Isles not surprised by 3-0 lead against Penguins

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The New York Islanders are in position to usher Pittsburgh out of the playoffs with barely a squeak from the Penguins.

The Islanders can complete a four-game sweep in their first-round playoff series with a win Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

It that’s a surprise — Pittsburgh was widely picked to win the series despite finishing one spot and three points behind the Islanders in the Metropolitan Division — it shouldn’t be, argued New York goaltender Robin Lehner.

“We got 103 points in the standings,” said Lehner, who has a 1.62 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage through three games. “The truth can’t be a surprise. Everyone looks and compares players and all that stuff. I look at our roster and see a really good organization and great coaching and great defensemen and a lot of heart. No one should be surprised.”

The Penguins have held a lead for just 3:17 in the series and have not scored consecutive goals.

“That’s been the story line the last two games,” said Jordan Eberle, who has three goals in three games for the Islanders. “They’ve scored, and we’ve come back. Playoffs are all about momentum.”

They also are about strategy, and New York has found a successful one.

“There’s not a lot of risk associated with the Islanders’ game,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “They’ve got numbers back. They have a defense-first mentality. That’s been their identity all year. That’s what’s brought them success.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Between the play of Lehner and a scheme orchestrated by coach Barry Trotz that puts the Islanders in spots to disrupt the Penguins at every turn, they have outscored Pittsburgh 11-5 and have forced mistakes and turnovers.

They have held Pittsburgh team captain and 100-point scorer Sidney Crosby, as well as his linemate and 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel, without a point.

“The strategy is to stop everyone. There isn’t any focus on one particular guy,” Trotz said. “I think when you’re on the ice against anybody in the league, you take care of your business. I think we’ve been doing that.”

The Penguins are in backs-against-the-wall territory.

“Obviously, you don’t want to be down 3-0,” Pittsburgh winger Phil Kessel said. “It’s not good now.”

The Penguins have tried sitting Jack Johnson and Olli Maatta at different times with seven healthy defensemen available. They have juggled their line combinations. It hasn’t made a difference in the outcomes.

So they are taking about the only approach available to them.

“We’ve got to focus on one game. We can’t even it up in one game, but we can get ourselves back in it,” said Crosby, who has piled up 66 goals, 185 points in 163 career playoff games while captaining Pittsburgh to three Stanley Cups, as recently as 2017.

“We’ve got to focus on winning Game 4. We haven’t left ourselves a lot of room for error. All we can control is coming in with the right mindset for Game 4 and finding a way to get a win.”

The last time Pittsburgh was down 3-0 in a series, the Boston Bruins finished off a sweep in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals. They did it in similar fashion — a smothering style that stymied the Penguins’ stars, and strong goaltending.

–Field Level Media

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.

Lucky 13: Penguins survive rocky path to playoff spot

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Erik Gudbranson didn’t want to be ”that guy,” the one who whooped it up after the Pittsburgh Penguins locked down a playoff spot for the 13th straight year with a win over the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night.

The veteran defenseman knows seasons in Pittsburgh are judged solely on whether they end with a mid-June parade through downtown, and that securing one of the 16 spots in the Stanley Cup tournament is just one small step in the process. He’s well aware many of the guys that sit next to him on the bench have never known what it’s like to trade in their hockey sticks for golf clubs in early April.

So Gudbranson – acquired in a trade deadline deal with Vancouver – played it cool. At least until he got home. Only while on the phone talking to his mom did he celebrate reaching the playoffs for just the third time in his eight-year career.

”I was like, ‘Sweet, this is unreal. I’m really pumped about this,”’ he said with a laugh.

It was much the same for forward Nick Bjugstad, who reached the postseason just once during six seasons in Florida.

Brought over along with forward Jared McCann in a deal with Florida on Feb. 1, Bjugstad played a critical role in the Penguins emerging from an early funk to extend a playoff run that started in 2007, the second-longest active streak in North American professional sports behind the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, who are at 22 years and counting.

”I’m sure (my teammates), it’s pretty standard for them,” Bjugstad said. ”For (new guys), it’s great and exciting for us to come into a team that put themselves in a position.”

A position that looked iffy at times over the past six months. Pittsburgh found itself tied for last in the Eastern Conference in mid-November, endured significant injuries to center Evgeni Malkin, defensemen Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz along with goaltender Matt Murray and saw forward Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist – both key parts of the core that led the franchise to back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017 – go through extended scoring droughts.

Yet there they were on Thursday night, broadly smiling in the postgame handshake line after assuring themselves of a chance to play beyond Saturday’s regular-season finale against the New York Rangers. Even captain Sidney Crosby, who has his name etched on the Stanley Cup three times, took a moment to drink it in.

”I think I appreciate it more now than I did in the past just knowing how difficult it is to get there, how much fun it is to play in the playoffs and what those games mean,” Crosby said. ”I think everybody is different. It’s an expectation but at the same time experience doesn’t guarantee anything.”

One of the reasons Crosby joined in an optional practice on Friday. The Eastern Conference is so jammed heading into the 82nd game that the Penguins could wind up as high as second in the Metropolitan Division behind Washington or finish as the top wild card. They could start on home ice against the New York Islanders or find themselves on the road against rival Washington in the opening round.

The stakes are high, but as Bjugstad pointed out, they’ve been high for months. So don’t expect the players to waste time Saturday night glancing up at the scoreboard to get an early lead on their first playoff destination. It’s not exactly productive and ultimately they don’t really care. They’re in. For now, that’s enough.

”There’s a lot of that, I think speculation,” Bjugstad said. ”And as players you’ve just got to kind of focus on your own game. I think for the most part we did a pretty good job here at the tail end of the season.”

Not that Pittsburgh really had a choice. The Penguins are 11-4-2 since March 1, allowing more than three goals just four times in that span by playing the kind of sound defense in their end that was hard to come by during the first five months of the season. The additions of Bjugstad, McCann and Gudbranson provided a welcome addition of fresh legs and a dash of grit.

The Penguins head to the playoffs with something akin to momentum and a chip of sorts on their shoulders. For long stretches they hardly looked like the team that’s been among the perennial Stanley Cup favorites for more than a decade.

Yet here they are anyway, just like always. If anything, the early troubles Pittsburgh endured and ultimately overcame could make the Penguins a tough out when the conference quarterfinals start next week.

”We believe we’ve got a competitive group here, so it’s really a credit to the players,” coach Mike Sullivan said. ”I told them that (Thursday night) because it’s a hard road to make the playoffs. We’ve accomplished our first goal but it’s not the ultimate goal. We’ve got to continue to push one another to get our games to another level, which is going to be required for us to continue to have success.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Parise, Letang key injuries in Monday’s playoff race

The Minnesota Wild have another massive game on Monday night as they try to get themselves back into the Western Conference playoff picture, and for the second game in a row they will have to play without one of their best forwards in Zach Parise.

Parise remains sidelined with a lower-body injury that also kept him out of Saturday’s blowout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said on Monday, via The Athletic’s Michael Russo, that they are hoping he is back sooner rather than later, but that right now “it is just hope.”

After trading Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund before the trade deadline, Parise is one of the few top-line scoring threats left on the team.

His 26 goals and 59 total points are both tops on the roster.

“As it goes we’re not a high-scoring team,” said Boudreau on Monday. “And you take out one guy with 26 goals it makes it a little more difficult. It makes it so you have to win the low-scoring games. Simple as that, you can’t play a run-and-game against a high offensive team.”

The Wild enter Monday’s game just two points out of a playoff spot but have only won three of their past 11 games. Two of those losses during that stretch were shootout losses to the Nashville Predators team they play on Monday.

[Related: Wild host Predators on NBCSN]

Minnesota’s remaining schedule is as brutal as it gets among playoff hopefuls in the Western Conference as every single one of their opponents is either in a playoff spot, or in direct competition with them for one. After hosting Nashville on Monday their remaining five games are against the Vegas Golden Knights, Arizona Coyotes, Boston Bruins, Winnipeg Jets, and Dallas Stars. Three of those teams (the Golden Knights, Jets and Bruins) are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, while the Stars are one of the toughest teams in the league to score against.

Parise is not the only significant injury on Monday’s slate of games.

The Pittsburgh Penguins will also be without their top defender, Kris Letang, when they visit the New York Rangers.

Letang had just returned from an injury that sidelined him for a couple of weeks and had been outstanding in his three games back in the lineup. According to Penguins coach Mike Sullivan Letang is “day-to-day” with an upper-body injury, and it is unknown if that injury is in anyway related to the one that had just sidelined him for 11 games. The Penguins were still able to go 7-2-2 during that stretch thanks in large part to the play of starting goaltender Matt Murray.

Letang was averaging more than 25 minutes of ice-time over the past three games, had a point in each one, and was a 55 percent possession player while the Penguins outscored teams by a 4-0 margin with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play. When he has been healthy this season he has returned to being one of the top defenders in the league after a down year during the 2017-18 season.

Along with Letang, the Penguins are still playing without center Evgeni Malkin and defender Olli Maatta.

Even though they have not yet officially clinched a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, they have really solidified their spot with what is now a seven-point lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets and still have a chance to get home-ice advantage in the first round (they enter Monday just two points back of the New York Islanders) and an outside shot at perhaps even winning Metropolitan Division (three points back of the Washington Capitals).

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.

 

Penguins will be without Malkin on ‘week-to-week’ basis

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PITTSBURGH — Not only did the Pittsburgh Penguins drop what could prove to be an important point against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday night, but they also found out they will be without one of their top players for an extended period of time.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan announced after their 2-1 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers that superstar center Evgeni Malkin will be out of the lineup on a “week-to-week” basis with an undisclosed upper-body injury.

Malkin did not play in Sunday’s game after he appeared to be injured in Saturday’s loss to the St. Louis Blues.

The injury seemingly occurred when he was cross-checked away from the play by Blues defender Robert Bortuzzo. There was no penalty called on the play. Malkin was down on the ice in obvious pain for several moments but remained in the game. He was replaced on the second line on Sunday night by Teddy Blueger, who skated between Phil Kessel and Bryan Rust.

Malkin’s absence on Sunday coincided with the return of Rust, continuing what has been a frustrating run of injury luck for the team as they can not quite seem to get everyone healthy at the same time. The Penguins are already playing without two of their top defenders — including their top defender — as Kris Letang and Olli Maatta remained sidelined.

Malkin just recorded his 1,000th career point on Tuesday night in a come-from-behind win against the Washington Capitals, and in 66 games this season has 71 points (21 goals, 50 assists) and is the team’s second-leading scorer, trailing only captain Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins currently sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division, sitting three points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes who still have two games in hand. The two teams meet two more times this season, including on Tuesday night in Raleigh. They are still seven points ahead of the Montreal Canadiens, the first team currently on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The Penguins have nine games remaining in the regular season and are set to begin a tough four-game road trip that will feature games against Carolina, the Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars, and New York Rangers.

Related: Hart, Flyers steal two points with late surge against Penguins

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.