Penguins look lost, broken against Islanders

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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.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

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.

Game 4 of the Penguins-Islanders series is Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN 

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Bailey, Eberle help Islanders take commanding 2-0 series lead

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The New York Islanders are now in complete control of their Round 1 series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

They were able to take a 2-0 series lead on Friday night with a convincing — and at times dominant — 3-1 win that saw them completely shut down and frustrate the Penguins.

While the Penguins stars were once again quiet and the rest of the team melted down with six penalties, Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle were again playing a starring role for the Islanders.

It was the second game in a row that each of them scored a goal, with Eberle’s goal midway through the third period on a slick shot off the rush, going in the books as the game-winner.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Penguins actually struck first to take their first lead of the series when Erik Gudbranson blasted a slap shot past Islanders goalie Robin Lehner midway through the second period. That lead would be short-lived, however, as the Islanders responded just three minutes later to tie the game, taking advantage of Gudbranson and Marcus Pettersson on an odd-man rush.

Other than Gudbranson’s goal chances were few and far between for the Penguins as they looked like a frustrated and flustered team for the second game in a row. Their inability to smoothly exit the defensive zone has been a constant problem over the first two games, and they have not yet been able to sustain any sort of consistent presence in the offensive zone.

With two games at home upcoming and a roster that has championship experience it is still too soon to totally count them out, but there was nothing over these first two games to indicate they are capable of winning four of the next five playing the way they have.

They are going to need a complete 180 from just about everyone on the roster starting in Game 3 on Sunday if they are going to get back in this series.

Game 3 of Penguins-Islanders will be on Sunday at 12 p.m. ET on NBC

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Blue Jackets visit Penguins on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Thursday night’s matchup between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This game is the start of a home-and-home that will wrap up the season series between Columbus and Pittsburgh. The Penguins have won both meetings so far, including their game last week in Columbus. Overall, the Pens have won seven in a row in the regular season vs. the Blue Jackets.

This home-and-home series figures to have massive implications on the playoff race. Entering this game, just two points separate third in the Metro from being outside of the playoffs entirely.

Columbus picked up a much-needed two points on Tuesday with their 2-1 shootout win over New Jersey. The Jackets had been 1-3-0 since the trade deadline, so the win was a tangible measure of progress to keep them right in the playoff mix. However, the reaction in the locker room afterwards was hardly celebratory. The Jackets played very poorly, mustering only 18 shots on goal (a season-low) against a Devils team that had nearly half of its regular lineup out due to injury.

Pittsburgh also went past regulation on Tuesday, defeating Florida 3-2 in OT, thanks to Jake Guentzel’s second goal of the game. He now has 33 goals this season. Sidney Crosby had three points to surpass the 1,200-point threshold.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins
Where: PPG Paints Arena
When: Thursday, March 7, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blue Jackets-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLUE JACKETS
Artemi PanarinPierre-Luc DuboisJosh Anderson
Nick FolignoMatt DucheneCam Atkinson
Ryan DzingelAlex WennbergOliver Bjorkstrand
Brandon DubinskyBoone JennerRiley Nash

Zach WerenskiSeth Jones
Markus NutivaaraDavid Savard
Scott HarringtonAdam McQuaid

Starting goalie: Joonas Korpisalo

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Jake Guentzel
Zach Aston-ReeseEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel
Dominik SimonNick BjugstadPatric Hornqvist
Teddy BluegerMatt CullenGarrett Wilson

Brian Dumoulin – Zach Trotman
Jack JohnsonJustin Schultz
Marcus PetterssonErik Gudbranson

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

John Forslund (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Pittsburgh. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Mike Johnson.

Penguins’ injury list grows as Rust, Ruhwedel out ‘longer term’

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The playoff push has already started for the Pittsburgh Penguins and they scored a huge victory on Tuesday night with a gutsy 5-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. It helped move the Penguins back into the top-eight in the Eastern Conference — for now — and came on a night where they were badly shorthanded on the back end and were playing one of the teams they are in a fierce fight with for a playoff spot … and one that just pushed all of its chips to the center of the table in a quest for a deep playoff run.

Coming out of that situation with two points was massive.

It was also costly.

[Related: Penguins push Blue Jackets out of top-eight ]

The Penguins’ list of injured players continued to grow during the game when they lost forward Bryan Rust (lower-body) and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel (upper-body) to injuries that, in the words of coach Mike Sullivan, are going to keep them out of the lineup “longer team.”

Rust is the big injury here because he is such a vital part of the team’s forward group. He is a versatile player that fits in any role, plays up and down the lineup across all four lines, and has been playing some incredible hockey over the past couple of months. After a brutal start to the season that saw him record just one goal and six assists in his first 29 games.

In the 33 games since he has scored 16 goals to go with eight assists and has already set a new career high in goals scored.

He was injured on Thursday night when he was slammed into the boards by one of the Blue Jackets’ newest additions, defender Adam McQuaid.

He skated off the ice under his own power but was clearly in a great deal of pain and did not return.

Ruhwedel’s injury is a concern because, well, the Penguins are simply running out of healthy bodies on the blue line.

They are already playing without three of their top-four defenders with Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, and Olli Maatta all currently sidelined due to injuries. Sullivan said on Wednesday that Letang and Dumoulin are progressing, but that neither is skating and ready to return yet. Maatta is still expected to be out for a few more weeks.

Tuesday’s defense was a patchwork group that consisted of Justin Schultz, Jack Johnson, Marcus Pettersson, Zach Trotman, and Ruhwedel, and now the latter is out of the lineup, too.

The Penguins are expected to get Erik Gudbranson in the lineup for Friday’s game in Buffalo after acquiring him at the trade deadline in exchange for forward Tanner Pearson. After playing in Buffalo on Friday, they head to Montreal for a massive game against the Canadiens on Saturday night. Getting through that stretch with this defense and this injury situation is going to take a lot.

More: Constant roster shuffling makes Penguins look directionless

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Kane’s spying sparks big Penguins, Sharks scrum

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PITTSBURGH — It turned out to be a pretty lousy Thursday night for Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan.

Not only was his team completely outclassed and outmatched in a decisive 4-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks, but he also ended up getting himself ejected late in the third period after a line brawl nearly broke out during a commercial break.

The entire ordeal started at center ice and seemed to be the result of Sharks forward Evander Kane trying to sneak a look at the Penguins’ white board as they were drawing up a play after pulling goalie Casey DeSmith for an extra attacker.

We know this is what started it because Kane admitted as much after the game.

“I was just standing there, looking at their bench, just looking at their board that they were using and one of their players, not really sure who it was, jumped over and tried to do something about it and it just kind of escalated,” said Kane when asked about what happened.

He was then asked if that is something he normally does.

“Well they were about to pull their goalie, right?” Just like to think that is little bit of a savvy veteran thing to do. If you can see it, why wouldn’t you do it?”

Touche.

The result of that was a heated scrum at center ice involving all of the players that were on the ice at that time.

Things really started to escalate when Sharks defender Brenden Dillon punched an unsuspecting Marcus Pettersson in the face, infuriating Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. Crosby, Kris Letang, Dillon, and recently acquired Sharks forward Michael Haley were all involved in the altercation.

While that was happening, Kane ended up getting the better of a fight with Penguins forward Tanner Pearson.

The next thing everyone knew, Sullivan was exiting the Penguins’ bench after being seen screaming at the officials.

For the Sharks, Haley and Dillon both received 10-minute misconducts for their roles, while Kane was given a five-minute major for fighting.

On the Penguins’ side, Crosby and Pettersson were both given 10-minute misconducts,

Pearson was given a five-minute major for fighting, and Sullivan was given a game misconduct.

The Penguins’ coach had absolutely zero interest in discussing the matter after the game, highlighted by this exchange that took place during an uncharacteristically short and tense press conference.

Reporter: “Mike can you describe as best you can what happened there at the end?”

Sullivan: “No.”

Reporter: “Or what led to your ejection…”

Sullivan: “No.”

Maybe it was the events that preceded the brawl, or the ejection itself, or just his overall disappointment with the way his team played in what should have been a measuring stick game that soured his mood.

Or perhaps it was the way the Penguins’ meltdown continued after the brawl with Phil Kessel taking an offensive zone penalty right off the ensuing face-off, which was quickly followed by Kris Letang going off for cross-checking Tomas Hertl after the latter took a late swing at Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith. That sequence resulted in an extended two-man advantage for the Sharks that produced Brent Burns‘ 12th goal of the season, turning the game into a rout.

All four of the Sharks’ goals on Thursday came as a result of their special teams, scoring three power play goals and a shorthanded goal.

The Penguins still occupy the third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division but are just one point ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes (winners on Thursday night) and only two points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are currently on the outside of the playoff picture.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.