The Pittsburgh Penguins are on track to lose their first-round series against the New York Rangers. There’s still time to turn things around, but the Penguins’ loss in Game 3 is troubling because it throws the difficulties facing Pittsburgh into sharp relief.
The problem isn’t Sidney Crosby, and it isn’t Evgeni Malkin, though both star centers are likely to catch lots of fire if Pittsburgh bows out of the postseason early yet again.
Whether losses are actually their fault or not, the best players on a team always seem to take the blame due to the crackpot theory that the really great players can single-handedly drag 19 teammates past the opposition regardless of the quality of that opposition or of those teammates.
But blaming Crosby or Malkin is shortsighted because the real problem is on defence.
It seems counterintuitive to blame the blue line when a team loses by a 2-1 score, but it actually makes sense once you dig into it.
Monday’s game between the Rangers and Penguins was an ugly affair. When people talk about exciting 2-1 games, they don’t mean this one, which was like watching paint dry.
There were plenty of reasons why it was boring, but the biggest was Pittsburgh’s inept blue line. The Penguins couldn’t trust their defencemen to make clean outlet passes, so they had to hang back and play conservatively. New York, with no fear of the stretch pass, was able to clog up the neutral zone.
That suited Rangers coach Alain Vigneault just fine, via Sean Hartnett of CBS New York:
In the third period, I tracked outlet passes by the Pens defence. I ignored the short five-foot passes that came from forwards hanging way back and instead looked at defensive-zone passes which advanced the puck further than that.
Pittsburgh’s defence managed just seven tape-to-tape outlet passes in the third period on 19 tries. The other 12 were fumbled, turned into chips or just flat-out turned over to a New York team that settled into a defensive shell in the game’s final frame.
Six of the Penguins’ seven successful passes came off the stick of Paul Martin or Taylor Chorney. The team’s other four defenceman were basically incapable of making outlet passes under minimal pressure in the third frame.
Boring hockey was thus guaranteed.
New York recorded its first shot just under six minutes into the game. Pittsburgh fired its first more than 15 minutes in, and that shot came from the neutral zone.
Even the goals were on the disappointing side. The Rangers capitalized on a bad line change in the first and then picked up the rebound off a puck shot intentionally wide in the second period.
Pittsburgh blueliner Ian Cole was victimized on both New York goals. On that bad change, he failed to realize what was happening and stayed resolutely on the far side of the ice, getting caught out of position despite playing the role of last man back. On the second goal, he let Rangers forward Chris Kreider slip in behind him and bang home the bank pass.
That all sounds bad until one realizes that Cole was forced into the No. 1 role on Pittsburgh’s blue line in Game 3. A portrait of the blue line, ranked by ice time, should make the Penguins’ problem clear to anyone:
- Cole, formerly a No. 6/7 defenceman with St. Louis, saw 23 minutes and 22 seconds of action.
- Paul Martin, a real NHL defenceman, logged 20:41.
- Chorney, who played a career-high 42 games with the 2009-10 Edmonton Oilers—going minus-21 in the process—played 19:36.
- Rob Scuderi, a 36-year-old who had the worst on-ice Corsi rating on the Pittsburgh blue line this year despite favourable zone starts and low-end quality of competition, ended the night with 19:11 of ice time.
- Ben Lovejoy, who was somehow traded for up-and-comer Simon Despres this very season, played 18:32.
- Brian Dumoulin, a veteran of 14 career regular-season NHL games, logged 16:31.
General manager Jim Rutherford deserves some of the blame here, particularly for the baffling Despres-for-Lovejoy trade, but the real enemy is injury.
Of the top four defenceman who started the season with Pittsburgh, only Martin is healthy. Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff and Olli Maatta have all been felled by injury. Promising rookie Derrick Pouliot isn't healthy either.
The Penguins’ blue line has been stripped of competency, particularly when it comes to moving the puck.
Chorney, a minor league journeyman, is the team’s second-best puck-moving defenceman. Cole, whose career high in points as a pro is 15 (in the AHL back in 2010-11), is getting regular power-play time.
The situation is grim, and pretty much the only thing the coaches can do that they haven’t been doing is ride Martin harder. He should probably be playing close to 30 minutes every game for as long as the situation lasts.
Realistically, Pittsburgh’s only hope is for someone to get healthy.
The team’s official website lists Maatta as out for the season with a shoulder injury and Letang as out indefinitely with a concussion. Ehrhoff and Pouliot are day-to-day, but NHL.com’s Wes Crosby reported prior to Game 3 that Ehrhoff had flatlined in his recovery and was pulled from participating in practices.
Only Pouliot seems close to a return, and 34 games into his NHL career, expectations should be held in check.
Somehow, the Penguins must get more out of their blue line. Realistically, it may not be possible.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.