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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Back to Normal by @BrianK_PI

Mike Sullivan has pressed all the right buttons and then some since being promoted to the NHL head coaching position in December, which made the stumbles over playing Matt Murray against Philadelphia and overcompensating without his top two netminders stick out all that much more. The timing of the missteps couldn't have been worse, as Murray got injured in the last regular season game, and the resulting change to a less aggressive, more defensive mindset occurred in the first two games of the postseason. Thankfully for the Penguins, they managed to dodge a bullet on both accounts as Matt Murray returned for Game 3 and immediately returned to the same level of play he demonstrated before the injury.

The Penguins also returned to the same dominant puck possession team that they had been down the stretch run of the regular season, and it has to be demoralizing to a New York Rangers team that Pittsburgh was able to flip the switch so easily in Murray's return. After being held to just a 42.7 SACF% in the first two games of the series, Mike Sullivan's Penguins made their mark in Game 3, controlling a score-adjusted 62.1% of the shot attempts, and doing so with ease to boot. The Rangers never were able to generate much pressure and scored their only goal off a turnover that lead to a shorthanded 2-on-1 break. Henrik Lundqvist threatened to steal New York a win they in no way deserved through the better part of two periods, but facing an elite goaltender who can get hot like this just serves to underscore how important it is to keep generating shot attempts.

The fact of the matter is that goalie is the only position on the ice where the Rangers have a talent advantage over the Penguins, and as long as it's either Matt Murray or Marc-Andre Fleury in the Pittsburgh goal that edge isn't very pronounced. With no disrespect to Ryan McDonagh, the Pens easily have the most talented defenseman in the series in Kris Letang. They easily have the two most talented forwards between the two teams, and Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist are right in the discussion with the top of the New York lineup for who comes next. And unlike in years past, it's no longer just a top of the lineup discussion for Pittsburgh - the Rangers can't come anywhere close to touching the depth that these Penguins possess.

As they tore through the last part of their regular season schedule, winning 14 of 16 games to position themselves as one of the favorites for the Stanley Cup, it appeared that the Pens would waste little time with dispatching the Rangers. A couple of questionable decisions have made this much closer than it might have been otherwise, but everything is back to normal now - Matt Murray is uninjured and playing at a level well beyond his twenty-one years, and the Penguins have busted out of the conservative mindset that looked more like something Mike Johnston would have employed. If they can continue to drive play like they did last night, the Rangers will have an up hill battle to win another game, let alone move on, and Pittsburgh will be positioning itself nicely to go on the type of run that has eluded this team in recent seasons.

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