Playoff Thoughts: Game 5 vs Islanders

Quarterfinals Game 5: Pens 4 Isles 0

Pens Lead Series 3-2

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

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Stat Leaders

Shots: Letang (5)
Missed Shots: Neal (4)
Blocked Shots: Orpik (3)
Hits: Cooke (6)
Takeaways: Kennedy (2)
Ice Time: Letang (24:21) … Vitale (10:18)
Faceoffs: Vitale (9/10) … Malkin (6/11)

The Good

Tyler Kennedy playoff goal

Kennedy released weeks of pent up frustration in the form of a game-winning breakaway goal. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Tyler Kennedy: This is how his fairytale story was supposed to go, right?  Tyler Kennedy, hated by all of Pittsburgh and eventually benched in favor of plenty of worthy candidates, returns to the lineup as the savior of the Penguins and an immediate playoff hero.  We all saw that coming, didn’t we?  Kennedy looked like a man with plenty of energy to burn as he came out with a tenacious forecheck that was in play from start to finish.  His work ethic paid off quickly as he ended up with 2 takeaways, 4 shots, and a breakaway goal that turned out to be the game-winner, his 6th career playoff game-winner.  Not only was his offensive work commendable, but he was strong on the backcheck as well and helped the defense out.  It was a perfect all-around game for Kennedy and it was the biggest middle finger to 95% of Penguins fans.

Tomas Vokoun: Speaking of saviors, Vokoun was brought into the Penguins organization for just that reason.  To save Fleury from wearing down, to save the team if Fleury failed, and to actually make the saves that any average goalie would be expected to make.  He did all of that and more in a 31 save shutout that will surely earn him another start.  Though he looked shaky and uncomfortable early on, Vokoun improved with every shot he faced, leading up to a very impressive save on John Tavares after Tavares made Paul Martin look like….well, last year’s Paul Martin.  Vokoun kept it very simple, just staying square for the initial shots and letting his team do the rest.  It was predictable, dependable, and exactly what the Pens needed.

Matt Cooke: Cooke had a strong series going into Game 5 and he elevated his game in two ways, one of which was quite surprising.  First off, he was a forechecking machine, leading the team with 6 hits.  On a related and much more surprising note, Cooke finished off those 6 hits without taking a trip to the penalty box.  It was Cooke’s first game this series without a penalty and it was a very welcome sight for how aggressive he was playing.  At one point, he was even seen pulling Kyle Okposo away from a potential fight by locking his arms up and talking him down.  Add in a perfect PK effort, and Cooke did everything possible to have a fantastic game except for record a point.

Kris Letang: This was a huge turnaround game for Letang, both offensively and defensively.  He recorded two points with a powerplay goal and a beautiful, long pass to set up Tyler Kennedy’s goal.  He also made quite a few very smart decisions in the defensive zone.  He had 0 defensive zone turnovers, which was a massive difference from the previous 3 games.  He was either taking the easy pass, or skating the puck up through the neutral zone and then utilizing the easy pass when necessary.  The only two times I noted him for forcing the play were both deep in the offensive zone on harmless plays.  Game 5 was the perfect mix of talent and hockey intelligence for Letang.


Sidney Crosby goal celebration

Crosby unleashes his leg kick celebration that the Isles are too familiar with. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Sidney Crosby: Crosby had a very slow start to the game as he forced the play frequently in the offensive zone and made several bad passes that went straight to the Islanders.  He woke up midway through the 2nd period though and his game exploded after his highlight reel goal gave the Penguins a 3 goal lead.  After Crosby split the defense and beat Nabokov, he went on to block a shot, force a couple of turnovers, and assist on Letang’s goal.  It was a story of two games for Crosby, but luckily the best in his game won out.

Evgeni Malkin: Malkin was quiet overall on offense but made his mark defensively for the most part.  He did record an assist (which on replay, I don’t understand how he got credit for) and 3 shots, but never seemed to develop an offensive rhythm as he played only 15:08 in Game 5.  He clearly made a much better effort coming back to the puck in the neutral zone though and had strong defensive coverage overall.  Malkin himself prevented 2 neutral zone turnovers by skating back for passes instead of waiting for them to reach their destination.  That’s a very good sign for the Penguins and I would expect his offensive game to come around soon.

Douglas Murray: Murray scored another unexpected (and let’s be honest, weak) goal as you have to start wondering if Evgeni Nabokov is trying to help Murray reach some bonus salary level.  Murray floated a wrist shot from the point that went off of Nabokov’s glove, over him, and in the net.  It was the type of shot that even former Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace would wonder how it wasn’t caught.  But alas, a goal is a goal, so good for Murray.  However, his defensive zone work wasn’t quite as strong as it had been in previous games.  Murray looked flat-footed at times but luckily had the rest of his defense operating much better to help him out.  If nothing else, it was comical to see him taking a faceoff (lost) and playing on the powerplay at the end of the game.  Looking back at it, nothing from Murray’s game made any logical sense.

The Bad

Brandon Sutter: Sutter is the only player I was actually disappointed with in the Penguins lineup for Game 5.  I will never question his lack of offense because he does a lot of things defensively and positionally that most will not notice, but that part of his game has dropped off a bit.  I had him marked down for 2 failed clears and a defensive zone giveaway, none of which you want to see from your “shut down 3rd line center.”  Sutter hasn’t been himself in the playoffs but at least he went 8/12 in faceoffs to give some merit to his game.

Misc. Thoughts

Pascal Dupuis defense

Dupuis has easily been the best player in all 3 zones this series. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Other Player Thoughts: Dupuis played well, especially helping out in the defensive zone.  Martin had another strong game despite getting undressed by Tavares.  Simon Despres looked much better than he did in Game 3, though he did have some positioning issues.  His puck movement improved drastically though.  Joe Vitale was quite a spark plug for the team and went 9/10 in faceoffs to easily replace Jokinen.  Matt Niskanen is still a bit disappointing and looked lost at times in the defensive zone.

Lineup Changes: All four of Bylsma’s lineup changes played out to perfection.  Despres looked competent.  Vitale drew a penalty right off the start.  Kennedy scored a goal.  Vokoun had a shutout.  It’s pretty much impossible to argue any of the lineup changes and I would be shocked if anything changed heading into Game 6.  Every man pretty much earned his spot for the next game, with only Sutter forcing me to hesitate a little with Jokinen available.  I’m not at the point of saying Sutter should sit yet though.

Line Changes: We finally saw Iginla move to the first line with Crosby and Dupuis as Kunitz dropped to the 2nd line with Malkin and Neal.  While many question why it took forever for Bylsma to do that, give the head coach a lot of credit for sticking to it in the game.  When he first made the switch, the Malkin line immediately picked up their forecheck but the 1st line started to disappear a little bit.  I have to imagine that Bylsma took so long to make the switch because he’s always had a known commodity in that first line and knew it was dependable no matter what.  When that started to disappear and Crosby had a dismal start, he stuck to the new lines though and it worked itself out.  That being said, we haven’t seen the last of Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis in this playoff year, I’m sure of it.  The thing that really made that line magical isn’t how it produced offense; it’s how they covered all 3 zones to perfection.  That’s the aspect to watch for with these new lines.

Adjustments: The Pens had *only* 8 giveaways and the Isles had *only* 4 takeaways, both drastic improvements from the last two games for Pittsburgh.  The puck management was much better, passes were shorter, and players skated harder to loose pucks and to those passes.  Breakouts varied quite a bit, ranging from stretch passes to very short tic-tac-toe type passes through the neutral zone.  Breakouts were also much more controlled, including many “skate the puck as far as you can” decisions by the defense.  Overall, the team just looked smarter and much more willing to take what the Isles were making available.  They also did a fantastic job of clearing rebounds in front of Vokoun and they had that extra half step necessary to get to loose pucks that was a big key in Game 1.  There are still things to improve on, but that’s the type of effort that leads to a .750 winning percentage.

Tomas Vokoun angle

Vokoun played a steady game, something the whole team needed. (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

Goalie Situation: This will be an interesting storyline for the rest of the playoffs now.  Vokoun clearly earned a Game 6 start with a shutout; there is simply no question about who should start.  There were 2 huge differences I saw with Vokoun in net.  First of all, Vokoun only positioned himself to deal with the most likely outcome when the Isles had the puck.  He didn’t try to anticipate mistakes, or rebounds, or anything.  He just stayed square on the first shot and let everything take its course.  It worked out wonderfully.  Related to that, the second thing is the Penguins really pounced on every rebound Vokoun gave up.  They won almost every puck battle in front of Vokoun and they made a very strong effort to ensure there were almost no second chance shots for the Isles.  When Fleury was in net for the past two games, Fleury wasn’t doing what Vokoun did and the defense wasn’t doing what it did.  So from here on, I would say start Vokoun in Game 6.  If Vokoun plays well, say a shutout or 1 goal allowed, you probably have to keep him in for Game 1 of the 2nd round.  If he plays average in a win or loss, say 3 goals allowed, I think you go back to Fleury.  Any worse, obviously go back to Fleury.  Ideally, I would say start Fleury in Game 1 of the 2nd round.  However, let’s get there first and see how the team does get there.  One thing is for sure, the defense finally elevated their game.

Game 6: I certainly wouldn’t make any lineup changes but I wouldn’t get too excited quite yet.  The Islanders have gained priceless experience in this series that could very well payoff in Game 6.  Namely, they know they can beat the Pens, they know they have the advantage at home, and they know they can come back from a shutout (see Game 1) and beat the Pens in the next game.  To the Isles, Game 1 was a throw away game.  Game 5 may now be a throw away game to them as well.  They know how to bounce back from throw away games, and they will bring it all to the table in an elimination game on Saturday (7pm if you didn’t see).  I’m glad the Pens looked dominant in Game 5, but let’s not forget how this series started and where it went.  This isn’t over quite yet.

Series Outlook: With the Pens having a 3-2 series lead, this is exactly how you would expect a 7 game series to continue playing out.  The Pens won their Game 5 home game.  Game 6 should be advantage Isles as they look to win their home game and force a Game 7.  That’s how the home ice narrative of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is expected to play out.  So while we hope for a Pens win in Game 6, don’t freak out if the Isles even up the series.  That’s why a regular season was played, so the Pens would have a Game 7 at home.  Forget the history, this team has already hit unchartered territory, why let history interrupt it now.


+/- Assessment

1st Goal For (Kennedy): + for

  • Sutter – stops a shot short of the net so the puck bounces to Letang
  • Letang – throws a pass from the defensive zone to Kennedy at the offensive blue line
  • Kennedy – beats Nabokov glove side on a breakaway

2nd Goal For (Murray): + for

  • Kunitz – chases down the puck in the corner and beats Aucoin to it despite starting behind him, passes the puck up to Murray at the point
  • Murray – fires a light wrist shot that Nabokov can’t glove as the puck bounces over him and into the net

3rd Goal For (Crosby): + for

  • Despres – wins a puck battle behind the Penguins net and slides the puck out to Dupuis on the boards
  • Dupuis – moves the puck up to Iginla exiting the defensive zone
  • Iginla – passes the puck along to Crosby at center ice
  • Crosby – splits the Islanders defense, beats them both, and fires a shot past Nabokov

4th Goal For (Letang): + for

  • Martin – retrieves Crosby’s faceoff win and gives the puck back to him
  • Crosby – wins the faceoff, gets the puck from Martin, and sends a backhanded saucer pass to Letang
  • Kunitz – sets a moving screen in front of Nabokov
  • Letang – one-times the shot past Nabokov

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