After two dominant shutout performances by the Detroit Red Wings, many Pittsburgh fans are calling out their stars to pick up their game.
While most of the Pens' forwards are sharing the grief, Evgeni Malkin seems to be the target of choice. The most popular comments range from "He doesn’t look desperate enough" to "He’s not trying as hard" or that "He looks disinterested."
The truth of the matter is, this is what Detroit’s stifling, team defense does to opposing stars.
Nashville Predators captain and key source of offense Jason Arnott had the best season of his career, recording 72 points in 77 games. Yet, he only mustered one goal in four playoff games against the Wings.
In fact, it could be argued that Arnott only had a handful of effective shifts against Detroit.
Avalanche captain Joe Sakic recorded six points in six games against the Minnesota Wild in Colorado’s opening round, but was held goal-less in the Wings four-game sweep.
The Dallas Stars leading scoring, Mike Ribeiro, scored four goals and added eleven assists through Dallas’ first two rounds, but only managed three assists in the six-game defeat to the Wings.
So what’s my point? Maybe it’s not the player, but the team they’re facing.
While thousands of fans and dozens of analysts have called out No. 71 to bring his game to another level, they forget that Detroit’s defense can limit a player's ceiling of success to a crawl-space.
Only Crosby has been able to produce a handful of offensive opportunities and he’s considered to be, arguably, the best offensive weapon in professional hockey.
In Monday night’s game, the Pens didn’t register an even-strength shot on goal until midway through the second period. That’s nearly half a hockey game without putting any pressure on a goalie during 5-on-5 play.
Any time a Penguin player received a pass, they had a red shirt on them, with another ready to scoop up the turnover.
From their sixth defenseman to their twelfth forward, Detroit is playing the consummate team game. No cog is out of sync. From their King to their Pawns, every player is pulling their weight, refusing to take a shift off.
It can be argued that the Penguins have a better team on paper. Man for man, perhaps the best in the league.
But like it’s been said many times before, hockey is a team sport. You’re only as strong as your weakest link. Sometimes the weak can only become strong through disappointment and loss. Most of the players on Detroit’s roster know something about that.
This series is far from over, but the uphill battle Pittsburgh faces is a daunting one. If they are to crawl back into this series, they’ll need everyone, from Malkin to Jarkko Ruutu to play better.
But more realistically, if the Pens are to win four out of the next five games, they’ll require more help from Detroit than their own players. Through 18 playoff games, the Wings defense hasn’t looked very interested in letting teams do what they want, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Just ask Nashville, Colorado, and Dallas.