Last week, we presented an argument for why the Pittsburgh Penguins would be playing for the Stanley Cup this year. Then, the Eastern Conference Finals started. Oops. May have swung and missed on that one…at a pitch in the dirt…as the bat slipped out and sailed into the third row.
Heading into Game 4, the Bruins hold a commanding 3-0 lead with a chance to sweep the Penguins out of the playoffs Friday night in Boston. So, how did this happen? How did the Penguins go from lighting up Craig Anderson to fighting to avoid being shut out in a matter of two weeks? Here, we present three reasons Pittsburgh is on the cusp of flaming out just shy of the Stanley Cup Final.
Too often in this series, pundits have talked about what the Penguins are not doing as opposed to what the Bruins are doing. And while the underrated Boston blue line has done a reasonably good job of containing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Tuukka Rask has absolutely slammed the door on them. Aside from Game 2 when the Penguins offered less resistance than Congress faced in repealing Prohibition, there have been stretches in this series where the Pens have dominated long stretches of play. Specifically, for much of the first half of Game 1 and the better part of Game 3, Rask spent time impersonating Tim Thomas’ play during the Bruins’ Stanley Cup run from two years ago. Having stopped a mind boggling 108 of 110 shots for a ridiculous .981 save percentage thus far in the series, Rask has the Penguins frustrated and looking for answers:
“It was hard-fought all over the ice, and we threw a lot at them. We threw a lot at them in regulation, we threw 50-plus shots, and we played exactly how we wanted to play, just couldn’t find the second goal.” – Dan Bylsma, following Game 3
That Game 3 was one of their most complete efforts of the season has to be the most frustrating part for the Penguins. They didn’t deserve to win Games 1 or 2 but even Claude Julien admitted the Pens were probably the better team in Game 3 – they peppered Rask with 54 shots, many of them high quality chances from the likes of Malkin and James Neal. But Rask was equal to the task. And, as a result, the Bruins are one game away from their second Finals appearance in three years.
Talk about your Jekyll and Hyde performers. Letang followed an up and down performance in the first round with a dominating effort against the Senators. He led all scorers with ten points in the series and was the x-factor Ottawa simply had no answer for as he controlled the play at both ends of the rink. Upon the series’ conclusion, Letang was tied for the team lead in points (16) and +/- (+7).
Prior to the Boston series, Dejan Koacevic of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote about the Letang vs. Zdeno Chara matchup. Specifically, he stated that the more dominant star defenseman in the coming matchup would be largely responsible for his reaching the Stanley Cup Final. And while it hasn’t been that simple, the fact that Chara has grossly outplayed Letang at least partly explains why the Bruins look to be moving on.
While Chara hasn’t put up much in the way of offensive numbers (he has yet to put up a point in the series), he is a +5 in the three contests. What’s more, he has helped frustrate arguably the greatest player in the game in Sidney Crosby, holding him scoreless to this point against Boston in the postseason. While Rask represents by far the biggest reason Pittsburgh has only potted two goals in the series, Chara has simultaneously played a large role in shutting down the mighty Pens.
Letang, meanwhile, has been the polar opposite of the dominant player he was in the Ottawa series. Abysmal turnovers, poor communication, getting caught blatantly out of position and recklessly trying to facilitate the anemic Pittsburgh offense have all caused Letang to appear lost on the ice for much of the past three games. Not only has he gone pointless in the series but he is playing at a -5 and has shown no sign of improving his play as the Penguins face elimination.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Power Play
Ok, so this is obviously more of a grouping than individual key. But these aspects all intertwine and figure in together regarding Pittsburgh’s lack of success in these Conference Finals.
Saying Crosby has not been his dominant self would be an understatement. While Game 2 was arguably the worst performance of his career, he followed it up with another listless effort in Game 3 as he continued to uncharacteristically make poor decisions that led to turnovers inside the Boston blue line. Yes, he has sporadically created opportunities but, short of an offensive zone faceoff win that eventually led to Pittsburgh’s lone marker in Game 3, his influence has yet to make a meaningful impact on the series. In fact, his inability to produce a single point through three games has some speculating as to whether or not he is dealing with some sort of injury. What is clear, though, is that Crosby’s lack of production is directly linked to the Penguins’ current lack of success.
Unlike Crosby, Malkin is consistently creating opportunities, as illustrated by the ten shots he peppered Rask with in Game 3. Unfortunately for Geno, though, the chances aren’t leading to anything other than broken bones for the Bruins unfortunate enough to step in the path of a Malkin blast. As a result, the former scoring champ and MVP finds himself, much like Crosby, scoreless and frustrated as the Penguins search for ways to beat Rask and the Bruins.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in this series comes from the Penguins’ power play, or lack thereof. During the regular season, the Pens had the number two unit on the circuit and, coming into the third round, the top power play in the postseason. The Bruins, however, have completely stymied the Pittsburgh man advantage, killing off all twelve Penguin opportunities. In reality, it was the difference in Game 3, as Pittsburgh went 0-6 with the man advantage, including two opportunities in overtime. Indeed, without their potent power play clicking, the Penguins have become powerless in this matchup of what was supposed to be the East’s two best teams.
So, now, what many hoped would be an epic showdown, a series for the ages, has morphed into what looks to be nothing more than a swift, four game beat down. The Bruins sit on the verge of completely shocking one of the highest powered offensive juggernauts we have seen since the Oilers’ dynasty of the 1980’s and, to this point, Pittsburgh simply has no answer for it.