Through Games 1 and 2 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal matchup with the New York Rangers, the Pittsburgh Penguins have looked sluggish, at best.
The team speed and unrelenting forecheck that propelled the Pens from fringe playoff team to second in points in the Eastern Conference seemed to be missing. Despite a 5-2 Game 1 victory on home ice, something just didn’t seem right.
In Game 2 it fell apart. Pittsburgh gave up three goals in just over four minutes in the second period, and never recovered.
On the surface, it seemed the Rangers had figured out how to slow down the Pens’ attack by clogging up the neutral zone.
But perhaps it was the Penguins who were out-smarting themselves. Even in Game 1, the speed just wasn’t there. Pittsburgh was trying to be too cute through the neutral zone rather than chipping the puck deep in behind the Rangers defense and beating them to it.
Head coach Mike Sullivan’s constant shuffling of lines to find a productive combination with Evgeni Malkin’s return to the lineup for Game 2 didn’t help. Sullivan played Malkin predominantly on the wing, alongside, what seemed like, every forward dressed for the Penguins on Saturday afternoon.
Suffice it to say that nothing really seemed to click.
In practice on Monday afternoon, prior to departing for the Big Apple, Malkin found himself back at his natural position of center, with Conor Sheary on his left wing and Eric Fehr on his right. That line would not survive the duration of Game 3.
The good news is that it didn’t have to.
Two Heavyweights Feeling One Another Out
Game 3 started off like a prize fight between two heavyweights. A lot of dancing around, a lot of poking and prodding, but no real offense or any sort of attack.
Both teams seemed to be playing it safe.
Pittsburgh carried the majority of the play during the first period. While the shot total was only 9-6 in favor of the Pens, the play was mostly in the New York end.
Just over halfway through the frame, Sheary took a double minor for a high stick. On the ensuing Rangers’ power play, Chris Kreider thought he had given the home team the lead, but the pay was challenged by Sullivan and overturned when it was determined that the Rangers had entered the zone offside.
The Pens killed off the four-minute penalty and gained a bit of momentum to close out the period. Then Rick Nash broke through shorthanded just 39 seconds into period number two.
Finding Their Game Late
Thanks to a Sidney Crosby power play goal (his first since the 2013 playoffs) with under a minute left in the second period, the Penguins drew even.
The Pens’ speed and forecheck started to take over.
Carl Hagelin drew a hooking penalty against Marc Staal after gaining the zone and blowing past the Rangers’ defender on his way to the net. Hagelin, to his credit, trapped Staal’s stick under his arm to help facilitate the penalty call.
Once the third period opened, the Penguins took the momentum from Crosby’s game-tying goal and carried to over to the final frame.
At every turn the Penguins peppered Henrik Lundqvist. They chipped the puck deep in behind the Rangers’ defense, then won the battle for the loose puck.
They discovered their game. The Penguins were once again playing like the team that won 14 of their final 16 games in the regular season.
It spelled doom for the Blue Shirts.
At 4:16 of the third, Rangers defensemen Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle collided while going after a loose puck just inside their own blue line. Ever the opportunist, Matt Cullen scooped up the puck and beat Lundqvist to give the Penguins a lead they would not relinquish.
The Pens’ speed is what Boyle and Yandle were afraid of, and it cost them dearly.
Kris Letang would tack on an empty netter and the Penguins now have a 2-games-to-1 series lead.
Lots of Healthy Bodies
It’s a good problem to have. Deciding who to dress and who to scratch when most of the skaters are healthy, that is. And that is precisely what the Coach Sullivan and the rest of his staff are faced with currently.
Malkin and Bryan Rust each returned to the lineup for Game 2. As previously stated, Sullivan almost seemed not to know what to do with Malkin, or who to have him skate with.
The uncertainty cost the Pens Game 2.
Sullivan kept things simple for Game 3 by rolling with the lines of Kunitz-Crosby-Hornqvist, Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel, Kuhnhackl-Cullen-Rust, and then plugging in Malkin with Sheary and Eric Fehr.
The lines would remain that way through the first period on Tuesday night, but Sullivan found a new combination that seems to work even better.
Roughly halfway through the contest Sullivan swapped out Sheary for Kunitz on Malkin’s line. While neither line produced any points once the wingers were switched, there was immediate chemistry.
Malkin and Kunitz are no strangers to each other, having played on the same line together in the past. But it’s what Sheary brings to Crosby and Hornqvist that may keep these lines intact.
Crosby is a straight line, north-south type of player, as is Sheary. Sheary’s speed is a huge benefit to Crosby and how he plays the game. When the two find themselves on the same line together, good things tend to happen.
Matt Murray started, and won, his first ever Stanley Cup Playoff game. He stopped 16 of the Rangers’ 17 shots. Jeff Zatkoff served as the backup with Marc-Andre Fleury ruled out. Fleury is in New York with the Penguins.
Those 17 shots by the Rangers coincidentally is their lowest shot total of the season.
Olli Maatta had himself a tremendous game based on his abysmal performance in Game 2. On Saturday afternoon, he looked slow and wasn’t skating very well. On Tuesday night he found himself right in the thick of the play almost every time he was on the ice and handled himself very well. He saw 21:21 of ice time, including 1:06 on the power play.
Bryan Rust seemed to have his legs under him. Even though he didn’t register a shot, he was a force all night long with his speed through center ice.
Malkin took face-offs iin Game 3, something he didn’t do in Game 2 back in Pittsburgh. He finished 3-6 (50%) on the night, and backed that up with three shots as well. He had one shot in the Game 2 loss.
The Penguins are scheduled to practice this afternoon at Madison Square Garden.