Pittsburgh Penguins' 5 Biggest Concerns in Eastern Conference Final
After winning six of their last seven playoff games by a combined score of 30-14, the Pittsburgh Penguins entered the NHL Eastern Conference Finals as a confident team.
Following lopsided defeats at home to the Boston Bruins by a combined score of 9-1 and, it's safe to say that confidence has been replaced with frustration and a growing sense of desperation. As the highest-scoring playoff team in almost two decades, averaging 4.27 goals per game through the first two rounds, the Pens certainly were expected to have a better showing offensively thus far in the series.
While the Pens have bounced back from 2-0 playoff deficits to win the series before, against both Washington and Detroit enroute to winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, both of those series began on the road. This time, they will have to win at least one game on the road in order to see home ice again.
As the series heads to Boston, here's a list of the Penguins' five biggest concerns in Eastern Conference Finals.
The Bruins Size Advantage
While Penguin players and coaches fully expected the Bruins to try to exploit their size advantage, they could not have anticipated how successful the Bruins would be at doing so.
By taking away passing lanes, clogging center ice and using aggressive forechecks to create scoring chances, the Bruins have been able to negate the Penguins' speed advantage and slow down their transition game. Although the Pens have showed a willingness to play physical and have outhit the Bruins by a wide margin (71-38) through the first two games, the Bruins have continually won the puck battles along the boards and have been able to pin the Penguins in their own zone for entire shifts.
After being vexed by bad bounces and the Bruins ability to take away open ice, the Pens' frustration boiled over in Game 1 as Sidney Crosby went nose to chest with Zdeno Chara and Evgeni Malkin squared off against Patrice Bergeron. Trailing 4-1 after the first period of Game 2, the Pens were perhaps too shocked to even fight.
If the Penguins are going to bounce back in this series, they will need to do a much better job of winning these battles and show a willingness to not only give but take hits along the boards in order to maintain puck possession and dictate the style of play.
Avoiding Bad Penalties
In the Stanley Cup playoffs, a big hit can change the momentum of a game and, by extension, the momentum of a series.
But in Game 1, it was the team on the receiving end of the hit that got the upper hand.
With Pittsburgh trailing 1-0 in the second period, Penguins forward Matt Cooke slammed Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid from behind, drawing a game-misconduct penalty. To that point, the Penguins had outshot and outhit the Bruins and looked to be on the verge of tying the game, but Cooke's penalty swung the momentum in Boston's favor.
Instead of keeping their composure, the Pens allowed themselves to be drawn into post-whistle skirmishes, just as they were last year in their first-round playoff loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
If the Pens can play the way they were performing in Game 1 (before Matt Cooke's ill-advised hit), they may be able to finally break through against the Bruins and make this a series.
Lack of Power-Play Production
Having sat idle for eight days since defeating the Ottawa Senators in five games, the Penguins figured to be rested.
However, there's a fine line between rest and rust, and the Pens apparently crossed that line to the rust side sometime last week. As a team that thrives on puck possession and timing rather than size and puck pursuit, the Pens rely a great deal on their special teams. Unfortunately, their power play looked rusty in Game 1 and was not much better in Game 2
Frustrated by the long reach of Zdeno Chara, which took away cross-zone passes in front of the goal, the Pens resorted to hammering away from the point but, without traffic in front of the net, these shots were easy saves for Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask.
In order for the Pens to convert on the power play, they must create shooting lanes with sharp passing and get the puck to the net with traffic in front.
Hopefully, the rust has fallen off by now.
Difficulty Winning Faceoffs
As a team built on speed and the ability to transition quickly from defense to offense, the Penguins rely on puck control and precise passing to carry the puck into the offensive zone.
Led by great puck-handlers like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin up front and Kris Letang and Paul Martin on the blue line, the Pens are built around puck possession.
As Game 1 demonstrated however, it doesn't matter how talented a team is with the puck if they can't gain possession of it by winning faceoffs. Through the first two rounds, the Bruins had won more than 60 percent of faceoffs, the highest rate among playoff teams. In Game 1, they continued their dominance in the faceoff circle (32-16). In Game 2, the Pens were able to close the gap (29-28 advantage for Boston) but lost critical faceoffs in the offensive zone and were unable to maintain pressure both at even strength and on the power play.
Unless the Pens can do a better job in the faceoff circle, they may find themselves chasing the puck more than creating with it and sitting at home during the Stanley Cup Finals.
Difficulty Clearing the Defensive Zone
As a team that is always looking to turn defense into offense, the Penguins' biggest concern after the first two games has to be their difficulty in maintaining control of the puck and making the first pass out of the defensive zone.
After putting on—in the words of Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean—"a clinic" against the Senators, the Pens had their transition game running in high gear. Unfortunately, the prolonged rest between series seems to have disrupted their timing, and they were either unable or unwilling to simplify their game.
Instead of making the simple pass, the Pens defensemen have too often either made an ill-advised pass through the middle of the zone or simply lost the battle for the puck along the boards, which resulted in scoring chances. Of the 23 giveaways committed in the first two games, the Pens were guilty of 20 of them, and the second and third Boston goals in Game 1 were the direct results of Pittsburgh's inability to handle the puck and clear the zone.
In this battle of two talented teams and former Stanley Cup champions, the winner will most likely be the team that is able to withstand pressure in its own zone and make the smart play...even if it's the simple play.
If they do not do a better job of handling the Bruins forechecking and avoiding the giveaways that plagued them in the first two games, the Penguins will suffer the same fate in Games 3 and 4 in Boston that they did in Games 1 and 2 in Pittsburgh.
In that event, they will have played their last game on home ice and too much rest won't be an excuse for their abrupt departure from the playoffs.
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