5 Things We've Learned About Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final
Having outscored the Ottawa Senators by a combined score of 13-5 in the final two games, the Pens were coming off a relatively easy series victory and had the look of a team on its way to a Stanley Cup. The Pens had reason to be confident as they prepared to face the Boston Bruins, a team they had defeated in all three regular-season meetings.
What a difference two weeks can make. Having lost a double-overtime thriller that they deserved to win, the Pens find themselves facing a three-games-to-none series deficit for the second straight year. While last year's team was able to rally and extend the series to six high-scoring games before falling to the Flyers, this year's Pens team faces a different challenge—having scored just two goals in three games.
While the fate of this year's Penguins won't be known at least until after Game 4, here's a list of the five things we've learned about the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final:
Kris Letang Needs a New Defense Partner
Already an All-Star defenseman and widely considered to be a Norris Trophy candidate, Kris Letang entered the Eastern Conference Finals among the playoff leaders in points.
You never would have guessed that judging by his play in the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals. Letang has yet to register a single point in this series and has a plus/minus rating of minus-five thus far. To make matters worse, he has struggled defensively and has been guilty of several unforced turnovers.
Unfortunately, the Pens do not have a defensive partner that can give Letang the confidence to use his skating and playmaking ability the way he should and cover for him when he makes a mistake. As a result, he at times seems caught between attacking and defending—make the safe play or make the great play.
Thus far in this series, Letang has been paired with each of the other five defensemen at various times, yet continues to struggle. To begin Game 3, he was paired with Matt Niskanen who, like Letang, struggles at times in his own zone against bigger forwards.
When Bruins forward David Krejci took the puck behind the net, Letang decided to defend the crease and leave his partner to pursue the puck. Unfortunately, Niskanen had made the same decision. The result was a bad bounce goal by Krejci who was able to skate out from behind the net unchallenged.
With one year left on his contract and reportedly seeking a long-term deal worth around $7 million per season, Kris Letang seemed destined for a big payday. Based on how he has played thus far against the Bruins, Pens general manager Ray Shero should offer Letang a long-term deal right now, because his value will probably never be lower.
Unless the Penguins are able to find a capable blue line partner for Kris Letang, either from the current roster, through free agency or trade, the talk of him winning a Norris Trophy will be just that; talk.
Tomas Vokoun Can Handle Being the Starter in Net
Since he had not started a playoff game in six years, there were plenty of reasons to doubt Tomas Vokoun when he entered the Islanders series in Game 5.
Through 10 games, the reasons to doubt him are gone. Vokoun has given the Pens steady goaltending even in the face of dreadful play in front of him. If the Pens go on to lose this series, blame will be placed on a lot of different players.
Tomas Vokoun should not be one of them.
Although he is 36 years of age and has one year left on the two-year, $4 million contract he signed last summer, Vokoun has given Penguins management an alternative to Marc-Andre Fleury whose uneven play and $5 million per year price tag may prove to be too much to handle under the NHL's new salary structure.
Regardless of the outcome of this series, Tomas Vokoun has been the lone bright spot for the Penguins and very well may find himself firmly entrenched as the starting goaltender for the foreseeable future.
The Penguins' Bad Defensive Habits Have Been Costly
As the NHL's highest scoring team both during the regular season and through the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Penguins have grown accustomed to offensive success and often seem more inclined to outscore than outdefend an opponent.
As a result, the Pens have developed a bad habit that appears when they struggle offensively; the willingness, especially on the part of the Pens' forwards, to cheat defensively.
Time and time again in this series, the Bruins have capitalized on the Pens' tendency to think offense first and turned turnovers into scoring chances—many of which have ended up in the back of the Pens' net.
The Bruins, on the other hand, have played strong team defense in all three games thus far and have taken away both time and space from the Pens' top players.
As a team not accustomed to struggling offensively, the Pens forwards have looked to leave the defensive zone instead of coming deeper into the zone to secure puck possession before moving up ice as a unit.
The Penguins Do Not Have a Power-Play Quarterback
Perhaps no aspect of the Penguins game has exemplified their struggles in this series more than their power play.
Entering the Eastern Conference Finals with a playoff-leading conversion rate of 28.2 percent, the Pens are 0-for-12 in the series thus far and were 0-for-6 in Game 3 alone.
While the Bruins have done a great job pressuring the puck, taking away cross-zone passes and clearing traffic, the main reason for the Pens' struggles with the man advantage is the lack of a bona-fide quarterback to run the power play.
While Kris Letang has the mobility as well as the passing and shooting ability to man that position, he has not shown the ability to read and manipulate the defense to create scoring chances. The best example of this came in the second period of Game 3.
With the Pens on the power play, Evgeni Malkin's slap shot from the right point was blocked by Gregory Campbell—breaking his leg. As Campbell struggled to his feet, unable to skate, Letang and Malkin passed the puck back and forth apparently unaware, unwilling or unable to take advantage of the injury.
Eventually, the Bruins were able to kill that penalty in a tie game before winning it in double overtime.
The Penguins have not had a true quarterback for their power play since Sergei Gonchar left after the 2010 playoffs. Gonchar will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and, considering how well he played for the Senators against the Penguins in the previous round, don't be surprised if Ray Shero tries to lure him back to Pittsburgh.
The Penguins' Style of Play Doesn't Match Their Roster
When Ray Shero acquired Douglas Murray, Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla at the trade deadline, he did so, as he said, to add grit and size to the Penguins.
While they have done just that, their integration into the Pens' lineup has not been as smooth as many assumed it would be. Although most observers believed that Iginla was a natural fit at right wing alongside Sidney Crosby, Pens head coach Dan Bylsma inexplicably kept him at left wing alongside Evgeni Malkin and James Neal.
While this might have been done to preserve the chemistry that Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis have shown as the highest scoring line during the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs, that chemistry has resulted in just one goal through three games.
The net effect of acquiring Iginla, Morrow and Murray was that adding size made the Penguins a slower but more physical team; one that is more suited to winning battles along the boards and in traffic. Unfortunately, the Pens' strategy, which is based on speed and vertical passing, has remained the same.
The Bruins' roster reflects their style of play. The Pens roster, as it stands, does not and this disparity has been exploited.
The result is a three-games-to-none deficit for the Pens.