Pens Fall in Game 2, not a time to panic
Series tied at 1
Home Ice Advantage
Penguins fans who have payed the steep fee that goes along with playoff hockey in Pittsburgh over the two previous April months have once again watched the Penguins fall to the New York Rangers at home. Considering the well documented frustrations that this team and its constituents have endured over the past few years it is easy to turn to anger after another Rangers victory at Consol Energy Center. But before you criticize their efforts, and inexplicably write Evgeni Malkin into the list of "scratches" for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden let's take a look at the facts.
It is a general assumption among hockey fans, both across the United States and Canada, that when it comes to the playoffs every home game is precious. For last year's Penguins club this was especially true regarding players who would seem to get flustered both by the atmosphere and after making a mistake or two (Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maata, etc), allowing that mistake to ultimately take over their game. But as for the 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins it has hardly been an issue thanks to fan favorite coach Mike Sullivan. Under Sullivan, and over the past few months, the Penguins have ruled just about every ice surface they've played on including that of the dauntingly dangerous Washington Capitals. Finishing 24-15-4 on the road this season the Penguins were considered the best team in hockey down the stretch winning 9 of their last 11 games. So when it comes to road games the penguins have taken care of business and Sullivan seems to bring an air of confidence to the back part of the bench that hasn't been seen in a Penguins building since Badger Bob Johnson and Scotty Bowman perused it.
Now regarding Evgeni Malkin, many Pens fans were severely worried about what a Malkin insertion back into the Pens lineup would mean for the Penguins chemistry. While it was easily lost in the final seven minutes of the second period that saw goal after goal tickle the twine behind Jeff Zatkoff, Geno had one heck of an outing. He was moving the puck into high scoring areas and was especially efficient at ragging the puck into the offensive zone and doing it with power, a characteristic unique to Malkin that would be dearly missed on any hockey club. As Sidney Crosby eluded to in his postgame interview, the Rangers had " four or five shifts" where they were able to take advantage of the notoriously stingy Penguins defense and capitalize on missed assignments. Regardless of a chemistry adjustment, Malkin's presence in the Penguins lineup can only mean good things for the black and gold and his rocket shot both on and off the power-play will be a vital piece for the Penguins playoff run moving forward. Malkin finished the game even in the plus/minus category turning in a zero, had an assist on the second Phil Kessel goal, and was not responsible for any glaring turnovers that led to scoring opportunities for the Blueshirts.
For as good of a game as Evgeni Malkin turned in, Olli Maatta had one of his worst of the season and it was hard to miss. Maatta made several gaudy errors during the game highlighted by a whiff on the puck as he attempted to move it up ice that eventually led to the controversial breakaway goal by Derrick Brassard. Additionally, Maatta took a horrible angle towards Rangers' speedy forward Derek Stepan that led to a glorious breakaway opportunity early in the first period that was ultimately turned aside by Jeff Zatkoff. Instead of backing up and bailing out his defensive partner Kris Letang, Maatta attempted to play the man and got toasted by Stepan. In both situations it is crucial that Maatta retreats and does whatever he can to get the puck off of the stick of the attacking forward. Maatta's mistakes on the ice on Saturday were second only to that of Flyers goaltender Steve Mason who briefly forgot how to play goaltender and let a puck that was dumped from the Capitals zone slip between his wickets and into the net, a nightmare for any goalie at any level of hockey. Yes, it is always fun to poke fun at the Flyers.
Zatkoff and the Penguins goaltending
Much like Thomas Vokoun in the 2012 Stanley cup playoffs, Jeff Zatkoff has stepped in for Marc-Andre Fleury and has played honorably considering he spent most of the ladder part of the season in Wilkes Barre Scranton. Zatkoff has done a phenomenal job in rebound control as well as pushing off the post and challenging shooters in the slot. Most of the goals scored in this series by the Rangers have come from deflections and cross crease passes which are extremely difficult to stop and should not be allowed by the Penguins defensemen. Mike Sullivan has put great emphasis on shot blocking for this team in order to help the goaltender and the Penguins have responded beautifully, belligerently laying down in front of shots and absorbing them completely to protect the net something that I have not seen as emphasized by a Pens team since the 09' cup run. This small facet of the Penguins game has significantly helped the penalty kill as well as created turnovers and opportunities highlighted by Sidney Crosby's break away goal in game one.
At the beginning of the series, the biggest news around the NHL regarding goaltending was surrounding that of our very own Marc-Andre Fleury and his state following his second concussion of the season. No one knew who would sit between the pipes for the Penguins to start the series on Wednesday night. However, everyone knew who the Rangers net minder was going to be. Henrik Lundqvist a.k.a King Henry has to be the least favorite goaltender in the entire league and amongst Penguins fans especially as he has dispatched Crosby and the Pens each of the last two postseasons. After a scary moment in Game one that saw Lundqvist writhing on the ice in pain after the toe of Marc Staal's stick had unluckily made its way through the bars of Lundqvist's mask and into his eye area, backup Antii Raanta occupied the net for the Rangers and as you well know a lot of fun ensued. However, the Swedish goaltender returned for Game two and stole the show after the rangers had taken the lead, robbing Bryan Rust who also returned from injury on a breakaway opportunity that would've turned the game on its side had it have gone in. Lundqvist has always been a stout goaltender and I fear that he may be able to steal this series as he has done in the past.
Tips to win Moving Forward
To say it is going to be extremely difficult to beat Lundqvist going forward is a massive understatement, but the way to beating the Swedish superstar lies in the style of play of another Swedish superstar. Patric Hornqvist must continue his net front presence and relentlessness around the dirty areas if the Penguins are going to turn away the blue shirts in this series. Lundqvists' skill lies in his ability to track the puck so beating him is going to take screens in front of net by Hornqvist as mentioned as well as guys like Eric Fehr and Tom Kuhnackl. Bodies in front of the net leads to deflections which are seemingly impossible to predict or track. Additionally, if the Penguins want to win this series they will need to ramp up their speed. In last year's playoffs, it was the Rangers who had deadly speed allowing them to belligerently and effectively trap teams in their own zone with a powerful forecheck leading to countless neutral-zone and defensive-zone turnovers. The Penguins have that ability this year after seizing Carl Hagelin from Anaheim and Phil Kessel from Toronto as well as bringing up young forwards like Bryan Rust, Connor Sheary, and Tom Kuhnackl who have served them mightily on the forecheck. Speed kills and relentless pressure in the offensive zone will lead to frustration by the Rangers which will lead to either goals or power play opportunities. Thirdly, the Penguins need to improve the forecheck with hitting. In game two, the Rangers out hit the Penguins by a staggering 57-25 margin. This was obviously the game-plan for the Rangers coming in and it would behoove the Black and Gold to respond by putting the Rangers and especially their defensemen to the glass as that is the most vulnerable part of their game without Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh in the lineup. Swift and smooth transitions out of the defensive zone are crucial. If you turn the puck over to this Rangers team they are going to make you pay as they did last year the younger defensemen like Maatta need to make smart decisions when it comes to moving the puck whether its to a man wearing Black and Gold or simply lifting it to the neutral zone and out of harm's way. Finally, the Rangers created many opportunities in games one and two by firing stretch passes down the middle of the ice causing odd man opportunities. If the Penguins can step in front of a few of these passes they can catch a few Rangers cherry-picking on the blue line and get odd man opportunities of their own.
The Penguins dominated play in both game one and game two and were hurt by glaring mistakes at the end of the second period that coach Mike Sullivan can and will fix heading into game three. The Penguins have manufactured goals against the best of goaltenders this season and have some of the most creative playmakers in the Eastern Conference including Malkin, Crosby, Bonino, and Cullen. If the Penguins are able to stay with assignments, transition out of the defensive zone, and move the puck around Lundqvist it will take six games to dispatch the pesky Rangers.