Eastern Conference Semi Final Update; Penguins Edition

It took two overtimes and three simple defensive breakdowns to end a pivotal game three in the Penguins and Senators round two playoff series. It was dramatic, nerve racking, and punishing. The nasty play and overall demeanor developing in this series is better than advertised.

The tone coming into the series was mostly anticipation of brutal play. With hopes that the polarizing penguins club could be witnessed getting knocked around by a bigger Ottawa defensive core. This did not happen to the extent in which many were hoping, I see you Philly, but the physicality shown in this series dwarfs the slow tone of the only other eastern conference series.

In game one Pittsburgh had outhit the Ottawa Senators by a large margin and none bigger than Brooks Orpik’s open ice body shot on Eric Gryba, who would not return. The game was won by the Pens by the score of four to one and this was in large part to a complete game effort that saw body shots taken until the final horn sounded.

Game two was a faster start with slightly less physical play on the Penguins part. They used the momentum and physical threat from game one to take advantage of the Senators. The Senators gave Pittsburgh too much time and space, allowing them to execute set breakout plays on a consistent basis. Sidney Crosby took full advantage of this by registering his second career playoff hat trick, this time in a winning effort. Once the Senators had realized Pittsburgh was backing off a bit, they counter attacked, placing Pittsburgh on their heels. It ended in a losing effort, but the four to three final score showed that Ottawa was in fact a “pesky” club capable of going the distance with Pittsburgh.

In game three, easily the best game of the series thus far, Pittsburgh and Ottawa battle until late in the night to decide the winner. The two to one double overtime victory for the Senators showed a lot of resolve. They had goaltender Craig Anderson playing with confidence again. Eric Karlsson even decided to play defense, stick checking Crosby twice to disrupt opportune chances on the rush.

While the game went to the Senators, both teams could be considered proverbial winners. The Penguins showed a much stronger defensive game that had not truly been seen since Crosby broke his jaw on March 31st.

They stuck to their game plan, staying in shooting lanes and forcing the Sens to take longer, bad angle shots on net. It was just one defensive breakdown in which the entire line flowed with the puck that allowed Ottawa to score.

The overtime winner was the result of the Penguins having three defensemen on the ice after a successful penalty kill. The breakdown of how each defenseman was to play their specific role resulted in a free body in front of the net and the overtime victory.

The game plan for game number four does not change. The Penguins played an excellent road game in game number three, but did not capitalize on their chances. Anderson was very good, but still has allowed three or more goals to the Penguins two out of the three games. If one includes the regular season, the Penguins have scored three or more goals on Anderson in the majority of games played.

If Joe Vitale is ready to go for game number four on Wednesday, the Penguins brass will not hesitate to put him in the lineup. His speed gives the Penguins a distinct advantage in the match ups opposed to Tanner Glass, who did in respect play a strong game on Sunday.

The worst part of the Pittsburgh Penguins game thus far has been face offs. Sidney Crosby has been quite bad at these since his return, under 50%, despite being one of the more successful faceoff men in the league the past few seasons. Joe Vitale is the only Penguin in the series to have an over 50% faceoff winning percentage.

All in all, the Pittsburgh Penguins are playing a much better brand of hockey in round number two as opposed to round number one. They executed a much stronger cycle game and have controlled more ice time than they had in the first series. Despite the shot count in this series, the Penguins cycle game has forced Ottawa to take any shots available, even if they are the low percentage shots. It is a game plan that was set in place when the Penguins got slower at the trade deadline.

Given their respective play in this series, Ray Shero did a pretty good job. We now have to find out if Bylsma can continue to push the right buttons.

The one issue I have seen with this club is the lackluster play of Brandon Sutter. He has not really established himself on the ice like many had hoped he would. His play has not been awful, but one would not consider it anything more than average.

Another issue is the inconsistency of Crosby in this series.  While he has three goals, they all came in game number two. His faceoff percentage is way down, most likely due to the faceguard he is wearing, but his offensive production needs to be more consistent. Once Sidney Crosby can truly find his legs in these playoffs, which I have yet to truly see, the Penguins could possibly be as dangerous as any team in the NHL.