What Pittsburgh Penguins Must Do to Avoid an Upset vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Game 4 was the embodiment of everything that could possibly go wrong in a playoff series for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Watching the contest was like witnessing a one-by-one rollout of everything that has cost this team a shot at the Stanley Cup since 2009.
Every issue and problem was there on display at one point or another, despite the Penguins leading 3-0 at one point in the game. If Game 2 was a stutter step, then Game 4 was Pittsburgh hitting the mat. That's a tough loss for any team to take, much less one that has had issues bouncing back from letdowns like this in years gone by.
Pittsburgh has plenty of experience to pull from, however. It's been in worse positions than this four games into a series as recently as last season. The Penguins' quarterfinal against the Columbus Blue Jackets is down to a best-of-three series now, and there are a few things that they can do to avoid an upset.
All statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com, unless otherwise noted, and are accurate through games played April 24.
Get Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin Going
There's plenty of blame to go around for Pittsburgh's rough start to the postseason. While Marc-Andre Fleury has been a popular target as always, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin haven't been doing their fair share of heavy lifting, either.
It's not always about goals for these two all-world players. At the end of some shifts, it's evident that they are simply getting outworked along the boards and in the corners. The Blue Jackets love to funnel the game to the outside in the neutral and defensive zones, and that's made life tough on No. 87 and No. 71.
Head coach Dan Bylsma isn't one to typically call out players, but he didn't pull punches when speaking with gathered media April 24. Will Graves of the Associated Press (h/t The National Post) quoted the bench boss, who had this to say about his star forwards: "Do they need to score goals? Do we need more? They’re our best players. We need more from our whole team and we need more from them."
Both centers don't need to be rolling up two or three points a game, but just a single performance from either player along those lines would go a long way toward winning another two games for the Penguins.
Deal with the Mental Lapses and Move On
The biggest difference in the series so far has been Columbus' ability to capitalize when the Penguins make a mistake. From Matt Calvert's short-handed goal in Game 1 to Brandon Dubinsky's last-second tally to tie Game 4, the Blue Jackets have cashed in on nearly every Penguins mistake.
With two days off between Games 4 and 5, the Penguins have a chance to regroup mentally. Health-wise, this is the strongest team that Pittsburgh has had all season long. Now, the players need to clear their minds and get ready for the back half of this series.
Nothing good will come from rehashing the mistakes that were made. Kris Letang knows that he blew it on Calvert's goal. Fleury knows that he misplayed a bouncing puck behind the net in the dying seconds of Game 4.
The key is to leave it there. Thinking about what might have been will only lead to more disastrous results.
The Blue Jackets don't have the marquee names to match the Penguins, but they've made one thing clear through the first four games of this series: They have enough firepower to punch through a 1-2-2 forechecking scheme when they're looking at it for 45 minutes a night.
Pittsburgh blew a two-goal lead in Game 2 and allowed the Blue Jackets to score three unanswered goals in Game 4.
Turtling and hoping that Fleury can come up with the timely saves aren't going to work from here on out. The Penguins need to start Game 5 in attack mode and finish it in attack mode. Forget about sitting back and allowing the play to come to them—that's not working, and it arguably has cost the Penguins a sweep here.
Giving the Blue Jackets time and space to pitch the puck in on the dump and chase is playing right into their hands. Columbus is outstanding along the boards and has been able to outwork the Penguins in the corners, so why force the game to the area where the team is struggling?
Open up the neutral zone and get into some foot races. Score goals and continue to score goals instead of taking the foot off the gas.
Perform Better in the Faceoff Circle
Pittsburgh is not a team that has been constructed to chase the puck down shift in and shift out. Crosby, Malkin, James Neal, Letang and Jussi Jokinen are all players that need the puck on their stick to be difference-makers.
That's why getting smashed in the faceoff circle isn't an option for the Penguins. Not if they want to win this series, anyway. Only the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche have won a smaller percentage of their faceoffs than the Penguins.
The Blue Jackets are third in the playoffs, taking the puck 53.5 percent of the time off the draw. Pittsburgh's centers need to be better than that, and the wings need to start pitching in as well. Columbus' pivots are outstanding when it comes to tying up after the puck is dropped and waiting for help. Pittsburgh's top centers need to counter this by either pushing the puck forward in the offensive zone or setting better plays in the defensive and neutral zones.
Fleury Doesn't Get Any More Leash
Are the Penguins too tethered to Fleury to pull the plug on him now? General manager Ray Shero made a bold statement by not making a move for a stronger backup at the trade deadline (despite there being several cheap and viable options on the market).
Flower has had a half-decade to find his playoff form. He's an average goalie during the regular season who is afforded some wiggle room because of Pittsburgh's strong offense. Goals are tougher to come by in the playoffs, though, and Fleury can't seem to get through an entire hockey game without allowing one soft goal.
You can frame the argument however you want, but Fleury can't allow two goals in 3:13 to allow the Blue Jackets to even the series in Game 4. The gap between a 2-2 quarterfinal and a 3-1 series is monstrous, and the Penguins are going to find that out firsthand Saturday.
The guy doesn't get any more leash—he hasn't earned it. The next time he gives up a soft goal, he needs to be sat. This time for good. The mental side effects that bad goals have on a team are unquestionable and incredibly negative.
At this point, it's hard to argue that Fleury gives the Penguins a better chance to win than Jeff Zatkoff.