5 Ways the Pittsburgh Penguins Must Improve to Go on a Deep 2014 Playoff Run
Despite yet another first-round scare, the Pittsburgh Penguins have advanced to the second round to face the New York Rangers.
While winning a playoff series should bring joy, Pens fans seem to be more relieved than joyous as they know that anything less than a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals will be considered a disappointing end to the season.
As the Pens get ready to drop the puck against the Rangers in Game 1, let's take a look at the five ways they need to improve to continue their postseason march.
Beat the Forecheck
In the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Bruins' strategy against the Penguins was to get the puck deep into the Penguins zone and use their forecheck to create turnovers and generate scoring chances.
As evident by their four-game sweep of the Pens, the Bruins were successful at doing both.
In the Pens' opening-round series, the Columbus Blue Jackets seemed to be reading off of the same script and were able to push the Pens to six games using the same strategy.
While Pens fans are probably celebrating that they will face the New York Rangers instead the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round, they should remember the Rangers split the season series with the Pens and outshot them 133-120 in the four games.
While the Rangers don't play the "heavy" style as the Blue Jackets and Flyers do, they play a puck-pressure game and are a very good forechecking team.
In order to negate the Rangers' speed advantage, especially on the bottom two lines, the Pens will need to be quicker to the puck, stronger in the corners and more careful with their outlet passes than they were against the Blue Jackets.
Win the Faceoff Battle
For a team that relies on carrying the puck with speed as much as the Penguins do, gaining possession is the key to their game and that starts with winning faceoffs.
Facing a team with stout defensemen like Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi who don't turn the puck over often, the Pens will need to do a better job at winning faceoffs than they did against the Blue Jackets.
Although the Pens centers were the ultimate difference in the series on the scoresheet, they were under 50 percent in the faceoff circle as a group.
While not having to face Brandon Dubinsky will help, the Rangers do have Dominic Moore and Brad Richards who were each over 50 percent against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round.
When two teams like to play the same style of game as the Pens and Rangers do, often puck possession is the deciding factor and that will make winning faceoffs all the more important.
Engage Their Defensemen
Of the 16 playoff teams, none has a more offensively gifted group of defensemen than do the Penguins.
That's why, going forward in the playoffs, it only makes sense for the Pens to activate their defensemen to keep pucks in the zone and generate scoring chances as they did with great success in Games 5 and 6.
While the injury to Brooks Orpik that caused him to miss the last two games of the first round could have caused major problems for the Pens, the reshuffling of the defensive pairings seemed to give them a spark.
After struggling when paired with Rob Scuderi, Kris Letang seemed to find his game when paired with Paul Martin while the pairing of Robert Bortuzzo with Scuderi proved to be a good shutdown combination against Columbus' top lines.
With Martin and Matt Niskanen leading the team in postseason scoring with two goals and 14 assists combined, the Pens have a big advantage in offensive skill from the blue line, and they will need to maximize that advantage if they are to continue their march through the playoffs.
Keep the Pressure on
During the regular season, the Penguins were an NHL-best 25-2-1 when leading after the first period and 31-3-2 when leading after two periods.
During the first round of the playoffs, the Pens were inexplicably just 1-2 when trailing after both the first and second period.
While the Pens showed an ability to come from behind with three of their four wins coming when they trailed after the first period, they can't continue to blow leads late in games.
With Kris Letang taking a bad penalty that resulted in game-tying power play goal in Game 2 and Marc-Andre Fleury's nightmarish mishandling of the puck in Game 4, the Pens were their own worst enemy at times.
In order to advance deeper into the postseason, they must find a way to clamp down defensively late in games.
Get to the Front of the Net
Hockey coaches and analysts often say, "Good things happen when you go to the net."
While that's true in the regular season, it's even more so in the postseason as "pretty" goals are few and far between and games are often decided by bad bounces and deflections
Last year's embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins should have driven that point home for the Pens. Hopefully, the success they had against the Blue Jackets will remind them.
In Games 1 and 3, the Pens rallied from 3-1 deficits with screened shots and deflections on shots from the point.
In Game 5, the game-tying and winning goals by Chris Kunitz and Jussi Jokinen came as a result of crashing the net and battling for rebounds.
Against an All-Star goaltender like Henrik Lundqvist, the Pens have to be willing to pay the price around the goal crease, and they will need to be as committed to creating traffic in front of the net in the second round as they were at times in front of Sergei Bobrovsky in the first round.