As the Penguins and Islanders make the turn into the latter stages of their series, a look at what adjustments can be made, what to expect and what each team will need to do in order to win the crucial late games.
Turning expectation into production
Sidney Crosby tipped a goal in Game 1, one Jake Guentzel assisted on. Bryan Rust took advantage of an Islander turnover to score an unassisted goal in Game 2. That briefly explains the entirety of the points scored by the Pens’ top line. Three elite players. Three points. Total.
Needless to say, that’s not going to cut it. However, while the results aren’t there, the process is from the Pittsburgh top line. Via moneypuck, minimum 44 minutes around the league:
Aside from the top two Boston lines, the Pens’ top line is the best heavily used line at expected goals. The issue through four games has been converting expectations into red lights and celebrations. That’s also the challenge for Pittsburgh. They need their top players to come through. There’s some positive signs — the three have combined for 43 shots. Guentzel has 19 alone and isn’t used to staying off the scoreboard for three straight games.
The Pens’ top line has to help the cause. The solution isn’t based on finding a different matchup (though being at home for Game 5 can only help occasionally and situationally for shift starts) and the answer isn’t coming from the bench via coaching. Guentzel and Crosby are scorers and some of the best and most consistent offensive players around. So they need to score. Pretty simple.
Second pair slipping
As we highlighted earlier in the series, the Penguins were asking a lot of their Mike Matheson - Cody Ceci pair with a very heavy workload and minutes of responsibility.
That’s been a tough ask, especially for a player like Ceci where the career knock on him has been that too much ice time and quality of competition has made him sink like a stone. Unfortunately, that is starting to happen.
In the last two games, the Islanders have scored a total of four even strength goals. Ceci has been on the ice for three of them (as well as being on ice for two more goals while NYI has been on the power play).
Being on the ice when a goal is scored does not necessarily stain a player as responsible, but it’s becoming more telling that Ceci is fishing a lot of pucks out of his own net recently. Goals are starting to pile up in the wrong net with #4 on the ice.
With the rates of chances that Marcus Pettersson and John Marino are giving up, there doesn’t look like much of an option for Pittsburgh. They have to lean on Matheson and Ceci, but just how much are they going to hold up?
The bad news for the Pens is that while Matheson-Ceci are sinking, their counter-parts on the Nick Leddy - Scott Mayfield pair are playing exceptionally strong right now.
So far, the above picture is about the ideal for how New York would have dreamed this series unfolding. Adam Pelech and Ryan Puloch have to swim in the deep waters, and they’ve largely done well with defensive efforts to help keep the Pens’ top line quiet in results, if not in process. Even then, process-wise, they’re hanging tough too. And beyond that, the rest of the pairs are all playing at a 50%+ xGF%.
The xGF per minute (column on the right), for the Pittsburgh lower two pairs it’s in the 2.06 - 2.28 range. For NYI, much better at 1.96 and 0.91. If the Islanders are able to neutralize the Pittsburgh depth forwards like that, and the Pens’ defense isn’t doing the same, that’s a big edge.
The Pens might not want to balance their defensive TOI, but given how much water they’ve been taking on with Ceci on the ice, they might need to give John Marino more of a chance. It may work, it may not, but playing Cody Ceci 22+ minutes per game like the Pens have in Games 1-4 has never been a ticket to success for any NHL team Ceci has ever played on. It’s not a solution that is going to last.
There’s no real point in griping about officiating, though that doesn’t stop many. The referees are going to do what they do, and everyone always tends to think it’s never beneficial for their perspective.
Besides the nature of what has been called, and what has been allowed, the bigger point has been just how the games have been called.
The Penguins have only 2.0 power plays per game so far, among the lowest in the playoffs and through four games. The Islanders have been physical, but as we saw in Game 4, they’re capable of playing a pretty clean game that makes it difficult to penalize them. The Penguins need to control the puck more, work in deep in the zone and put NYI in a position where they need to hook, slash or otherwise try to slow them illegally. Come playoff time, there aren’t typically a lot of power plays awarded for post-whistle shenanigans.
Between whistles, the Pens have to find a way to get to the power play more.
Those three areas will be clutch and important for this PIT/NYI series as we get to the end.
- Can Crosby and Guentzel wake up and contribute?
- Can Ceci cut down on the chances/goals against versus how the NYI second pair has been?
- Will the Penguins get more power plays and then actually capitalize on them?
Getting favorable answers to two areas above is probably a clear path to a series victory. However, if the Pens can’t handle the areas above, the chances that they will be moving on becomes severely limited?