Kovacevic: Pens need to be a lot less stupid
UNIONDALE, N.Y. —Are these guys stupid?
Really, for all else that swirled through this seesaw Game 3 between the Penguins and Islanders, for all the exhilaration of the playoff-starved home crowd as their side overcame a late deficit, for all the exhales among the visitors when Chris Kunitz found top shelf in overtime for a 5-4 outcome … I couldn't come close to shaking the idea that I'd just witnessed little more than a sensational show of sheer stupidity.
Or maybe of something else.
“I don't think it's that we don't want to make the right play,” Sidney Crosby was telling me in a mostly silent, utterly smile-free locker room. “I think it's just a matter of being sharper and executing.”
“We got away with this one,” Douglas Murray said. “It's been way too sloppy the past two games and … well, we've got to sharpen that up.”
OK, but sharpen what?
Let's review the tangibles of the past two games: These Penguins have now given up eight goals, 78 official shots, a mindboggling 145 attempted shots (counting blocks and misses) and have committed 38 turnovers.
They actually won one of those.
Now let's review the broader intangibles: The Penguins don't need to sharpen their skills, nor their system that's built defense-first, nor their experienced leadership, camaraderie, work ethic, spirit, motivation … you name it. Even in the area of speed, where the Islanders have a visible edge, they aren't more than a stride behind.
So, what's to sharpen?
Oh, right. Their brains.
If you want to know how this team that breezed to a 15-game winning streak, mostly by suffocating opponents, is suddenly stumbling all over itself, rewind to the Islanders' two tying strikes in the third period …
With the Penguins on a power play and a chance at a three-goal lead, Brenden Morrow, the veteran two-way mainstay, made a blind pass picked off by the Islanders' Frans Nielsen.
Mark Eaton, the Penguins' savviest defenseman, pinched up on Nielsen, even though partner Matt Niskanen was parallel rather than backpedaling.
Niskanen, another cerebral type, allowed Kyle Okposo to slip behind him short-handed.
Okposo buried the breakaway, and it was 4-3.
The next mistake was more emblematic of what's gone awry.
Kunitz, another of the team's brightest, carried up the left wing in the neutral zone and, rather than dump the puck behind the Islanders' defense — as Dan Bylsma and staff had been preaching pretty much in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS the previous couple days — he tried a 70-foot lateral pass.
Decidedly not sharp.
It misfired, the Islanders boomeranged the other way, and John Tavares tied.
And that's to say nothing of three offensive-zone penalties by Matt Cooke, Tanner Glass and Jarome Iginla, as well as a litany of other mistakes and missed assignments.
If these incidents are isolated, you shrug them off. Especially when it involves, bizarrely enough, some of your most intelligent players.
But if they keep happening, and you've got no more than a handful off your entire roster regularly doing the smart thing — my count was limited to Craig Adams, Crosby and Murray — then an undeniable pattern of inexplicable, indefensible stupidity is in place.
I mean, not-sharp-ness.
Why is that?
All concerned are adamant that puck management, notably at the blue lines, is being discussed intensely behind closed doors and on the bench.
“All the time,” Adams said.
They still talk the talk, too.
“You're not going to win a whole lot of games playing like that,” Eaton said after Game 3, though it could have been anyone after either Games 2 or 3.
People will point to Bylsma, and that's fair. A coach's message doesn't matter if it isn't heard. If Bylsma and staff need to bench players — even stars — to buttress their point, so be it. This team knows how it plays best. Anyone who doesn't want to participate doesn't have to.
People will point to internal leaders, and that's fair, too. The message is up to those wearing letters on their sweaters – plus ex-captains Morrow and Iginla – to reinforce in a way that can only be handled by peers.
People will point to the Islanders ramping it up, and that's fairest of all. I've written all along that they're as resilient as they are fast. It's a promising, fun, young group.
But it's not a group that has any business even prolonging, much less taking a playoff series from these Penguins.
Look, potentially great NHL teams get done in all the time. Could be rotten luck, rash of injuries, running into a hot goaltender, whatever. We're only a year removed from a No. 8 seed raising the Cup in Los Angeles.
But to waste this wonderful collection of talent on something so … not sharp, that would be the height of stupidity.