With one finely placed shot in overtime, Chris Kunitz gave the Pittsburgh Penguins a 2-1 series lead over the New York Islanders Sunday afternoon.
However, the Penguins are probably lucky to ahead in the series with how they have played over the last two games.
In all honesty, the Penguins did not play well enough, long enough to win yesterday. They were badly outshot for the second straight game, but the difference was that they capitalized on their opportunities.
I thought the wake up call was delivered in Game 2, when the Penguins mismanaged the puck all over the ice and were lackluster in their own end. While they led 3-1 after the first period in that game, there was a sense that unless something changed in their play, the Islanders were going to come back.
Sure, two or three of the goals were of the fluke variety, but the teams that work hard are rewarded with the bounces. Think of it as the hockey gods shining down on them for a solid effort.
However, heading into Game 3, you had to think the Penguins would come with a better effort. The key would be weathering the storm in the first 10 minutes as the Islanders fed off their crowd.
Naturally, the Islanders came out flying and were up 2-0 just under six minutes into the contest. They were hitting every Penguin that touched the puck and forechecking like demons.
If it sounds familiar, it should. They’re taking parts of the Penguins’ game and shoving it down their collective throats.
Then, the inexperience showed up as two quick penalties put the Penguins on a 5-on-3 advantage. It was an absolute must-score situation and they delivered – twice.
Jarome Iginla deflected a shot by Kris Letang behind Evgeni Nabokov to cut the lead in half. Then, 19 seconds later, Evgeni Malkin sprung Kunitz on a breakaway with a long beautiful stretch pass up the middle of the ice. Kunitz made no mistake with it and just like that the game was tied.
Later in the period, Sidney Crosby took a pass along the near boards in full flight and made a backhand pass into the slot that only he can make. The pinpoint pass was right onto Pascal Dupuis’ tape and he buried it to give the Penguins a 3-2 lead, which they took into the first intermission.
Heading into the break I thought to myself, “Okay, they got out of that period with a lead. We’ll see a different Penguins team in the second.”
The Penguins still continued to mismanage the puck, which led to chance after chance for the Islanders. To their credit, the Islanders are not scared one bit of this Penguins team right now. Nor should they be.
They’ve carried the play for the better part of the last two games and were one shot away from being up 2-1 in this series.
The only line that has looked dangerous for the Penguins over the last two games is the top line of Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis.
The second line of Bennett-Malkin-Iginla has looked out of sorts in the absence of James Neal. The third line is doing a decent job of shutting down the John Tavares line, but have only had a handful of chances at the other end of the ice.
In the absence of Neal, I would very much entertain the idea of breaking up the top line to help out the second. What I would propose is this:
To me, Malkin and Iginla haven’t had much chemistry together and that goes back into the regular season as well. There were a couple of times yesterday when Iginla and Crosby were on the ice at the same time and you could tell there was something special brewing there.
Anyway, the Islanders picked up their physical play and it was starting to frustrate the Penguins. To their credit, the Penguins kept their emotions in check.
At one point, Malkin was being assaulted in the corner by Travis Hamonic. In the past, Malkin retaliates and gets sent to the box. Not yesterday.
Malkin elected to skate away and hurt the Islanders on the scoreboard.
Late in the period, Malkin found Douglas Murray all alone creeping into the slot on the weak side. Nabokov came out to challenge the shot, but was off his angle and Murray picked the top corner to put Pittsburgh up 4-2 after two.
During the intermission, I once again said, “No way they come out flat in the third. Murray scored for crying out loud, if that’s not a big boost I don’t know what is.”
For a third straight period, the Islanders came out flying and dictating play. They outshot the Penguins 13-3 in the third period.
Brian Strait was sent to the box for hooking at 3:50 of the first period. The obvious statement was that a power play goal probably puts the game away. Instead, the Penguins appeared to be content with running clock and it cost them.
Brenden Morrow made an ill-advised blind cross-ice pass to Mark Eaton. The puck was out of Eaton’s range the Frans Nielsen hit a streaking Kyle Okposo behind the Penguins’ defense. Now, Okposo did some fantastic work to corral the puck in his skates, settle it and then fire a quick low shot to beat Marc-Andre Fleury to cut the lead to 4-3.
The goal gave the Islanders even more life and about five minutes later, Tavares cut into the slot and fired an absolute laser off the far post and in to tie the game.
There are two glaring problems to me at the moment. First, the Penguins are not getting pucks deep in the offensive zone like they were in Game 1. They must chip the puck deep and put hits on the defenseman going back for it. They talk about investing in a game or a series, that’s how you do it. Wear down the defense and make them think twice about going back for a puck.
It worked in Game 1 and has worked at other times over the last two games (see Malkin’s goal to open Game 2). The problem is the lack of consistency with which the Penguins have executed it.
Secondly, the Islanders are taking away the boards in the Penguins’ end. By doing so, they are taking away the quick chip plays that help fuel the Penguins’ transition game out of their zone. The forwards are going to have do a better job of supporting the defense to give them options to get out of their zone.
Both are extremely minor tweaks to the system and address what the Islanders are doing to the Penguins.
Now, in overtime there was some alleged controversy with Strait being sent to the box for holding and pulling down Crosby.
First of all, Strait has his right hand clutching Crosby jersey from behind. Secondly, his left arm is wrapped around Crosby’s left arm/shoulder. It’s a clear-cut penalty. Absolutely no question and the fact that it was in overtime should have no bearing on the referee putting his arm up.
For Strait, it’s probably not a bad penalty to take after getting left in the dust with a spin move along the boards. Crosby was driving the front of the net with passing options. Strait put his arms on Crosby and prevented a scoring chance. Simple as that.
I won’t even go into the postgame analysis by Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick on the play. No need to beat a dead horse.
On the ensuing power play, Crosby found Kunitz sliding into the soft spot in coverage, Kunitz’s shot clipped off the bottom of the crossbar and into the net. Again, the Penguins capitalized on their chances and that’s what won them the game. The Islanders afforded the Penguins too many chances on the power play and paid for it.
Sure, Fleury has allowed eight goals in the last two games, but he’s played pretty well in the series. The Islanders have essentially gone into shooting gallery mode over the last two games. Combine that with poor play in their own end and the amount of quality chances for the Islanders should be no surprise.
Fleury has done what you ask of any goaltender – give the team a chance to win.
By comparison, Nabokov has allowed 12 goals in three games and has a .836 save percentage having only faced 73 shots.
As for Fleury, he’s at a .923 save percentage having allowed eight goals on 104 shots.
Again, this young Islanders team does not fear the Penguins. They’ve proven to themselves over the last two games that they can take it to the Penguins and beat them. It’s time for the veteran Penguins to step up and take control of the situation.
It would not surprise me one bit to see a much more focused team when they take the ice for Game 4 tomorrow night. They’ve been given two wake up calls already. It’s time to flip the coin and show why this team is the number one seed in the Eastern Conference.
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