Slow It Down, Pittsburgh!
Watching the Pittsburgh Penguins struggle to check the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday night in their second loss of their first round playoff series a realization hit me. I tried to deny it and thought if I kept my belief hidden maybe it wouldn’t come true. But when the 3rd period collapse inevitably unfolded there was no longer any doubt, I wasn’t watching the Pittsburgh Penguins. I was actually watching the 2008 Washington Capitals, a team with a wide-open style who tried to win by out scoring their oppoenent and not by limiting their own goals against. And this scared me. It scared me because I was cheering for the Penguins. It scared me because I hate the Flyers more than any team in sports. And it scared me because teams that play like the 2008 Capitals never win. Not in the playoffs.
Entering the playoffs the Penguins, along with the Western Conference Vancouver Canucks were seen as the big favorites. Any why not? Ever since falling to 9th place in the Eastern Conference on January 11th the Penguins had been a team on a mission. What might have seemed impossible at the time, the Penguins fought closely with the New York Rangers, the conferences top team, to capture the top spot in the East over the final few weeks of the season. They were able to put themselves in this position because of a remarkable 30-8-2 record after January 11th. This turnaround occurred because of one simple change: more goals. After sitting in 8th place in the league in Goals For on January 11th the Penguins would finish 1st at the end of the regular season by a wide margin (From January 11th onwards they scored 25 more goals in the 2nd place Boston Bruins). They improved their goals average by a full goal per game moving from a strong 2.95 to an unheard of 3.95 goals per game. The offensive turnaround was not mirrored by a similar defensive improvement. In the last 40 games the Penguins actually gave up slightly more goals per game than the first half of the season (2.7 goals against per game). The change in he Penguins strategy was evident on the ice, they did not shy away from long neutral zone passes and they chose to carry the puck over the blueline instead of dump-ins. Once in the attacking zone they favoured high risk lateral passes in an attempt to make a big play that often resulted in turnovers. Everyone choose to ignore the warning signs, myself included, because the hot streak was so much fun. With such a sterling late season record and a return of the recent return of Sidney Crosby how could anyone slow down this juggernaut? But the Penguins exclusive improvement in the goals for department should have been an indication of the Penguins vulnerability in the playoffs.
In the opening minutes of game one the Penguins played like they were already in the cup finals. They smashed the Flyers at every turn, they out skated them to every puck and they never gave them an inch of free ice. The problem with those opening 10 minutes is how much of a contrast there is to their play then and for the rest of the series. Since those opening minutes their play has made me believe they were only playing that tough for show. They wanted to display that they were a physical team that knew what playoff hockey was all about, and after they had satisfied themselves that they had shown they knew the right way to play they reverted to the team they always were, or atleast the team they have become over the last half of the season. Once their energy from the opening minutes was sapped the Flyers slowing took control of the game. Suddenly they were the team on the attack and the Penguins defensive zone coverage was challenged. The Flyers also used this change in tempo to become the more physical team, turning the tables on the Penguins hard-hitting early style. It cannot be over-looked that the Flyers appeared to be the more determined team either, doing all the little things to make sure they get under the skin of the Penguins, including making sure they are the team getting the last shot on every single scrum around the net. They are not giving and inch and they mean it.
I don’t doubt that any of this is lost on Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. But his team sold out during the last half of the season in order to win the easiest way possible. He may know that a switch in tactics is required but you cannot just change your team DNA over the course of a few games. It was clear in game two, even when the Penguins had a lead they were incapable of playing a defensive style. Every time there was a turnover in their own zone their forwards would leave the zone early trying to get a jump on the rush up ice before the defense even had even secured possession of the puck. It is things like this that are impossible to instantly erase.
The writing was on the wall but everyone chose to ignore it. Part of it may have been the pedigree of the Penguins Super Duper Stars. Part of it may have been their playoff tested team which has a recent Stanley Cup win to their name. But what is clear is that this high-flying team is not that squad who beat the Detroit Red Wings in 7 games. Pittsburgh scored goal totals of 4, 4, 2 and 2 to win the cup finals against Detroit in 2009. Games 6 and 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals that year finished with identical scores. Pittsburgh 2, Detroit 1, that’s playoff hockey. That’s how you win. It is not too late for the Penguins to make a change. But what is certain is that one is required. Because this team as it stands now is not going to hoist the cup.