In the sixth game of the series against the Washington Capitals, the Pittsburgh Penguins find their backs to the wall. In need of a win or the season is over, the chance of a three-peat ending at the hands of their division rival.
Wait, how did it get to this point?
A look at both teams on paper reveal a dramatic turnaround from last year. In 2017 the Caps were deeper and better on paper. And yet the Pens beat them in a playoff series because of superior goaltending and opportunistic scoring. Fast forward to now and it’s Pittsburgh who has a more talented club, and yet Washington is up 3-2 because of...No less than superior goaltending and opportunistic scoring.
As we noted in the series preview, in the 2018 first round of the NHL playoffs, across the board in the 8 different first round series a team only lost a game when leading at the second intermission 4 times. Pittsburgh has managed to do it twice in the first five games of this series alone. (The Caps also blew a 3rd period lead back in Game 1).
The reasons for that are varying, but go to illustrate that the Pens simply haven’t been good enough all around in moments both big and small.
Up by a score of 3-2 in the third period of Game 3, Evgeni Malkin (freshly back from injury) rocketed down the right side of the ice all alone. Goalie Braden Holtby was off his angle and giving up room of the far-side. Malkin saw it and shot hard, but the puck hit the post. In the sequence that followed, Matt Niskanen threw a fairly harmless shot from near the blueline that handcuffed Matt Murray and popped into the net to tie the game with under five minutes remaning. If either of those two events go the Pens way, their chances of winning go up exponentially. But they didn’t. It’s not to call out Murray or Malkin specifically, but just an example of how in key moments the Pens haven’t risen to the challenge and it’s tipped the game away from them.
A similar story can be painted for the blown 3rd period lead of Game 5. The Pens were up 3-2 but defensive breakdowns and mis-reads by their first pairs led to two goals for the Caps 1st line. Given a small opening, the Caps earned a win in a game they were getting outplayed in, much like Pittsburgh did scoring three third period goals in Game 1.
So what has to change? It’s tough to say in the sense that hockey is a complex game and the routine (like a save a goalie should be expected to make) can turn into something more key if that’s not the case. Every game is a new opportunity, and the fact is the Pens just need to focus on what they can control, as cliche as it sounds. If all the players are doing their jobs, they can win a game at home. Do so, and the series will boil down to a Game 7.
Every team faces adversity on their way to greatness. Pittsburgh was down 3 games to 2 to Tampa in 2016. You only have to look back to last year where the Pens lost Games 5-6 to Washington by a combined scored of 9-4 and almost everyone thought/expected they would lose the Game 7 in DC. But you’re never out until the clock strikes 0:00 on the fourth loss of the series, and the Pens came out focused and determined and it resulted in a 2-0 win in that Game 7 that very few could imagine a realistic possibility.
The Penguins aren’t done yet, but they need one more win to buy one more game and a chance to move on. There’s no doubt the Pens aren’t in a great position right now, but if every game is a new opportunity then now there are no further opportunities remaining past tonight. The Pens have done many things good in this series but have seen many things go awry too. They just need to find a way to be better in the big and small moments at home to extend the season. Possibly a simple answer to a much more difficult issue in front of them, but that’s what this year boils down to in Game 6.