Well, this isn’t good. Four games into this series, it still seemed inconceivable that the Pens would lose the best of seven, as they clearly outplayed and outchanced Montreal in almost every one of the first 12 periods of the series aside from the first 10 minutes of Game Three and the third period of Game Four, and even though the Capitals similarly outchanced the Canadiens in their series and came up short, any just law of averages would dictate that a team couldn’t get badly outplayed 14 games in a row and win eight of them.
Games Five and Six, on the contrary, have basically been even hockey games, with the Canadiens even outshooting the Pens in Game Five and Pittsburgh needing a dominant Fleury performance to sneak away with a win in regulation, and not surprisingly, the Canadiens won Game Six and came darn close in Game Five, making Game Seven look like a lot more of a toss-up than one might have expected one week ago.
I’m worried about Fleury again, and not because he played terribly in Game Six (he didn’t), but precisely because he didn’t play terribly — he’s shown a remarkable ability to bounce back from terrible performances with stellar performances, but what about when he plays totally mediocrely, as he did in Game Six? He wasn’t floundering, and didn’t give up a harmless dump-in shot from the left circle, but he also didn’t play “well”, allowing 4 goals on only 25 shots, including two shots from just inside the blue line (albeit on a one-timer and a serious screen, respectively). Will that hamper his ability to have a miraculous bounce-back game to allow haughty sportswriters to rip on us poor mongoloid fans for pointing out when Fleury plays badly?
The Pens’ D often shoulders some of the blame for Fleury’s weaker outings, but in Game Six, they were exceptionally responsible, with Kris Letang setting the tone early by turning the puck over just outside the Pens’ blue line and immediately falling down to give Montreal a clean 2-on-1 and an early lead. The Canadiens’ fourth goal was just a jamboree of failure on the Penguins’ part, and in between, the Pens’ D turned the puck over far too often, played far too tentatively with the puck, and despite Letang’s power play goal and Gonchar’s late tipped-in slapper to cut the lead to one, the defense corps was far too shaky in both zones to loosen the Canadiens up from their “All five dudes collapse to the net at all times” defensive strategy, which will continue to work as long as Goligoski, Leopold, Eaton, and Orpik (and more often than not Gonchar and Letang too) can’t hit the net or have their shots not extremely blocked.
I also wouldn’t be completely surprised if when the Pens’ season ends, they reveal that Crosby was playing with an injury. He really just doesn’t look like himself, and it’s not like he’s flying around playing awesomely and the Canadiens defenders keep perfectly checking him off the puck or diving to deflect his passes (though I give credit to Hal Gill for his impressive Crosby-holding highlight reel that Versus runs every game to compliment his defense), but Crosby’s been less impactful than usual for a far longer stretch than we’re used to seeing. I realize things tighten up in the playoffs and it’s tougher for individuals to dominate, but no matter how well the Canadiens’ D is playing, Sidney Crosby just doesn’t go six game stretches with only one tip-in goal. I’d like to confidently exclaim “Oh he’ll be fine,” but my thoughtless, general optimism heading into this series has given way to cold indifference, as every stretch of every period continues to fall more and more squarely into the toss-up category.
Home ice doesn’t impact Game Seven in any way, either, as much as people who confuse the NHL with the NBA continue falsely believing it does. While it’ll be nice to get the Pens away from the whiny boo factory that is the Bell Centre, they also played their worst game of the series at home in Game 5, and played terribly against Ottawa at home in Game 1 of that series then failed to close out a beaten-down Senators team at home in Game 5, so I’m not drawing any false confidence from the location of this contest. The suckiness of the Pens’ D and Fleury’s proneness to astonishing letdowns cannot be constrained by geography.
So like I said, Game Seven is a toss-up. The Penguins should win if Crosby plays well and Malkin plays well and Fleury plays well and the third line chips in a goal and the penalty killing stops being stupid and the power play continues miraculously being not stupid. But am I confident more than two of those things will happen at the same time in this bewildering series? No, I’m not. If I had to bet, I’d take the Pens, but I’m sitting about 53-47 on this one, and in a one-game winner-takes-all scenario, that’s not a good thing.