Just as they did in the second round, the Pittsburgh Penguins have lost Game 3 of the NHL’s Eastern Conference Finals in double overtime, 2-1.
But unlike the preceding series against the Ottawa Senators, the Pens are in non-negotiable need of a rebound in Game 4. The reason is because, just as they did in the second round, the opposing Boston Bruins have sculpted themselves a commanding 3-0 lead in the series.
As it happens, three weeks ago, another group of Bruins raised an identical upper hand with their own 2-1 overtime victory in Game 3 of another best-of-seven with another team of Penguins. But the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins regrouped and romped to an epic comeback, knocking off the Providence Bruins in the second round of the AHL playoffs.
Pittsburgh fans can dream of the parent club taking after the farm team, or at the very least, staving off a sweep. Boston buffs can try to bank on the Bruins avenging their affiliate’s collapse the same way they did for themselves when they faced the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011 in a rematch of 2010.
But only those between the boards can make either scenario come to fruition in Game 4.
Time: Friday, June 7, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBC Sports Network, CBC, RDS
Key Storyline: Pittsburgh's Pride In Peril
The Penguins have never been on the wrong side of a sweep during the Sidney Crosby era. Only once have they previously trailed a series, 3-0, which they did last year against Philadelphia. They beat the Flyers in Games 4 and 5 before fading out in Game 6.
The stakes are arguably higher in 2013, seeing as Pittsburgh collected Cup-less veterans Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow at the trading deadline. Those moves were essentially general manager Ray Shero’s way of eliminating all space for excuses, as his team rebounded from back-to-back first-round falters with a first-place finish in the regular season.
Crosby, Iginla and Morrow have all worn a “C” at one point in their respective NHL careers. That embarrassment of density on the leadership front now faces its indisputably biggest test.
Key Matchup: Tuukka Rask versus Pittsburgh’s Offense
Game 3 almost single-handedly matched the Boston goalie’s cumulative workload from Games 1 and 2. After repelling all but one of 56 shots over two contests in Pittsburgh, Rask halted 53 out of 54 on Wednesday, including 15 in the overtime periods.
This is coming against a Penguins team that still averages 3.5 goals per game in these playoffs and led the league with 3.38 strikes per night during the regular season.
One can argue that the bulk of Pittsburgh beating Rask merely twice in 10-plus periods is a product of the goalie gaining traction. It could also lean more in the way of an indictment on the Pens’ underachievement, or even a credit to the Bruins blue-line brigade.
Regardless of the dominant factor, the Penguins simply need to break through and muster a multi-goal game if they are to reverse the course of this series.
Injury Report (via tsn.ca)
Gregory Campbell: Out for the rest of the playoffs with a broken leg.
Bruins’ Projected Lineup
Line 1: Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Jaromir Jagr
Line 2: Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton
Line 3: Rich Peverley-Chris Kelly-Tyler Seguin
Line 4: Shawn Thornton-Daniel Paille-Jordan Caron or Kaspars Daugavins
Line 1: Zdeno Chara-Dennis Seidenberg
Line 2: Andrew Ference-Johnny Boychuk
Line 3: Torey Krug-Adam McQuaid
Starter: Tuukka Rask
Backup: Anton Khudobin
Penguins’ Projected Lineup
Line 1: Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Pascal Dupuis
Line 2: James Neal-Evgeni Malkin-Matt Cooke
Line 3: Brenden Morrow-Brandon Sutter-Jarome Iginla
Line 4: Beau Bennett or Jussi Jokinen-Joe Vitale-Craig Adams
Line 1: Matt Niskanen-Kris Letang
Line 2: Paul Martin-Brooks Orpik
Line 3: Douglas Murray-Deryk Engelland
Starter: Tomas Vokoun
Backup: Marc-Andre Fleury
Boston Will Win If...
Rask and his skating mates ward off the Penguins through the first period and into the thick of the middle frame.
The Bruins have led after the first period in each of the first three installments of this series. Pittsburgh finally outscored Boston in a single stanza on Wednesday, when Kunitz drew a 1-1 knot shortly before the halfway mark of the middle frame, but could not tangibly build on that in time to salvage Game 3.
The further along Game 4 goes with the Bruins safeguarding a lead and confining the Penguins to one goal or zero, the more bitter the Pens will become.
Pittsburgh Will Win If...
The Penguins stay composed and capitalize on every chance to claim and tighten a grip on momentum.
This means avoiding any repeats of the last minute of the first period of Game 2, when they scored their first goal of the series, only to let the Bruins renew their three-goal edge to 4-1 before intermission.
They have to curtailing their emotions so as not to squander any power plays the way Vitale did at 9:31 of the first period in Game 3, when his roughing infraction squandered a would-be power play.
They will also need the requisite poise to percolate a sustained swarm in the offensive zone during a man advantage or on even strength.
Prediction: Penguins 3, Bruins 2
The Penguins were far from perfect in Wednesday’s quasi must-win game, but they were generally more assertive in trying to flex their not-so-secret strength. It is merely a matter of unleashing cleaner passes, alertly absorbing those passes and nimbly burying one’s chances.
With a combination of lessons to learn from and plus points to build on going into Game 4, the veteran-laden Penguins have all of the means to cultivate the all-important productive start.
Once they have that in hand, they should have the requisite conviction to, for the most part, stifle Boston’s strike force, and more noticeably, exploit some of the Bruins’ colder forwards (e.g. Tyler Seguin).
Whether or not the Penguins will be able to ride that to any additional season-saving victories is an issue to address going into Sunday and, if necessary, beyond. But for Friday at the very least, they will edge Boston by virtue of harboring more desperation and keeping that desperation tame.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com