Overall, it is a mostly tight, evenly matched series. Both teams have split the first four games. There has been the usual playoff chaos that you anticipate. Fans on both sides have probably already reached their breaking point forgetting that, at some point, even if your team wins the Stanley Cup it is still probably going to lose at least six or seven games along the way. Maybe more.
There are also a lot of storylines and narratives starting to develop. From the production of the Penguins’ top line, to the physical play, to the Islanders style of play, to the goaltending.
All of them bring varying levels of concern.
Let us dig into them a little bit.
The top line production: Not a concern for me.
Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust have been extremely quiet so far in this series and that is going to start some rumblings about how they need to get going, or why aren’t they doing more, or how can they get away from a particular matchup.
But this is not really a huge concern for me.
Would I like to see them produce more offense? Yes I would. Would it be beneficial for the Penguins if they were producing more offense right now? Definitely! But this is one of my hills that I am willing to fight on all the time, and that is the fact that goal and point production is not consistent. Players, and especially top players, score goals and points in bunches whether it is the regular season or the playoffs. If you look back through the Penguins’ Stanley Cup years in the Crosby era you will find several five, six, or even seven game stretches where he had three or less points and his offense went cold.
Everybody goes through that. The two important takeaways outside of that are: 1) Is the player doing something else on the ice to contribute, and 2) Is the depth good enough to get the team through those cold games to a point where the stars start getting goals and points in bunches again.
The second point is probably the biggest key, and why depth is so important. Your stars are not going to score every game. You need to have players that can pick up that slack behind them. If they do, your team is probably going to advance and your star players will eventually start scoring again and everybody forgets about the slump. If they do not, the stars get the blame for not doing enough. Tough cycle.
The Penguins losing their composure: decent concern for me
Before Saturday’s game Brian Burke was on the pre-game show saying the Penguins need to just skate away from the Islanders nonsense. Mike Sullivan’s mantra has always been “just play.”
None of that happened on Saturday, and it started to unravel in the very beginning of the game with Evgeni Malkin taking a bunch of penalties.
This is a concern for me because the Islanders WANT to play that type of game, and they want to get the Penguins’ stars off of their game.
This was one of the big calling cards of the pre-Sullivan Penguin teams when they struggled in the playoffs, an inability to keep their composure and a willingness to self destruct when somebody pushed at them. That is also one of the reasons I do not like the idea of finding people to “take care” of this stuff. Taking care of it results in push back, push back results in penalties, penalties result in a bad time.
The third period struggles: mild concern
Even with the Penguins’ dominant performance in the third period of their Game 2, the New York Islanders have owned the end of games in this series.
Including Saturday, New York has an 8-4 edge in the series after the second period (including the Game 1 overtime goal) while the Penguins have blown leads in Games 1 and 3, and allowed a close game to turn into a rout on Saturday.
During the regular season the Penguins were great at winning games when leading after two periods, producing a 25-1-1 record in 27 games. That sample size means more than a four-game sampling here in the playoffs so am not going to worry too much about it. But the way the Islanders have taken over the third periods is a little bit of a concern.
Ilya Sorokin: Big concern
Given the way the series is playing out right now it seems likely that Ilya Sorokin is going to take over the Islanders net. He is 2-0 in the series with a .940 save percentage while Semyon Varlamov has continued to struggle against the Penguins.
Even though Varlamov had the superior regular season numbers overall, Sorokin scares me a little more right now. For starters, he has been great in his two games. Also, for whatever he lacks in experience he more than makes up for in talent. The Islanders have been anticipating his arrival for years and you know he is going to be the future of the position for the franchise. He is the real deal, and on any given night he is the best goalie on the ice in the series. Nothing changes a series like goaltending.