Playoff Thoughts: Game 3 vs Islanders

Quarterfinals Game 3: Pens 5 Isles 4 (OT)

Pens Lead Series 2-1

Iginla (1) (PP) from Letang, Crosby
Kunitz (1) (PP) from Malkin, Letang
Dupuis (3) from Crosby, Kunitz
Murray (1) from Malkin, Martin
Kunitz (2) (PP) from Crosby, Martin

| TPN Recap |

Stat Leaders

Shots: Kunitz (5)
Missed Shots: Letang (5)
Blocked Shots: Martin (3)
Hits: Letang (5)
Takeaways: Crosby (3)
Giveaways: Eaton & Letang (2)
Ice Time: Letang (33:33) … Despres (6:12)
Faceoffs: Crosby (13/24) … Jokinen (4/11)

The Good

Crosby Kunitz OT goal

Crosby and Kunitz celebrate the game-winner in OT. (Seth Wenig/AP Photo)

Sidney Crosby: Without question, Sidney Crosby was by far the most productive player on the ice for either team in Game 3.  It’s easy to say this just off of his offensive zone work (3 assists, 2 drawn penalties), but most of my praise goes to Crosby for his defensive work.  He finished the game with 3 takeaways and 2 blocks, and was easily the Pens most tenacious forward in the defensive zone.  His backcheck was unmatched and 2 of those takeaways occurred deep in the corners of the defensive zone.  Want a player who leads by example? – Crosby gave his full effort at both ends of the ice.  Very few others can say that.

Paul Martin: After a sluggish Game 2, Martin came to play in Game 3 and made several strong adjustments that helped him against the Islanders.  He was in complete poke check mode, using his reach to knock the puck around rather than risk players getting around him.  His positioning was solid overall, only getting beat at the blue line once but even recovering on that play.  He finished the game with 2 assists and 3 blocked shots in 31:33 of very strong hockey.

Douglas Murray: Murray was the other defenseman that had a very strong showing in Game 3.  Of course he had the unexpected goal where he just abused Nabokov’s glove side, but his play in the defensive zone was outstanding as well.  In a matchup where you might expect the slow defenseman to struggle, he stuck to his lanes, kept players to the outside as much as possible, and simply made sure he didn’t get completely beat on a play.  He finished with 2 blocked shots, a takeaway, and only 1 hit.  But the 1 hit is a good sign with the results because it demonstrates Murray knows he can’t chase the Isles too much for a physical game.  Every time he did chase, he seemed to win the puck battle on the boards too.  It was a very solid showing for Murray.

Chris Kunitz: Kunitz isn’t at the top of my list because he had some trouble in the defensive zone with clears and had a costly turnover that led to a goal, but you certainly can’t take away what he did right.  With 2 goals on 5 shots, Kunitz was the offensive star of the night, recording the game-winner in overtime.  The most underrated part of his game though is the difference he makes in Letang’s shifts.  Letang’s offensive abilities get him in trouble frequently, but NEVER when the top line is on the ice with Kunitz.  I noted 4 times where Kunitz dropped back into the right defensive position as Letang skated the puck up to create a scoring opportunity.  The knowledge Kunitz has of every position in this system, and his awareness and ability to slide into those positions when necessary, is absolutely priceless.


Fleury stops Okposo

1 of 32 saves that some fans mysteriously forget about. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Matt Niskanen: Niskanen had a decent game as a whole but had 2 shifts that really went awry.  He was partially at fault for 2 goals, one on a defensive giveaway and the other because he was just way too far into the offensive zone with no one covering his spot.  He played very well with Murray but seemed to have communication problems with almost everyone else on defense.

Marc-Andre Fleury: Going through the goals, I would say Fleury was average in his 32 save performance in Game 3.  The first goal was kind of a mess and he was limited on his movement because Despres had slid into him.  The second goal was just a quick one-timer that he had little chance at.  The third goal was a breakaway where Okposo just picked the perfect spot to shoot at.  Finally, the 4th goal was one hell of a shot by Tavares and not helped by Eaton’s screen.  While Fleury is making plenty of saves, and plenty of good saves, he hasn’t come up with a game-stealer either in the past two games.  Fleury really isn’t playing bad.  He’s pretty much stopping what you would expect him to stop and letting in what you would expect him to let in (4th goal in Game 2 aside).  The thing is, you expect more than that from Fleury.

Beau Bennett: Bennett had an okay game but I’m not sure if it will be enough to keep him in the lineup for long.  Both defensively and offensively, he knows where to be and what to do.  However, his execution has dropped off as the Islanders have taken control of the play over the past two games.  In Game 3, Bennett looked weak on the puck, losing puck battles and completely getting knocked off of it at one point.  He also added a giveaway, which won’t help his cause.

The Bad

Letang, Malkin, Kunitz, Crosby celebrate winning goal

Letang wasn't even in the right position to celebrate. (Seth Wenig/AP Photo)

Kris Letang: I have honestly never marked down Letang for as many bad plays/mistakes as I did in Game 3.  The answer is 12 if you were curious (next highest is 6).  Letang SHOULD be the player, not even just defenseman, but player who is the best equipped to play against the Islanders.  He has the speed, skating ability, and physicality to match up against anyone.  Instead, Letang’s game summed up exactly what the Pens are doing right now – looking great on paper but not executing to even 50% of their abilities.  With that said, Letang did have some good plays.  He recorded 2 assists, did a great job standing up Tavares in a one-on-one situation, and his poke check was solid when he was in position.  On to the bad though.  First of all, Letang was beat to the outside by Visnovsky on the opening goal.  That should never happen for a player of Letang’s caliber.  He also had 2 giveaways and I counted 5 breakout passes that completely missed their mark.  Two of them went right off of an Islanders player and right back to him luckily.  Another issue I had Letang marked down for was his PP work overall.  He had two turnovers on the powerplay from not getting the puck deep and he called for a pass at the blue line which he then completely missed.  With the grueling game of both speed and physicality that the Isles play, I have to wonder how quickly Letang’s ice time wears on him in these games.  He played 33:33, which was probably far more taxing than most other times Letang has had to play those types of minutes.  He probably misses Brooks Orpik as a minutes-eater a lot right now.

Simon Despres: Well, after hypothesizing that Despres would match up well against the Islanders and discussing how he had played well against them in the regular season, Despres made me look like an idiot with a horrible showing in Long Island.  He was limited to 9 shifts and 6:12 of ice time because his early shifts were just that bad.  He was partially at fault for the first two goals against, misplaying the puck and falling into Fleury on the first one and not playing well positionally/being completely unaware of his surroundings on the second one.  He also struggled in general when he had the puck, often fanning or misplaying it when he had the chance.  Despres looked very wide-eyed and lost in his first couple shifts and then went into panic mode trying not to make mistakes in every shift after that.  I would expect Engelland to return in Game 4.  Get well soon, Brooks Orpik.

Mark Eaton: Eaton struggled in Game 3 against the Isles, recording 2 giveaways, struggling to clear the puck, and just roaming out of position at times.  The most frustrating play of his to watch was the Tavares goal, where Eaton got caught between standing up Tavares or backing off and blocking the shot, neither of which he accomplished as the puck landed in the back of the net.  He did come up with some nice plays in the defensive zone though, saving a goal at one point by diving at the puck with an open net behind him.  The positioning issues bring up a question of how well players play with Paul Martin.  Last game, Martin played poorly but Engelland struggled with positioning as Martin’s partner.  Now Eaton demonstrated a similar issue with Martin playing well.  Perhaps part of Orpik’s value that we have underestimated is how well he actually meshes with Martin and his style.  (This section is apparently the “I miss Brooks Orpik” section).

Misc. Thoughts

Despres goal against

Simon Despres can probably use this method of defense in the press box for Game 4. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Other Player Notes: Plenty of other player notes to share.  Malkin looked fantastic in his backchecking efforts and in the defensive zone.  He was second to only Crosby in his effort to keep up with the Isles going back the other way.  Iginla played a much more responsible game in Game 3 and was giving much better puck support.  Dupuis was caught out of position a surprising amount of times, frequently going very deep into the defensive zone so he wasn’t covering a point.  I have to wonder how much faith the forwards and Fleury have in the defense right now and how it is affecting their play.  Matt Cooke was absolutely outstanding on the penalty kill and made several plays that completely threw off the Isles powerplay.  Brandon Sutter was dropped to the 4th line as Jokinen moved up to the 3rd.  Personally, I do not think Sutter is doing anything wrong.  His coverage is strong, and his positioning is perfect, which is also one reason why you don’t notice him.  However, he isn’t adding anything at all in terms of offense.  Great D and no O?  That pretty much fits the expectations for the 4th line, not the 3rd line on this roster.

Overtime Penalty: There was plenty of talk about the holding penalty Crosby drew on Brian Strait that led to the game-winner in overtime.  In a weird way, both sides are right.  First of all, dissecting the play, Strait definitely puts both hands on Crosby, though he does not “grab” him.  He does push down though, which Crosby withstands until, if you look closely, Strait’s outside foot hits Crosby’s outside foot and Crosby goes down.  Now here’s the problem.  There are 2 sets of rules in the NHL that we have all learned to live by: the regular season rules and the playoff rules.  By regular season rules, that is a call 100% of the time.  It ended up being a takedown and it denied a clear scoring chance.  By playoff rules, especially playoff overtime rules, that is a call maybe 50% of the time.  So many things are not called in the playoffs, especially in overtime, that it really is a toss-up if that gets called or not.  Now don’t kid yourselves, much like baseball pitchers get varying strike zones based on their reputations, hockey players get calls the same way (see: Cooke).  If Kris Letang pulls down Brad Boyes like that, it probably isn’t called.  If Despres pulls down Tavares, it’s probably called.  Likewise, if Mark Streit pulls down Bennett in that situation, it’s probably not a call.  However, Brian Strait on Crosby likely pushes it over the threshold.  There is a very fair debate over if that holding penalty should have been called, not because of the rulebook, but because of the completely asinine threshold that referees and the NHL have set for penalties in the playoffs.  Therein lies the biggest problem in the debate, arguing rulebook vs. no rulebook in a sport that hasn’t decided which side of the debate they are on either.  Admit it, you’ve seen worse things not called and lesser offenses called.  Don’t blame Crosby or Strait, blame the sport.

Issues: The Penguins defense is a lot of things right now, ranging from bad to god awful.  The one word you aren’t hearing enough though is “confidence.”  That is what many of the players on D look like they are lacking right now as they try to handle the Islanders forecheck.  Every player seems to be struggling with the decision to back off to the Islanders speed or to step up and take the body like Letang did on Tavares.  They don’t want to get burned either way and look quite unsure of which decision to make.  That is leading to some great shooting chances for the Isles and just far too much room for them to work with.  People want to throw Bylsma off a cliff when things go awry, but I’d like to know what assistant coach and former defenseman Todd Reirden is doing to advise his defensemen right now.  They need to determine their strategy, because it looks like many guys don’t have one.

Lineup: I’ve already talked about missing Brooks Orpik enough, so let’s look at two things that will probably happen.  I imagine Engelland comes back into the lineup and I still expect Kennedy to enter the lineup at some point, though it may not be Game 4 quite yet.  Engelland had a bad game in Game 2, but he certainly shows more poise than Despres did in Game 3 and that’s what the Penguins need right now with how the Islanders have dominated play.  That’s not just a slight on Despres, it’s a team problem right now but it hurts Despres the most.  As for Kennedy, the turnover issues scare me and Bennett certainly has more potential, but TK has to have a huge chip on his shoulder at this point and a lot can be said about the opportunities you see when watching from the press box.  I would probably feel neutral about that switch if it happens.  I do like keeping Sutter on the 4th line; his defensive work is still great but it really doesn’t matter if the defense itself sucks.  Finally, I still wouldn’t go to Vokoun yet.  I’ll hit that point when Fleury plays a below average game.  Average isn’t bad enough to yank him.

Series Outlook: Though the Penguins have a 2-1 series lead, it probably doesn’t speak to how the series has been played so far.  That being said, the Penguins did what they needed to do, they regained home ice advantage by stealing one on the road.  This series is far from over though; the Penguins have plenty of adjustments to make to get out of this series.  If they do that, they will be a much stronger team moving forward.

+/- Assessment

1st Goal Against (Moulson): – for

  • Letang – gets beat to the outside by Visnovsky
  • Despres – falls over on the crease with the puck at his feet and also falls into Fleury, jamming him back in the net

2nd Goal Against (Cizikas): – for

  • Niskanen – turns the puck over in the defensive zone
  • Despres – turns his head and sees where Cizikas is skating into the zone but doesn’t skate into the passing lane as Niskanen is watching Grabner behind the net

1st Goal For (Iginla): + for

  • Crosby – sends the puck down low to Iginla, eventually gets it from Letang and send it back to him for a one-timer
  • Letang – gets the puck from Iginla, passes to Crosby, and one-times the pass back towards the net
  • Iginla – provided the initial pass option for Crosby, passed the puck up to Letang, and then puts Letang’s shot in the net

2nd Goal For (Kunitz): + for

  • Malkin – takes the puck in the defensive zone and passes it up to Kunitz for a breakaway
  • Kunitz – beats Nabokov glove-side on a breakaway

3rd Goal For (Dupuis): + for

  • Crosby – forces a turnover in D zone and moves the puck to Kunitz, then gets the puck back from Kunitz and sends it to crease for Dupuis
  • Kunitz – moves the puck back up to Crosby streaking into the offensive zone
  • Dupuis – crashes the net and puts the puck past Nabokov

4th Goal For (Murray): + for

  • Fleury – comes out to play the puck to Martin
  • Martin – passes the puck up to Malkin in the neutral zone
  • Malkin – skates the puck into the offensive zone, stops to look for a pass, and feeds Murray across the ice
  • Bennett – skates across the slot, drawing Carkner away from the left side of the ice and leaving Murray all alone
  • Murray – beats Nabokov with a wrist shot

3rd Goal Against (Okposo): – for

  • Morrow – gives the puck away with a bad pass to Eaton and isn’t covering back on defense after he sees Niskanen go deep into the zone
  • Niskanen – gets caught deep in the zone and can’t recover on the play

4th Goal Against (Tavares): – for

  • Kunitz – turns the puck over at the offensive blue line and doesn’t follow Tavares back into the defensive zone when he’s the closest guy
  • Crosby – takes a bad angle to the puck on the Kunitz giveaway, allowing Bailey to get past him with the puck
  • Eaton – gives Tavares far too much room to skate into the zone and partially screens Fleury at the same time

5th Goal For (Kunitz): + for

  • Martin – recovers a loose puck that’s knocked to him at the point, passes down to Crosby at the goal line
  • Crosby – holds the puck long enough for Kunitz to get into position and then passes to him
  • Kunitz – one-times the puck past Nabokov for the win

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