Down three games to zip in the first round?
Hey, anything can happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Penguins’ predicament now, following their 4-1 loss to the Islanders in Game 3 Sunday at PPG Paints Arena, is one that’s befallen several teams each spring.
Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel scoreless?
OK, they’re human. “You’ve got to find a way to score goals this time of year,” Crosby would say. “It’s not easy, but you’ve got to find a way.” And in Guentzel’s case, he’s pushing through an injury that’d normally keep him out.
Matt Murray getting popped twice right after his team took the lead?
That’s not ideal, either. “We just have to keep pushing forward,” he’d say. “That’s all we can do.” But they wouldn’t be in the tournament without him, and he’s otherwise been fine.
Justin Schultz inexplicably pinching on the second of those New York goals, even though the forwards were changing on the fly?
As he put it, “Just a bad play by me.”
Mike Sullivan again being outmaneuevered, on and off the ice, by Barry Trotz?
One whole goal, from a fourth-line winger, after another game of one whole goal, from a third-pairing defenseman?
Four whole shots on 5:16 of power-play time?
Twice as many giveaways as the Islanders, 16-8?
Getting scorched on every other rush by Tom Kuhnhackl?
The Pittsburgh crowd being shown up by the Long Island crowd?
That list could go on and on, a lot longer than these 10, and yeah, I’m sure I could create a bonus slot for the mere existence of civic scapegoat Dominik Simon. But the coldest fact of this nearly ice-cold body of work to date is that the list of individuals involved with the Penguins who’ve overachieved in their duties in this series could be condensed to … maybe Erik Gudbranson?
My God, that might not be hyperbole.
When any team I cover performs well, I’ll dig and dig to find out why. When that team doesn’t perform well, I’ll likewise poke and prod with questions to participants on both sides, I’ll delve into statistical models new and old, and I’ll ideally wind up with a fair representation of what went awry. And the one subject that almost never arises, particularly in playoffs, is effort.
Not this time. Not after this game.
Because, being blunt here, these guys didn’t give a damn. Not anywhere near enough of a damn, anyway.
I could live with the two losses on Long Island. They tried out there. They battled. They bled. They stuck up for each other. They skated with enough gusto to carve up that marbelized, slushy ice from front to finish.
Watch this. Seriously, just watch:
That’s 50 freaking seconds of New York’s fabled fourth line of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, taking on five Penguins. That’s right: It’s three-on-five. Because Trotz never allows his defensemen to pinch. They’re so far back in this sequence they’re barely even spotted. And yet, over those 50 freaking seconds, there isn’t a single solid double-team on Cizikas, Martin or Clutterbuck. Or a single sealing check to allow a teammate to scoop up the puck. Or a single smart slide to take away one of the two passing options.
Watch it another time. This time just the black sweaters. Consider the clock. Consider the circumstance, down two goals in what’s essentially an elimination game, then watch what they do.
How did that happen?
Rewind to the Penguins pouncing first on Garrett Wilson’s tip. The place was hopping for the first and only time, the opponent was put in its first uncomfortable position of the series, and this was allowed to follow half a minute later:
This was uninspired across the board, and don’t let the coach wriggle off: Right after his fourth line got him a big goal and a rare lead, Sullivan sent over the boards a line of Crosby between Phil Kessel and Zach Aston-Reese. And if that feels unfamiliar, that’s because those three had shared an ice surface for all of 3 minutes, 28 seconds all season long.
Awesome time to see what they can do.
Picture the effect that Jordan Eberle snipe had on the bench, as I brought up with Wilson:
Never mind the effect of the Islanders adding another 62 seconds later:
See what Brock Nelson and Kuhnhackl did to Crosby inside the New York zone?
Hm. They double-teamed him. Swooped in like they meant it and flew the other way.
See what Schultz did on that side, lunging forward to try to poke Kuhnhackl even as Nelson and Josh Bailey whizzed by?
Ugh. The line between effort and focus is blurred in a sport as fast as hockey. Focusing is the effort. And when the coach preaches incessantly about when to pinch and when to backpedal, and that happens … that’s flat-out not trying hard enough.
I hate this one so very much, if only because it’s as ugly and dull as hockey gets. But then, that takes two. The Penguins had clear, unfettered possession emerging from their zone. Brian Dumoulin still didn’t have many options on the outlet, with the Islanders stringing four across their blue line, but there’s another stride or two that can be taken, another second or two in which someone can get open, another body or two he can pull his way for a smarter chip behind the New York defense.
Instead … it was that. Flat as a Pamela’s pancake, and boomeranged back out to center red.
Heck, just isolate on Aston-Reese coasting down the right wing, kind of doubling on the forecheck with Nick Bjugstad, kind of peeling back for Robin Lehner’s predictable wrap around the boards, but kind of doing neither.
That’s effort, focus or some hockey hybrid of both.
Worse than any of the above, at least from my perspective, was this: How did this group, most of them still only a couple years removed from consecutive Cups, find the conscience to slog through the entirety of this game’s final 15 minutes to such an extreme that even the overcaffeinated Islanders finally slowed down themselves, possibly out of pity?
It was a two-goal difference, for crying out loud, but it looked like preseason at all points on the rink: No hard skate stops. No sprays near the crease. No shoves. No crispness. No hard drives on any rush through the neutral zone, at least none I’d detected, until one with 3:52 remaining in regulation.
As one veteran member of the front office observed for me afterward, “I couldn’t believe it. Nothing. We didn’t do anything.”
This was a playoff game. A critical one. And its outcome was determined, in large part, by a disparity in effort. For this franchise, with all it’s achieved, with Mario Lemieux watching, in front of its own paying faithful, that’s embarrassing.
Or at least it should have been. But I detected nothing of the sort in a locker room that seemed steeped in denial.
I asked Kris Letang if the Penguins were flat: “No, I think we had our chances. In the second period, we could have gained the lead. The goalie made great saves. And it’s hard to play hockey when you’re down by a goal, or down two when they’re playing a style like that.”
A similar question went to Kessel as to whether the collective effort was there: “Yeah, I mean, we all care. We all want to win. We’ll just try to get the next one and move on from there.”
Trying would be a swell start.
It was as if this were some meaningless Monday night in November against Minnesota.
The same applied for Sullivan, who’s ultimately responsible for his team’s effort and focus. He’s always been forthright when finding fault with either of those facets, but it felt like he cringed when asked if he’s seeing the right buy-in from his players: “Uh, I’m not sure I have an answer for that. Our guys, they care. They want to win. And they understand what it takes. So I’m not going to sit here and say they’re not buying in. Hockey becomes a game of mistakes sometimes. We’ve just got to do a better job of limiting some of the ones we’re making. That’s all.”
I don’t get this group. I just don’t.
They do care. All of them. Sullivan as much as anyone. But something’s been off with these Penguins since opening night, and I can’t help but start wondering if there just hasn’t been too much of a comfort level, a complacency for too long. All through this weird winter, they’ve simply flipped the switch when they’ve felt like it, and everything’s been awesome.
Well, the other team’s given a damn all along and doesn’t have to suddenly start manufacturing it.
In the morning, a couple hours before faceoff, Sullivan bristled upon being asked about the Penguins’ level of desperation: “I’m not sure I like that word because it implies a certain level of hopelessness associated with it. I try to avoid the word a lot because I just don’t think that’s the mindset that we need.”
How about now?
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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