Last night’s 2-1 double overtime loss was obviously not the result we wanted, but is it possible it was our best playoff game yet? It think it very well could be. In this post I’ll highlight what we did well last night and how we improved our play from the first round. I’ll also point out flaws in our game and how they can be fixed for game four.
What We Did Right
Arguably the biggest issue when facing the Islanders was the large number of turnovers. In my review of round one I stated that the issue of turnovers should work itself out in the series against the Sens due to the Sens’ lack of speed in comparison with the Isles. It seems it has. However, the lack of speed wasn’t the only cause for the drastic decrease in turnovers. The Pens as a whole have been crisper and smarter with the puck. The number of stretch passes have been reduced and we’re playing the puck more up the boards instead of throwing it to the vulnerable area that is the middle of the ice. This was especially evident last night. Although there were a couple sketchy moments where the Pens did not manage the puck well on breakouts (especially on a few of the power plays) overall we were smart with the puck and it resulted in more time in the offensive zone.
Last night was also Vokoun’s strongest showing of the playoffs, possibly of the entire season. Vokoun made 46 saves on 48 shots, posting a .958 save percentage. You’re not going to lose many games with those numbers. It just so happened that Anderson also decided to be stellar in net. I really don’t have anything else to say about Vokoun, besides to just let him keep rolling because it’s working.
While several of our scoring chances were off the rush, we established a forecheck which had been lacking earlier in the playoffs. This was in part due to the lack of turnovers, which led to a more stable game instead of one that is constantly going north and south. The forecheck also allowed us to use shorter shifts. This was huge in the third period. Despite the late goal it was the best third period of the playoffs, in large part because of the forecheck. Until the penalty against Karlsson was called, the Pens were pressuring in the offensive zone, not allowing Anderson to come out of the net. It reminded me of our 2-1 win against Boston earlier this season.
Last night Geno seemed to remember that he is the reigning MVP. It was highlighted by his outstanding move in OT that led to a scoring chance. He minimized his turnovers too, although a couple were still present. It was his most complete game of the playoffs, and he played solid defense, but if you’re praising his defensive side of last night’s game then didn’t watch the whole thing. Yes, his defense improved and nothing he did on defense hurt us, but there were still multiple times throughout the game that he was lazy on the backcheck. He was flying in the offensive zone, but he needs to match that intensity defensively.
Well first I have to credit the entire team for not taking many penalties to begin with. Over four periods of play and we only took 3 minors. That makes the job pretty easy for the penalty killers, not to mention matchups stay intact. That said, when we did take penalties our penalty killers were up to the task. Although I was not happy at times when we didn’t effectively clear the crease, we did a better job of boxing out and forcing the puck over the blue line. And of course, the best penalty killer was Vokoun.
Kris Remembered How to Defense
In my review of round one I said that Letang played like a Norris Trophy candidate until he became a Norris Trophy candidate. It seems he has gotten back to his game. Letang played smart hockey last night, and it’s not often I use the words smart and Letang in the same sentence. In the first round, Letang made so many turnovers I lost count. Between him and Geno the turnovers were atrocious. However, last night Letang controlled the puck well, and I was really pleased with all aspects of his game. Except one. I’ll talk about this more later when I discuss the power play, but I wish Kris would realize that he can shoot the puck on the power play. He had been doing a good job of that until last night. There were multiple times when he had an open lane and at some times a screen and instead of taking the shot, he deferred to Geno. But overall, Letang had a really solid game and was by far the best defenseman on the ice.
What We Didn’t Do So Well
I finished up my analysis of Letang by discussing the power play, so I decided to start with it here. Our power play has had great success in the playoffs but over the past two games it has gone one for twelve. With our skill that can’t happen. However, I have a couple theories on why it did. First, we can’t get complacent. We have the best power play in the league and the guys know it. Sometimes it seems that they forget that they actually have to put forth some effort. They also forget that they need to shoot the puck to score. This was especially evident during the 5 on 3. The only actual shot we got was Geno’s from the high slot. After Anderson made the save the NBC announcers (who annoyed me the entire game, I must add) praised Anderson for s miraculous save. While it was a good save, the attention the announcers gave it was annoying. Why? Because there was no screen and everyone knew that Geno was going to be the one to shoot. We had no one in front of the net and Anderson had a clear view of the puck. Not to mention Geno shot it right at him. But the reason we didn’t score wasn’t that Geno put it right on Anderson, but that we had zero traffic in front of the net.
Perhaps my biggest pet peeve of our power play right now is the lack of James Neal on the top unit. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Iginla. I also don’t mind having Martin on the point. But neither of those power play units are going to be as effective as one with Neal on the half wall. We have the guy that led the league in power play goals in 2011-2012, and probably would have led in 2013 if he wasn’t injured, sitting on the bench while we’re on the power play. Play Geno and Letang on the points, Neal on the half wall, and Kunitz and Crosby down low. The only alteration could be putting Sid on the half wall and having Neal down low. It makes no sense to have Letang and Iginla on the points because they are both right handed shots. Put Letang on the first power play unit and play Iginla on the second unit.
Top Two Lines
First, a pretty golden tweet from last night.
While the line of Neal, Malkin, and Iginla looks great on paper, it looks pretty awful on ice. Let me rephrase that. The line itself isn’t awful, but it is when you compare it to other lines that we have available with our roster. I have said this time and time again. Malkin and Iginla have ZERO chemistry. None whatsoever. I’m really not sure what Bylsma sees that he keeps putting them together. He moved Iginla to Crosby’s line and I thought he finally realized the lack of chemistry only to find Iginla back on a line with Malkin. I wrote about our line combinations in a previous post, so I’m not going to dwell on it, but we need to play Iginla on Crosby’s right wing with Dupuis on the left, and play Kunitz on Malkin’s left wing with Neal on the right. These line combinations give us two top lines that have great chemistry.
It’s not often I find myself criticizing Chris Kunitz. I’ve often claimed that he is one of the most consistent players on the team. However, last night he was basically invisible. Well, he was invisible until he forgot how to hockey on the power play at the end of the game when he didn’t play Alfredsson back in the Sens zone and let him go up ice, resulting in the tying goal. Overall, he wasn’t getting to pucks, wasn’t making smart passes, and above all, he didn’t go to the front of the net where he makes his living. Remember how I discussed the lack of a screen on Geno’s power play shot? Well, we can thank Kunitz for that. Playing gritty hockey in front of the net is Kunitz’s trademark, and he got away from his game last night.
Looking Ahead to Game Four
Overall, game three was a lot better than our previous games. Even in game one, where we won 4-1, we gave up more odd man breaks than we did last night. We got great goaltending last night and we played solid defense. So what can we do to make ourselves even better for game four? Well, we can switch up line combinations to 9-87-12, 14-71-18 for one. We can also play Neal on the power play. We can also play Vitale. I have no clue why Glass was in the lineup instead of Joey V last night. Vitale didn’t take the morning skate, so he may be sick or hurt, so that could by why, but if he’s healthy he should be on that fourth line. Other than that, we really need to just keep rolling. Our goalie’s hot and now the defense is helping him out. Kunitz should just bounce back. It’s not like him to have bad games and I would be surprised if he doesn’t have a strong showing Wednesday.
Finally, remember we have home ice advantage. We also won both our games on our own ice. The goal of the first two road games is to split. That’s not to say you don’t want to win them both, but it is perfectly acceptable to split games on the road. We have the chance to do that Wednesday.
Note: I’m not even going to address the breakdown in the final minute. It’s pretty self explanatory. The only person in position was Sutter and it cost us. It was really our only breakdown of the night, and if it had come at any other time of the game it wouldn’t have been as big a deal. I’m upset as anyone about the play, but it happens, and I’ve already moved on to game four.