After three playoff games, it’s like last year for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and yet at the same time, it’s totally different.
In both years we weren’t sure quite what to expect out of Sidney Crosby, who had injury question marks about how effective he could be. As usual, we probably shouldn’t have been too concerned. Crosby’s star has shined bright, picking up three assists yesterday to help the Pens to a 2 games to 1 series lead over the New York Islanders.
That, more than anything in the biggest difference in the two years. Last year, at this time in the first round, the Pens were in a 0-3 hole to the Philadelphia Flyers, an inescapable hole for the most part. The Pens came out great in Game 1 last year, taking a 3-0 lead, but then having it withered away into wondering just what the hell happened.
This playoff has gone a little differently, as all new playoffs do, but there are some interesting parallels forming. Again the Pens roared out, putting a 5-0 beating on a young Isles team getting their first taste of playoff action in Game 1, before dropping a two goal lead in Game 2 that resembled last year’s Game 1 versus Philly. Then the script has been changed, with Pittsburgh winning Game 3 this year and up 2 games to 1.
What can we learn? Teams aren’t just going to roll over. NY knows the Pens have Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to go along with a host of other all-star level players in Kris Letang, Jarome Iginla and Chris Kunitz. The Isles, have a little bit of elite talent with John Tavares and Matt Moulson, but they know they can’t match Pittsburgh’s skill. What they can do is work hard, dump pucks deep and try to exploit natural breakdowns through hard skating and a little luck. Fight to keep the puck, and keep throwing it at the net and good things are bound to happen.
It’s difficult for a #1 seed to match that intensity and emotion that comes so naturally for often-overmatched #8 seeds. The Islanders have had to play a desperate brand of hockey for the past six plus weeks just to win their way into the playoffs. They know what it’s like to ramp it up full throttle, and they know if they don’t have the skill, they need to make their own breaks in other ways. Number eight seeds beat number one seeds sometimes- it’s how the LA Kings started their Cup run last year, it’s how the Minnesota Wild are also giving the Chicago Blackhawks all they can handle, just as the Islanders are putting up a great fight against the Pens.
However, the tide turns when the skill wakes up and plays to the level that’s needed. The Pens are staying in games solely based on their superior power play, where they have more space and time and are just annihilating Evgeni Nabokov and the NYI penalty kill at a 46.2% (on a 6 for 13 clip in the first three games so far). It’s keeping them in games and proving to be a difference maker in the series, when you can convert at a rate like that. It's likely not a sustainable thing, but after a while it could mentally wear on the Isles aggressiveness, as they may hesitate a split-second since they'll surely hear "stay out of the box" from their coaches about a million times over the rest of the series.
At five-on-five, the Pens still have to “sharpen” up, to use the popular phrase tossed around the locker-room, and that shows. If they don’t get as desperate as the Isles, they’re in for some rough stretches. That’s the takeaway. And to an extent, they’re learning. NY surged early in Game 3, scoring two quick goals in the first to put the home crowd in a roar. Then the Pens power play and Crosby got on track and quickly turned a two goal deficit into a 3-2 lead before the end of the period.
There’s no doubt that Pittsburgh is a better team, and they *should* win. But if they’re not willing to pay the price and match the intensity, games like Game 2 are going to happen and they won’t. The Islanders are a team that deserves respect and is more than just the speed-bump that many thought they’d be. If the Pens can just pay attention, they might find that they can learn an important lesson to take forward with them.