Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Islanders: 5 Observations of a Close Series
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Looking to advance past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 3 years, the Penguins were off to a good start against the New York Islanders with a 5-0 win in Game 1, failed to protect a 3-1 lead in Game 2 and lost 4-3 and won a hard fought Game 3 by a score of 5-4.
Since the Penguins have proven capable of both blowing leads and also salvaging a win as they did in overtime of Game 3, it would too difficult to predict the outcome of the series.
However, some definite trends have emerged thus is this hard fought series which may offer a glimpse into how the rest of the series may go.
Forechecking Will Be the Most Important Indicator
Matt Cooke against the Islanders
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From the opening faceoff in Game 1, the New York Islanders seemed to be a step slower than the Penguins to loose pucks and spent much of the game trying to match the Penguins speed.
In Game 2 and at times in Game 3, the Islanders were able to handle the Penguins forecheck and were in fact the better forechecking team as they constantly applied pressure on the Penguins defensemen who did not handle it well. As a result, the Islanders outshot the Penguins 78-58 in Games 2 and 3 and generated more pressure than did the Penguins.
If the Penguins can successfully employ their up-tempo gameplan during the remainder of the series as they did throughout Game 1 and at key times during Game 3, they will be able to neutralize the Islanders' speed advantage which has at times been dominant. If not, the Islanders will continue to apply pressure in the Penguins' zone and turn loose pucks into scoring chances against Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Penguins' Line Combinations Need an Overhaul
Penguins celebrate Pascal Dupuis' goal
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Even before he arrived in Pittsburgh at the trade deadline, Jarome Iginla was viewed by many as a logical fit on Sidney Crosby's right side as he was during the 2010 Olympics Gold Medal run with Team Canada.
However, Dan Bylsma has resisted such a move and instead has continued to play Iginla alongside Evgeni Malkin and the results have been disappointing. Malkin is at his best when he can float in the offensive zone and look for loose pucks. The problem is that Jarome Iginla plays a similar game which is why he needs to play alongside a straight-line center like Sidney Crosby who excels along the boards and in traffic.
The answer is to put Jarome Iginla on Crosby's right side and Pascal Dupuis, who was originally a left winger when he joined the Penguins, on his left side and move Chris Kunitz to Evgeni Malkin's line along with James Neal when he returns from injury.
Marc-Andre Fleury's Inconsistency Continues
Marc-Andre Fleury makes save against Islanders
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Although he was sharp in Game 1 in registering a 5-0 shutout of the New York Islanders, in Game 2, Marc-Andre Fleury once again showed why Ray Shero felt the need to acquire Tomas Vokoun in the offseason.
Known for his tremendous lateral movement, Marc-Andre Fleury is at his best when he is aggressively challenging shooters and playing on the edge of the crease. However, that strength has at times proven to be a weakness as Fleury has historically struggled when opponents play below the goalline or shoot pucks wide of the net and off the end boards in the hopes of a rebound or bad-bounce goal as the Detroit Red Wings did with great success in their back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals meetings with the Penguins.
If the Penguins are to win the series against the Islanders, Marc-Andre Fleury will need to temper his aggressive style and not allow himself to be drawn out of position as he was several times in Game 2.
The Penguins Continue to Struggle with the Islanders' Speed
Deryk Engelland defends against the Islanders
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Before the series began, many experts believed that Penguins would have to respect the Islanders' team speed and avoid giving up odd-ma rushes due to being caught of position
However, few expected that the Penguins would be so respectful of that speed that they would, at times, concede the neutral zone and simply collapse into the defensive zone as they did frequently in Game 2 and at times in Game 3. In order to slow the Islanders rush, the Penguin defensemen must be willing to stand up at the blueline and the Penguins forwards must do better job of backchecking when they do.
In this matchup of two teams that enjoy playing a high-tempo style, the ultimate winner will be the team that does the best job of controlling the neutral zone and limiting the opponents' time and space. The Penguins have not shown an ability to do that on a consistent basis.
The Penguins Can't Handle Success
Evgeni Malkin shows his frustration during Game 2 loss
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Although Penguins fans had hoped otherwise, it seems that once again the Penguins have shown that they don't know how to handle success.
Facing a demoralized Islanders team which had been embarrassed in Game 1 and was questioning whether they could compete in the playoffs, the Penguins showed a lack of urgency and restraint which resulted in numerous turnovers and unnecessary penalties in Games 2 and 3. In Game 3 alone, Brenden Morrow, Jarome Iginla and Tanner Glass were each called for offensive zone penalties and Morrow's blind pass while on the powerplay led to an Islander shorthanded goal.
Twice in this series, the Penguins have blown two-goal leads and have seemed too willing to simply withstand the Islander's pressure instead of creating pressure of their own. If the 2013 Penguins can't find a way to play with urgency for an entire game, they may well find themselves repeating the mistakes of the 1992-1993 Penguins who, despite winning the President's Trophy and setting the record with 17 consecutive wins, lost to a younger and hungrier New York Islanders team.