019 and 2020, but only two, or even three wins in Round One will not be viewed favorably. The Penguins need a series win.
And they need shots inside the dots, from closer range. Guentzel, Rust, and McCann are the players who need to do more to make it happen.