Down three games to the zip in the first round?
Hey, anything can happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Penguins' predicament now, following their 4-1 Castle to the Islanders in Game 3 Sunday at PPG Paints Arena, is one that's been 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 the injury that would 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 would say. "That's all we can do."
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, is 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-pair defenseman?
Four whole shots at 5:1
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, much 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 almost ice-cold body of work to date is that the list of individuals involved with the penguins who have overachieved in their duties in this series could be condensed to … maybe Erik Gudbranson
My God, that may not be hyperbole.
When any team I cover performs well, I'll dig and dig to find out why. When that team does not perform well, I'll likewise poke and prod to questions to the participants on both sides, I'll delve into statistical models new and old, and I'll ideally wind up with a fair presentation of what went awry . And the one subject that almost never appears, especially in playoffs, is the effort.
Not this time. Not after this game.
Because, being blunt here, these guys did not give a damn. Not anywhere near enough of a damn, anyway.
I could live with two losses on Long Island. They tried out there. They were battling They bled They stuck up for each other. They've been scouting with enough gusto to carve that marbelized, slushy ice from front to finish.
Watch this. Seriously, just watch:
This is 50 freaking seconds from New York's fabled fourth line of Casey Cynic, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, taking on five Penguins. That's right: It's three-on-five. Because Trotz never lets his defensemen pinch it. They're so far back in this sequence they're barely even spotted. And yet, over these 50 freaking seconds, there is no solid double-team is Cynic, Martin or Clutterbuck. Or a single sealing check to allow a teammate to scoop up the puck. Or a smart smart slide to take one of the two passing options.
Watch it another time. This time just the black sweaters. Consider the clock
How to do that?
Rewind to the Penguins pouncing first on Garrett Wilson's tip. The opponent was put into its first uncomfortable position in the series, and it was allowed to follow half a minute later:
This was uninspired over the board, and do not 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 the ice surface for all 3 minutes, 28 seconds all season.
Awesome time to see what they can do.
Picture the effect that Jordan Eberle snipe was 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 within the New York area?
Hm. They double-teamed him. Swooped in like they meant it and flew the other way.
What did Schultz do on that side, lunging forward to try to knock 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 the 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 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 has not had many options on the outlet, with the Islanders stranding 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 the center of the red.
Heck, just isolate the Aston-Reese's 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 the effort, focus or some hockey hybrid of both.
Worse than any of the above, at least from my The perspective was this: How much this group, most of them only a couple of years away from successive Cups, find the conscience to throw the full 15 minutes of this game to such extreme that even overcaffeinated Islanders finally slowed down themselves , perhaps out of pity?
It was a two-goal difference, for crying out loud, but it looked like a preseason at all points in the rink: No hard skate stopping. No sprays near the crease. No shoves No crispness From the hard drives there is no 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 could not believe it Nothing. We did not 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 his own paying faithful, that's embarrassing.
Or at least it should have been.
I asked Kris Letang if the Penguins were flat: "No, I think we had our chances." In the second period , we could have got the lead. The goalie made a great save. And it's hard to play a hockey when you're down by a goal, or down two when they play like this. "
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 from there."
Trying would be a swell start
The same applies to Sullivan, who ultimately is responsible for his team's efforts and focus. He's always been forthright when finding a 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 a 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 do not buy in. Hockey becomes a game of mistakes sometimes. We just got to do better job of limiting some of the ones we're making. That's all. "
I do not get this group. I just do not.
They do care. All of them Sullivan as much as anyone. But something has been off with these Penguins since opening night, and I can not help but start wondering if there has just been not too much of a comfort level, a complacency for too long. All through this weird winter, they've simply flipped the switch when they felt like it, and everything was awesome.
Well, the other team has given a damn all along and does not have to suddenly start to produce it.
In the morning, a couple of hours before faceoff, Sullivan bristled when 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 do not think that's the mindset that we need. "
How about now?
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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