The Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves up two games to one versus a young Columbus Blue Jacket team. Everyone, except for ESPN’s Barry Melrose, expected the Pens to make this series a quick one, ending it in four or five games, so it may not surprise most hockey fans that the Pens are up… unless you’ve watched the first three games and the series of unlikely scoring.
Defenseman Leading the Unlikely Scoring
On a team that has the two of the previous three Art Ross Trophy winners, you would expect them to be led by their offense in scoring, especially in the playoffs when it matters most. But three games in, this is not the case for the Pens.
Going into game four, the Pens are being led by defenseman in goals scored, assists, and points. Paul Martin leads his team in points and assists at six and Matt Niskanen leads the team in goals tied at two. The Pens are also leading the playoffs in defensive scoring with 14 total points scored by d-men. The high octane Pens being led by their D? Unlikely.
Obviously, you’ll take scoring from whomever will produce in the playoffs. But game three would’ve been very different without the timely, and unlikely ,scoring of Brooks Orpik. Orpik, until game three, had one playoff goal (the game six overtime winner from a year ago.) But in the third game of the Columbus series, the Pens had numerous chances on Sergei Bobrovsky with time running down in the second period. It felt as if nothing was going to get into his net… that is until Beau Bennett found Orpik at the left circle and Orpik showed off his offensive skill and put a beauty in the net with 1.7 seconds left in the period.
Take this unlikely timely goal away and the Pens likely lose game three and find themselves behind in the series.
But the defense will likely not be able to carry the scoring load for 14 more games. Which raises the question, where are the stars at? After three games, Crosby has yet to score a goal, Malkin hasn’t scored a goal, Kunitz has not scored a goal, and James Neal and Kris Letang have not scored a point! Those five players scored more than half (55%) of the goals for Pittsburgh during the regular season. Yet, they’ve scored 0% of the goals scored in the playoffs. Will that continue? Unlikely.
Comparing First Round Series’
Everyone wants to make the comparison, the 2013 Islanders series to the 2014 Columbus series. A lot looks the same, on paper. But watching these games, the similarities are few. Against the Islanders, the Penguins won the first game easily and Marc-Andre Fleury posted a shut-out; that would be his only successful night in those playoffs. They lost their composure and Fleury played horrendous. The goals he let in last year were inexcusable and eventually led to him being pulled for game five. The Fleury has made huge saves already in the first three games and looks to be confident. The 2014 Fleury will not lose his composure and will be goalie in the net for the remainder of these playoffs. Zatkoff for Fleury? Unlikely.
The Blue Jackets are also much better than the Islanders were a season ago. The Penguins played bad in losses last year; they played a few bad periods thus far in the Columbus series but they’ve had great chances and the Jacket defense and Bobrovsky has shut them down. The Penguins are obviously a more talented team than the Jackets but if Columbus can keep their composure after blowing a 3-1 third period lead, they are more than capable of tying this series up and bringing it back to Columbus for a sixth game.
Crosby and Malkin are Still The Best
Crosby now has a seven game goalless playoff streak, longer than any in his career and he’s obviously starting to feel the pressure. But he’s not playing bad hockey; he’s still creating chances for others and he’s still getting his chances. Crosby will keep getting chances and he will score, its only a matter of when.
Malkin and his line have looked phenomenal. Malkin may have zero goals this series, but his assists and his playmaking this far have been a huge part of the Penguins two wins. Malkin hasn’t played much hockey in the last month and as soon as he hits his stride, he’ll be unstoppable.
There really isn’t much to worry about going into game four when it comes to 87 and 71. James Neal and Chris Kunitz will succeed along side them, its just a matter of time. But, the fifth superstar who needs to make a change and step his game up is Kristopher Letang. It’s nothing new for the Penguin faithful; Letang has always been high risk/high reward. But thus far, with the exception of the final period of game three, Letang has been all risk, no reward. He’s turning the puck over at a high rate and he’s not scoring, at all. He was pulled off the first power play and he’s taken some bad penalties. But it’s Letang, and sitting him will do no good… he has to play out of this slump, and it looks like he’s begun doing so.
Unlikely Scoring and Unlikely Blessing
The Penguins find themselves up a game and halfway to advancing into the second round, yet their superstars have not scored a single goal. The biggest concern on this Pittsburgh team was secondary scoring: “Can other players assist in the scoring and take the burden off the top two lines?”, etc. etc. etc.
The Penguins have answered those questions, and now everyone is worried about the top two lines. They are still the top two lines and they aren’t going to go scoreless. It’s the playoffs, and sometimes, a team must win games however they can. Game three meant defensive scoring. The unlikely scoring of these defensemen will lead to adjustments by Columbus that will open up other opportunities for forwards. And then ask yourself, can Columbus keep taking four+ penalties a game and expect the Penguin power play to not score? There were several stretches during the regular season when the Penguin power play was goal-less… But like all droughts, they broke out.
Pittsburgh have proved that they are capable of winning games without the brilliance of Crosby and Malkin. So when those two decide to join the party and start scoring, the Pens become an Eastern Conference favorite. Look for game four to foreshadow the remainder of this series… Can Columbus bounce back from an agonizing collapse? Or has Pittsburgh found their stride and will they close the door and take a commanding, yet ‘eery 3-1 series lead heading back to Pittsburgh?