Mark Madden: Expect Penguins to play better, fix this series | TribLIVE.com
Penguins/NHL

Mark Madden: Expect Penguins to play better, fix this series

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Getty Images
The Penguins’ Erik Gudbranson fights the Islanders’ Scott Mayfield during the second period of Game 2 of and Eastern Conference first-round series at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum on April 12, 2019 in Uniondale, New York.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Sidney Crosby and the Penguins still have time to fix their first-round playoff series with the New York Islanders.

The New York Islanders are better than I figured. (Perhaps I should have taken a closer look at the standings.)

The Islanders won two close games on Long Island because they were able to impose their style. The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t stink. They just couldn’t get going.

The Penguins pay lip service to playing down low and are excellent at it when they bother. But they prefer attacking off the rush. The Islanders prefer the Penguins don’t. Helped by the getting the last change at home, Islanders coach Barry Trotz got favorable matchups, owned the neutral zone and made the Penguins’ attack wither.

Full credit to Trotz. You work with what you got. Trotz doesn’t have star power. So he counters with tactics, and playing to his team’s strengths.

The Penguins’ flaw has been flinching at inopportune moments.

Witness Kris Letang’s overtime turnover in Game 1. In Game 2, the Penguins finally seized a lead and had a chance to control the game’s method. They held that lead for just 169 seconds, absurdly falling victim to a 2-on-1 which saw the Penguins simply get outskated down the rink. Structure and focus were nonexistent.

Game 2’s disappointment was abetted by giving the Islanders six power plays on penalties that were undeniable and mostly unnecessary. It was punctuated by the mini-brawl at game’s end. That made the Penguins look spoiled, small and desperate. It was reminiscent of melting down in the 2012 series loss to Philadelphia.

But a playoff series is a race to four. There’s still time to fix it. (Tampa Bay certainly hopes so.)

Mostly, the Penguins merely need to play better. Games 1 and 2 were winnable. A massive overhaul isn’t needed, and is impractical after 84 games.

The endless Jack Johnson/Olli Maatta/Marcus Pettersson debate is prime talk-radio fodder. But Maatta didn’t lose Game 1. Johnson didn’t lose Game 2. (I’d scratch Pettersson in Game 3. Let everybody play three innings.)

Jared McCann missed Game 2 because of injury. If he’s available for Game 3, I’d dress Teddy Blueger, not Dominik Simon (one goal in 33 games).

But those decisions are marginal. They don’t determine results. The Penguins need more than insignificant lineup shuffling.

Tactically, maybe the Penguins should throw the Islanders’ style right back at them. Dump the puck more. Don’t let the Islanders get the rhythm of defending against a team that always attacks the same way. Make the Islanders chase back for a change.

That doesn’t need to be done every shift. Do it for segments of the game. Have the fourth line do it all the time. But disrupt the Islanders. Make them retreat some.

If I could make one change to the depth chart for Game 3, I would move Patric Hornqvist to right wing on Sidney Crosby’s line.

Hornqvist has skated with Crosby before, and to good effect. But Hornqvist doesn’t navigate the neutral zone with speed and touch, so Crosby would rather have Bryan Rust or McCann play with him and Jake Guentzel.

But the Islanders aren’t allowing anyone on the Penguins to navigate the neutral zone with speed and touch. So, what’s Plan B? Putting Hornqvist on Crosby’s line would force that unit to play down low more, and all involved are adept at doing so.

Hornqvist has cleared space for Crosby in the past. After going pointless in two playoff games, Crosby needs all the space he can get. The Islanders are smothering him. So move that traffic closer to the net. Crosby is hockey’s best player ever below the hash marks.

But coach Mike Sullivan won’t put Hornqvist on Crosby’s line — if Saturday’s practice is any hint, he may inexplicably use Simon there instead — nor will the Penguins start dumping the puck.

Sullivan shouldn’t be criticized for not making those changes, or if he makes no changes. The Penguins have achieved great success under Sullivan by playing a certain way.

But if the Islanders eliminate the Penguins in the first round, it will be time to take a hard look at the Penguins’ method, and at their roster. A quick mini-rebuild that surrounds Crosby with more youth and speed might be the best bet moving forward.

But that introspection is still two losses away. Two games at PPG Paints Arena loom. The series will go back to Nassau Coliseum, and don’t be shocked if it returns there tied.

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