The Pittsburgh Penguins entered their first-round playoff series with the New York Islanders as the heavy favorites because of their advantage in offensive skill, postseason experience, blue-line depth and goaltending.
But after a couple hard-fought games that resulted in the Penguins barely earning a 2-1 series advantage, Pittsburgh's weaknesses from last season's first-round loss to the rival Philadelphia Flyers (poor defensive play, unreliable goaltending) have become concerns again.
Now that the Islanders have made this series competitive and deserve to be given a realistic chance, it's appropriate to ask: Are the Penguins still the team to beat in the Eastern Conference?
At the moment, the answer is still yes, but picking them to reach the Stanley Cup Final is a bolder prediction now than it was when the postseason started on April 30.
Pittsburgh has blown two leads in the last two games against a roster that has very little playoff experience outside of starting goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, which has to be a concern for head coach Dan Bylsma.
In Game 2, the Penguins had a 3-1 lead going into the first intermission and allowed the next three goals to lose 4-3 on home ice.
After a horrible start in Game 3 that resulted in New York taking a 2-0 advantage in the first six minutes, the Penguins made an impressive comeback to lead 3-2 at the end of 20 minutes. After increasing their lead to 4-2 in the second period, the Islanders staged a comeback of their own to tie the game 4-4 with two third-period goals. Luckily for the Penguins, they got a controversial call to go their way in overtime to draw a penalty, which resulted in Chris Kunitz' game-winning goal on the power play.
Blowing leads against an inferior team in the playoffs is not an encouraging sign for Pittsburgh. Making matters worse is the fact that the Penguins have been outscored 5-1 in the second and third periods in the last two games.
Pittsburgh finished the regular season with the second-most third-period goals and had a goal differential in the second and third periods of plus-18. Finishing games wasn't a problem for the Penguins this year (19-1 when leading after two periods), but it's become a much tougher challenge in the playoffs now that the pressure is drastically higher than it was just a few weeks ago.
There are several veteran-laden teams with lots of playoff experience in the Eastern Conference that could beat the Penguins in the second or third rounds. These teams include the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals.
If the Penguins are unable to hold leads against the eighth-seeded Islanders, they will have a lot of trouble beating the Bruins, Canadiens, Rangers, Senators or Capitals in a seven-game series when all five of these clubs are stronger defensively and have a goaltending advantage over Pittsburgh.
Speaking of goaltending, Marc-Andre Fleury has not performed up to expectations through the first three games of this series. He was the primary reason why Pittsburgh failed to reach the second round last year (.834 SV% and 4.63 GAA in six games versus Flyers), and he's only looked a little better in 2013 with eight goals-against in the last two games.
Before the playoffs, Fleury was the Penguin under the most pressure, as poor goaltending could easily ruin the offensively dominant Penguins' dreams.
If Fleury continues to struggle and gives up more soft goals to an Islanders team that ranked seventh in goals scored during the regular season, Bylsma might be forced to replace him with veteran backup Tomas Vokoun. The 36-year-old netminder was 13-4 as a backup this year, but he has only 11 games of postseason experience and hasn't played in the playoffs since 2006-07.
Unless Fleury's performance mightily improves, the Penguins will not reach the final because almost all playoff teams in the East have more reliable goaltending and strong depth/talent on the blue line—two essential ingredients for postseason success.
The Penguins needed to prove to the league and themselves during the first round that their concerns from last year's playoff debacle were no longer an issue, which hasn't happened thus far.
The Penguins have proven to be quite beatable through the first three games of the playoffs, and teams won't fear them in the later rounds unless their defensive and goaltending issues are solved.
These next few games against the Islanders are very important for the Penguins to not only take control and win this series, but also to reestablish themselves as the clear favorites of the East.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston.
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