Through two Stanley Cup runs, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been through nearly every possible situation. They have overcome supposedly insurmountable injuries, faced elimination, Game 7s, and survived teams which chose to paste them into the glass as a matter of strategy.
Experience and the ability to breathe despite suffocating pressure is an invaluable trait. But, at what point does a team become callous to their situation? Can these Penguins still feel the pressure and desperation which drives teams towards greater heights and the Stanley Cup?
The Penguins had a chance to extinguish the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5. On home ice, with the Flyers mentally beaten, the Penguins came out flat. In fact, the Penguins gave the Flyers CPR. Not only did the Penguins fail to show desperation in Game 5, but they also trailed 4-2, midway through Game 6. It wasn’t until the Penguins were nearly beyond the point of no-return did they play their best.
That should concern them.
Emotions on Empty?
Greatness has not been a regular trait for this group. Beginning with the 2017 playoffs, the Penguins have been inconsistent. They have failed to stack consecutive strong efforts, failed to produce 60-minute efforts in crucial games and have generally picked their spots.
If you play with fire long enough, you get burned. A lesser team could never succeed in the same manner.
There is also the compounded matter of the killer instinct. The Penguins are only 3-6 in their first chance to eliminate a team — Game 7s excluded.
“We’ve been through a number of these elimination game over the last couple years, so it’s not a surprise to any of us,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “I will tell you, we did not take (Game 5) for granted. Not one single individual in our dressing room took it for granted.”
For any human being, there is a line between not taking something for granted and desperation; the fear of losing which makes players just a little hungrier, the hits a little harder, and the game a lot faster.
Given the inconsistent efforts against the Flyers, supposedly after the “real” season began, it’s an honest question if the Penguins can access that primal emotion and sustain it as they and other champions have done so in the past.
Different Breed of Caps?
In the Penguins celebratory locker room after their 2017 defeat of the Capitals in Game 7, more than one Penguins player admitted the Capitals were too tight in Game 7. In fact, former Penguins defenseman Ian Cole admitted the Penguins counted on that.
“We figured they would be tight,” he said.
Past is prologue, but only a prologue.
The Washington Capitals are a better team than the Flyers. If the Penguins sleepwalk or coast through part of the series, the Capitals are good enough to beat the Penguins. Last season, the Penguins let a 3-1 series lead slip away. Rather, the Capitals took it away with inspired play before ultimately choking away the opportunity to dethrone their nemesis.
The Capitals off-season was spent discussing their mental block against the Penguins. In the moments and days following the Penguins’ Game 7 win last season, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz tried to dismiss the Penguins mental edge. His players, including T.J. Oshie and Brooks Orpik, angrily conceded it. They also cryptically chided “some guys” (*ahem* Mr. Ovechkin) for trying to do too much and abandoning the game plan.
Capitals general manager Brian McClellan sided with his players.
Time Has Come?
This season has been different. There was no President’s Trophy or big pre-season hype. Fans and media dismissed the Capitals because they were supposedly in a reloading phase. Instead of struggling, the Capitals won the Metro Division. Again. But, this time they’ve done so without the pressure and expectations.
After fumbling the first couple games of Round 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Capitals didn’t panic or implode under a heap self-fulfilling doubt. They stormed CBJ for four straight wins.
Eventually, the Boston Red Sox beat the New York Yankees. The Oakland Raiders beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. And someday Alex Ovechkin‘s Washington Capitals could beat Sidney Crosby‘s Pittsburgh Penguins.
Just because the Penguins have, and the Capitals haven’t, doesn’t guarantee the Penguins will and the Capitals won’t.
Indeed, if the Penguins do not access and maintain a level of desperation, they will find themselves on the wrong side of a handshake line with an opponent which should have more than enough.