After an atrocious finish to Game 4 that allowed the Jackets to tie the series, the Pens are in dire need of three men to pick up their game. Captain Sidney Crosby, defenseman Kris Letang and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury are part of the core that general manager Ray Shero has built this club around. It is crucial they start performing better, especially against a young club like the Blue Jackets.
With Game 5 set for Saturday night, let’s take a look at why these guys need to step up during the rest of the first round.
As the leader of one of the top franchises in the world, he has a certain amount of expectations from fans and the front office. Crosby has proved he can handle those expectations before, but in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, he has rarely been a determining factor.
He is arguably the best hockey player in the world. The question is: Why isn’t he doing more for his team now? The Blue Jackets are a solid, hardworking team, but they have almost no playoff experience. I always thought experience trumped youth, but it looks as if the Jackets are shifting that paradigm.
The Jackets have found a way to shut down the 104-point scorer by using Brandon Dubinsky and Jack Johnson to keep him at bay. The option of double-teaming the 26-year-old superstar should be flattering, but only if he can find a way to solve it.
If anything, the Penguins need their leader to do more than just help on scoring plays. He is a well-rounded skater, and the team needs him more than ever to start contributing in the goal-scoring column.
This goes for Evgeni Malkin, the Pens’ second-line center, as well. The Russian phenom has four assists but so far has failed to record a goal like his captain.
Getting these two forwards going now is not only ideal for this series but necessary if Pittsburgh has any hopes of competing for the Cup.
Like many of his teammates, defenseman Kris Letang has had a hard time transitioning from the regular season to the playoffs.
His struggles were made known early in the series after one of his many turnovers led to a short-handed goal by the Jackets’ Derek MacKenzie in Game 1.
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma showed his displeasure with Letang’s play by allowing him only three minutes, 55 seconds of playing time in the third period of the meeting.
The coach stated in an interview on the team's website that he believes his defenseman understood why he was so aggravated: “I think he got the message. Whether it was a voice or not playing or a nice talk, he got a message. And that’s something he’s got to be better at and that’s something we’ve got to be better at as a group.”
Letang, who was a crucial element to the Penguins’ power play this season, hasn’t been able to mimic that performance. This was seen in Game 3 when the power play couldn't cover any of its six opportunities with a man up.
His lack of offensive play and costly turnovers are somewhat shocking since he was a nominee for the Norris Trophy last season.
Whether he is just readjusting to playoff hockey like the rest of his team, or his lack of production is purely mental, Letang must find answers quickly because Pittsburgh is now stuck in a best-of-three series.
It is very easy to lay the Penguins' Game 4 loss on the gaffes made by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Sure, the puck took an awkward bounce late in the third period that led to Dubinsky's tying goal, but if you look closely, Fleury was nonchalant, using only one hand on his stick to corral the rubber.
Though he consulted a sports psychologist over the offseason after suffering another postseason meltdown last year, making a subpar effort will not get him any remorse from the fans.
After Dubinsky’s late-game heroics, things only got worse for "The Flower."
In overtime, the Jackets' Nick Foligno took what looked like to be a simple wrist shot from the point, which weaseled its way through the space between Fleury’s glove and left pad. The shot could have been easily turned aside, but instead it morphed this series into a best-of-three.
Despite his breakdown, Fleury is taking the right approach in handling the criticism by staying positive. In an interview with the media on NHL.com, he stated that he is excited for his Game 5 start on Saturday.
“I’m looking forward to getting in there at home in front of our fans,” he said. “It should be pretty exciting. I’ve been around for awhile and the people have been nice.”
Fleury looks to improve on his .903 save percentage and 3.18 GAA come Saturday night. A lot of pressure will be on the netminder, but he must realize that he will need help from his teammates too.
As of now, there are two roads that he can take.
The first is the road to recovery. If he shuts out everything that fans, opponents and the media are saying about his recent struggles, he can focus on doing what he does best: stopping the puck.
The other road is a bit gloomier. If he fails to improve, he'll face much uncertainty as the offseason looms.
On Saturday night, he takes the first step on whichever road he chooses to travel.
All stats courtesy of NHL.com