Monday, April 19, 2010

Lost and Found

It's hard to put an exact date on when the Penguins lost what they were looking for.  I think the closest one might come is Saturday, October 24th.  That morning the Penguins were 9-1-0 and had scored three or more goals in every game except their 3-0 loss to Phoenix two and a half weeks earlier.  Times were good.

That night they lost at home to the New Jersey Devils 4-1.  It was their first game against either the Devils or the Washington Capitals, against whom they would proceed to go a combined 0-9-1.   For the third year in a row they were the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.  Their 38-27-7 record after their hot start is nothing to sneeze at, but after winning four straight coming out of the Olympic break, they won back-to-back games exactly once the rest of the year.  They have been alternating wins and losses in their last nine games including last night's 4-2 road win in Game 3 against the Ottawa Senators.

But last night I think they found what they were looking for.  There is no question the Penguins played one of their most complete games of the season.  Almost all the components that have been keys to their success this year were in evidence.  
  • Scoring Early.  Alexsei Ponikarovsky, last seen on a milk carton, played his best game as a Penguin and jump started the team by ripping a quick wrister past Brian Elliot low on the glove side at 1:17 of the first.  It is just Ponikarovsky third goal as a Penguin and his second playoff goal and sixth point in twenty-six post-season games.  
  • An Aggressive Forecheck.  Tyler Kennedy, Max Talbot, Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams where just a few of the guys who constantly pressured and harassed the Senators back line.  And like Kunitz in Game 2, Talbot's hustle and deft stickwork lead directly to a Penguin goal when he beat Erik Karlsson to the puck and flicked a shot on Elliot.  Evgeni Malkin was there for the rebound and the Pens were up 2-1.
  • Timely Goaltending.  Marc-Andre Fleury causes heart palpitations for many of the Penguin faithful.  He only had one shutout all year, and as I've mentioned, was pulled a league-leading eight times.  He seems to give up a soft goal every game.  Last night was no exception as he got caught cheating across his crease on the Senators second goal.  But, as is his wont, he makes timely saves and he came up with more than a few good ones after the Senators had tied the game at one.
  • Dancing with the Stars.  Malkin played another good game, scored a goal and was a dominating factor early.  He loves to carry the puck, but his carelessness with it leads to turnovers that have led to way too many scoring chances for the opposition.  But, when he's on, he's unstoppable and last night he was mostly on.  Sidney Crosby was the best player on the ice for the second game in a row.  His game-winner came when he outworked Andy Sutton in the corner and "crab-walked," as the "Old two-niner" put it, out of the corner and waited and waited and waited until Elliot went down and he saw an opening.  Another one of those goals that very few guys in the NHL can score.
The Penguins didn't play a perfect game.  Their penalty killing, a strength most of the season, has been victimized this series giving up 2 goals in 4 chances last night and 4 in 9 for the series.  Jordan Staal has gotten off to a slow start and as a team they have had trouble getting a lot of shots on net to pressure Elliot, who has been shaky in two of the three games thus far.

But last night I think they finally found what they were looking for.  The Senators are trying to play New Jersey Devil-style hockey--keep the Pens on the side wall, limit their ability to breakout and go north-south quickly, block shots and keep the front of the net clean.  Last night the Penguins were able to solve that style of play, really for the first time all year.  They found the switch they've been looking for and they turned in a dominating performance.  It was probably their best overall game since the calendar changed.

The Penguins have alternated wins and losses in the last nine games.  Tuesday night we'll find out if they really did get to reclaim their game from the lost and found window or if they just had a really good night.

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