Selasa, 26 April 2011

Playing a Game 7 is a chilling prospect

Tuesday, April 26, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
Lightning players celebrate a second period goal by forward Sean Bergenheim during Monday's game at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla.

TAMPA, Fla. -- No one ever admits as much, but part of what you earn when you jump ahead, 3-1, in any best-of-seven series is a temporary license to screw around with that lead, and now no one will accuse the Penguins of failure to exercise all said rights and privileges therein.

Coming off a pasting on home ice Saturday that chopped their lead in half, the Penguins followed up at St. Pete Times Forum Monday night by failing to so much as put a shot on the net for more than half the first period, setting the tone for another feckless giveaway, this one gladly accepted by the Lightning as a 4-2 victory that puts the season on the line Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center.

The Penguins have had a 3-1 lead nine times in their postseason history, and eight of those times they hammered things down without facing the chilling prospect of a Game 7. The one time they were compelled to do so, the New York Islanders beat them; that was 1975.

That's real historical Chiller Theatre stuff right there.

Moreover, no one need be reminded that losing Game 7 on home ice is something of a Penguins vice if not a full-blown habit, and there's a certain hockey symmetry about the prospect of that very thing.

A year ago, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin flying around the offensive zone and Sergei Gonchar quarterbacking something called the power play, the Penguins still coughed away Game 7 to the Montreal Canadiens in the second round to close Mellon Arena. Doing the same thing a year later to the Lightning in the first round might just be the natural order of having none of those stars this time around.

"There is some experience on our team with that kind of drama and emotion," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after his team's first road loss of the postseason. "A do-or-die situation for both teams is a different kind of emotion and something we're familiar with."

The emotion of a Game 6 Monday night didn't seem to electrify anybody in uniform. Tentative probably isn't the precise adjective to describe the early chapters, so let's just say that both teams could have benefitted from a shot clock.

The Lightning, having spent most of the morning interviews explaining how it was an inexperienced but evolving playoff team after five games of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal, instead looked as jumpy as a Lindsay Lohan public relations staffer.

"We know how to act and what to do now," is what Lightning coach Guy Boucher was selling Monday morning.

Halfway through the first period, no one was buying it.

The Lightning spent the first 9:37 without managing a shot on goal, by which time the Penguins had just put their fifth shot past Tampa Bay goaltender Dwayne Roloson for a 1-0 lead. Pascal Dupuis got his first goal of the postseason and the all-important first goal of the game, or so it was thought. The first goal had signaled victory in the first five games of this series until Monday night. But in those first five games, the team scoring first was also the team scoring second. So shift your focus to the second goal. The team with the second goal has won all six games.

But shockingly enough, the Penguins answered Tampa Bay's offensive indifference with a whopping 10:32 in which they didn't generate a shot on goal, by which time the Lightning had tied the score. Teddy Purcell flipped home a Ryan Malone rebound to arrange that.

For an offense that had been outshooting the Floridians by an average of more than 11 shots per game, it was way out of character, but fortunately for the Lightning, the Penguins' power play continued with its all of its trademark consistency.

Consistently wretched.

The hockey audiences who inhabit St. Pete Times Forum like to boo melodically as the Penguins carry the puck up ice on the power play. They should be cheering.

Tampa Bay has got these Penguins right were they want 'em when there are four Bolts against five Penguins. There's no safer place in this series for Boucher's team than short-handed. Its strategy should be a fairly consistent menu of roughing, high-sticking, hooking, elbowing, tripping and interfering with the goaltender, all of which, come to think of it the Lightning did one or more times. The only things it missed where slashing, boarding, fighting, biting, low-sticking, slapping, too many men on the ice, and parking in a fire lane. But there's still a game left.

The Penguins are 1 for 30 with the man-advantage, but don't worry, at home, they're 0 for 20.

"We'll certainly look at what we can do better," Bylsma said.

Having done exactly that since about January, I suggest he simply call off the search.

By contrast, Tampa Bay used two first-period power plays to build the momentum that would carry it through most of two periods.

"They scored right after the second power play," Bylsma said.

The guy behind the other bench said he doesn't believe in momentum in the playoffs. You may count that among today's few comforting thoughts.

Gene Collier:

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