Thoughts On The PIttsbugh Penguins Heading Into Game 6 by @MadChad412 - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Thoughts On The PIttsbugh Penguins Heading Into Game 6 by @MadChad412

With today's 24/7 news coverage of professional sports, athletes tend to do much talking, most of the time having their words not lead to much good. We always hear cliched statements from players and coaches saying  "This is going to change" and "We need to be better" etc... After the Penguins blew a 3-2 lead in game four last Wednesday, with only 30 seconds left, many their players told the media that the effort in game five would be better, and their head coach, Dan Bylsma, called out the entire team.

The work and compete and the battle level has probably been the most troubling thing from our team,”- Dan Bylsma after game 4 loss. Quote courtesy of Jason Mackey of The Tribune Review

Like everyone else, Bylsma also criticized goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for his late game gaffe “This one was on the glass, bouncing, and Marc knows he should have stayed in the net.”

First time I can not remember Bylsma being that upset and outspoken after a loss, and to be honest, everything he said was true. The Penguins have been playing down to their opponent, the effort is not there, and the same mental mistakes continue to happen over and over again.  The next day, the players vowed to give a better effort in game five.

“You're going to see a different team,” Neal vowed. “We have a chance here to redeem ourselves (Saturday) night, so that's what we'll do.
“Our battle level is going to be there. It's the Stanley Cup playoffs. We're going to come out ready to get going.” Quote courtesy of the Trib 
Well, I'll be damned, the Penguins talked the talk and they walked the walk. From the very first shift in game five, you could see that the Penguins were going to play better and give a better effort. The Pens outshot the Blue Jackets 51-24, out-possessed them and won the game 3-1. The effort was exactly what you would expect from a team that is trying to win the Stanley Cup. The Pens finally showed some desperation, and you could see that was a team that knew they had blown a win the game before. 
 Now what? The Pens have a chance to move on to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second straight season if they can beat the Blue Jackets in game six Monday night. Will the effort be there again? You know the Columbus crowd is going to be jacked up, going crazy, as well as their team, who plays with desperation every night. The Blue Jackets are not nearly as talented as the Penguins, but they give an admirable effort every single night.

Game five gave us the best game from quite a few players, Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi, and Chris Kunitz. Kunitz in particular was fantastic. Kunitz led the team in shots, points, and hits, earning himself the number one star of the game. Kunitz had more hits in game five than he had in the first three games of the series combined. Kunitz seems to always be a slow starter when it comes to tournaments, as he struggle early on in the Olympics this year, before really hitting his stride, eventually scoring a goal in the Gold Medal game, helping Canada take home the gold. Letang played his best game of the series Saturday night as well. Letang had the second most ice-time on the team behind Paul Martin, scored a goal, and had his highest corsi rating in the series. He played a much smarter game, and really started to utilize his talent (Speed and agility) to get the puck out of the zone and transition into offense. Hopefully this is a sign to come for Letang, who otherwise is having a disappointing series overall. 
Letang also provided the funniest moment of the game by playing defense inside of the goal. It's never a dull moment with him 

Another guy who I want to talk about is Brandon Sutter. Sutter was phenomenal  Saturday night, playing a strong 17+ minutes, assisting on the game-winning goal, and had the second highest corsi among Pens' forwards. Sutter was bumped up to second-line center for most of the game, as the Pens deployed Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby on the same line for most of the night. Sutter, who usually starts most of his shifts in the defensive zone, doesn't usually have great possession numbers, due to his defensive role on the team. Another part of that is Sutter's lack of consistently good line-mates for much of the 2013-2014 season. Sutter got a chance to play with wingers James Neal and Jussi Jokinen for much of the night, as well as Lee Stempniak and Beau Bennett, and Sutter flourished. Sutter is having a great series overall, tied for second in points among forwards on the team, and has been playing fantastic two-way hockey. Sutter playing this well is imperative for the three-center mold that Ray Shero and the Pens want to build around, and with Sutter being a restricted free-agent this summer, it's probably time to talk about re-signing him. 

Here's a look at how the Pens have used Sutter for most of the series, deploying him more than any other player in the defensive zone to start each shift. While others have argued that Sutter leaves a lot to be desired at times, mostly with his lack of physicality, I would argue that Sutter hasn't been as aggressive as necessary at times this year due to the fact that he had incompetent line-mates for much of the season. Sutter is a very good third-line center and if he continues to play like this, will surely be a reason why the Pens continue to win games. 

Marc-Andre Fleury Folks

Right now there isn't a hotter topic than Pens' goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Let's be honest, Fleury blew it in game four. He played a great game up until the last 30 seconds, but he made perhaps the biggest gaffe of the playoffs so far. As a Fleury supporter, it was brutal to watch considering how much pressure he has on him, and how much criticism he has taken over the years. Fleury has been awful the last four postseasons, and hasn't posted a save percentage above 90% in the playoffs since 2008-2009, the year he and the Pens won the Stanley Cup. 

After Fleury made that brutal mistake to blow the lead in regulation, he followed that by allowing an awful goal in overtime to lose the game. At no surprise, the internet was full of "Bench Fleury" tweets and articles. Hell, people were calling for Tomas Vokoun, Jeff Zatkfoff, I think some yinzers were calling for Tom Barassso and Ken Wregget. Barry Melrose and Andrew Ference were two of many national analysts that suggested the Pens bench Fleury as well. The Pens stood by their franchise goaltender and that was the right move. Fleury made a crucial mistake in game four, but he wasn't the only reason the team lost. In fact, Fleury had played the best of the series up until the last 30 seconds. Fleury has actually been pretty good this postseason, posting a .943 save % in 5-on-5 situations, and a .911 save percentage overall. 

Here is where Fleury stacks up against other goaltenders that have played 5-or more games this postseasons:

Perhaps the hardest thing to argue when it comes to Fleury or any other goaltender, is whether or not a goal allowed his fault or not. For those that truly know the game of hockey, I cannot  believe too many people will only just blame the goalie when a goal is scored. Especially when you  are shorthanded, which the Penguins have been a lot this postseason, allowing the second-most power play goals so far. The whole entire debate about blaming a goalie for a goal is a lot less objective than it should be, especially when it comes to Fleury, who doesn't usually get the benefit of the doubt. 

All of this aside, Fleury certainly responded in a big way Saturday night, stopping 23 of 24 shots in the win. So much pressure and tension, I cannot imagine the emotions that Fleury was going through, especially considering that that he had already entered this postseason with a ton of pressure on him. I love seeing good people get through adversity, and Fleury truly is one of the good humans in professional sports, anyone will tell you that. Fleury stood tall, even after allowing the first goal of the game, and gave a mistake-free performance, vindicating himself from the previous game. Now Fleury can fully vindicate some of his demons by winning his first playoff series since the 2009-2010 series. 

By the way, what an amazing moment and gesture by the fans before the game, chanting Fleury before the national anthem. If you did not have goosebumps during that I question if you have a soul.

Crosby and Malkin 

You have heard the stats, it has been over 30 straight periods of playoff hockey since either Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have scored a goal. Think about that for a moment. That is ten-straight games for Crosby and over nine game for Malkin without scoring a goal. Neither has scored this series, and the criticism has been bountiful, especially for Crosby who actually got booed Saturday night from a few reports. (If that is true, that is absolutely pathetic, he doesn't deserve to be fucking booed). 

A few others have pointed this out, but Crosby and Malkin are both playing pretty well five-on-five. They both have good possession numbers, and Crosby is even averaging a point-per game. That being said, we are living in a "What have you done for me lately?" society, and the masses are not impressed with how they are performing. Some have suggested that Crosby has been playing injured, although Crosby said he is not. Aside from not scoring goals, Crosby and Malkin are not  shooting the puck enough in all honesty. 

When Malkin won the Conn Smythe 2008-2009 he averaged over four shots on goal per game. For the series, he is averaging less than three shots on goal per game. That just isn't going to cut it. The Pens need Malkin to be more aggressive and to utilize that gifted slapshot of his. When is the last time Malkin truly just let a slap-shot just rip? As much criticism as Crosby has faced, he's actually been better than Malkin this series, with more points, better possession numbers, and more shots on goal. 

Think about this: Nathan MacKinnon, 18-year old rookie for the Colorado Avalanche, has more points this postseason (10) than Crosby and Malkin have combined. Would be nice to see Crosby and Malkin regain their postseason dominance sooner than later. The fact the Pens have a 3-2 series lead without a single goal from either Crosby or Malkin speaks volume about their depth, goaltending, coaching, and their competition. No way they win in later rounds without more production from those two. 

Quick Points before I go: 

  • I like Robert Bortuzzo in the lineup. Bortuzzo played well for his first ever playoff action, as he filled in for Brooks Orpik who was scratched for a mystery reason Saturday night. Bortuzzo plays with an edge, adding size and grit, and seemed to be just fine with his defensive responsibilities. When Orpik comes back I would prefer the Pens to play Bortuzzo over Robert Scuderi, but that probably won't happen. #FreeBortuzzo

  • Marcel Goc is underrated. Goc returned to the lineup Saturday night and added some much needed depth to the lineup. Goc played alongside Bennett and Stempniak for most of the night and that line a good enough job five-on-five for a third line. Goc being in the lineup is the main reason the Pens feel comfortable deploying Crosby and Malkin on the same line, moving Sutter up to the second line. Goc isn't a superstar, but he does all of the little things really well, including face-offs, and allows the Pens to be flexible with their top-two lines.

  • Apparently the Malkin-Crosby line will remain intact in game six. Chris Adamski, of the Tribune-Review is reporting that Bylsma wants to keep those two together. They didn't score a goal Saturday night, but the line did do a great job of creating chances and possessing the puck. I'm not a huge fan of it though, only because Malkin is better at center, and I think it makes the rest of the lines weaker as a result. I would be ok with the pairing in spurts, but not for most of the game, I think that really takes away Malkin's strengths as a player. 

  • The Penguins penalty-kill stinks. It regressed all season long, and that regression has carried into the playoffs. The Pens' penalty-kill is currently in the bottom-five of the playoffs. The team is struggling mightily on the PK and it's not just Fleury's fault. One problem is the team trying to "Front" all of the shots, which is basically having the defenseman focus on blocking the shots instead of guarding the crease. Watch all of Columbus' power play goals, they are scored down-low by the goal crease and off of screens. One thing I wouldn't mind seeing is Crosby and Malkin both get some time on the PK, allowing the Pens to be more aggressive and pressure their opponent's power play. 

This is not Fleury's fault

Assuming Fleury doesn't have a mental breakdown and that none of the Pens' key players get servilely injured, I fully expect the Pens to give a similar performance as they did in game five. If that holds true I don't expect there to be a game seven. Columbus has played their asses off, and to be honest that is a team on the rise, but the Pen have too much firepower and too much depth. I think it would be a disaster if Columbus is able to force a game seven at Consol in the first round of the playoffs.  

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