Win And Advance; A Look Back At The Series That Was And How It Came To Be

The series came to end after a dominant performance by the Penguins and a third period they kind of showed up for.

This is not entirely fair to say. The Jackets did come back in game three in an epic way. Scoring three goals in the final ten minutes to scare Pittsburgh was a great ending for all. It gives hope to the fans for next season and reminds Pittsburgh to stay humble.

Although, in all fairness Pittsburgh had to play short Joe Vitale and Brandon Sutter for the final frame. With both leaving via injury, the Penguins only had three lines available.  They got caught flat footed, tired, and instantly fell into penalty trouble. The Jackets then threw everything they had at the net, outshooting Pittsburgh ten to five.

In the end, Pittsburgh did survive, but this type of ending speaks volumes about Columbus and who they are. They are a strong team, tough to the core, and well coached. It is my hope that the city embraces them. No more 50-50 crowds during Penguin games at Nationwide, this team deserves to be represented nightly by their own.

Major Takeaways

Sidney Crosby was good, pretty darn good, but not quite great. Crosby had 19 total shots, played 20 minutes per game, had a 61% possession time, and still averaged a point per game. He has to score in the next series, there is no doubt, but he was good enough in round one.

It is important to understand that his effort in round one was not the problem; however, Crosby’s production will need to improve if Pittsburgh wants to advance beyond the next round. One thing to consider is that no player on the Penguins had more missed shots in this series than Crosby. His 17 missed shots were more than any other player on the team and are a strong indication of how tight the Jackets had to play him in order to limit his production.

Brandon Sutter was the Penguins most improved player. Sutter had three goals, two assists, and finished a +6 in the series. He was a match up nightmare for the Jackets. In putting all their effort into stopping lines one and two, the Jackets no longer had the depth to keep down line three. This improvement for Sutter should pay dividends moving forward for Pittsburgh, assuming Crosby’s production will only increase.

The Penguins best defenseman was easily Paul Martin who led the team in assists and average time on ice. Martin played in every situation for the Penguins with multiple partners. It is no coincidence that Kris Letang’s game instantly improved when paired with Martin.

The cerebral defender is too knowledgeable to fall for the tricks and traps that Columbus was setting. He is a crucial piece moving into the next round.

James Neal has been brutal and that is putting things nicely. The second line sniper has just one single goal in this series and no assists. He does have 24 shots on net though; a really surprising stat when you consider his play has been visibly poor. If Neal wants to stay on the second line for the next round, he has to pick it up in every aspect of his game, including winning races to 50-50 pucks.

Gameplay

Pittsburgh was exceptional in five on five play in this series, something they struggled with during the regular season. The rise of Sutter and Bennett on the third line has a lot to do with this increase.

One thing that Pittsburgh can change is their approach to the offensive zone. Too many times in this series the Penguins just dumped the puck into the offensive zone instead of carrying the puck and forcing the play.

Crosby has to do a better job of creating his own chances. Against Columbus, Crosby was too willing to play dump and chase. While it did work, the Penguins started to get complacent in this system. I fully expect the Penguins to open up their game a bit more in the next series with a healed up forward core.

Marc-Andre Fleury has an even strength save percentage of .948, which is very strong, but his big mistakes are costing Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury, more than any other player on this team, needs to learn how to play within himself. If he limits his chances for gaffs, by which I mean playing the puck less outside his crease and allowing his defense to take responsibility for the puck behind the net, success should follow.

All in all here what people have to understand is that Pittsburgh won a series that they should have won. The Penguins were able to beat a team that challenged them, pushed them to the brink of mental stability, and score against a very strong goaltender. Pittsburgh played a few different styles during the series as well.

They implemented the trap, the left wing lock, the stretch passing, and more importantly a rather successful dump and chase game. The latter was consistently lost among the analysis of many. It was a game style missing last season.

Series Conclusions

As Pittsburgh continues on in the playoffs, there is a growing notion that they will find a more consistent effort and balanced approach. Let’s not forget, the Boston Bruins did not start the playoffs on fire last season. They had to battle through a poor series against the Leafs and were sparked from there on out.

It is also important to point out that Chicago was able to win a Cup last season with a slightly above average Jonathan Toews. Toews had just 3 goals and 11 assists in 23 playoff games last spring, but played well enough with the puck and away from the puck to control the game, something that Sidney Crosby is achieving to date.

Consequently, we have yet to see the Penguins full potential in the playoffs. This team has yet to have Crosby produce at his known rate. They have not had sniper James Neal play to his potential. The team as a whole has not killed penalties at their normal rate. It is a team that managed to win a series against a tough opponent with grit and determination, not just skill and finesse. That is the reason that this team can be looked at as successful. If the Penguins can find that balance of productivity and toughness, they will be very difficult to beat.