Stanley Cup playoffs: Penguins face a steep learning curve
April 29, 2014 11:48 PM
Penguins winger Jussi Jokinen, center, scored winning goals in two of the four games against the Blue Jackets.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There is a lot the Penguins can learn from their six-game victory against Columbus in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
A lot they must learn, if they hope to hang around the tournament for more than another week or two.
The Blue Jackets series reminded them of what they can accomplish when their game is in sync, and when their focus and intensity are at playoff-worthy levels.
The way they dominated the highly competitive and motivated Blue Jackets for 5½ of the final six periods in the opening round offered irrefutable evidence of that.
They outscored Columbus, 7-1, in Game 5 and the first 50 minutes of Game 6. They neutralized what had been a highly effective forecheck for the Blue Jackets in most of the previous four games and dictated the pace of play.
Most of which, not coincidentally, happened in the Columbus end of the ice.
“We had spurts of really, really good hockey where we were a completely smothering team,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “That’s how we have to play.”
Expecting the Penguins to control every game for the full 60 minutes isn’t realistic. Other teams are intent on winning, too, and any playing at this time of year have more than a few quality players on the payroll. It is a given, then, that the Penguins will spend at least a little time on their heels in any series they are in for the balance of this spring.
What has to concern them, though, is how often they went directly from being on their heels to being flat on their backs in the opening round.
Coaches and players like to talk about the need to “weather a storm” at various times. For the Penguins, too many of the storms Columbus generated developed into something akin to a Category 5 disaster.
There was Game 3, when goals 100 seconds apart gave Columbus a 2-0 lead a little more than three minutes into the opening period.
And Game 4, when goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s inability to corral a puck behind the goal line led to a tying total in the final half-minute of regulation and, eventually, to a winning goal for Columbus at 2:49 of overtime.
And, of course, Game 6, when the Penguins watched a 4-0 lead melt away in the second half of the third period. Columbus piled up three goals in a span of four minutes, 52 seconds, and very nearly extended a series that had seemed lost just minutes earlier.
“We just have to do a better job of when other teams get momentum, trying to stop that,” forward Jussi Jokinen said. “There are only great teams left. Other teams are going to get momentum. We have to find a way to keep them off the scoreboard.”
Cutting down on how many short-handed goals the Penguins allow would be a good start.
The Blue Jackets got three in six games, and their Game 6 surge was triggered by one Fedor Tyutin scored.
While allowing a short-handed goal every other game clearly isn’t a healthy habit, Penguins winger Tanner Glass pointed out that things — good or bad — don’t necessarily carry over from one series to the next.
“[Those short-handed goals are] not something you like to see from your team, of course, but the playoffs are crazy,” he said. “This was a crazy series, but that’s not to say it will continue in the next round.
“One time in Vancouver, we could not kill a penalty in the first round, and then we were 100 percent in the next round.”
And, make no mistake, the Penguins reached Round 2 because they did more right than wrong against Columbus.
Because center Brandon Sutter had a superb two-way series. Because Niskanen and fellow defenseman Paul Martin were excellent. Because Fleury — his celebrated screw-up late in Game 4 aside — took a step toward restoring his reputation as a capable playoff performer.
Still, simply replicating what got the Penguins into Round 2 likely won’t be enough to propel them into the Eastern Conference final. They will have to exorcise much of what went wrong, then build on what remains.
“We’ll definitely learn from this series,” right winger James Neal said. “That’s what you have to do if you want to win.”
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