It didn't matter that the Penguins were the best team in the Eastern Conference by a wide margin in the regular season; the Islanders came out playing fast and hard. They put 14 pucks past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in Games 2 through 4, and the Penguins were seemingly on the verge of being eliminated in the first round for the third year in a row.
However, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma made the move he had to to save the series. It was not a move of brilliance, but of desperation.
Backup Tomas Vokoun took Fleury's place in net in Game 5, and he was up to the task. He shut out the Isles in Game 5 in Pittsburgh, and he helped the Pens survive the sixth game with 35 saves in a 4-3 overtime victory to close out the series.
The Penguins have a few days to catch their breath, regain their confidence and go back to work against the surprising Ottawa Senators.
But to advance further in these playoffs, they'll need to go back to being the team that was dominant in the regular season.
But the Pens shouldn't worry, as it's rare that a team will play at its peak throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs like the Los Angeles Kings did a year ago. The Kings eliminated the Vancouver Canucks in five games, the St. Louis Blues in four, the Phoenix Coyotes in five and then won the Stanley Cup over the New Jersey Devils in six.
They won the first three games of each of those series.
The year before, the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup. They had to go seven games in three of their series.
When the Chicago Blackhawks won in 2010, they fought through three six-game series and didn't secure the championship until Patrick Kane scored the no-look winner in overtime in the sixth game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Penguins have tons of offensive skill with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Pascal Dupuis and Jarome Iginla—that much we can glean from their 25 goals in six games. But if they want to get back to being a dominant team, they have to play more consistently on the defensive end.
When the Pens went on a 15-game winning streak in March, they held 11 straight opponents to two goals or fewer. They didn't just dominate opponents with their shooting and scoring; they knew how to play shutdown hockey.
That's what they have to do to ensure their next series isn't as much of a headache.
Much of that is on stars like Crosby and Malkin. If they are willing to work as much on the defensive end as they do on offense, the Pens will once again be tough to score against.
Malkin showed his defensive ability in Game 6 against the Islanders by throwing his body in front of shots. Crosby probably should not engage in that kind of play after suffering a broken jaw on March 30 when he was hit in the face with a deflected slap shot, but he knows how to hound opponents and apply a deft stick to break up a play.
Most importantly, though, Bylsma also has to decide what to do with his goaltending.
He will most likely go with the hot hand (Vokoun) to start the series with the Senators. However, he can't write off Fleury entirely.
Remember, Fleury played spectacular hockey when the Pens won the 2009 Stanley Cup. His save on Nicklas Lidstrom in the dying seconds of the seventh game in their Stanley Cup win over the Detroit Red Wings is one of the great saves in Stanley Cup Final history.
That said, the playoffs haven't been good to Fleury since last year, when he let in 26 goals in six games against the Philadelphia Flyers. Luckily for the Penguins, if he were to hit such a slump again (as he did against the Islanders), they appear to have found a quick fix in Vokoun.
The Penguins may have gone through the wringer in the first round against the Islanders, but they have not been exposed. They simply did not play their best, and a few flaws—mainly defensive in nature—emerged.
However, with just a couple of adjustments and improved play in goal, the Penguins can get back to being the best team in the Eastern Conference.
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