Ask anybody that watched Sunday’s game why the Pittsburgh Penguins lost and the first, and most common, answer is going to be goaltending.
That is also the correct answer.
It does not matter how many big saves you make, it does not matter how many saves you make in general, you are not going to overcome your starting goalie giving up three howlers in a single playoff game (and maybe a fourth depending on how harsh you want to be on Kyle Palmieri’s game winning overtime goal).
If we are being objective here the Penguins’ starting goalie is the third best goalie in this series when all of them are healthy, and that sort of thing can flip a series sideways in the blink of an eye. In Game 1, it did.
That is not the only reason the Penguins find themselves facing a series deficit going into Game 2 on Tuesday night.
They are facing that deficit because they let a team get back up in a playoff game. That is also something you can not do.
Here is the stretch that I keep going back to here:
It is late in the second period. The Penguins have a 2-1 lead. They successfully killed a four-minute double-minor high-sticking penalty to Jeff Carter. They are, to that point, playing a nearly flawless, perfect playoff game. Great defensively, sustaining pressure on the forecheck, tilting the ice in their favor. It was like the 2015-16 Penguins had blended together with a recent Islanders team to beat them at their own game.
At that point Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel broke in alone on an odd-man rush. A two-on-one. The two exact players you would want in that situation. It was a great chance to build on the lead and demoralize an Islanders team that is not built to overcome a two-goal deficit late in the game.
The Penguins failed to get a shot on goal. Instead of taking the wide open shot when he had the angle, Crosby attempted to force a pass to Guentzel only to have it broken up, negating any potential chance. Now, Crosby is an NHL legend. A franchise icon. Probably already one of the top-10 greatest hockey players to ever do it. He does not need to take advice from some idiot like me. This is not necessarily a commentary on him. It is a commentary on how the Penguins have never met a pass on an odd-man rush that they do not love. This. Team. Never. Takes. The. Shot. When. Defenses. Give. It. To. Them. That was just the latest example.
An annoying play, maybe. But not crushing.
What was more crushing was the power play opportunity that came not long after.
With just under two-and-a-half minutes to play in the second period the Penguins got a gift. A power play, in a close playoff game, when the power plays were already even during the game. At that point you have to think “no rules” hockey is going to show up in the eyes of the referees and nothing is going to get called. Maybe it was because it was still the second period and not the third period. Maybe they thought it was egregious enough to call. Whatever the reason may have been, it got called and the Penguins were back on the power play for the third time.
Even though the first two opportunities did not produce a goal, the power play looked good. They dominated zone time, they had puck possession, they created shots and chances, they had some near misses, the opportunities were there. It looked like the power play unit that started to get hot during the stretch run and climbed the league’s power play rankings.
The third power play? A mess. It looked like the one that frustrated you for most of the season as they struggled to hold onto the puck, allowed the Islanders to milk the clock, and even gave up a couple of shorthanded chances. I Tweeted during the game that the Penguins lost a couple of games during the regular season where a wasted power play opportunity like that, where a goal could have increased a lead, resulted in a loss. Then it did.
That stretch is the one thing I think this team is lacking when compared to say, the 2015-16 team. While this team has the depth and the skill level at forward and on defense, this team seems to be lacking that ability kick a team when it is down. When the 2015-16 team had a one-goal lead, it was going to make it a two-goal lead. Then when it made it a two-goal lead it was going to grind you down into dust in the offensive zone and never let you generate a chance back the other way.
This team seems to struggle with that a little.
When you have a team down in the playoffs, you have to keep them down. The Penguins have two opportunities on Sunday afternoon to do that. Instead, they let the Islanders get back up off the mat. Now they find themselves facing some pressure in Game 2 on Tuesday night.