The Pittsburgh Penguins don’t have a problem.
Wait– that probably doesn’t come off right in text form.
The Pittsburgh Penguins don’t have A problem. The Pittsburgh Penguins have problems. Like, we’re talking Jay-Z numbers, up around the 99 range. And despite the fact that, much like the aforementioned rapper, a “b***h” counts for zero of them, that total is enough to be cause for concern.
When your team has so many issues that you’re not sure where to start and it’s not the pre-season, I’m of the mind that it’s time to give the other team some credit. The Boston Bruins went into Pittsburgh and dismantled them. They walked in on a bomb and diffused it without so much as sweating a drop and they had excess time to spare. And for that, they have team discipline to thank.
Discipline, for a hockey team, can mean a lot of things. Coaches talk about getting players to “buy in,” which basically means “give up what you’re instincts are telling you on the defensive side of the puck, and actually do what we’re asking you to do.” Most players have the defensive instincts of a dog chasing a tennis ball. “PUCKPUCKPUCK THERE’STHEPUCKOMG PUCKPUCKPUCK.” When things aren’t going well it’s easy to step out of the system and chase it. But when things are working, it just reinforces behaviour that makes your team tougher to play. “Hey, if I just stand here, the puck comes to me a lot.”
Boston’s making it hard on Pittsburgh by being disciplined in a number of different areas.
As I was getting at above, the Bruins have been crazy reliable in their positional play in the first two games. Pittsburgh’s offense is the type that made the coach from the previous series say “I just hope they don’t charge us for the clinic they put on,” so Boston knew to have any hope, they’d have to minimize their offensive output. The plan was never to give up a single goal in two games – the expectation is that Pittsburgh is going to create that in their sleep – but you stick to your position and make the Pens go through layers every time they have the puck and pray that’s good enough. They did that, had some success early, and have only gotten stronger positionally as the series has moved on.
Methinks the Bruins reputation preceded them in this series. It looks to me like the Penguins assumed that their reputation would precede them, so the Bruins would run them all over the rink and they’d have to pass The Punk Test to get past the B’s. Seriously, they came out – Sid and Malkin included, obviously – thinking it was going to be a flex-off, the Bruins came out playing hockey, and everyone was confused by what was happening.
Still, the Bruins didn’t suddenly flip the switch and start playing Gladiator with the Pens. They didn’t have to do anything more to get them not playing hockey, which is the most amazing best case scenario thing you could have happen from a skill team. Pittsburgh did it to themselves, in advance of puck drop.
Boston knows that Pittsburgh has the talent to make it happen on the man-advantage, so it’s possible that’s why they came out trying to play hockey instead of getting vicious and trading powerplays. Last night they took one penalty before the third period (when the game was over, so the refs tossed the Pens a couple token ones), which is a smart way to play against the Penguins.
You don’t have to backcheck when you have numbers. If there’s a two-on-two heading towards your d-zone, your guys have got this, all you technically need to do is not let a third player beat you up ice and you won’t get yelled at. BUT. But if you want, you can get on your horse, drive your legs, and make life far more difficult on the rushing forwards by providing back-pressure. That kills their option of using a delay inside the blue to wait for help, forces them to just put the puck in deep, or in the case of the Penguins, stubbornly refuse to do so and turn it over. The Bruins are making a clear effort to work hard through the neutral zone to help their D.
And with that discipline comes success, and with that success comes more discipline, and with that comes a game last night where it looked like Pittsburgh couldn’t do a damn thing right.
Is that it for the Penguins? Are we excusing them because their opponent is playing sound hockey?
F*** and no, obviously. Some questions I have for the Penguins:
I realize you’d be a fool to have this much talent on your roster and not set it free. When you have this much offensive ability you have to allow them to make some mistakes, because with that chance-taking comes killer chance-creation. But there has to be some adjustment for the Penguins. You can’t repeatedly be the playoff team who can give up six on any given night, suspect goaltending or not.
I believe that he probably let’s them do as they want offensively, which with risk-reward players is going to result in some games where you score six, and some where you give-up six. And in their case, it happens more for them than their opponent. But it wouldn’t kill him to ask guys to be more careful with the puck. Which leads me into…
There was a comment on CBC last night by Elliotte Friedman where he observed something I had tweeted about too – the Penguins had no puck support. They skated away from each other on even-man rushes, and they never once chipped the puck behind a d-man while a teammate skated onto the puck, which is mind-blowing considering how great the Bruins gap control was last night. Bylsma was forced to play some line bingo, drawing numbers at random, but that’s no excuse to abandon basic help and play as three individuals.
But further to that point…
Elliotte also said something like “nobody’s with Crosby, what’s he supposed to do?” I can tell you what he’s supposed to do sure as hell isn’t throw a low-percentage pass through the middle to the other team. If you don’t have support, if you’re being pressured, you put the puck deep and get after it. Coaches hate turnovers within five feet of either side of either blue-line. It kills your chance at sustaining any pressure, and kills your chance of eliminating it at your own end.
Crosby made a terrible decision at the blue to start the game (the Marchand goal), and he didn’t improve over the next 59 minutes and 30 seconds. He turned solid possession into a Bruins rush no less than 10 times last night (I don’t know what the actual stats say, but I guarantee that was a reality).
Obviously you can’t start Marc-Andre Fleury tomorrow night. The Bruins fourth goal, the Marchand shot, has to has to has to be stopped. It was a well-placed shot, but stoppable, and at that moment in that game, you need a stop. And the sixth…well, as I tweeted “Can’t fault Fleury on that Boychuck goal. No chance on those unscreened shots perfectly placed in the middle of the net from the far boards.” (Yeah that’s sarcasm.)
And Vokoun was bad too. I see a lot of “can’t fault hims” going on out there – you’re rarely allowed to with goalies, or something – But yes you can. It’s okay to expect your starting NHL goalie to get you some saves, and not give up any freebies like the Bruins second.
But you go back to Vokoun, because Fleury is a headcase right now. I think he can get it together again some day, but for now, he gets to watch.
All in all, this was one of the most lopsided, unexpected playoff games I’ve watched in a long time. I expected Pittsburgh to come out firing.
The question now is if they can overcome this adversity and pull it together. My biggest concern is that this was a shortened season where they made deadline acquisitions, and not for small personalities. Are they at the point where they’re comfortable telling one another the truth? When I wrote “5 reasons the Penguins deadline deals could be bad for them” after they happened, I wondered if it there were too many chiefs and not enough indians, to use a probably-politically-incorrect phrase. Can this team with multiple captains who don’t know each other all that well find a way to pull in the same direction? As Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.
The Pens have two days to try to right some of these wrongs. The Bruins are in their head now, and it’s on this teams leaders to get them out.