Talent Alone Not Enough for Pittsburgh Penguins to Win

Sidney Crosby Penguins
(Icon SMI)

If you’d have told me two weeks ago that the Pittsburgh Penguins would be lucky to have a 2-1 series lead over the New York Islanders going into Tuesday’s game, I’d have suggested you need a trip to the quiet room to get your head checked out.

But here we are.

The problem isn’t that they lost a game to an inferior opponent. That happens all the time in the playoffs. The problem is the way they lost and the emerging pattern of playoff complacency and incompetence. Yes, they lead the series 2-1, but make no mistake, the Penguins have been thoroughly outplayed for the majority of the series.

But we’ll get into that in a second.

The Best Player in the World

First, I want to take a quick step back and look at the positive. We as fans really need to appreciate what we’re seeing from Sidney Crosby.

Despite their best efforts to choke the game away, Crosby played a transcendent brand of hockey in Game 3 and singlehandedly dragged the team kicking and screaming to victory. The “best player in the world” designation gets thrown around a lot, but it’s games like this one that prove Crosby is truly a once in a generation talent the caliber of which we haven’t seen since Mario Lemieux.

When Crosby is determined to win, it’s a sight to behold. It doesn’t happen every night, but like Michael Jordan or Roger Federer in his prime, Crosby can absolutely take a game over at a moment’s notice. He did it in the 2010 Olympics and he did it again on Sunday. There’s just something different about the way he skates in games like this, an no amount of gushing superlatives I come up with will ever do it justice.

And I’m not the only one to notice:

Let’s make no mistake, either, the penalty he drew against Brian Strait in overtime was purely a product of his hard work driving to the net. It was absolutely the correct call, no matter what the meatheads on NBC want to say to drum up manufactured controversy. Looking at the replay below, Strait could have been called for a trip on top of the hold.

And the pass to Dupuis to seal it was a thing of beauty:

Unfortunately One Man Can Only Do So Much

It’s too bad the rest of the team wasn’t able to maintain the same level of intensity. Despite the debacle last year against the Flyers, the Penguins apparently still haven’t learned their lesson.

On paper there’s no way the Islanders should even be in this series. But unfortunately for Pittsburgh, you can’t win a Stanley Cup on paper. After turning in a dominating performance in Game 1, the Pens apparently thought their work was done and expected the Islanders to fold. When the Islanders redoubled their efforts and refused to go out quietly, coming back from a two goal deficit in Game 2, the Pens found themselves scrambling to keep up and fell back into the terrible habits that doomed them last year.

Instead of maintaining the defensive discipline from Game 1, when the vast majority of the Isles chances were confined to the perimeter, the Penguins came out sloppy in Games 2 and 3 and neglected their responsibilities in the neutral zone and in their own end. The Islanders did a great job of exploiting the Penguins lack of effort and used their speed to dominate the transition game. The Penguins were unable to maintain any semblance of offensive zone possession and got carved up through the neutral zone. The Islanders were able to cheat on the breakout and tilt the ice in their favor time and time again with odd man rushes. Brenden Morrow in particular was abysmal possession-wise. According to Shutdown Line, who’s doing an amazing job tracking the series, Morrow was a team worst -6 on scoring chances at even strength. His boneheaded pass to no one on the powerplay late in the third also led to Kyle Okposo’s short handed goal:

It wasn’t just Morrow, either. No one outside of Crosby’s line and Matt Cooke put on a laudable performance. Simon Despres and Matt Niskanen were especially godawful in Game 3. I highly doubt we’ll see Despres again for a while as Bylsma benched him quickly after his mistakes contributed Islanders’ first two goals. Niskanen looked slow all game and made a terrible play at the Pens blue line to turn the puck over in the first leading to Cizikas’ tally. I don’t want to be too hard on Fleury – it’s a tall order for any goaltender to thrive with that kind of porous defense in front of him – but let’s just say he didn’t exactly do the team any favors. John Tavares’ tying goal in Game 3 was suspect to say the least.

The good news is that the Pens have been here before. The playoffs are clearly a different animal than the regular season, but Sunday’s game was eerily similar to the Pens 7-6 overtime victory over the Montreal Canadiens on March 2nd, and that game, as we all remember, was the first of their 15 game win streak.

There’s no doubt the Penguins can right the ship, it’s just a question of whether or not they will. They may be the most talented team in the league, but that’s not enough to get the job done in the playoffs. No one is going to hand it to them and if they don’t hustle on every shift and play hard on both ends of the ice they have another long summer on the golf course coming up soon.