Upgrades from Fleury, power play, penetrating slot and trap all key
April 27, 2011 8:00 AM
The Penguins' Marc-Andre has a 2.77 goals-against average and .890 save percentage in these playoffs.
By Dejan Kovacevic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The legacy of Game 7s spanning the Penguins' 44-year history, with the latest coming tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Consol Energy Center, would suggest a significant surprise is at hand.
Superstars scoring in the clutch?
In the franchise's only two Game 7s to go overtime, fringe forward David Volek ripped his infamous one-timer past Tom Barrasso in the New York Islanders' upset of 1993, and low-scoring defenseman Darius Kasparaitis did his belly-slide across the Buffalo ice after beating Dominik Hasek in 2001. In the only Game 7 in a Stanley Cup final, it was grinder Max Talbot producing all the offense two years ago in Detroit.
The Penguins are 7-5 all time in Game 7s, 2-5 in Pittsburgh, and they have not won one at home since May 18, 1995, a 3-0 shutout of the Washington Capitals. After that, they fell to Tom Fitzgerald and the Florida Panthers the following year, then to Mike Cammalleri and the Montreal Canadiens last spring.
In that context, here are seven things that likely need to happen for the Penguins to prevail in Game 7:
7. Forget Montreal
Game: Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 8:08 p.m., Consol Energy Center.
Probable goaltenders:Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Dwayne Roloson for Lightning.
Penguins: Are 7-5 all time in Game 7s. ... Are 1 for 30 on power play in series. ... D Kris Letang's 10 giveaways among most in postseason.
Lightning: Is 2-0 all time in Game 7s. ... Has outscored Penguins, 12-4, in past two games. ... RW Martin St. Louis is tied for postseason lead with eight points.
Of note: : With win, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma would clinch club-record sixth series win.
It was a different year, different team, even a different building, but many of the 18,087 filling the new place tonight surely will carry memories of Montreal's no-doubt 5-2 victory that silenced, then closed the Civic Arena on the evening of May 12.
It was Cammalleri's seven goals and Jaroslav Halak's impregnable goaltending that got it done, even after the Canadiens trailed, 3-2, in the series.
"We can learn from it, that's for sure. We remember," Talbot said. "We have to come out and be more composed than last year. We're a different team here, and we believe in the way we play. It's not going to be easy, but we're going to be ready."
Readiness figures to be key. Montreal controlled play pretty much from the drop of the puck last year, taking the crowd -- and the Penguins -- out of the game early.
"We just have to get a good start now, and we'll be fine," left winger Pascal Dupuis said.
6. Put new faces in new places
Coach Dan Bylsma strongly hinted Tuesday that he could make changes to the lineup. Given how the past two games have gone, that likely will be a welcome -- if not overdue -- development.
Indications were that power forward Eric Tangradi will be added, which would bring a big body willing to go to the net. At the other end, Deryk Engelland would add an imposing presence in front of Marc-Andre Fleury's net to thwart Tampa Bay's constant crashing, but Bylsma seemed to suggest that it would be hard for Engelland to come in cold without having played all series. Tangradi played in Game 4.
Bylsma called Tangradi and Engelland "maybes" to be added.
Candidates to come out?
Chris Conner works feverishly but has been easily rubbed out by the Lightning's bigger players. Ben Lovejoy was reduced to a handful of minutes in Game 6. And it might even be Alex Kovalev, who hardly showed signs Monday that he was intent on adding to his 100 career playoff points.
5. Stop falling for the trap
For all the preparation the Penguins made before Game 5 to navigate Tampa Bay's neutral-zone trap, for all they did right in the opening 15 minutes that day, they seemed to forget it all Monday. Time and again, forwards and even defensemen approached the blue line and lost the puck. It reached the point where they looked so disoriented that they began making drop passes after gaining the zone.
Look for the Penguins to get back to quick, vertical passes that a forward tips deep into the Lightning end, followed by two forecheckers pursuing aggressively.
"That's the start of us getting our offensive-zone time," Conner said. "It can be a little frustrating when you can't get your forecheck going, but we've got to stay with it for 60 minutes."
4. Power past the perimeter
Solutions are not easily produced for a power play that has scored once in 30 playoff opportunities, but one essential step will be venturing into the slot.
In Game 6, they not only stayed away from Dwayne Roloson's crease but also failed to establish a presence even in the high slot. It was as if the heart of the Tampa Bay zone were surrounded by a force field, and the Penguins were left to try bad-angle, easy-to-block shots.
That changed in the third, as one forward went to the net and another drifted back into the high slot. The latter is where defenseman Matt Niskanen twice found forwards with sharp passes off the left boards, first to set up a Jordan Staal goal, then to set up a Dupuis blast.
"The way Tampa plays in their zone, it's hard to get pucks off the wall and into the slot," Niskanen said. "It's important for us to find ways to get it there and, when we do, get it to the net. They don't give you many opportunities in the middle."
It also would be incumbent upon the more talented forwards -- notably Kovalev -- to try to stickhandle into that area rather than passing off as happened in Game 6. Kovalev in his prime did that brilliantly.
3. The scorers step up
Kovalev is the obvious candidate to challenge for more offense, given his history, but what about others?
Chris Kunitz had 23 goals in the regular season but has one in these playoffs. James Neal had the overtime strike in Game 4 but no more, despite tirelessly generating chances. Staal and Dupuis each broke the ice in Game 6, and that might help. Tyler Kennedy and Arron Asham were productive early, but neither has a point in the past two losses.
"You've just got to stick with it," Neal said. "There's no use getting frustrated."
On the blue line, Letang was an offensive dynamo much of the season but is without a goal in 30 games.
"Everybody needs to bring their best game," said Letang.
2. Get the goaltending edge
This facet was predicted by nearly everyone to be an advantage for the Penguins, save perhaps the two dozen men with lightning bolts on their sweaters. But the cold fact is that Roloson has outplayed Fleury.
Roloson has a 2.05 goals-against average and .941 save percentage, both ranking among the top three goaltenders in these playoffs. Fleury has a 2.77 goals-against average and an .890 save percentage. And, since that Game 1 shutout, those figures are 3.35 and .858.
With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin piling up points, that might be good enough. Not now.
But if Fleury is feeling the pressure inherent in that, he hardly is showing it. He was one of several regulars sitting out practice Tuesday, but he still grabbed a stick to take the ice alone -- wearing a T-shirt and bike shorts -- and score a few goals while giggling.
"We're all trying to be positive," he said. "We know we can beat these guys."
1. Overachieving, anyone?
"We'll see who wears the cape."
Those were Bylsma's words Tuesday, and the hero could be someone thoroughly unexpected, as has happened so often in Game 7s.
But this time?
Quick: Name someone on the roster who has overachieved in these playoffs.
One could start with Talbot, Asham, Rupp, Brooks Orpik and ... good luck getting beyond those. The rest have played to their usual standard or below.
The playoffs present a higher level of competition that requires a higher level of performance, and that will either come tonight or not at all.
"This is the time to do it, you know?" Kennedy said. "It's Game 7. Time to play."