At some point on Sunday while watching the Penguins repeatedly ram their heads into a brick wall, I kept arguing with myself internally if the inevitable 3-0 series deficit was something that shocked me, or if it was something that I completely expected.
After all, before the series started I picked the Penguins in six but also felt they could just as easily lose in five.
In the end, I came to the conclusion the argument itself is what I totally expected because that has been the story of the 2018-19 Pittsburgh Penguins, a group that has completely vexed me from the start, constantly making me change my opinion of them.
Sometimes they look like a bonafide contender.
Sometimes they look like a fringe playoff team playing out the string until the inevitable Round 1 defeat.
Sometimes they look like something even below that.
This was always a team that had a reasonably high ceiling and a reasonably low floor, and it will all just depend on which version of the team decided to make an appearance for a couple of weeks in the spring. Through three forgettable and borderline unwatchable games against the New York Islanders, it is pretty clear we are getting the one that is capable of hitting the floor.
Anytime a team is pushed to the brink of elimination and has its backs against the wall there is going to be finger pointing and blame to be assessed, and in this instance there is plenty to go around.
The success or failure of a playoff run will always be defined by what the star players at the top of the lineup do, so let’s start there where the top line has been alarmingly quiet.
They were awful in Game 1, a little better in Game 2, and about the same in Game 3. The end result in all three games was the same: Zero points for Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel despite a couple of decent chances. If the Penguins don’t come back and win this will probably be the main takeaway from the series, and it’s not totally unfair because ... well ... when you score 40 goals during the regular season (Guentzel) or 100 total points (Crosby) or are Hall of Famer (Crosby) what you do is always going to be the focus. And when you go cold in a playoff series that goes awry you are going to face the heat.
One of my main points that I always hammer away at is that point production isn’t always consistent for players, and especially the top players. They will all go multiple games without a point at various times over the course of an 82-game season or a two-month playoff run, so Crosby going three straight games without a point doesn’t strike me as overly concerning or something that is THE focal point of the current situation. Look at it this way: In 2016 Crosby had two different three-game stretches in the playoffs where he had zero points, as well as a two-game stretch. He only recorded a point in 13 of the 24 playoff games. He still won the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Penguins still won the Stanley Cup. His droughts didn’t get as much attention because the team won most of those games.
The reason the team won most of those games is because the team around him was simply ... better.
It could handle a two or three game stretch where Crosby didn’t play like superman.
This team can’t, and hasn’t been able to all season. And while the trade for Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad has turned out to be great, they haven’t provided any secondary scoring in the playoffs, either (though, McCann missed a game almost certainly wasn’t 100 percent on Sunday).
Then there is that defense.
Oh, that defense.
Judging by the comments a lot of you hate it when Jack Johnson gets mentioned, but that pairing of him and Justin Schultz has been a nightmare for the Penguins, and Mike Sullivan’s insistence on sticking with it the past two games is nothing short of baffling not only given their results, but also because of the fact he obviously had so little confidence in it at the start of the series that he actually made Johnson a healthy scratch and the odd-man out.
In the two games they have been together the Penguins have been outscored 3-0 and their share of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger chances is under 40 percent. And it is not just Johnson that is the problem. Schultz has been equally bad. His ill-advised neutral zone pinch on Sunday led to the Islanders’ game-winning goal. Johnson’s misplay of the puck at the blue line and inability to cover the zone led to what is probably going to be the dagger goal in the season.
But it is not just them that is the problem.
Kris Letang has not played like Kris Letang, and Brian Dumoulin has not played like Brian Dumoulin (both are likely far less than 100 percent).
Erik Gudbranson has proven to be a strong addition and has legitimately been one of the team’s best defenders since the trade, but maybe the fact he was one of the team’s best defenders going into the playoffs should have concerned us more than it did.
The Islanders are winning the neutral zone. They are winning the defensive zone. And even though they haven’t really needed to give the first two, they are winning the offensive zone, too.
All season the Penguins have clearly showed who they are, an inconsistent and flawed team with a flawed roster that has too many holes to consistently win, but still has enough talent to go on a crazy run.
The maddening thing is that crazy run could still happen starting on Tuesday night. But they have to get one before that can happen, and I have not seen much over the first three games to suggest they can get that one.