After three games against the 12th-seeded Montreal Canadiens, the Pittsburgh Penguins are on the brink of elimination. The Pens lost Game 1, but bounced back in Game 2. Game 3 took a turn when the club blew a 3-1 lead against the Habs, though, who scored three goals in a row for a 4-3 win.
The Penguins now need to win two games in a row to make it to the playoffs. Throughout the first three games, a few Penguins players have struggled and will need to be better.
Sidney Crosby’s performance has not been amazing, but the captain has managed to score two goals and has an assist in three games. Evgeni Malkin, on the other hand, has struggled to score throughout the series. He finally found his way onto the scoresheet when he assisted on Patric Hornqvist’s power-play goal in Game 3. His first point in the play-in round might be enough to get the Russian forward going.
The Penguins historically rely on the duo of Crosby and Malkin to carry most of the load throughout the postseason. The duo has a combined 356 points in the playoffs. With Crosby out during the regular season, Malkin carried the load, leading the team with 74 points in 55 games. He has been the team’s leader throughout the year, keeping their season alive without the captain in the lineup.
The Russian forward may need to guarantee a comeback for the team as that has successfully motivated them before. During the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, the Penguins were down 3-2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Malkin guaranteed a Game 6 win, and the club came back to win the series. His leadership and confidence are needed now more than ever for the Penguins.
Matt Murray has been inconsistent throughout the play-in round. At his best in the postseason, Murray’s save percentage and goals-against average have been amazing. During his first Stanley Cup run in 2016, he had a .923 SV% and a 2.08 GAA. The following year, his numbers were even more impressive as he posted a .937 SV% and a 1.70 GAA. This postseason, he is struggling, posting a .914 SV% and a 2.50 GAA.
For the Penguins to come back and win this series against Montreal, Murray will have to return to his old ways. The goaltender allowed three goals in a row in a Game 3 loss after his team took a 3-1 lead. He has a lot more at stake in this series since he and backup goalie Tristan Jarry are both RFAs, which could force general manager Jim Rutherford to choose between the two. If the Penguins do make a comeback, it will be due to Murray stepping up or Jarry replacing him and saving the club’s season.
Through 66 games, Kris Letang led the Penguins defence with 15 goals and 44 points. The veteran defenceman has yet to register a point through three games against Montreal, though. He quarterbacks the team’s power play, and during the season, had 15 power-play points. In Games 1 and 2, the Penguins’ power play scored one goal on a combined 12 attempts. The club had better luck in Game 3, scoring on two of the three power-play opportunities they had. Letang needs to step up as the team’s lead offensive defenceman during 5-on-5 play and on the power play.
The veteran has 80 points in 135 career playoff games, but in his last seven, he has managed to post just one assist. The Penguins will look for their cornerstone defenceman to turn his play around in the following games. Before the series, Letang stated he was not overlooking the underdog Canadiens coming into the postseason.
“At the end of the day, the playoffs are a different beast,” Letang said to Sportsnet. “No matter (who) you play, it’s going to be hard. (If it wasn’t Montreal), it was going to be Washington, or Philadelphia, or a challenge like that. We have a lot of experience, I’ve never heard of an easy series. Look at Tampa from last year.
Penguins Veterans Need to Step up
Malkin, Murray and Letang have been key pieces in the Penguins’ success over the years. For the team to bounce back in the play-in round, all three players need to step up in Games 4 and 5. If they lose, the Penguins will have the opportunity to win the draft lottery and select Alexis Lafreniere.
Although the team would benefit from adding Lafreniere, the club and its fans would rather win another Stanley Cup this season. Making the playoffs allows them to win three Stanley Cups in five seasons.
Sartaaj has been watching hockey for over 15 years and covers the Vancouver Canucks for The Hockey Writers.