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Gorman: Penguins in need of fast start vs. Senators in Game 4

| Thursday, May 18, 2017, 8:00 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Jake Guentzel skates past the net after the glass was broken by a shot by Evgeni Malkin during practice in preparation for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Senators Thursday, May 18, 2017, at the University of Ottawa.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Jake Guentzel skates past the net after the glass was broken by a shot by Evgeni Malkin during practice in preparation for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Senators Thursday, May 18, 2017, at the University of Ottawa.

OTTAWA

Practice ended prematurely for the Penguins on Thursday afternoon at the University of Ottawa, when an Evgeni Malkin shot shattered a pane of glass on the boards behind the goal.

It served as a perfect metaphor for their play against the Ottawa Senators in this Eastern Conference final: Because the Penguins haven't been able to put the puck in the net, their hopes of repeating as Stanley Cup champions soon could be shattered.

Look, it's not just about scoring goals but preventing them, too. Talk of the day centered on which goaltender Penguins coach Mike Sullivan would start for Game 4 on Friday, Marc-Andre Fleury or Matt Murray. Sullivan called it a good problem to have, but for the Penguins it's the only good problem they have.

The rest are really worrisome. As injuries mount, lines are changing and the cracks are showing, as evidenced by the four-goal barrage in the first 13 minutes of the 5-1 loss Wednesday that gave the Senators a 2-1 series lead.

“You have to turn the page, regardless of what happens, good or bad,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who finished minus-3 despite a power-play goal in the third period of Game 3. “That's what the playoffs are about. We've got to take some things from that game, but I think the biggest thing, looking back at it, it's the start. And we'll make sure that we're better going into the next game.”

The Penguins appeared blindsided by Ottawa's sudden offensive outburst. Senators coach Guy Boucher seemed to use the same rope-a-dope approach against the Penguins that Sullivan did in the first two rounds against the Columbus and Washington. And the Penguins fired away from the perimeter, just as the Blue Jackets and Capitals did.

It's a reversal of roles for the Penguins — one that doesn't have a simple fix without injured top-six forwards Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist and defenseman Justin Schultz.

You could put the burden on the Penguins' stars, but Malkin, Phil Kessel and Crosby have accounted for the Penguins' three goals in as many games. Malkin and Crosby scored on redirects in the crease, and Kessel scored after a rebound of his own blocked shot in the slot. Sure, the Penguins didn't score a power-play goal until Crosby converted late in the third period. It was a good goal in garbage time. Now, the Penguins need more garbage goals during the good time.

If Sullivan has an ace up his sleeve, he's not showing it. His refusal to name a starting goalie is a smart move. Let the Senators worry about who's in net. Though I'm on record saying that playing Murray would be a panic move, it's a position where the Penguins are solid.

Instead, Sullivan challenged his team to give itself a chance with a strong start. That's something the Penguins have rarely done in this playoff run. Sullivan also talked about playing with more conviction, a word he believes resonated in the dressing room.

Yet the Penguins' lineup is full of holes and hardly resembles the one that won the Cup last year. But they are viewed as the most talented team remaining among the four semifinalists and are the odds-on favorite to win again.

“I think we're well aware that the expectations are high, and we're well aware the way we need to play this time of year,” Crosby said. “I think that when you're challenged, you want to respond. I think, as a group, we've done that for a long time now. So, I think this group has a lot of pride, a lot of character, and it's up to us go and show that.”

It's getting close to now or never, so this would be a good time to show it from the start.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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