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Kovacevic: Pens improve under microscope

| Tuesday, May 21, 2013, 11:03 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang breaks up ice with the puck during the first period against the Senators on Sunday, May 19, 2013, at Scotiabank Place at Ottawa.

OTTAWA — Analyzing hockey can be like molecular science, if you think of it in a weird way: The sport looks more chaotic than it is, it's never just what's in plain eyesight, and it's sometimes more beneficial to study all those microscopic moving parts rather than the collective mass.

To wit, I humbly offer as Exhibit A in this science class, your own symbolically protozoan Pittsburgh Penguins.

As a mass, let's not kid anyone: They're a bummer right now. They're about to play the Senators in a Game 4 that should have come with a shot at ending this Stanley Cup playoff series, except they blew Game 3.


Tempers flared with Daniel Alfredsson's tying goal, and the heat only multiplied once Colin Greening batted home that rebound in double-overtime. It was a terribly tough outcome, in no small part because the scope of the series had suddenly changed.

But the Penguins' players?

Eh, not so much.

At least not from what I could gather after a survey of the locker room Tuesday that might look to you more chaotic than it really was …

Start with Kris Letang.

No one was more visibly distressed after Alfredsson's goal Sunday. He barked, raised his arms … at whom exactly we won't know, but he was on fire. Brooks Orpik had to settle him once back at the bench.

By Tuesday …

“It helps to have the two days off,” Letang told me at his stall after the first practice since that goal. “It gives us a chance to regroup. We know we made some mistakes at a certain area, and we'll get better for it going into Game 4.”

I pressed for more. I mean, the guy's barracuda-intense by default, and he'd been really ticked.

“No, I know. I was pretty upset. We had a mental breakdown when we were mostly in control all game. I'm emotional. I want to win every game, every shift. But it's a seven-game series. That's the beauty. We'll be better for it.”

Letang's upbeat stance was mostly echoed through the room, no doubt a credit to Dan Bylsma's encouraging words to the athletes right after Game 3. He reminded them that they played their “best road game of the playoffs,” that they essentially silenced the Senators but for those fatal few seconds of regulation.

Be sure it was received.

Chris Kunitz, another of countless culprits on Alfredsson's goal, looked like he had at least some of his load lifted.

“You make one mistake,” he said, “but you can't go back out there holding your breath.”

Tomas Vokoun, collected as ever, carried himself as if he'd just finished a crossword puzzle rather than a deflating, dehydrating loss.

His eyes stayed on the prize.

“Everybody in this game wants to win the Stanley Cup,” Vokoun offered, unsolicited, to a question about this late stage of his career. “If we play like we can, we have a chance. We know that.”

Sidney Crosby, too, was characteristically pragmatic.

“You learn from the game, win or lose,” the captain said. “And you move on.”

Like I said, healthy. All of it.

And nothing had a healthier feel than the universally held sentiment that, rather than viewing the Alfredsson goal as revisiting all those Long Island lapses from the first round, all concerned were focused instead on how much they've improved defensively.

Which they have.

Shots won't show it, given Ottawa's fire-from-anywhere approach, and you won't even gather much from the Senators totaling only six goals so far. But the Penguins' coaches independently track quality chances allowed, and Game 3 was among their stingiest, according to players. I believe it. Yet again exempting the Alfredsson goal, the Penguins forced Ottawa forwards wide, held their own in front of the net — a constant in this series — and authoritatively cleared Vokoun's rebounds.

“That's the biggest thing, everyone working together to keep them out of the good scoring areas,” Matt Niskanen said, “and I think we did a pretty good job of that.”

The best job, I'd say, since that defense-driven 15-game winning streak.

“Yeah, I think so,” Douglas Murray said. “The best part is that it's easier to continue good habits than to change bad ones. Hopefully, we can sustain what we did well. We made the simple plays, our guys were skating, we were physical … those are easy things to say to do, but we were doing all of that. I think we had it for that stretch of the regular season, then kind of lost if for a little bit, and now it's back.”

If you have a problem with that assessment, take it up with Professor Crankshaft.

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