Gene Collier: Penguins, Rangers meet at the gap

Doesn’t much matter if you call it a fissure or you call it a canyon, there exists an evident gap between the way the Penguins are playing hockey and they way they can play hockey.

Oh, you’ve noticed.

With Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals looming tonight, there’s little reason to suspect that the New York Rangers won’t react to that gap in the manner suggested by the instructions that sometimes accompany even the slightest of separations:

Two-Minute Warning: Mike Adams, Penguins, Marathon

Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier takes an irreverent look at hot topics on the Pittsburgh sports scene. (5/1/2014)

Tear Here.

Whether the Rangers can tear into the Penguins’ available instability effectively enough to win this series is an open question, but they were not assisted in the slightest by the NHL schedule-makers, who laid out the next week as if a New York Ranger or Rangers had recently poisoned their dog.

By the close of hockey business Monday in Manhattan, the Rangers will have played five games in seven nights, one of those a Game 7 against Philadelphia, Game 7’s generally sucking twice the vitality from the body and the soul.

No one with the Penguins would suggest Thursday any imbalance for this series, work-schedule wise, but there’s no diminishing the fact that when the puck drops tonight, the Penguins will have been idle for about 93 hours, the Rangers about 45.

But as the young mall people like to say, let’s go back to The Gap.

“We’re getting there,” Niskanen said about the distance between these Penguins and an actual, frightening playoff team. “We recognized some things, over a month ago now, where we wanted to get better. We were trying like heck to get better at those things in preparation for the playoffs. It didn’t go just perfect right away in the first round. But, as a group all you can do is keep trying. We’re getting better as we go along.

“What our game should look like is a lot of what Game 5 [against Columbus] was. That’s our best game, I mean the process and the mentality of how we played. We were a smothering team, all over the rink, without the puck, forwards back-tracking really hard, outnumbering ’em, the defense having a good gap. We didn’t give em any space when they did have the puck in our end and we were out of our end quick. We had a shooter’s mentality and we had extended shifts in the offensive zone.”

Quite right all of that, but then there were Games 1, 2, 3, 4 and the last third of Game 6, in which the Penguins did not, as they say, get to their game. Those games bore a pretty stubborn resemblance to the games Dan Bylsma’s team played from the start of March through four games of the first playoff round, a stretch in which they went 13-12-2.

So, when Bylsma described the Rangers as “a really good team and a team that has played that way for a while now,” he had to hear the juxtaposition virtually echo. After all, he’s coaching a really good team that hasn’t played that way for a while now.

Almost from the minute Bylsma got behind their bench in 2009, the Penguins have talked about “getting to our game,” whether that meant in the course of a single game or a week or a month. The importance of getting there has always been seen as their hockey ideal, particularly in stretches like this where, as the old North Sider Gertrude Stein once said, “there’s no there there.”

“When you put quotations around ‘getting to our game,’ they’re certainly playing to an identity of the team, but it’s also systematically how you play,” Bylsma said when I walked him back to The Gap. “We won 51 hockey games this year, and that’s a lot of hockey games to win. The identity of our team and how we did that was I think different than maybe how we described the way we played in the past.

“Games 5 and 6 [against Columbus] were the best games we’ve played all year long. We keep coming, playing forward, playing in the offensive zone, grinding the other team down with speed and quickness. Game 5 is the best example, a game we got behind in. We had to keep working to get even and we played a lot of hockey with a tie. We kept playing forward, quickly into the offense zone to forecheck and sustain it while still being responsible and hard to play against defensively.

“Winning a hockey game that way, that’s our best game, and the last two have been that way.”

There’s not much arguing that that’s the way Bylsma’s teams are supposed to play, even if you don’t think it’ll be enough to extend their spring beyond this round.

“We can beat every team,” Evgeni (Oh look, a hat trick) Malkin said after practice Thursday, “if we play right.”

But can they play right long enough to beat a team that’s been playing right for a while now?

The answer to that might be Rangers in 7.

Gene Collier:

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