Penguins defense must bounce back in pivotal Game 6
By blowing a third-period lead and losing Game 5 of the Metropolitan Division finals Saturday night, the Penguins backed themselves into the tightest of corners.
They will need to clean up their mistakes, return to a championship level of consistency and win Game 6 at PPG Paints Arena on Monday night, or they will see their hopes of a three-peat go up in smoke.
This is a corner with which defenseman Olli Maatta is familiar.
Maatta made a costly blunder in Game 3 of the series, committing an offensive-zone turnover in the final two minutes that led to Alex Ovechkin's winning goal on a two-on-one break. It put the Penguins in a 2-1 hole and could have turned the series in Washington's favor for good.
It was the only time Maatta has been on the ice for a five-on-five goal against so far in the playoffs.
He was out for none against the Flyers and none in the other four games against the Capitals.
“Pretty tough one though, right?” Maatta said.
Maatta and the Penguins responded to the gaffe with their most stout defensive effort of the playoffs, locking down a 3-1 win in Game 4.
One of the keys to bouncing back, Maatta said, was having a short memory. By the time the puck dropped to start the next game, he was no longer thinking about making a mistake.
“You go and play,” Maatta said. “You see a play and you make it. It's a matter of hundredths of seconds. That's what it is. You've got to trust yourself and play to your instincts. You've done those things for your whole life. It comes naturally.”
Fast forward a few days, and a few of Maatta's teammates are in a similar position.
Top-pair defenders Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin were victimized for two critical goals in Saturday night's 6-3 Penguins loss. Goalie Matt Murray didn't like how he played some of Washington's better chances. Dominik Simon took a costly penalty in the first period. The list is long.
Beyond having a short memory, Maatta has a few theories about how the Penguins can tighten up their game for a pivotal Game 6.
For one, talk.
A supremely skilled Washington roster isn't going to create scoring chances in a predictable way. When the Capitals zig instead of zag, communication becomes paramount.
“I think it's just being on the same page,” Maatta said. “I think everybody's got to know and trust each other and know where they are. I think that's a big thing. Talking is a big thing, being able to talk to your partner, talk to your teammate and help him out.”
For another, battle.
The fancy passing plays and lethal breakaway finishes make the highlight reels, but the Capitals created some of their best scoring chances of Game 5 by winning puck battles on the walls to set up teammates streaking to the net.
“You've got to win them,” Maatta said. “You want to do everything you can in your role to win them. Those are huge. They dictate the game, really, who's going to play with the puck and who's going to defend. That's huge in this series.”
Improving their communication skills and upping their battle level won't prevent the Penguins from making mistakes in Game 6, of course, but it could give them a chance to overcome them and extend their season for at least two more days.
“It's a game of mistakes out there. I've yet to go through a game where somebody doesn't make one,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We're not going to dwell on anything. We're just going to learn from it and make sure we use it to become better as a group and as individuals. I think that's how our players look at it.”