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Tim Benz: How Penguins could climb out of 3-0 hole vs. Islanders | TribLIVE.com
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Tim Benz: How Penguins could climb out of 3-0 hole vs. Islanders

Tim Benz
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AP
New York Islanders goaltender Robin Lehner blocks a shot with Pittsburgh Penguins’ Zach Aston-Reese looking for the rebound with Tom Kuhnhackl defending during the third period in Game 3 on Sunday, April 14, 2019.

So how do they do it?

The truth is, it almost assuredly won’t happen. But …

If the Penguins are to come back from a 3-0 hole against the New York Islanders in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, how will it happen?

The usual empty explanations were thrown around the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex on Monday afternoon.

“One game at a time. One period at a time. One shift at a time.”

Yeah. We get it.

I asked some of the players to get a little more specific.

“Limit our mistakes,” defenseman Justin Schultz said. “That’s what they are looking for. For us to make mistakes. And then they capitalize on them.”

OK. Good start. That’s at least close to a specific. Baby steps.

“Play with a lead,” fellow defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “If we do that throughout the game, that’ll definitely benefit us.”

Even better. I advanced that point Monday. No doubt, leading for about three minutes of 184 minutes played hasn’t helped the Penguins in this series.

However, I’m going to focus on Islanders goaltender Robin Lehner. I’m a fan. I’ve always liked Lehner’s game more than most. It just hadn’t coalesced until this year in New York when he posted a 2.13 goals-against average in 46 starts.

That was good for third-best in the NHL this season. His .930 save percentage was second-best.

“He’s a big body,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said of the 6-foot-4, 239-pound Swedish goalie. “He takes up a lot of net. If he sees it, he is most likely going to save it.”

While those eye-popping stats are — in part — a product of Lehner’s support from New York’s defense-oriented system, the truth remains that Lehner has been outstanding all year. The Penguins have been impressed, too. They should be. After all, Lehner has yielded only five goals on 103 shots in the first three games of this series.

If he is going to continue “stopping what he sees,” the Penguins are best-served banging in whatever rebounds they get when Lehner can’t secure the first shot.

“Find those second and third opportunities,” Crosby said. “Just find a way to get to rebounds. Fight through that tough area of the net to find those opportunities.”

Crosby knows of where he speaks. Go back and look at overtime in Game 1. He was all over those chances. But he has yet to bury a goal in this series.

Coach Mike Sullivan says putting the puck on net would help the cause, as well.

“I think we have opportunities to get (the puck) to the net a little bit more than we did, the last game in particular,” Sullivan said. “We just have to continue to find ways to get more pucks to the net and get opportunities to the net.”

To Sullivan’s point, the Penguins’ shots have dropped from 44 in Game 1, to 33 in Game 2, to 26 in Game 3.

So here’s my theory: Since all that praise to Lehner is well-deserved, what you are about to read isn’t a negative commentary on him at all. Rather, it’s a roadmap for what I feel is the best possible way for the Penguins to climb their way back into competitiveness in this series.

In a best-case scenario, the Penguins extend the series Tuesday night by means of what Dumoulin and Schultz were saying. Limit mistakes. Get a lead. Extend that margin. And maybe win 2-1 or 3-1.

Then, go back to Long Island on Thursday night, and throw the kitchen sink at Lehner in Game 5. Do all the things to crack the code against him that haven’t been done so far in the first three games, as referenced by Crosby and Sullivan.

Hopefully, they can win a high-scoring contest and force a Game 6 on Saturday night back in Pittsburgh.

Who knows? Maybe at that point, Islanders coach Barry Trotz, a guy who started the playoffs last year in Washington with Philipp Grubauer instead of Braden Holtby, buys his own sales job of the Islanders being a two-goalie team and puts Thomas Greiss between the pipes in Game 6.

Greiss’ numbers were nearly identical to Lehner’s during the regular season. Lehner was 24-13-5 with a .928 save percentage and five shutouts in 43 starts. Greiss was 23-14-2 with a .927 save percentage and five shutouts in 39 starts.

But Greiss will have been out of action for 16 days by puck-drop of Game 6. And by that juncture, the Penguins will have a shot.

Will any of that transpire? Don’t bet on it.

Could Trotz be that dumb? Probably not. Then again, I never expected Sullivan to scratch Jack Johnson for Olli Maatta in Game 1, bench Teddy Blueger twice and elevate Dominik Simon to the top line.

Stranger things have happened.

Granted, those things happened to the Penguins on behalf of the Islanders back in 1975. But, hey, who are you to keep me from dreaming?

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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