Well this is probably not where anybody expected the Pittsburgh Penguins to be at this point in the return to play phase. Down 2-1 in the series against the NHL’s 24th ranked team, facing elimination after letting a 3-1 lead slip away, and needing to win two games in a row just to get through to the actual playoffs.
But, here we are.
It has been a strange series so far because in a lot of ways — and for a significant portion of it — the Penguins probably have been the better overall team. I liked their first two games and I liked the first 30 minutes of Game 3. But a couple of breakdowns in Game 1, a defense pairing that has no business playing, and a complete teamwide meltdown in the third period of Game 3 have all combined to put the Penguins in the position they find themselves in.
Since it is Friday, it is time to take a look at the latest edition of trending Penguins players.
Hopefully we have a few more games to examine next Friday and can look at another installment of this series.
Who Is Hot
Jason Zucker — I have really liked Zucker’s game so far in the playoffs. He has the two goals — including a power play goal — and has been a constant threat through the first three games, recording 11 shots on goal and generating several chances. Win or lose this series he has been a bright spot in it and continues to look like he is going to be a strong addition for the foreseeable future.
Sidney Crosby — He scored in Game 1 to get the Penguins back in the game, then got them off and running early in Game 2 to get them back in the series. He has not been at his best and I do not think anyone can disagree with that, but he has not been bad either. Am guessing we have still yet to see his best in this series and I would be willing to bet good money that the only time he gets to play a hockey game in his career on his birthday that he is going to be ready.
Jake Guentzel — His only goal was an empty-net goal at the end of Game 2, but given that he had not played a hockey game since the end of December and was put right back into the lineup for playoff games I have no objection to the way he has played. It is good to see him back on the ice making plays and helping to create offense. An outstanding player that is far from a product of the talent around him. He is just legitimately good. Really good.
Who Is Not
Mike Sullivan — Look, he had a great regular season to help the Penguins overcome their injuries and remain one of the top teams in the league. No matter who was in or out of the lineup he had the team ready to play, compete, and win. He is a two-time Stanley Cup champion (the only two-time Stanley Cup champion in franchise history) and a great coach. But this has not been his finest moment in this series. He is the reason Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz see minutes. The continued rolling of four lines and three defense pairings late into the third period of a game the team is losing by one goal was maddening. If he does not make a change on defense for Game 4 and the remainder of the series and the Penguins end up losing because of it, the series is going to be largely on his shoulders.
Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz — The only reason they are not listed first is because they are not the ones putting themselves in the lineup and on the ice. Individually, neither player is playing well. Neither player has had a good season. Collectively they are the single biggest Achilles Heel of the entire team. Johnson has been on the ice for five of the Canadiens’ eight goals in the series, Schultz is right there with him, and when you look at the team’s performance with this duo on the ice vs. off the ice it is staggering how much of a negative impact they are having. Weaknesses get exploited in the playoffs. This third defense pairing is a weakness. It is getting exploited.
The third line — This was a big X-factor coming into the series that could help make or break the team’s postseason depending on how it performed. So far, it is not promising. Patrick Marleau has been invisible with just two shots on goal and a minus-4 rating in the three games, Jared McCann was a healthy scratch in Game 3, Patric Hornqvist has been okay on the power play but otherwise invisible at even-strength, and Sam Lafferty had a rough postseason debut. Nothing about this group in any of its forms has been a success. In fact, this is pretty much now the team’s fourth line. The concern at the start of the playoffs is that they were just three players that were haphazardly thrown together because they did not fit anywhere else on the roster. That is exactly how they have looked through the first three games of the series.