GAME THREE: Pens 6, Hurricanes 2 — THIS Is The Second Best Team In The East?

Sorry for the post-delay, I was busy taking Memorial Day weekend off and enjoying life. And now back to ripping on random hockey players for a devoted group of like seven blog readers!

— Carolina’s defense is downright awful. I wrote before the series (which I still thought would be a hard-fought seven gamer) that I wasn’t sold on Joe Corvo or Joni Pitkanen as impactful playoff-caliber defensemen, and nothing that’s happened this series has dispelled that belief; Corvo is a solid pointman and good transitional passer but sub-mediocre defensively and physically, and Pitkanen, while never emerging as the offensive threat multiple teams hoped he’d become, is still prone to monumental defensive lapses, including getting burnt up the middle by Max Talbot and torched to rubble by Evgeni Malkin on two separate Game Three sequences.

— Even worse, can someone who follows the Hurricanes year-round tell me, has Tim Gleason always been the worst defenseman in the NHL, or has he just been playing like it for three games? If he plays half as badly in the regular season as he has in the Pens games we’ve seen, he has no business being a professional ice hockey player. His giveaway to Malkin to spark the Pens’ tying goal en route to their unrelenting lead was laughable, but just one of about a half-dozen goals he’s been directly responsible for in this series.

Cam Ward hasn’t gotten much help from his defense in this series, and by “not much help” I mean, “at least Tim Gleason didn’t literally grab a bucket of pucks and pour them into his own net,” but he also hasn’t been great himself, and certainly not on the level of series-stealing impenetrability that I and many media types feared heading into this series. Other than a stellar second period in Game Three, Ward has been eminently beatable in this series, and the previously snakebitten Penguins have been more than happy to oblige.

— After three Carolina-ripping bullet points, time to state the obvious: Malkin and Crosby have owned this series on a level rarely ever demonstrated by individuals in an NHL postseason. Short of a hot goalie or possibly one player here or there, you simply don’t see two players absolutely just take over entire serieses in the NHL Playoffs; every time Malkin touches the puck, he creates a scoring chance as though he’s running a lax 3-on-2 practice drill where the defensemen intentionally back off to make sure the goalie gets to face a solid shot attempt. I also lamented Crosby’s finishing ability during the regular season, wondering how for all the offensive chances he creates he always ends up in the 30-goal range, but he’s just thrown everything near his stick into the back of the net this entire postseason. Even if the Hurricanes’ D had showed up in this series, I can’t imagine they’d have made much of a dent in the Malkin/Crosby momentum.

Chris Kunitz has played two straight legitimately impactful playoff games, which, based on his track record, I’m inclined to interpret more as a return to the norm for Kunitz as opposed to a two-game anomaly before he reverts back to uselessness. He’s still playing physically but has been much stronger on the puck, he’s patient, he’s creating chances, he’s hitting the net ever, and in general, I’ve stopped instantly changing the channel to the WE Network every time the puck comes near him.

— Even though Versus showed the clip of Fleury bobbling the puck that trickled wide of the net about 470 times, I thought he played a decent game; he gave up a bad rebound on the second goal, but critical announcers never seem to realize, every goalie gives up rebounds in every game, they only get blasted for them if their defense fails to pick up the opposing forwards, and Fleury continues to be victimized by this nearly every game. Carolina had a power play in the third with a chance to tie the game at 3 and couldn’t convert; I’ve been more critical of Fleury than most other people this postseason, but I had no problems with his Game Three performance.

— I ripped on Eric Staal in the last game recap and he didn’t spring to life and score seven goals, so maybe that jinx is over.

— Watching Hal Gill skate at full speed is my new favorite activity. Not just in hockey games, I mean in life.

Kris Letang still worries me a little; he’s been really weak on the puck in his own zone and can’t seem to clear or shoot the puck with any force. I imagine he’s still a little banged up from the earlier series, and hopefully he’ll get another chance to rest if the Pens can finish off the Hurricanes quickly, but he’s simply not going to squeak by against the Red Wings playing the way he has been in his own zone.

Bob Smizik argues that the Pens don’t really need to win Game Four, because the profit they’ll make off a home Game Five would benefit the franchise more than a quick end to a series they’re going to win anyway, which does make sense on paper, but who in their right mind would actually prefer even the slightest increase in the chances of an injury to Crosby or Malkin with an additonal game? The Pens have already played eight sold-out home playoff games and have at least two Finals home games on the way — they can afford to frickin’ win a hockey game tonight. The days of trading Dan LaCouture to save $800,000 are long over.

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