Failure to protect leads a growing late-season problem for Penguins | TribLIVE.com
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Jonathan Bombulie

Statistically speaking, the Pittsburgh Penguins are one of the best teams in the league at protecting third-period leads.

They’re 32-0-3 when leading after two periods this season, one of only four teams in the NHL that haven’t lost in regulation under those circumstances.

Recent results, though, tell a vastly different tale.

On Sunday night, the Penguins blew a 1-0 lead when James van Riemsdyk scored with 18.8 seconds left and lost 2-1 in overtime.

The last time the Keystone State rivals met, it was a similar story. At Lincoln Financial Field on Feb. 23, the Penguins blew a 3-2 lead when Jakub Voracek scored with 19.7 seconds to go and lost 4-3 in overtime.

It’s the first time in NHL history that one team has used a tying goal in the final 30 seconds of regulation to beat the same opponent twice in the same season.

Throw in a 4-3 overtime loss in Buffalo on March 2 that saw Brandon Montour score the tying goal in the final three minutes of regulation, and it starts to look like a disturbing trend. The Penguins have blown a late lead and lost in overtime in three of their past 12 games.

“We’ve got to find a way to close that out,” center Matt Cullen said. “We’re right there. Just find a way to close it out. Obviously if we’re going to be where we want to be at the end of the season, we’ve got to get better at finishing games.”

It’s hard to find a solution to the problem because the tying goals came in such vastly different situations. It’s hard to connect the dots between the three.

Montour’s goal was on a shot from the point that deflected off an ankle in front. It came before the Sabres pulled their goalie.

Voracek’s goal came on a bad-angle shot from the left-wing corner of the offensive zone that went through the legs of defenseman Jack Johnson and eluded Matt Murray in a driving rain.

Van Riemsdyk scored on what was essentially a four-on-two after Sidney Crosby stepped up on the Flyers forward but failed to steal a pass in the neutral zone.

“I thought we did a pretty decent job, honestly, until that four-on-two,” Murray said. “When we’re in zone, we were doing a really good job. We have our scheme and we stuck to it and we did a good job. They just threw pucks on net and we battled for rebounds and did a good job clearing them out. Just that one play and it gets by us.”

There’s no easy answer. For the Penguins to fix the problem, they’ll need to use a combination of better in-zone structure, better execution with the puck and better decision making in general.

“We gotta stay on our toes,” Murray said. “That’s what it’s all about in the grand scheme of things.”

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