Don’t Worry…At Least Not Yet

The Penguins had a 3-1 series lead over the President Trophy winners.

They had a 3-1 lead against a goalie who will likely win the Vezina Trophy as best NHL goaltender, Braden Holtby.

They had a 3-1 lead against a Capitals team with stellar offensive power and a strong defense.

holtby

It was only a matter of time before the Capitals found their game, as the they went on to beat the Penguins 3-1 in Washington DC in game 5, trimming the Penguins’ series lead to 3-2 and forcing game 6 Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center.

Throughout Twitter, word of mouth, text messages, the radio, and other forms of media, I seem to be getting 2 different vibes about this Penguins team: one side of the spectrum believes that the Penguins will respond well in game 6 at home and finish of the Capitals.  The other side of the spectrum is saying, “Oh no, here comes a repeat of 2011 and 2014: blowing that 3-1 series lead..”

To those of you that truly believe the Penguins will win game 6, I’m glad you believe in this hockey team.  For those of you on the other side of the spectrum, aka the “Pens are gonna blow a 3-1 series lead again” side, I simply say don’t worry…at least not yet.

First of all, the Penguins just lost 1 game.  They didn’t lose the series.  The have a chance to win at home, and even if they fail to do that, they could still win game 7 in Washington…which they did en route to a Stanley Cup in 2009.

Although the Penguins did have a chance to finish off the President’s Trophy winner Washington Capitals, did anyone (not Penguins fans alone) think that the Pens would even win this series? It seemed to me that many analysts were picking the Capitals in this series.  So, in that fact alone, the fact that the Penguins are even up 3-2 in this series thus far is still pretty incredible.

Finally, although the Penguins had a 3-1 series lead, which is now a 3-2 series lead, it really did not feel that way going into game 5.  Going into game 5, every game was decided be a goal excluding game 2 (which was a 2 goal win by the Penguins due to a late empty net goal by Letang), which included 2 games, game 1 and game 4, both decided in overtime.  The Caps won game 1 on an OT winner by TJ Oshie, capping off a hat trick, and the Pens won game 4 on a goal from Patric Hornqvist.  It also includes a game 3 where the Capitals probably deserved to win and played much better hockey than the Pens, but Matt Murray simply stood on his head while making 47 saves, the most ever by a rookie goaltender in a playoff win.

Say the Capitals win game 3 without Murray’s heroics, and say they score the winning goal in OT in game 4.  All of a sudden, Washington just won this series tonight 4-1.  Crazy, huh?

My point I want to make is that this series has been way closer than it appears.  Heck, the Capitals win game 5 while being outshot 32-22 by the Penguins.  Holtby played his best game of the series, their power play came through large by scoring 2 goals, and Murray played just alright.  The Penguins did not play a terrible hockey game.  They just didn’t get the result they wanted.

So I say once again, don’t worry just yet.  The Penguins can still close this out at home.  If they don’t…then we can start worrying.  But remember, it’s not over ’til it’s over.

Some quick observations about game 5…

  • Patric Hornqvist, a player that everyone on the team loves including Sullivan, played only 10:36 of ice time in game 5.  Only Fehr (10:13) and Kuhnhackl (8:09) had less ice time.  It did not appear Hornqvist was ever injured, but he did not see his normal ice time in this game. Something to keep note of going forward.
  • The Penguins need to neutralize Ovi.  He had the opening tally tonight, and his first via his classic one-time slap shot on the power play.  He has had one too many open chances in this series, and it was about time he buried one.  He is starting to feel it, and the Pens need to shut him down before he really gets hot.
  • Crosby and Malkin need to step up.  I know there is more to it than just putting points up, but these 2 guys need to do what they’re paid to do.  The other guys have been picking up the slack, but its about time one of them has a big game.  Game 6 would be preferable.  It won’t be easy, however, as the Caps get probably their most physical defensemen Brooks Orpik back for game 6 after serving his 3 game suspension for his hit on Olli Maatta.
  • The Penguins power play needs to just shoot the puck.  The one goal they had tonight was because their power play was moving and kept Washinton’s defense scrambling by getting the puck to the net.  Kunitz jammed in the rebound.  They seem to be looking for the perfect chance, but that just can’t happen every time.  Fire the puck quickly on goal, good things will come.  This needs to be addressed. Also, noted, the pens despite terrific zone time didn’t register a shot after pulling Murray with 3 minutes to go.  Let that sink in.
  • I felt as though there were 2 very large moments in this game that really put it away for the Capitals.  First was the goal by Williams, which resulted after a clear from Dumoulin fell right on his stick, and he made no mistake with it and curried it 5-hole on Murray giving the Caps a 3-1 edge.  Then after the Pens went down 3-1, Justin Schultz had a miraculous chance in a 4 on 2 rush for the Pens, but Holtby made an unbelievable stop.  It really felt like the game was over right there and then.
  • The Penguins should stick with Murray for the rest of this series.  Even if they lose game 6, I would not even consider putting in a cold Marc-Andre Fleury in for a game that means that much, even though he is your franchise goaltender.  Let the kid that got you there play this one out.  He deserves to finish what he started.  If they advance, we can discuss who starts from there on out.
  • Oh yeah, almost forgot. Pens in 6.

 

Don’t Worry…At Least Not Yet

Don’t Count Them Out Yet

We’re now over halfway through the season, and the Penguins are still on the outside looking in.  It just seems as though they can’t string more than 2 or 3 wins together to make a legitimate playoff run.  That being said, don’t count them out yet.

Now this may almost sound too obvious.  You may be thinking, “well they’re only two points out of a playoff spot and they have a game in hand on some of the teams that are ahead of them.  Plus there are 37 games left.  Of course I can’t count them out.”

But think about it, this has been the story for the past 3 weeks or so.  The Penguins are winning enough games to keep them in the wild card race, but they are not winning stretches of games to really give them a boost in the standings.  Most of the teams fighting for the wild card will win 1 of 2, which is basically what the Penguins are doing.

Just a few nights ago, the Penguins played arguably their best 60 minute game of the season, dominating the Carolina Hurricanes 5-0.  It once again felt like a win that was going to get the Penguins trending upward.

They then go to St. Louis the night after to take on the Blues.  They did play well the first 2 periods, but the game was tied 2-2 due to a bad play by Zatkoff and due to Ben Lovejoy getting burned by Blues superstar Vladimir Tarasenko.  In the 3rd the Penguins seemed to have lost energy and dropped the game 5-2.

The Penguins have a chance, but if they’re going to start stringing together some wins, it needs to start now.

And no, I’m not saying they need to win 12 in a row like the Blackhawks, who are probably going to win the Stanley Cup…again…

But they need to at least start some winning stretches: Win 7/8 in 10, put together a 4 game win streak, win 2 back-to-back games, which have absolutely tortured the Penguins this year…If they can do that, then I give them a great chance.

But it can’t start in a few games, or next week, or next month…it has to start Thursday night against the Flyers, who the Penguins haven’t beaten in over 2 years.

Why?

The Penguins have 37 games remaining.  Of those 37 remaining, they play 20 (more than 50%) within their own division.  This includes a stretch in March where the Penguins play 11 of 13 games against division opponents.

They play the Flyers 4 times (have not played them yet this season), Rangers 4 times (have not played them yet this season), Capitals 3 times, Devils 3 times, Islanders 3 times, Hurricanes twice, and Blue Jackets once.

In the new playoff format, the top 3 teams in the division have a playoff spot locked, so placing high in the division is extremely important.  If the Penguins can find a way to start winning games, they will be beating the teams within their division, and will find themselves climbing the ladder quite quickly.

On the contrary, if they continue to play about .500 hockey or worse, especially against the division where the Penguins have performed poorly in the past few years, the Penguins could kick themselves right out of the playoffs and onto the golf course.

Just to give you can idea on where the Penguins stand, they are currently 5th in the division with 49 points.  No one is going to catch the Capitals, who lead the division by 18 points.  But believe it or not, the Penguins could have their eyes set on 2nd if they can buckle down throughout the home stretch.

The Rangers are in 2nd place and have 55 points, but the Penguins play them 4 times AND have a game in hand.

The Islanders are in 3rd with 54 points and the same amount of GP as the Pens, but the Penguins play them 3 more times.

The Devils have 51 points in 4th place, but the Penguins play them 3 more times and have 2 games in hand.

The Flyers are in 6th and have 48 points plus a game in hand on the Penguins, but the Penguins play them 4 more times which gives them a great chance to separate themselves from their cross-state rival.

The Hurricanes, in 7th, also have 48 points, but the Penguins have 2 games in hand.  The Penguins do play the Canes twice more, but I do not see Carolina being a playoff threat.  Not yet.  They’re still rebuilding.

So can the Penguins pull this off?

Yes, but here is what has to happen:

  • Sid needs to keep being Sid
    • Sid has been on fire as of late.  He is scoring goals, making sweet passes, and just looks more confident than he has at any point under Mike Johnston.  I think Sid is benefiting from Sullivan’s system, but Sid needs to keep his production trending up to give the Penguins a chance at legitimate playoff contention.
  • Kuni Kaze
    • Kunitz has also been playing very well as of late.  His legs seem to have gotten younger.  He is starting to score goals again, and looks much more like the Chris Kunitz of a few years ago.  Hopefully those legs can stay young, because the Penguins are going to need a guy like him to keep producing at a decent clip, especially playing with Sid.
  • Kessel…SHOOT!!
    • Kessel has great play-making ability, and I do not want to take that away from him, but the Penguins traded for him to be a goal scorer.  Period.  I still believe in Kessel, but he just needs to find some confidence and start shooting the puck relentlessly.  The guy has a wicked shot.
  • Give Pouliot a chance
    • Derrick Pouliot, high-end defensive prospect for the Penguins, was called up recently due to the unfortunate injury of David Warsofsky in the game against Carolina.  Pouliot played a bit last year, and more often than not, was not living up to expectations.  That being said, he has been fantastic in the AHL and deserves to play.  I would personally scratch Ian Cole, who has been way underperforming, and give Pouliot his shot.  He should help the defense get involved and possibly quarterback the 2nd powerplay unit.
  • Hagelin
    • For those of you that were not aware, the Penguins traded away David Perron and Adam Cledening to acquire the speedy Carl Hagelin from the Ducks.  I like the trade and I like what Hagelin can bring.  He fits much better in the Eastern Conference, as he is a small, fast forward who is a great back-checker and PK guy.  That being said, he can score goals.  He scored 17 with the Rangers not too long ago.  He is currently on a line with Evgeni Malkin, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a chance to play with Sid.  Hagelin looked good in his first 2 games despte not even being able to practice with the team, but I think he needs to step up and chip in 10 goals the rest of the way.

Well, here’s to hoping the Penguins start stringing together some wins tomorrow against the Flyers…

Don’t Count Them Out Yet