Just What the Doctor Ordered for the Penguins?

Not many Stanley Cups were won without facing a single elimination game. The most recent team to carry out the feat were the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, who hoisted the Cup after dropping just four games along their memorable ride. Then, for their second dance with Lord Stanley, the Kings had to come out on top of three straight Game Sevens. They even came back from a 0-3 series deficit against the San Jose Sharks in the opening round. There’s more than one way to skin a cat and maybe having their backs against the wall is just what the doctor ordered for the Penguins.

Adversity, Heroics’ Catalyst

It’s fair to say that the Pens battled their way through their share of adversity during the 2015/16 season. They haven’t given up at any point and mastered a remarkable turnaround under their new coach, Mike Sullivan.

The situation they’re finding themselves in is just another page of the script that they have to turn. However, Game 6 marks a turning point. This is it. It’s do or die for the first time and it’s going to take place in enemy territory. Success in such an environment has often propelled teams above fellow contenders in the past.

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

What lies ahead is the Penguins’ biggest test of a surprisingly successful season and Tampa Bay is the most resilient team they’ve faced in recent years. All experts predicted that the Penguins would cruise by the depleted Lightning. It will, though, take seven games for the Penguins to get to the Stanley Cup Final and some more road heroics just to have a shot at advancing.

Maybe, this is just what the doctor ordered, after all.

There Will Be No More Excuses

It has happened three times in his career before Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning that Kris Letang was a minus-4. For or against the plus-minus statistic, being on the ice for four goals against while not being on the ice when your team scores a goal all game speaks volumes of the kind of night it has been. Can it possibly get any worse?

A playoff year spent on the bench hurt Fleury immensely. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
A playoff year spent on the bench hurt Fleury immensely. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

However, Letang is not the only one to blame for the Pens’ breakdown. Marc-André Fleury wasn’t particularly sharp in his first full game back in the crease. The goal he allowed at the hands of Alex Killorn was a bad one and he knew it. He even publically admitted that “it’s stupid” to allow that goal the way he did.

Alex Killorn takes advantage of Marc-André Fleury’s suboptimal positioning

This scoring play clearly turned the tides in the Bolts’ favor and Fleury went on to allow three more goals on the ensuing 13 shots he saw that night.

The score in overtime was the only goal he had no business preventing. On the other three, Fleury didn’t look very good and he’s the first person to admit it.

I’m not arguing the decision to go with the franchise goaltender, here because A, I would probably have made the same choice had I been in Mike Sullivan’s place and B, what’s the point? It’s not going to change a thing about the outcome. It’s clear, though, that the goaltending debate is far from over after a very average outing by the Flower.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have again been passengers for most of Game 5, even though both had their hands in on an eventual scoring play. Malkin was the only one of the two credited with an assist. Crosby’s pass to the trailing Olli Määttä at the point before the Patric Hörnqvist goal early in the second period set up the play, but was only the third pass leading to the goal.

Patric Hörnqvist buries a sweet Carl Hagelin dish behind Andrej Vasilevskiy

That Crosby play is quite symbolic of the two superstars’ post-season, because they were kind of involved in it, yet they haven’t had a particularly big impact.

The one thing that’s different from the years passed is that there will be no more depth excuses for the Penguins’ core players. This time around, they have to take over. They have to lead the way and not just in a psychological way because the rest of their teammates are exceeding the most optimistic expectations.

It’s Far From Over

Don’t think for a second that the Lightning have won this series already. A do or die setting might just be what the doctor ordered for the Penguins’ core players. Crosby has a history of stepping up in the biggest of moments as two of his goals wearing a Canadian jersey have locked up the olympic gold medal for his nation.

Phil Kessel has absolutely excelled on the big stage producing over a point-per-game in his sporadic playoff appearances. He also has been the Penguins lone consistent force in this years’ post-season.

Evgeni Malkin
Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin – Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr

Malkin has shown signs of fire since Fleury has been back in the cage and the former Conn-Smythe Trophy winner is due breaking out of his slump after returning to action in April.

Kris Letang has had a Norris caliber season even though he
– once more – won’t be recognized for it. He has hit the bottom in Game Five and there is simply no way he will produce yet another bummer. He’s just too proud of a man not to respond.

The same can be said of Fleury. Expect him to have a very strong game in Tampa, provided Mike Sullivan decides to stick with the Flower.

It’s now or never. The core players have to step up, if they want to have any word in who’s going to hoist hockey’s grand prize this year. If they want to upholster their personal legacy with another Stanley Cup Championship, it’s now that they have to right the ship.

The stage is set. Might as well seize the moment.