Game 4 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders really set the stage for the rest of the series, if you think about it. After the teams traded wins in the first two games, the Pens pulled out an OT win in Game 3 in Long Island. They didn’t really deserve the victory based on their sloppy play, but a win is a win is a win, especially this time of year. So if the Pens could take Game 4, they’d be up 3-1 and by all accounts the pressure would be on the Isles to have this not be a short series.
But, of course, that’s not how it played out. The Pens continued their uneven play, got zero support from Marc-Andre Fleury and a 4-3 third period lead turned into a messy 6-4 loss that conjured up memories of Flyers 2012 and cost Fleury his starting job.
With all the turmoil Penguins fans are feeling and seeing on social media, it’s almost hard to remember that this is a tie series, 2-2, with the outcome still to be determined. There’s a lot of pressure on backup Tomas Vokoun, who hasn’t played in the playoffs in six years and hasn’t played a game at all in 17 days. The veteran has little margin of error to keep the train known as the 2013 Pittsburgh Penguins on its tracks.
Because make no mistake about it, the Penguins could very much derail tonight. Already in the closing moments of Game 4 we saw Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang- talented but not poised players at stressful times- begin to meltdown after the whistles. More of that and it could get ugly quickly.
And while the Islanders have done a lot right, and deserve no end of praise and credit for their play, the Pittsburgh Penguins need to remember who they are. They’re a team that’s capable of winning hockey games. They have talent up and down the roster. But their depth hasn’t come into play yet because several important players have had poor or too quiet series. To name names- Matt Niskanen, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen, Brandon Sutter, Mark Eaton. The list could go on. Players like these need to take advantage of their ice-time and skill and make things happen. They cannot be beaten by their counter-parts on the NYI roster like Casey Cizikias, Colin McDonald, Keith Aucoin, Lubomir Visnovsky and Frans Nielson. And the Pens have been beaten in this area so far.
If Game 4 set the stage for the rest of the series, Game 5 will very liekly be a decider in how it ends. Historically, with a series tied 2-2, the winner of Game 5 usually wins the series. For the Islanders, a good road team this season, if they can steal one more game in Pittsburgh tonight, they’ll go back to their raucous, decrepit barn with a chance to shock the world and move on. It would be a very good position to be in.
If the Penguins can win this game, especially if they can win it the “right way” by controlling puck possession, shots and opportunities, it’ll go a long way to stabilize their attitudes and confidence level. Suddenly they’ll be the juggernaut top seed in the East with the swagger to close out the series in Game 6.
Because, for the first time in this series, one team will face elimination after tonight. The storylines and narratives are in full swing, but it all comes down to this game’s outcome to see which path it takes. The fun (and terror) of the NHL playoffs is that in a close series a fan can really never be sure about just which path that will be.
All you can do is buckle up and hope to enjoy the ride.