5 Things We've Learned About the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Postseason

Steve Rodenbaugh@rodeyslContributor IIIApril 25, 2014

5 Things We've Learned About the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Postseason

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    Jay LaPrete

    Just like last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves in a 2-2 series against an opponent with inferior talent but a superior work ethic.

    Having gone 31-3-2 during the 2103-14 regular season when leading after two periods, the Pens have managed to fumble away two-goal leads and are now in a best-of-three playoff—the outcome of which may have a major impact on what next year's team will look like.

    As the series shifts back to Pittsburgh for a crucial Game 5, let's take a look at what the first four games have taught us about the Penguins.

No. 5: The Penguins Still Don't Know How to Play with a Lead

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    Gene J. Puskar

    In Game 4 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Penguins fumbled way a 3-0 lead and, in doing so, demonstrated something to the rest of the hockey world that Pens fans know all too well: They can't handle leads in a game or a series.

    In 2009, the Pens had a chance to close out the Philadelphia Flyers at home in Game 5 and the Washington Capitals in Game 6 and failed to do so in both games.

    Even after advancing to the Stanley Cup Final that year, the Pens had 2-0 leads in both Game 6 and Game 7 against the Detroit Red Wings only to surrender late goals that cut the lead in half before barely hanging on to win.

    In 2010, the Pens blew a chance to close out the Ottawa Senators at home in Game 5 before winning in six games and blew a 3-2 series lead to the Montreal Canadiens, losing Game 7 at home in the final game ever played at the Mellon Arena.

    In 2011, the Pens blew a 3-1 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning and lost another Game 7 at home.

    Last year, they surrendered a game-tying goal in the last minute of Game 3 against the Ottawa Senators when they had a chance to go up 3-0 in their second-round series.

    The fact is that, in their last 20 playoff losses, they've blown third-period leads in nine of those games, and unless they can right the ship and close out the Blue Jackets, the Penguins will remembered more for their postseason failures than their successes.

No. 4: There's a Difference Between Having Restraint and Being Emotionless

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    Gene J. Puskar

    Before the playoffs began, one of the concerns about the Penguins, especially Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, was whether they would be able to keep their emotions in check and avoid being knocked off their game as they had been against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012 and the Boston Bruins in 2013.

    While both Crosby and Malkin have stayed above the fray, one has to wonder if they have gone too far the other way and are now playing without the kind of passion that makes them great players.

    Crosby has absorbed a lot of hits from the Columbus Blue Jackets, particularly Brandon Dubinsky, without responding and has now gone scoreless in nine straight playoff games.

    For his part, Malkin had perhaps his best game in Game 4 and generated a lot of offense by carrying the puck, but he has now gone scoreless in his last eight playoff games.

    If the Pens are going to turn this series around and advance to the second round, they will need their leaders to become more emotionally invested in this series, even if it means pushing back before or even after the whistle.

No. 3: Kris Letang Has Regressed Since the 2012-13 Regular Season

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    Gene J. Puskar

    Last year, most hockey analysts felt that Kris Letang would be too expensive to re-sign, given his Norris Trophy-caliber performance.

    Given his struggles in the regular season and poor play early in the postseason, he may prove too expensive to keep, given his $7.25 million cap hit next season.

    In Game 1, his ill-advised pass at the blue line led to a short-handed goal early in the second period and a 3-1 lead for the Blue Jackets.

    In Game 2, he was called for interference while on the power play, which led to the game-tying goal late
    in the third period.

    In Game 3, his unnecessary hooking penalty late in the third period gave the Blue Jackets a power play with the Pens clinging to a 4-3 lead.

    In Game 4, Letang played better overall but failed to control the puck behind the net with less than 30 seconds to play in the game, which resulted in the tying goal when Marc-Andre Fleury inexplicably left the crease.

    Unless his play improves, Letang, who does not have a no-trade clause in his new deal, may find himself
    starting that new deal with another team next season.

No. 2: In the Playoffs, the Most Desperate Team Usually Wins

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    Gene J. Puskar

    As frustrating as it may be for Penguins fans to hear, Dan Bylsma's team clearly did not enter the playoffs with a sense of desperation.

    After failing to make it out of the first round in two of the last three years and losing 20 of their last 39 playoff games prior to facing Columbus, the Pens should have been eager to take their postseason frustrations out on the Blue Jackets.

    Unfortunately, it hasn't seemed like that. Despite overcoming 3-1 deficits in Games 1 and 3, they blew a 3-1 lead in Game 2 and a 3-0 lead in Game 4.

    At times, the Pens have seemed to be playing a regular-season game in November instead of a playoff game in April, and Bylsma's decision in Game 2 to go with four forwards on the power-play unit is a great example of that.

    He defending the move, which resulted in a short-handed goal and reversal in momentum, by saying it "worked so well in the regular season," per Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. As a result, the coach demonstrated how playing and coaching with a regular-season mindset can get teams in trouble.

    Hopefully, being tied 2-2 in the postseason against a team that they went 5-0 against during the regular season will serve as a wake-up call as the Pens look to regroup from their epic Game 4 collapse.

No. 1: The Penguins Lack Grit and Leadership

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Since becoming the general manager in 2006, Ray Shero has had a habit of bringing in gritty veterans at the trade deadline to add toughness and leadership to his squad.

    In 2007, he added Gary Roberts and George Laraque, who helped the Pens reach the postseason for the first time 2001. 

    In 2008, he added Hal Gill, and in 2009, he added Bill Guerin. The results were back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Final and a third championship banner. 

    After failing to make it past the first round in two of the previous three seasons, Shero added Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen in 2013, and the Pens advanced to the Eastern Conference Final.

    This season—perhaps believing that the core of his team, who are now in their late 20s, was battle-tested enoughShero opted for speed and versatility in Lee Stempniak and Marcel Goc instead of bigger and grittier players like Thomas Vanek, Dustin Penner and Steve Ott.

    Unfortunately, the Pens' lack of grit has been front and center, as they have been unable to impose their physical will on their opponents. They have turned the puck over at an alarming rate as a result of the Blue Jackets' relentless forecheck.

    If the Pens bow out in the first round, expect Shero to revamp his roster to ensure that they are never again lacking for grit and leadership in the postseason.