PITTSBURGH — Nobody expected the ledge to come this quickly, but here it is. The Pittsburgh Penguins had the fourth-best record in the National Hockey League this season, sported perhaps the two best players in the game, and were the betting favourites to win the Stanley Cup. What could be better?
And now they are down 2-0 to the Philadelphia Flyers and heading back to Philadelphia after two games in which they watched an early lead slip away, in pieces or in bursts. They haven’t just lost; they have been beaten. And much like the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks, two games into the post-season it has become a question of identity and trust, and whether the Penguins can hold onto either one.
“I mean, I think if you really watched the game closely it’s not like they’re carrying the play and all of a sudden it’s five shifts that they’re wearing us down and then they’re putting one in,” said Sidney Crosby, who had a goal and an assist in each of the first two games.
“It’s the other way around. We have possession for most of the time and we make one mistake, and it ends up in our net. Unfortunately that’s the way the game goes sometimes — it doesn’t seem fair, but that’s the way it goes. So we really, really have to focus on not making those mistakes, and we all believe we we have the guys to score goals.
“I think eventually, we keep doing good things, we keep going hard to the net, keep doing the things that we’re doing, hopefully we get some bounces too.”
Bounces is one thing; free-range defensive play is another. Philadelphia didn’t luck its way to eight goals in Game 2 — they did it on a rebound off a breakaway, a power play, an open rebound, an open shot from the slot extended, a defensive zone giveaway for a breakaway, a contested wrist shot from near the faceoff circle, a 3-on-1, and an empty netter. The Flyers had acres of room, and came flying at Fleury as if he was standing in the middle of an expressway. In Game 1 Philadelphia came back from a 3-0 deficit; in Game 2 Pittsburgh led 3-1, 4-3, and 5-4, and lost going away.
“If you’re asking does it affect the mindset, I think it does,” says Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma. “You can say that losing 4-3 is a 4-3 loss no matter how it goes down, and an overtime game is painful for anybody who’s losing 4-3. But I think we understand we had leads, 3-0 leads and two-goals leads, and they were able to come back … It’s difficult to deal with those losses but at the same time, we have to put it behind us.”
The question is what is wrong, and how to fix it. Down the stretch holes opened up in Pittsburgh’s defensive ice — an 8-4 loss to Ottawa, two 5-3 losses to the Islanders, a 6-4 loss to this same Philadelphia team in which the Flyers scored four third-period goals. Marc-André Fleury started three of those games, and finished two of them.
As Penguins defenceman Paul Martin puts it, “when you think of playoff games, and it being tight, the last couple of games I think for the most part have kind of caught us off guard as to what you expect, some of the chances given up … But I think we know the type of team that we are. I think the hardest part is we spend too much time trying to figure out why we let the lead slide.”
Pittsburgh was 32-0-3 this season when leading after two periods, tied for the sixth-best winning percentage in the league in that situation. But they were tied at the end of two in Game 2, and were only 19th in the league when leading after one period. They were 17th in goals-against, and 24th in save percentage. In their final 14 games with Sidney Crosby in the lineup, they went 1-4-1 when scoring fewer than five goals, and 8-0 when they scored five or more.
They have become, it appears, a sort of run-and-gun team, and against the Flyers — third in the league in scoring this season, two slots behind Pittsburgh — they have proven incapable of turning off the spigot once they race out in front.
But the Penguins believe this is wholly uncharacteristic. Maybe they’re right. Maybe they have no choice.
“This is who we are, this is our team, this is our identity, then as it unfolds down the stretch and you end up going goal for goal or you end up giving up some goals late — it can definitely be frustrating for teams,” said Martin. “For us, I think we still believe in who we are. We know who we are.”
Who are the Penguins? They think they know, but it’s time to find out again. And in Game 3 they can either peer into the abyss, or pull themselves away from it. We’ll see who they are. They will, too.
“We faced a lot this year. We had a lot injuries, a lot of media questioned our team, how fragile it was, and we always responded well,” says Pittsburgh defenceman Kris Letang. “We have a lot of character, I think, we have a lot of leaders in that dressing room. I’m really confident in this group.
“A good rivalry like that, you just want to live for those games. It’s fun to be part of, and we’ll see the true face of our team. And I think we’ll see if guys have character, and we’ll prove a lot.”
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