Game 6 offers Penguins chance to prove what players believe
These Penguins are different. Players believe that. Coaches are counting on it.
Sunday night is the opportunity to show it.
Game 6 at Madison Square Garden brings with it a second chance to clinch a spot in the Eastern Conference final, another opportunity to eliminate the New York Rangers, one more test for the Penguins to show they have learned the hard lessons from postseasons past.
“I don't know how to explain it, but you can definitely sense it,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who has emerged as the conscience of this group. “It's a desperation to do better, a thought that we've had more or are better than we were.”
The Game 5 home loss Friday night was troubling for many reasons. Most troubling, players said after the 5-1 defeat, was the Penguins looked nothing like the team that appeared to make gains as a serious Stanley Cup contender.
Basically, as captain Sidney Crosby hinted, Game 5 was not representative of what the Penguins believe they have become.
Winger Lee Stempniak, who joined the Penguins at the trade deadline March 5, recalled Games 2, 3 and 4 against the Rangers as reasons to believe a Cup run is possible. It was all about how the Penguins won those games to seize control of the series, Stempniak said.
He cited forwards' consistent back pressure and “not leaving the defensive zone too early” and “providing support from underneath.” He said defensemen “killed lots of odd-man rushes by forcing offsides because of gap control” and “got the puck out quick by making outlet passes right away.”
“When I got here, one thing I noticed was a lot of talk about defense, about how to play in the playoffs,” Stempniak said. “It wasn't harping on defense in general, just a lot of those details that we've been getting better at the last month.”
The Penguins have improved defensively, so players are confident Game 5 was a hiccup and not the start of another collapse such as the ones against Montreal (2010) and Tampa Bay (2011) or another flameout such as those against Philadelphia (2012) and Boston (2013).
The Penguins have surrendered an average of 2.54 goals this postseason. They were at 2.67 last postseason, 5.00 the one before and 2.92 in 2010.
Before Game 5, the Penguins had allowed 23 goals in 10 games, the lowest total by that point of the postseason for any club coach Dan Bylsma had taken into the second round. In 2009 and '10, the Penguins surrendered 28 goals apiece after 10 games, and they were at 26 last postseason.
From October to Dec. 23, when winger Pascal Dupuis was lost for the season to a knee injury, the Penguins went 27-10-1 and allowed an average of 2.16 goals per contest. That stretch of defensive dominance — at least by the standard of what Bylsma recently described as the reputably “high-octane” Penguins — occurred when many regulars were injured, especially on defense.
It also happened when the Penguins exclusively were relying on a left-wing lock scheme in the neutral zone, which Bylsma implemented for the first time this season. The Penguins went away from that neutral-zone defensive approach in the second half, center Brandon Sutter said.
“A few weeks before the end of the regular season, we went back to it,” Sutter said. “It's the way we were going to play in the playoffs.”
Immediate results were rough, Niskanen conceded.
However, Bylsma and players were undeterred because, as winger James Neal said, “We know we have to play smarter and better — everywhere on the ice but especially defensively — if we want to win in the playoffs.”
Neal suggested players knew they had to rewire their internal hardware to protect against meltdowns such as ones he, Crosby, center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang experienced against Philadelphia and Boston the past two posteasons.
“That especially includes me,” Neal said. “We have great players in this room, and if we want to win, we need everybody to be in the right frame of mind. We can be aggressive, but we can't lose control.
“It's not easy because teams are coming at you, but if you just stay with it and don't do something stupid … I think we know that's what we have to do to win.”
So far, the Penguins' stars have not come unhinged in the playoffs. Crosby has led by example in this regard, even though he has repeatedly taken high shots from Rangers defenseman Marc Staal and was checked tightly by Columbus center Brandon Dubinsky in Round 1.
Momentary lapses have occurred, from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's decision to play a puck late in Game 4 at Columbus to Letang's unnecessary icing Friday night. However, defenseman Paul Martin said, there are more examples of how the Penguins have learned lessons from the past.
Their two best performances were in Games 5 and 6 after the Round 1 series was tied 2-2, but that was not the greatest growth, Martin said.
“The way Game 6 ended, with us having to fight to hold onto that lead,” Martin said, referring to the Penguins' 4-0 advantage before the Blue Jackets' three-goal rally late in the third period. “I don't know if we definitely would have lost that game in the last few playoffs, but I do think we were better suited to win it because of some of the things that happened. We had let some games get away from us. We had not done enough to win. Finally, we did.
“You learn, right? That's the idea. That's the hope, anyway.”
A year ago, when adversity hit the Penguins in the playoffs, they never showed strong resolve. They survived against the pesky New York Islanders in Round 1, blew past undermanned Ottawa in Round 2 and were swept by the Bruins in the conference final.
Already this postseason, they have responded to blowing home-ice advantage in successive series by reclaiming it at first chance, have overcome three overtime losses and have won with Crosby — the regular-season scoring champion and presumptive MVP — scoring a goal in only one of 11 games.
Sutter said the grind of 82 regular-season games, compared to 48 during the lockout-shortened campaign in 2013, might have helped the Penguins build muscle necessary “to power through adversity” this postseason.
“There was more of a learning curve because we had ups and downs,” Sutter said, referring to the 529 man-games lost to injury and a post-Olympic slide that featured an 11-9-4 record. “We spent a lot of time together this season. At least it felt like more than the year before. I feel like there is a closeness with this team that helps us stick together when time are hard.”
Malkin picked up the scoring slack while Crosby tries to find his rhythm. Neal adapted his game from shoot-first scoring threat to more of an overall offensive player now that he is the second line's primary weapon. Sutter upped his level of intensity. Defenseman Rob Scuderi continued to speak up even though he was not satisfied with his individual contribution. Fleury offered encouragement to Letang during his early benching. Martin played 30 minutes when defenseman Brooks Orpik went down early in Game 4 against the Rangers. Winger Jussi Jokinen monitored fellow Finn, rookie defenseman Olli Maatta, on off days. Bylsma tasked first-year assistant Jacques Martin with delivering a key speech to players when Round 1 became a best-of-three series.
“To me, that's a big difference right now,” Sutter said. “We're all picking one another up. You've seen that after some of our losses already.”
The past four postseasons, the Penguins never won a series after losing consecutive games. That is what they are trying to avoid doing Sunday night.