The Pittsburgh Penguins had just missed a golden goal-scoring opportunity Sunday when the television camera zoomed in on Sidney Crosby chewing on his mouthpiece on the bench.
That was supposed to be a sign of Sid’s frustration. Or it could have been just a bad habit that was magnified in the moment, as the Stanley Cup playoffs have a way of doing.
If there is a simple storyline that has been magnified in this first-round series against the New York Islanders, it’s that the Penguins have yet to get a point from their top line.
That’s an alarming trend — yes, Islanders fans, I used that word again — that continued in the Penguins’ 4-1 loss in Game 3 at PPG Paints Arena. And it takes no effort to draw the conclusion that Crosby going scoreless is why the Islanders have a 3-0 series lead and are one victory away from a stunning sweep.
And that’s not fair, to either side.
The Penguins proved last year that their Cup championship hopes can’t rest with their top line as they didn’t get enough secondary scoring to complement Crosby & Co. The Islanders are proving this year that there’s more to beating the Penguins than stopping Crosby, even if it has had a trickle-down effect.
“The strategy is to stop everyone,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “There isn’t any focus on one particular guy. When you’re on the ice in this league, you take care of your own business.”
And the Penguins haven’t taken care of business.
Where the Islanders have bought in to Trotz’s system, keeping two defensemen back to prevent an odd-man rush, the Penguins rely on their talent and take unnecessary risks. What’s worse, they haven’t learned from what put them in the deficit.
The Penguins continue to make costly mistakes, following turnovers by Kris Letang in overtime in Game 1 and Evgeni Malkin in Game 2 with another gaffe that led to the go-ahead goal. This time, it was Justin Schultz getting caught pinching. That allowed the Islanders a two-on-one break, capped by Brock Nelson for a 2-1 lead at 14 minutes, 24 seconds in the first period.
“Our identity is a little bit different,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said, “but, having said that, we have to have more discipline associated with our game in critical areas in the rink so that we become a team that’s more difficult to play against.”
Instead, the Islanders have shrunk the ice, giving the Penguins little room to work and few chances to score. They aren’t playing the right way. It’s about attention to detail, focusing on the minutia. Nothing they have done, from shuffling the lineup to getting the last line change at home, has solved that problem.
Despite their deficit, the Penguins were outshot 36-26. Crosby and his line accounted for eight shots. If they appear to be pressing, it’s because the scoring burden fell on their shoulders in the playoffs last year. So do their chances this postseason.
Crosby was magnificent in Game 3, despite no points and a minus-3 on the score sheet. The Penguins captain controlled the puck, setting up winger Jake Guentzel with great scoring chances in each period.
Guentzel, a 40-goal scorer this season, failed to finish on all three. In the opening minute, Crosby fed Guentzel on the left side, but his shot missed. In the second period, Crosby skated from the left circle to the right with an Islander draped on his backside, then centered a pass that Guentzel miss-timed. Early in the third, Crosby fed a pass from behind the net to Guentzel, only for his shot to be stopped by the shoulder of Robin Lehner.
“You’ve got to find ways to score goals at this time of year,” said Crosby, a 100-point scorer this season. “It’s not easy, but you’ve got to find a way to do it. … We had some good looks around the net. It’s a tight game. It’s a game of execution, and we haven’t done as good of a job as they have.”
There’s the hidden truth of this series. The Islanders have executed their game plan to perfection. They are doing everything the Penguins aren’t, from playing together to minimizing mistakes to capitalizing on chances.
And the Penguins’ bad habits have been glaring, whether it has been failing to get a goal or to protect the lead for more than a few minutes once they do score. The Penguins have scored two goals in the past two games. The Islanders scored twice in a span of 1:02 in Game 3 alone.
Where the Penguins looked like a team on life support, the Islanders went for the jugular. The Penguins are on the brink of elimination and don’t appear to have any answers.
“Every series is a new story. Every game is a new story. To say, ‘We can do this, absolutely,’ I wouldn’t say that because Sid’s a tremendous player,” Trotz said, adding that he would want to start an NHL franchise with Crosby. “He’s a fantastic player, and what he’s done for hockey and this franchise is undeniable.”
So is this: Not even Sid can save the Penguins in this series.