The Pittsburgh Penguins will lose to the New York Islanders if they do not make some sort of drastic change in the way that they are playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Since the start of the 2011-12 playoffs, when the Pens faced the Philadelphia Flyers, everyone has expected the Pens to play a hard-nosed brand of playoff hockey. The Pens have participated in 10 post-season games in the past two seasons and have four wins and six losses to show. The Pens have played the same careless and turnover-prone style in every game. What makes you think they are going to flip the switch and all of a sudden play the style that we’ve been expecting?
There are many individuals on this Pens’ team who can take the blame for being lazy and not playing with enough commitment and systematic discipline to win a playoff series. Until the Pens prove they’ve made an attitude adjustment, I’m picking the Islanders to win the series in seven games. Here are the reasons why the Pens will be upset in yet another playoff series if their coaching, offense, and defense do not radically change their approach in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
10. Player Mentality
Since the Pens have a cast of Hall-of-Famers on their roster, the team acts as though they can show up as a number one seed and breeze by the Islanders without a fight. This isn’t the regular season where play sometimes replicates pond hockey. In the regular season, teams play a much looser checking game. There is much more space and not as much preparation that goes into regular season games. When the Pens have space, as they do in the regular season, they are a fantastic regular season squad. Until they realize they are no longer playing regular season hockey, and have to earn every inch of ice, they will never win a playoff series.
With the exception of a few players on the Pens roster, their team wants everything to look cute. They don’t want to dump a puck in and earn possession when that is what is presented to them. Not every player on the team is willing to throw their face in front of a slap-shot to prevent one meaningless shot from being on net. The team isn’t willing to change the way that they want to play, for playing the way they need to play. They need to sacrifice highlight reel goals for simplicity and a boatload of shots on goal. They need to score ugly goals.
8. Work Ethic
When the Pens possess the puck in the offensive zone, they are playing around the perimeter looking for the perfect play. The Pens need to create traffic in front of the Islanders’ net and work for a goal. They need to overcome adversity by fighting through slashes, hooks, and penalties (that aren’t called by the referees) in order to have playoff success. At the moment, the Pens want the Islanders to bow down and let them score. The Pens are lacking a fore-check and back-check that would thrive with the right work ethic.
What line Jarome Iginla plays on is not important. The amount of times that the Pens’ forwards have turned the puck over in all three zones is the real issue with the forwards. Whenever the forwards turn pucks over, they lazily glide back to amend their mistake. The Pens back-checking has been terrible. Stars such as Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby are guilty of hanging the defense out to dry after they cough up the puck. Life would be much more difficult for the Islanders’ forwards if all three Pens’ forwards busted their butts back to their defensive end. The Pens’ forwards don’t want to take part in back-checking or making smart decisions with the puck. Any turnover on any part of the ice can result in a goal for the Islanders.
6. Trade Acquisitions
Iginla has not done enough to impact this series. He was good in Game 4, but needs to improve his defensive zone play as shown in the above video. If Iginla keeps his feet moving while back-checking and communicates with Kris Letang, this goal would’ve been prevented. Brenden Morrow is another acquisition who has provided little in the series. Morrow contributed to the Pens nearly losing Game 3 due to a cross-ice pass that put Kyle Okposo on a breakaway cashing in on a shorthanded goal. Brandon Sutter has also been invisible except for his lonely goal in Game 4. Jussi Jokinen has won a few face-offs for the Pens but has looked too slow to keep up with the speedy Isles. The Pens’ newest members haven’t contributed as they did down the stretch in the regular season. Douglas Murray is the only player in this group who has been decent.
Marc-Andre Fleury has gotten progressively worse as the series has played out. He’s surrendered 14 goals in his past 3 games going 1-2. Although the Pens’ defense hasn’t done much to eliminate Islanders’ scoring chances, the Flower is wilting between the pipes. The game-winning goal scored by Okposo in Game 2 was weak and the fourth and sixth goals in Game 4 were weak. Fleury’s confidence looks shaken. You hold your breath every time a puck travels near Fleury. The goal surrendered by Fleury in the video below cannot happen in the playoffs.
4. The Hockey Gods
In 2009, after the Pens went down 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Detroit Red Wings, I distinctly remember Pens’ players saying that their team played well enough to win the first two games but the outcome did not work in their favor. If you take a close look at this series, the Isles should have won the past three games and should be leading the Pens 3-1 in the series. The Pens won Game 1 convincingly, not because of how well they played, but due to the fact that the Islanders were getting acclimated to their first taste of playoff hockey. The Isles have outplayed, out-chanced, and beaten the Pens at their own game 5-on-5. The Isles have possessed the puck in the Pens’ defensive zone for the majority of the series. If the Isles continue to apply offensive zone pressure and causing turnovers, the hockey gods will award them with a series victory.
3. Dan Byslma
Dan Bylsma has given the media enough quotes to fill a Stephen King book when referring to the Penguins “playing their game.” There are never any adjustments made by Bylsma to compensate for what the Islanders are doing to expose the Pens’ weaknesses. To Bylsma and his team, if the Pens play “their game” the right way, no team in the NHL will beat them. Instead of constantly matching lines and playing his players in favorable match-ups, Bylsma is stubborn. He’s convinced if the Pens play “their game,” they will overcome any preventive actions taken by the Islanders to stop what the Pens are trying to systematically accomplish. This may be true in the regular season, but this is the post-season. In addition, the head coach is responsible for his team. Even if Bylsma is relaying the right messages to his team in an attempt to spark better play, the message is not registering. Bylsma needs to do something drastic before Game 5. He doesn’t need to show panic, but he needs to do something to catch his players’ attention.
2. Penguins’ Defensemen
The Pens had everyone excited when they were holding leads and cementing victories during their 15 and eight game winning streaks. This has disappeared after blowing a couple of two-goal leads in games two and three, along with another blown third period lead in Game 4. All five Pens’ players are too spread out in their own zone when they used to collapse in the slot. When they clogged up the house area in their defensive zone, the Pens made life difficult for opponents trying to score or register a shot on goal. In this series, all five players have been caught running around in their defensive zone allowing seam passes to take place resulting in quality scoring opportunities for the Islanders.
To complicate the problem, the Pens defensemen have been holding onto the puck too long trying to make breakout passes that aren’t available. When they are getting rid of the puck in time, they are putting the puck on the Islanders’ tape. Letang is giving the puck away almost every time he possesses the puck. Instead of clearing the puck out of his own zone and making the simple play, Letang tries to complete a pass 95% of the time. Letang seems to be completing more passes to the Islanders than he is to his own teammates. The Islanders have been sitting back at times playing a 1-3-1 waiting to assault the Pens’ player who is on the receiving end of a breakout or stretch pass. There is no need for the Matt Niskanen turnover in the video below.
This is the number one reason why Pens’ fans feel like their team is losing this series. These playoff frustrations are getting redundant. All of the Pens are looking for a tape-to-tape pass instead of making the safe and conservative play, especially breaking out of their defensive zone. Neither the defensemen nor the forwards are willing to flip the puck high out of the defensive zone or high off of the glass. Even if the Islanders have controlled the puck in the Pens’ defensive zone for a considerable amount of time, the Pens aren’t willing to purposely ice the puck and continue to turn the puck over. The story is the same in the neutral zone. Instead of dumping a puck in and earning possession, they are forcing passes and turning the puck over giving the Islanders a ton of odd-man rushes. In the offensive zone, instead of throwing the puck back down into a corner when no pass is available, they continue to force the issue. In all three zones, the Pens stubbornly attempt to complete passes that aren’t available creating easy turnovers leading to odd-man rushes or fantastic scoring chances for the Islanders. The Pens have to earn possession of the puck. The Islanders aren’t going to back off of the Pens and just offer them possession.
Conclusion: While this may be seen as taking a shot at the Penguins, I have nothing but the highest expectations for this team. They are filled with so much talent. They’re getting out-shot and out-hustled by an Islanders team that the Pens should easily handle according to experience and talent. The Pens have the ability to play better playoff hockey but have been unable to prove otherwise since last year’s first round loss. I’m still waiting for the Pens to give a convincing performance proving they know what it takes to win in the playoffs. If the Pens want to win this series, we need to see many more plays like this one.
Justin Glock has covered the Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers since 2011. As a lead writer, his Penguins knowledge traces back over two decades. For any requests, please feel free to contact Justin via email: JGlock10@gmail.com.