PITTSBURGH — If you wanted to get a snapshot on how things have been going for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the final 10 seconds of the first period on Sunday would be a great place to start.
In short, it was a disjointed mess.
After squandering an early lead by giving up two goals in less than a minute, the Penguins found themselves with a 3-on-1 odd-man rush that should have been an opportunity to tie the game heading into the intermission. Instead of getting the equalizer and what could have been a game-changing goal, the Penguins failed to register a shot as 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel not only deferred by forcing a cross-crease pass to Dominik Simon (while ignoring the wide open trailing player that was Kris Letang), but by also putting the pass directly into his skates, completely handcuffing him.
Just like that, one of the few threatening moments they had in the game completely fizzled out with the bad execution of what was probably the wrong decision.
They would get few chances after that on their way to a lackluster 4-1 loss to the New York Islanders that now has them facing elimination and what could be their first Round 1 exit since the 2015.
That play, in a lot of ways, was a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong for the Penguins in this series.
And this series has been a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong and plagued them this entire season.
There has been little doubt as to which team has been better through the first three games, and it has very clearly been an Islanders team that has feasted on every Penguins mistake — of which there have been many — and exposed every glaring flaw the roster has.
The dominant storyline right now is going to be the Penguins’ power outage on offense that has seen them score just two goals over the past two games. Those two goals came on an Erik Gudbranson slap shot that beat a screened Robin Lehner from 60 feet out on Friday, and a Garrett Wilson goal that barely crossed the goal line on Sunday.
Sidney Crosby and Guentzel are still looking for their first points of the series. Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have been productive, but haven’t always looked like constant threats. The depth is still lacking.
Put it all together and the results are not anything close to what the Penguins want or expect.
But hockey isn’t always just about the results; it is also about the process that leads to those results, and the process that has put the two teams in their current positions is what is perhaps most striking, and ultimately, most concerning for the Penguins right now.
Let’s start with this: The Islanders simply look faster, and not by a little bit, either.
When the Penguins have the puck it often times looks like they are playing 5-on-6 as they are unable to create any space for themselves, or generate any sort of a consistent breakout out of the defensive zone, or sustain any pressure in the offensive zone.
On the other side, the Islanders are not only excelling in all of those areas, but also look to be the far more dangerous team when they have the puck despite having a roster that, on paper, is not as star-laden as the Penguins.
That leads to a game of mistakes.
Mistakes the Islanders are not making, and mistakes the Penguins are making.
“There is not a lot of risk associated with the Islanders’ game,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “They have numbers back, they have a defensive first mentality and that has been their identity all year, and that is what has brought them success. We know what we are up against. We know what the challenge is. We have talked about it since before the series started. Our identity is a little bit different, but having said that, we have to have more of a discipline associated with our game in the critical areas of the rink so we become a team that is more difficult to play against.”
In response to that, Sullivan was asked if the players are not totally buying into what needs to be done, or if it is just a matter of simply not executing.
“They care. They want to win. They understand what it takes. I’m not going to sit here and say they are not buying in, sometimes it becomes a game of mistakes,” said Sullivan. “We have to just do a better job eliminating the ones we are making.”
But after 82 regular season games and three playoff games where the same mistakes keep happening, it is becoming less and less likely that is going to happen, and that is where you see the flaws in the roster showing themselves.
This is not the same team that won Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, in construction or style.
A team that was once built on a mobile defense, playing fast, and living by the “Just Play” mantra has spent the past two years adding players known more for size and strength than speed and skill, and often times spent too much time looking for retribution and retaliation than just simply … playing.
The most glaring flaw at the moment remains on the blue line, and that is where a lot of the Islanders’ advantage has come from in this series.
And it is not just about defensive zone coverage and the ability to prevent odd-man rushes. It is also about the ability to play with the puck and move it.
The Islanders are younger, faster, far more mobile and, quite simply, better on the back end, and it is feeding their transition game.
Outside of Kris Letang and Justin Schultz the Penguins do not have that on their blue line, especially after adding Jack Johnson and Gudbranson over the past year, two players whose skillsets do not play to their strengths. What should be the simplest plays look to be a challenge. That has shown itself repeatedly over the first three games of the series. After being a healthy scratch in Game 1, Johnson returned to the lineup the past two games and has not only taken three penalties, but was guilty of the turnover that led to Leo Komarov‘s late third period goal that was the dagger on Sunday. Sullivan’s decision to play Olli Maatta over him in that spot in Game 1 was heavily criticized in Pittsburgh, especially after Maatta struggled badly, but the Johnson-Schultz pairing has spent the past two games living in its own zone. That is not a good thing.
That is not to single them out, either, because Letang, Schultz, Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, and Marcus Pettersson have all had the same issues, and it is not a new problem for this team. There is a reason the Penguins have been one of the league’s worst shot suppression teams for two years now, constantly prone to lapses and breakdowns in the defensive zone, and been alarmingly inconsistent from one game to the next.
As it stands, both teams have more than earned their current position. But given how calm, composed, and smooth the Islanders have looked in all phases of the game from the very beginning, and how out of sorts the Penguins have looked, it is going to take a major swing to simply get this series back to New York for Game 5, let alone have a different outcome than the one it seems to be headed toward.