2011 NHL Playoffs: Minus Sidney Crosby, Penguins Cannot Hang with East Elite
Without their big two centers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins have still managed to open up a 3-2 series lead over the high-scoring Tampa Bay Lightning.
Before the postseason, many selected the Penguins to move at least into the second round on the strength of their goaltending, defense and coaching.
Pittsburgh is in position to eliminate Tampa Bay with a win Monday evening in Florida. While the team has looked mostly good in its victories, a pair of uncharacteristic blowout losses have shown Pittsburgh is still operating at less than 100 percent.
Tampa Bay is a good team with a few excellent scorers, but Pittsburgh's postseason experience is far greater. That experience has helped them to take a few games against an inferior and less experienced opponent.
That won't be the case if the Penguins grind their way into the semifinal round. Pittsburgh's possible opponents for a second round match include Boston, Montreal, Philadelphia and Washington. Each of those four teams is playoff experienced, and three would hold a home-ice series advantage over the Penguins.
The games only figure to get tougher. Dan Bylsma's club has done a fine job of maintaining a winning pace since January, but they may not have the gamebreaker they need to take a series from the Eastern Conference's elite teams.
Ten arguments for Pittsburgh's vulnerability with their captain in the quiet room:
Washington, Boston, Montreal, Philadelphia
The crop of potential second-round candidates doesn't bode well for the Penguins.
Pittsburgh is 2-2 against Boston this season, including a pair of late third-period collapses. The Penguins finished 1-2-1 against Montreal and 1-3-0 against Washington, losing each game against the Capitals in which Sidney Crosby was concussed or not in the lineup.
A 2-4-0 record against Philadelphia kept the Penguins in the fourth seed -- a single point more would have landed them second overall.
Pittsburgh finished with a total 6-11-1 record against possible second round opponents, and about half of those games were played with Crosby in the lineup.
It took Crosby and Malkin playing at their highest level to defeat Philadelphia and Washington two years ago, and the Penguins could not get past Montreal last season. Crosby's absence tilts any possible matchup in the favor of Pittsburgh's opponents.
The Power Play Is Hot, Hot Garbage
Pittsburgh has the second-worst power play in the postseason, the unit clicking at a 4.0 percent rate (1 for 25).
Only Boston is worse at 0-for-15. Still, if the Bruins score only once in their next nine chances, they will have a higher-percentage power play than the Penguins.
Pittsburgh hasn't had a good power play team since the 2008-09 season. The Penguins finished 25th in the NHL during the regular season (15.8 percent), and worse than 20th a season ago.
According to Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Pittsburgh scored only 12 man-advantage goals in their final 29 regular season games (all without Malkin and Crosby). In those games, the Penguins scored only two power play goals against playoff teams in 48 chances, a 4.2 percent success rate.
Crosby still leads the team in power play goals (10) and is second in man-advantage points (19).
Malkin Not a Fallback Option
When Crosby went down with a high-ankle sprain in the 2007-08 season, Evgeni Malkin stepped into the leader's role nicely, finishing with 106 points and helping Pittsburgh to the second seed in the East.
Crosby has had injury problems in the past, but Malkin was there to fill the void, and did so admirably.
That hasn't been the case this season and won't be in the playoffs. Malkin has missed nearly as many games as Crosby since tearing ligaments in his knee in early February.
The Penguins had all of February and March to learn how to play without their big two centers, and have done reasonably well without them.
However, they haven't had to enter a postseason without them -- Malkin and Crosby had played in every postseason game since 2006-07 until this year -- something that could very well be the difference in a more difficult, later-round matchup.
But hope springs. Malkin has resumed light-skating workouts already. It was reported that he required surgery on only one of his two torn ligaments, leaving the Hail Mary possibility that he might return in a deep, deep postseason run.
More likely, the Penguins will finish their postseason, whether in April, May or June, with the big Russian still on the mend.
The Offense Is Missing Its Best Setup Man
Crosby has always been an excellent passer. Before his goal-scoring renaissance in the 2008-09 postseason, Crosby was known as a pass-first, shoot-second setup man.
His vision is considered one of the strongest parts of his game. Crosby's ability to draw defenders and find the open man nearly turned Chris Kunitz into a 30-goal scorer this season, and may have if not for injury.
Crosby's setup abilities have also turned career-grinder Pascal Dupuis into a first-line winger for two straight seasons. Without Crosby, Dupuis has played on a third line with fellow speedsters Chris Conner and Max Talbot.
In his absence, scoring talents like Alex Kovalev and James Neal haven't played up to their potential, filling a line with rookie center Mark Letestu instead.
The Offense Is Missing Its Best Finisher
Crosby has been Pittsburgh's best scorer for two seasons. He scored 15 goals in the 2009 postseason, and followed with a league-leading 51 in the 2009-10 regular season.
He led the league's goal-scoring race by a wide margin before going down with the concussion. His 32 goals in 41 games had him on pace for a 65-goal season, what would have been only the second 65-plus goal season in the post-lockout era.
Crosby was the only player on the team to finish with 30 or more goals and 10 or more on the power play.
With him, the Penguins ranked as high as the top five in total goal scoring. They finished the regular season ranked 13th in total goals.
James Neal and Alex Kovalev Need a Top-Flight Center
Alex Kovalev and James Neal were brought to the team before the trade deadline to help fill the scoring void left by Crosby and Malkin.
It was assumed at the time that Crosby would still be able to play at least by the postseason, giving the star wingers a chance to play with the best center in the game.
That hasn't panned out, and the wingers have spent time on lines with Jordan Staal and rookies Dustin Jeffrey and Mark Letestu. With Staal centering Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy and Jeffrey out with a knee injury, the two have played primarily with Mark Letestu.
While each has a game-winning goal to their credit in the Tampa series, they would undoubtedly benefit from having Crosby around. Neal spent his Dallas career playing alongside another world-class center in Brad Richards, and Kovalev makes passes that only a player like Crosby can anticipate and finish.
With Crosby, Neal and Kovalev, the Penguins would have a true scoring line to throw at opposing defenses.
Jordan Staal Struggling Against Top Defensive Pairs
With Crosby and Malkin before him, Jordan Staal was left to take on opposing third lines, or used in a shutdown role against the best offensive lines of opposing teams.
With 87 and 71 out, Staal has faced teams' best defensive pairing for the first time in his career, both at even-strength and in an increased role on the power play.
Staal has done well at times but struggled at others. He is not the highly skilled gamebreaker that Crosby and Malkin are, and the team would not rely on him to fill that role under normal circumstances.
Staal has no goals and only two assists in five games against Tampa Bay. He is one of the game's best third-line centers, but cannot single-handedly force defenders to back off the way Crosby is able to.
The Team Is Panicking When Playing from Behind
Pittsburgh cannot play from behind.
The team used to specialize in come from behind victories, placing near the top of the league in such categories over the last few seasons.
In 2010-11, Pittsburgh won zero games when trailing entering the third period.
That has carried into the postseason. The Penguins have won all three games against Tampa in which they scored the opening goal. In two losses, the Penguins allowed goals to be scored early and often, both times resulting in blowout losses.
The team is able to play a structured game, but seem to know that they cannot play from behind with their limited scoring punch.
Without Crosby, they need to find a way to score goals when trailing, or to at least stop the bleeding of an early goal against.
Opposing Defenses Are Suffocating Penguins Forwards
Tampa Bay has figured out what those who beat Pittsburgh late in the regular season already knew -- pressure their forwards and watch them collapse.
Crosby and Malkin have the unique ability to force defenders to back off in anticipation of an ankle-breaking maneuver. Its something Alex Kovalev has shown in flashes, but the Penguins largely lack that ability with a current roster full of grinders.
Tampa Bay has had success defensively when it has pressured the Penguins offense, especially on the power play.
Teams don't have to respect Max Talbot's ability to make a blind tape-to-tape pass the way they have to respect Crosby's ability to make any play. Pittsburgh has had to rely on dump-and-chase offense to generate their chances.
Teams need only to exert the effort to keep up with the Penguins' skaters to limit their effectiveness. No one on the current roster outside of Alex Kovalev can force a defender to play with a cushion, and Pittsburgh's offense has to be opportunistic and lucky to be effective.
No Team Can Play This Hard Forever
Pittsburgh's success without Crosby has been built on tenacity and work ethic. Dan Bylsma's club is playing a game that is stifling defensively and built on physicality and backchecking from its forwards.
Arguably, no team has played harder since January than the Penguins.
However, the playoffs demand a level of intensity from all teams that was unique to the Penguins during the regular season. Even if they are able to match or still exceed the battle level of their opponents, that alone may not get the Pens past opponents like Washington and Boston, who have skill to add on top of their work ethic.
Further, can the Penguins physically continue to play that type of game?
There's no doubt Dan Bylsma's systems take a physical toll on players, who are expected to skate like the wind on every shift. The team has done well enough with the style so far, as the roster is mostly made of younger players.
Having a talent like Crosby around wouldn't change the systems, but having the goal scoring to get big leads in some games would let the team fall into defensive postures more often.
Kovalev is the most experienced player on the team, and knows no team can play the the full-throttle game forever:
"You can't do that game after game ... You can't just put on blinders like a horse and say, 'I'm going straight ahead, right through everybody.
I understand that can look exciting, but how long are you going to last if you play a style like that?"
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