While trying to wrap my head around the first four-game chunk of this hopefully nearly-over first round playoff series, my thought process has gone something like this:
Well, the Pens are dominating 5-on-5, they just need to limit Tampa’s power play chances and hopefully grab a power play goal of their own, and they shou–
The gravity of the first half of that sentence shouldn’t get minimized by the details of the second half. It is EMBARRASSING how badly the Penguins have outplayed Tampa 5-on-5 in this series, with the exception of the first periods in Game One and Game Two. But whether we split hairs and argue that the Pens have dominated about 70% of the 5-on-5 play in this series or if it’s closer to 55-60%, the fact that we’re talking about this Penguins team dominating this Tampa team 5-on-5 for the majority of this series, and readily accepting that fact as though it’s a given, is, I will say again, embarrassing.
Tampa is completely healthy. Ryan Malone is obviously dragging, and Steven Stamkos is very likely dealing with a nagging injury that’ll come out after the playoffs, but they’re still both in the lineup. This is the #5 seed in the Eastern Conference that’s clearly loaded with a Top-5 team in the NHL in terms of top-end offensive talent, and they’re getting noticeably and routinely outplayed by a Penguins squad that’s only one seed higher, missing two of the top players in the NHL, and essentially dressing two #2 lines and two #4 lines.
All the borderline “damning with faint praise” compliments we’ve been showering on the Pens over these past few Crosbyless months — “Tyler Kennedy has really elevated his game!”, “This team is really resilient and showing a lot of character,” “Dan Bylsma is doing his best coaching job yet, keeping these guys playing hard every night” — usually sounded like one big “attaboy” thumbs-up as we justified our own surprise that this team didn’t completely collapse. Honestly though, and perhaps I’m only speaking for myself, I didn’t believe that any of those positives in the Pens’ recent play would truly matter against a more talented, healthier playoff opponent that’s also well coached, strong in goal, and experienced in the playoffs. If the most dangerous thing you can say about a Playoff team is “Tyler Kennedy’s been playing pretty well,” you’re basically saying “Ah well, it’s been a good run.”
The one possible tipping point, as I said in my series prediction, was Fleury. I thought if Fleury played out of his mind for 4 of 7 games, then the Pens had a shot, but I didn’t foresee that happening — not for lack of faith in Fleury, just for the general unlikelihood of any one player maintaining such routine dominance in a long playoff series. Fleury did indeed play out of his mind in Game One, and the Pens had no business escaping the opening period of that game tied 0-0; however, while Fleury also played excellently in Games 3 and 4, he didn’t have to steal Games 3 or 4, and that’s just not at all how I saw this series playing out. Perhaps my attempt at dispassionate, rational analysis of this series actually just meant that I deliberately underestimated the team I root for and equated that with even analysis, but I honestly don’t think that’s the case.
The Penguins outshot Tampa on their home ice in Game 3, 30-27, and didn’t allow an even-strength goal. They then outshot Tampa on their home ice two nights later, 53-31, in a game that Tampa absolutely needed. The Penguins don’t have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin — a fact that’s so significant, it’s incredible that we now mention as if it’s a footnote — and they are badly outplaying a super-talented team that’s one seed below them. I’m certainly not complaining, but I certainly didn’t see it happening.
Other Random Thoughts On The Series:
– Marty St. Louis has entered the “Cammalleri Zone,” where any time he touches the puck and the puck doesn’t instantly teleport inside the net, I’m legitimately shocked. I cannot believe how much more noticeably dangerous he is than any player on either team, at all times.
– Paul Martin has been more or less lights-out since his awful sequence in Game Two where he failed to corral a bouncing puck then completely didn’t cover Nate Thompson trailing the play and Thompson easily tapped in Tampa’s backbreaking third goal. Brooks Orpik, too, has logged huge minutes in this series and played essentially mistake-free; he made a number of really skilled clearing plays in Overtime of Game 4, too, as he appeared to recognize Tampa’s obligatory, tired forecheck and just made an extra effort to skate the puck out safely several times. While the Pens are clearly lacking up front, having their Top 4 defensemen healthy has made all the difference in this series, especially in Games 3 and 4.
– I really liked the Arron Asham signing when it happened, then I went into raging indifference about it for 5 months, and now I obviously love it again. Three goals in four playoff games, all of them victories? What a tasty “Love It / Indifferent / Love It” signing sandwich. It’s late and I’m tired, so I’m not deleting that metaphor.
– Even when Stamkos’ injury is eventually revealed, if he finishes a first-round exit with zero goals, it’ll unfortunately color his status as an elite player into next season. Some Stamkos/Crosby debates rumbled briefly during Stamkos’ blazing-hot October this season, but those will be put back on hold for a while. Could you imagine the theoretical Crosby backlash if Tampa led the Penguins 3 games to 1 without Stamkos and St. Louis playing, and Crosby had zero goals in the series? It’s basically unimaginable.
– For as talented as they are up front, Tampa really hasn’t noticeably forechecked the Pens at all; Guy Boucher certainly hasn’t been shy about sticking to his stringent 1-3-1 setup regardless of the score, and it was helping Tampa down the stretch. The Pens’ D-men are talented and smart puck movers who might take advantage of a reckless forecheck, but generally, the Pens haven’t been forced into many turnovers coming out of their own zone. Tampa totally dictated the pace in the first period of Game One, but really hasn’t pushed the issue since; most of their offense has come off power plays or individual rushes involving a super-skilled play by Marty St. Louis. I just don’t understand why they’re continuing to be so passive against a theoretically outgunned Penguins squad, especially with their backs to the wall in the series — it’ll be interesting to see if Game 5 is any different.
– Last thought: At what age do you stop being a nervous, slobbering mess during NHL Playoff Overtimes? I wasn’t even that upset when the Steelers lost the Super Bowl this year, and I wondered if the recent Pittsburgh success coupled with my age and maybe having more important things to worry about in my life than a Pittsburgh sports game have rendered me unable to care as dramatically about a game as I used to. Then Game 4 against Tampa goes into OT — a FIRST ROUND series that the Pens are in control of regardless of the game’s outcome — and I was literally shaking almost the whole time. Whew! Still nothing important going on in my life. THANK GOD.