Tim Benz: Penguins’ biggest problem vs. Islanders is clear
There are plenty of reasons why the Penguins are down 3-0 to the New York Islanders in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
• A scoring slump for Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel
• An ineffective power play
• Hot goaltending from Robin Lehner
• Trouble in the faceoff circle during the first two games
• Too many penalties and ill-timed turnovers
Go ahead. Pick your favorite. There are no wrong answers here. But in my opinion, the biggest issue these Penguins have faced throughout this series is a stunning inability to sustain momentum.
Think about it. The series is three games old, and the Penguins have yet to score consecutive goals. Every time they score, the Islanders answer right back. Sometimes twice in a row.
Let’s go back to Game 1. The Islanders got out to a hot start, scoring within the first 1 minute, 40 seconds of the series. Actually, they popped one by Matt Murray within the first 31 seconds, but it was pulled off the board after a review.
Phil Kessel evened the score before the six-minute mark. But it was New York with the lead going into the locker room courtesy of Brock Nelson’s first goal of the series with 4:14 left in the first period.
Evgeni Malkin’s power-play goal at 13:41 in the second period essentially gave the Penguins their longest stretch in the entire series of feeling like momentum was on their side, until Nick Leddy gave the lead back to New York halfway through the third to make it 3-2.
Justin Schultz’s extra-attacker goal forced overtime. And for an instant, an eye blink, it appeared as if the Pens had stretched that energy into the extra frame as Crosby bull-rushed an entire first shift of the extra period. But — thematically for the whole series — Crosby couldn’t finish the numerous chances he created for himself.
And of course, the Islanders were victorious in overtime, via Josh Bailey’s game-winner. That script would be written twice more in Game 2 and Game 3. The Penguins netted the first goal of the game Friday night, halfway through the second period, thanks to Eric Gudbranson. But, just 169 seconds later, Anthony Beauvillier re-tied it. Then the Islanders owned the third period, lighting the lamp twice and winning 3-1.
Fast forward to Sunday’s Game 3 misadventure. The roof popped off of PPG Paints Arena when Garrett Wilson gave the Penguins a first-period 1-0 lead. But it wasn’t even announced in the arena before Jordan Eberle’s third goal of the series knotted things back up at 1-1.
That goal occurred a mere 28 seconds later. And just 1:02 after Eberle’s tally, Nelson knocked in his second of the series to give New York a lead it would never relinquish.
“They answered right away,” Wilson bemoaned. “Anytime you can do that, you are successful. We have to find a way to sustain momentum and string a few goals together.”
So there you have it. Nine-plus periods of hockey. A little more than 184 minutes of skating. Zero consecutive goals from the Pittsburgh roster. A grand total of 3:17 worth of time led by the Penguins. That’s all.
“I don’t have an answer,” forward Matt Cullen said. “We have to find a way to be better. We’ve had stretches through the whole three games where we have been pretty good. But we haven’t found a way to maintain that and play at our level for an entire game. And until we do that, we probably don’t deserve to win.”
They don’t. And the Islanders do because counter-punching and shifting momentum is key to winning in the playoffs. Give more credit to the Islanders for seizing the moment than throw blame at the Pens for failing to hold it.
This Pittsburgh team’s core has experience seizing momentum to advance in the postseason. The Isles do not, having won only one playoff series since 1993. But 2019 appears to be a lot more likely to be their year than the Penguins.
“Getting a quick response like we did is key,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “People are happy. And before they even announce the goal, we get it tied up. That was good. We got some momentum and scored a goal after that.”
Now the Penguins have put themselves in a position where scoring consecutive goals is the next immediate challenge. But the bigger task is winning consecutive games.
As in four in a row. Or else the season is over.
The Penguins did that once in late October. They also had an eight-game streak that lasted from December 19 until January 4.
But before you ask, the answer is “no.” The Islanders weren’t a part of either of those runs.