After a season that saw the Pittsburgh Penguins finish atop the MassMutual East Division, they find themselves in a 3-2 series hole against the New York Islanders. It may only be the opening round of the 2021 NHL Playoffs, but it’s already been a wild ride for the Penguins. And it may be unfair to toss blame on singular players in a team sport, but there is someone who doesn’t need to play better but smarter on the ice.
Goaltender Tristan Jarry has not been bad but needs to get his mind in the right headspace if he wants to lead this team to fight back and even up or win the series. The Penguins have looked like the better team through much of the series, and if their goalie can play smarter, they can make some real noise beyond just the first round.
Focusing on the Game
From the looks of things, the Islanders’ physical style of play isn’t just beating Jarry, it’s also getting in his head. If you watch highlights and replays, you can see him making it a point to get a bump or a slash in on an Islanders player, and it has cost him on the score sheet multiple times. Look no further than the fourth Islanders goal from Game 3. From an eye test, it seems he is just losing focus of the puck because he wants to get out some aggression.
The Islanders are employing the same gameplay with Jarry that they are with Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang; get under their skin to throw them off their game. And it’s worked enough to put them a win away from taking the series.
Then there is the play that sparked this whole article, the giveaway in double overtime in Game 5. Coming out of the net to play the puck is fine; it’s dangerous, but it can turn into a scoring opportunity if handled properly. This was not the kind of scoring opportunity Jarry had in mind.
With two wide-open skaters on each half wall, Jarry decides to send it up the middle of the ice where Isles’ forward Josh Bailey is the only skater present. Bailey is then able to get Jarry off his feet to give himself a wide-open cage to score the game-winner 51 seconds into the second overtime. It was a boneheaded mistake that couldn’t have come at a worse time.
The Team in Front
All Jarry has to do is keep his head on straight and make solid saves because Penguins skaters are fully capable of blistering shots on the other team and finding the back of the net. Sure, the Penguins have tried to pass the puck in too many shoot-first situations, but if they can improve decision-making, the goals will follow.
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Even with the unnecessary amount of passes, Penguins skaters are shooting the puck with relative ease. The team has collected 194 shots on goal through the first five games, 31 more than the Islanders have taken. Jake Guentzel is leading both teams with 24 shots on goal but has yet to record a goal. The team is possessing and shooting no problem, it’s just a matter of finding the back of the net; Especially if Jarry is struggling.
Beyond putting up more shots than a majority of all NHL Playoff teams, the Penguins defense has held the Isle’s leading point scorer during the regular season without a goal through five games. Mat Barzal led the Islanders with 45 points (17-28—45) in 55 games during the regular season but only has three assists to his name so far this postseason.
While the Penguins skaters have been doing their part, they still have yet to figure out a major factor for the Islanders.
The Ilya Sorokin Problem
The 25-year-old Russian-born rookie goalie Ilya Sorokin is almost singlehandedly keeping the Islanders in this series. In the three games he’s played in, Sorokin has outplayed Jarry in almost every aspect, collecting all three of the Islanders wins. Semyon Varlamov was the goalie in question for both of Pittsburgh’s victories.
In his first three NHL playoff games, Sorokin has stopped 39, 29, and 48 shots and remains undefeated. In 217 minutes of playing time, he has stopped 116 of the 122 shots faced for a .951 save percentage (SV%). Compare that to Jarry’s .902 SV% over five games and you can see the discrepancy.
Those are just the numbers, not the way Sorokin has constantly been making big saves in high-pressure situations. It’s only a matter of time before that dam breaks, right?
We have all seen it, we know Jarry can be a great goalie in this league and help the Penguins extend their Cup window. Over the past two regular seasons, in 72 games played, he has picked up a record of 45-21-4 with a .915 SV%. Now is the time he must become wiser with his play and backstop his team to an incredible first-round comeback.
Jarry being a smart goalie, will have to last longer than just the 2021 Playoffs, too. He is signed for another two seasons at $3.5 million per year, and there is no immediate option within the organization to take his place. He is the Penguins starting goalie until a new name breaks through. If he wants to keep his spot in Pittsburgh, he has to improve his mental game.
This is not about Jarry playing better; He is already a very skilled goaltender who possesses NHL capabilities. There’s a reason the organization stuck with him over two-time Cup winner Matt Murray. This is about Jarry playing smarter and being level-headed enough to turn this series, and maybe the whole playoffs, around. He’ll have to do it quickly, but it’s possible.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.