Watching the Islanders sweep the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals was like watching the Steelers defense at the end of the Dick LeBeau era.
They kept trying to do the same things they’ve always done, even though those things stopped working long before they were willing to admit.
This edition of the Mike Sullivan Penguins isn’t as fast as the group he coached to Stanley Cup titles in 2016 and 2017. The roster isn’t as deep, either. They don’t have the net-front presence or team energy they once did. And the insatiable hunger to win we noticed two years ago isn’t as evident as it once was.
“They were a little bit hungrier,” center Evgeni Malkin said of the Islanders. “They want more to win. They were blocking shots, forecheck, backcheck. They looked like they want more to win.”
Yup. That’s the way it looked. It also looked like they were more willing to listen to their coach.
Scratch that. It didn’t just look that way. It was that way. Players admitted as much in the locker room after the 3-1 elimination in Game 4 Tuesday night.
Winger Bryan Rust said there was a continual message from the coaches that the Penguins needed to be more patient in their quest to create offense against an Islanders team that showed expertise in taking offensive mistakes and turning them into scoring chances of their own.
And, he said, it was a message that was never heeded.
“It was something that was said throughout the locker room,” Rust admitted. “We played a team that defends really hard. They don’t give up much. We had to be patient. And we weren’t patient enough.”
As kids we were told, “Knowing is half the battle.” In the case of the Penguins, I guess not. They seemed to know what the problem was, and they just kept failing to address it.
After three games of failure by attempting to force high-skill plays through the Islanders defense to crack goaltender Robin Lehner, it ended up being their own goaltender — Matt Murray — who was tested by turnovers that went in the other direction. Yet the trend continued in the Game 4 defeat.
Look at the first period. Kris Letang aggressively tried to push a puck deep into the offensive zone, and the Islanders went back the other way for a goal by Jordan Eberle.
On an offensive zone rush, Malkin tried a backhand spin-o-rama with Rust available on a center drive, and Lehner made the save.
Later in the period, at the right point, Malkin tried to walk Mathew Barzal with a stutter-step move, and Barzal stole the puck. That led to another chance for the Islanders.
All that before the Zamboni came on the ice.
Sullivan frequently talks about how he “doesn’t want to take the sticks out of the hands” of his offensively skilled players. In other words, he doesn’t want guys who can be hockey-Picassos restricted to painting by numbers.
“We’ve had success playing to this identity,” Sullivan said. “But we certainly didn’t play to it as consistently enough this season as we needed to become the team we hoped to become.”
It appears that team they hoped to become was the one Sullivan had two years ago. But the Penguins aren’t making a strong case for the theory of reincarnation right now, are they?
The Penguins need to become more like the Islanders. New York is proof that the words “defensive structure” and “skill” aren’t mutually exclusive. Hockey teams can play with structure and within a defensive system, yet still showcase skill.
The Islanders have that structure. They were tops in the NHL in goals against. And you tell me. How did Barzal, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Eberle and Brock Nelson look to you? Think there’s some skill there? It appears so.
That skill happens to manifest in what basketball-types might call a “half-court offense” instead of the Penguins constantly trying to be the “Showtime” Lakers on skates.
“They played structured,” Rust said. “But when their guys had opportunities, they put the puck in the net. And they made really nice plays. We could take a lesson from that.”
A lesson? How about enrolling in a full summer-semester masters class. I asked winger Jake Guentzel if the Islanders’ style was one the Pens may want to consider emulating next year.
“For sure,” Guentzel answered. “They didn’t give us much space. They just waited for us to be careless. And they scored on their chances.”
The question now becomes, how do the Penguins accomplish that task of becoming a team that uses its extraordinary skill to score more ordinary goals more often? I doubt Sullivan is finally going to get his leopards to change their spots.
So maybe it’s time to get different leopards.