The Pittsburgh Penguins romped through the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, winning 16 games against just eight losses while outshooting their opponents by an average margin of 34.9 to 28.0.
Suffice to say, it has been a much different run a year later.
This time, it’s the Pens who are being outshot by a wide margin, 34.0 to 27.7 after 15 games. They’ve still managed to get to the Eastern Conference Final, but given the way things are going against Ottawa, it’s worth remembering how they got there.
In the first round against Columbus, the big difference was goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury was excellent and Sergei Bobrovsky struggled so badly that, after it was over, he was reportedly open to seeing a sports psychologist.
In the second round against Washington, the big difference was again goaltending. Fleury was excellent and Braden Holtby wasn’t. The Penguins as a team only played one really strong game, and that was Game 7 at Verizon Center.
Let’s face it, without Kris Letang, it was always going to be tough to match last year’s dominance, and now the Penguins find themselves trailing the Senators, 2-1.
“He’s an elite player,” head coach Mike Sullivan said of Letang, who had neck surgery last month. “He’s not an easy guy to replace. He’s one of those special players that can really take your team to another level. But the reality is what it is. This is the circumstance we’re in. We’ve been in it for a long time. We know we have capable guys that can step in and get the job done, and we’ve got to find ways to win.”
In last night’s 5-1 loss, the Pens were also without defenseman Justin Schultz and forwards Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist. Those are three important players for Pittsburgh, and at some point a team simply can’t withstand any more injuries.
The Senators have already taken advantage of one banged-up squad in these playoffs. In the first round, they beat a Boston Bruins team that was missing a number of key defensemen.
That’s the playoffs. Injuries happen. Some teams get lucky, some don’t.
And it’s not just luck that has Ottawa two wins from the Stanley Cup Final. The Sens believe in their system, they’re committed to it, and it’s working for them.
“We were just alive,” coach Guy Boucher said after Game 3. “I think, if you followed all of our games here, that’s how we were. I mean, we’ve had a lot of those games in the playoffs. Just in front of our fans, I think we’ve got a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of energy. And our pressure has paid off against Boston. It’s paid off against the Rangers, and it’s paid off tonight. Our fans love the way we play, and they love the enthusiasm that our players are displaying. They showed it again tonight.”
Game 4 goes tomorrow in Kanata. A Penguins loss and the defending champs will be in serious trouble. Find a way to win, however, and they’d regain home-ice advantage in what would become a best-of-three series.
“We just have to stay with it,” said Sullivan. “This is the nature of, when you’re playing a seven-game series, you have to have the ability to respond. There’s no doubt in my mind this group of players will.”