A great stretch here, a great stretch there.
More often than not however, the Pittsburgh Penguins have seemed to play long stretches of mediocre (bordering on maddening) hockey.
Until last night the Penguins had yet to put together a full 60-minute hockey game in these Stanley Cup Playoffs. Throughout the six games of the first round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh was outplayed by a large margin for the majority of the quarterfinals.
The trend continued last Friday night when the Pens opened their Eastern Conference semifinal series against their Metropolitan Division rival New York Rangers.
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It began with Game One against Columbus. The Penguins were badly outplayed in the first period of that tilt that saw them trailing 2-1 after the first 20 minutes of playoff hockey.
It continued again in Game Three vs the Blue Jackets, this time Pittsburgh trailed 2-0.
In Game One on Friday night against New York, the Penguins looked listless and rather uninterested against a team that had, just two nights prior capped off a physically and emotionally draining seven-game series against the Philadelphia Flyers.
It would stand to reason then that the Pens should’ve come out a house on fire with guns a-blazin’ in the first twenty. But no, sadly the Rangers got the jump on Pittsburgh (at Consol Energy Center mind you, NOT the Garden) and took a 2-0 lead into the locker room.
The Penguins would ultimately tie the game in the second period on goals from Lee Stempniak and James Neal, only to lose 3:06 into overtime after the two teams played a third 20 minutes to a draw.
These bad starts and mind-numbing stretches of just seemingly uninterested stretches of play have doomed the Penguins in these playoffs to the tune of three losses so far.
The bright side in that statement is that two of those losses came in one series, which the Penguins won four games to two.
Clean slate achieved.
60 Minutes Makes All the Difference
After a less-than-stellar performance in the series opener Friday night, the Penguins put together a rather convincing 60-minute victory over the Rangers in Game Two to knot the series at one game apiece.
Had it not been for Henrik Lundqvist, this game could’ve easily been 5-0 or 6-0.
The Penguins controlled the play early and for the vast majority of this game. It just goes to show what this team is capable of when they put their minds (and some collective effort) into playing good hockey.
This game was not as easy though as I am making it sound. Once again, Lundqvist stood on his head tonight, and should be getting a few pretty nice meals out of his teammates for his performance.
King Henrik held the Pens scoreless through the first half of the game, until Kris Letang fired a shot that deflected off a sprawling Dan Girardi (I would have to think he’d like to have this sequence over again) that gave Pittsburgh the lead at 10:26 of the second period.
It would stay this way until 3:30 remained in the game when Jussi Jokinen fired home a rebound off a James Neal shot on the power play at which Lundqvist had no chance.
Evgeni Malkin would add an empty-netter after outworking Girardi for the puck on the near wall to provide the final margin of 3-0 in favor of the Penguins.
Between Lundqvist (32 saves on 34 shots faced) and the Penguins firing shots that missed the net all night, the score was really not indicative of how this game played out.
Smart Playoff Hockey
One of the biggest knocks on the Penguins in the latter part of the regular season, and carrying over into the playoffs, was boneheaded decisions with the puck. Drop passes to no one in particular, lack of communication between defensemen and goalie, or trying to force the puck through traffic across the ice. For the most part you saw none of that tonight.
The Penguins played with energy, with passion, and with a sense of urgency and desperation not seen in months.
They made the smart, simple plays with the puck, taking what the Rangers were giving them and not trying to do too much with it. Guys were in good position most of this night and were able to take away much of New York’s time and space, not allowing the Blueshirts to really generate much in the way of offense or puck possession.
This is what the Penguins have been missing since January.
At times, it almost seemed like Pittsburgh was trying to be too cute with the puck, especially with the man-advantage. Not so tonight. Matt Niskanen, despite firing the puck high and wide on three straight attempts on a power play in the first period, had an open lane to shoot the puck and he did so with authority.
It was a whole different beast, a whole different side that we saw from the Pens tonight.
The downside to this is that it took a Game One loss to a team that was on the mat, with wobbly knees trying to get back on its feet during a standing eight-count. The Rangers are a tired team, and as well they should be. Pittsburgh should’ve taken advantage of that in the first game of this series, but instead they chose to give New York some life.
The hope now is that these Penguins will play this way from here on out, no matter if they’re playing from behind in a series, or on the verge of closing a team out in an elimination game.
The Penguins gave the Rangers some life last Friday night by not playing for a full 60 minutes.
For 60 minutes last night, the Penguins took that life away.
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