Areas for Improvement

Jamie Sabau

The Pittsburgh Penguins are up 2 games to 1 in their series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but have blown leads and have relied on major comebacks to be in the position they are in. We look at a few specific areas and offer humble suggestions on how to improve performance.

Despite being up 2 games to 1, it's clear that the Pittsburgh Penguins have a lot of room for improvement. To their credit they put together a great effort after a poor start last night and got rewarded for their hard work late in the game, but several areas are identifiable for needing a boost in order to smooth out the performance.

Power play

The vaunted Penguins power play is just 3 for 17 (17.6%) in the first three games of the playoffs. Worse yet, they've allowed two short-handed goals against, meaning that in three games the PP has only cleared a single goal. With the special teams battle so crucial to determining the winners and losers of games, this isn't good enough to cut it long-term.

To be fair, a large amount of credit should go to an aggressive Columbus team that has hunted the Penguins and frustrated them by taking away the cross-ice passes they so love. The Blue Jackets have also done a great job pressuring the point-men to not allow pucks to get to dangerous areas. Sergei Bobrovsky doesn't have elite PK stats (21 saves on 24 shots for a .875 sv%) but he's been strong as well while his team has been down a man.

The issue for the Penguins is the shots. 24 shots on 17 power plays is not a key to success. Columbus has given the Penguins defense a lot of space to shoot the puck at even strength, which has resulted in points-a-plenty for Paul Martin (6 assists in 3 games) and Matt Niskanen (2 goals, 2 assists). They've been stingier killing penalties.

The Pens need to work the power play from half-wall better, make smarter passes and try to get James Neal and Evgeni Malkin in prime shooting positions on the PP. Getting that going will greatly help the team. Granted, that's a very basic fix that's almost certainly in the "easier said than done" chapter, but it seems clear that if Columbus is so aggressive (and successful) at pressuring the Pens puck distributors up high, they need to adjust by having Malkin or Sidney Crosby more active for running the PP off the wall and hopefully finding Neal in a soft spot created by the PK movement.

Stars

As mentioned above, and in countless other places- Crosby, Malkin, Neal and Chris Kunitz are all goal-less through the first three games. At some point pundits must remember that the other team has good defensive players and coaches that scheme to limit the stars. Having less space to operate is what the playoffs are all about.

Still, there are some good signs for the Pens- Crosby was matched up against Jack Johnson last night and the shots while the two were on the ice were 13 to 4 in favor of Pittsburgh. Malkin has played better than Crosby, controlling the puck more in the offensive zone and making better reads with his passing.

James Neal has 16 shots in three games, which as of today is tied for the league lead in the young playoff season. He hasn't hit the back of the net yet, but at better than 5 shots per game, you have to like his odds if that output can be maintained. Malkin has 12 shots, Crosby and Kunitz both have 9. Their issue hasn't been generating shots or getting possession in the offensive zone, it's simply been beating Bobrovsky.

Bobrovsky is a good goalie, but he's also inconsistent. He stopped the first 25 Penguins shots in Game 3 and looked almost technically perfect. He was tracking the puck with ease, he was square to every single shot and suppressing rebounds. Bobrovsky looked like he was putting on a clinic. Then Brooks Orpik (of all people) rifled a wrist shot by him. That perfectly illustrates that Bobrovsky is a talented but beatable goalie. The Pens stars just need to execute and beat him.

Defensive play

It's hard to disagree with Adam Gretz's piece that Rob Scuderi has gone from "The Piece" to "The Anchor". We especially took note of the research that Gretz did to show that Scuderi is a target, and is sinking under the pressure.

In Game 1, I counted 26 even-strength zone entry attempts with Scuderi on the ice. Sixteen of them were targeted at Scuderi's side of the ice, including nine carry-in attempts, five dump-in attempts, and two attempts that Scuderi broke up. Seven of Columbus' 17 shot attempts in that game with Scuderi on the ice were the direct result of controlled carry-ins to his side of the ice.


One of them resulted in the [Scuderi] interference penalty shown here that turned into a power play goal.

There's no doubt that Penguins management see (or at least months ago "saw") Scuderi as the quality defensive defenseman that he was. And a player the Penguins badly needed to play alongside the gifted but mistake prone Kris Letang.

Now, it's past obvious that Scuderi can't cover another players mistakes because his own play is a liability. Maybe it's the leg injury that had him on the shelf for a large chunk of the season, maybe he never could get back up to game speed this year. Maybe it's just the natural age and progression of an older defenseman who never was that quick even in his prime.

Either way, whether it's Robert Bortuzzo or Deryk Engelland, the Penguins really ought to make a change. Professional hockey isn't a pure meritocracy, feelings and hunches are still factors that a human coach has to use to construct a team full of athletes each night...But at some point enough is enough. It's not working for Scuderi, no matter how you slice it or hope to pair him with, the Penguins are a better team with him off the ice. The coach has to assess this and make the tough call to put the team in the best position to win.

The Penguins would be improved by benching Scuderi and giving another guy a shot. He's taken a minor penalty in each of the three games, he's a target and for good reason- Columbus is having success when they do target him. It would be ballsy for Byslma to reverse course on this and shake up his defense, especially coming off a win, but looking ahead it's almost impossible to imagine that Scuderi's performance turns around this spring.

The Pens are in a good spot in the series, up 2 games to 1. But they need to refine aspects of their game in order to put Columbus away quickly, otherwise the dangerous Blue Jacket team may make it a long series and could even end up stealing it.

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