STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS:
Why The Penguins Look Unstoppable in Round 1:
Goaltending 1a/1b wasn’t just a saying all along:
Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the defending Champion Pittsburgh Penguins was full of tension starting off from warm-ups. Matt Murray who was confirmed to be the starting goaltender by Coach Sullivan for Pittsburgh seemed to have pulled something trying to make a save before the puck dropped. The rookie goaltender skated off the ice on his own accord and perhaps with him went the confidence Columbus had in this Series as Marc-Andre Fleury took the crease.
There’s no denying that last season Matt Murray was stellar, as he championed the crease for the Penguins to earn their 4th Stanley Cup. However last year Matt was not only unproven, but he was also pretty new. This year after 47 starts he holds a record of 32-10-4 and a SV% of .923 for his efforts, and yet the Blue Jackets came off a regular season confident that they would be victorious capitalizing on the rookie goaltender. That might’ve been because they had seen him in net 4 out of their 4 encounters in the regular season. In fact, the only time they faced Marc-Andre Fleury was on December 22nd when Murray got pulled on a 7-1 blowout in favor of the veteran net-minder. The signs are there clear to see throughout the series that Columbus has not adjusted well to the goaltending change in the series, they seem to be aiming for all the spots they had cashed in before on Matt Murray and yet Fleury continues to stifle them.
The 13-year veteran Marc-Andre Fleury has been dependable in his starts this season despite a mid-season blemish in the month of November. His play has upped since the trade deadline, perhaps from the confidence that he is indeed wanted in Pittsburgh with the 1a/1b tandem and it shows in the way he’s been playing. The unexpected start for the Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs didn’t seem to faze the net-minder, who posted 16 saves in the 1st period of the series in a stretch where the Penguins only had 3 shots on net. Marc-Andre led the team to a 3-1 victory whom many accredited to his excellent play in the 1st to keep them in it. Many thought the pushback would come in game 2 as the Blue Jackets got roughed once more in a 4-1 victory. This one also led by the veteran netminder while he tied Barrasso’s 101st playoff appearance in goal, later getting the win in a commanding way taking the series to Nationwide Arena next. Through it, all the Fleury chants in PPG Paints Arena have been deafening.
One can hardly argue that Game 3 has been the strongest showing for the Columbus Blue Jackets thus far. The 1st period saw them score 11 seconds in and take the Penguins by surprise and as soon as Jake Guentzel tallied the response with 16:43 left, Atkinson took the lead back with 14:58 to go. After that, it was all Blue Jackets in the scoreboard as their arena roared with loudness and the home team took a resounding 3-1 lead into the 1st intermission. With shots 14-11 it was easy to see that Marc-Andre Fleury was holding on for a chance for his team to rise to the occasion. Later on, with locker-room interviews the Penguins players confessed that it was this resiliency that kept them in it, accompanied by their desire to cash in on opportunities to be playing the right way it was only a matter of time.
Rust led the cavalry for the comeback with a tally in the 2nd with 14:39 to go. After that it was Malkin, and all Guentzel to not only tie the game but respond to another Blue Jackets goal with one of their own. Going to Over Time the Penguins seemed to have the Blue Jackets on their heels. Columbus had suffered the loss of Werenski from a puck to the face and in spite of a return after stitches, he didn’t see the ice for the OT. Despite this setback, Columbus was playing extremely well with speed and peppering Marc-Andre with 37 shots. They had a winning 45.7% in the face-off circle, only registered 5 giveaways and 8 takeaways overall. In spite of 3 penalties against their 2 powerplays, the Blue Jackets cashed in on one of those chances and kept the attacking pace up with the defending Stanley Cup Champions.
However, in spite of all the massive push, the Blue Jackets mustered on home ice, they encountered a resilient team not willing to lose. Marc-Andre Fleury made one last highlight reel save as he used his head and made an impossible save to stretch the game’s OT and the series. The Pittsburgh Penguins surged from that and rookie forward Jake Guentzel upped the ante at 13:10 of OT to get a Hat Trick and the game-winning goal. With the series in a 3-0 stranglehold, the Pittsburgh Penguins look to sweep the series in what promises to be an electrifying clash. With Marc-Andre Fleury scheduled to be in net again, the question of whether the Blue Jackets have cracked the goaltender or not remains to be seen in what could possibly be the last game of the series.
Depth, Depth, Depth, Depth:
With 3 games played and already 4G, 1A, 5pts and a PP goal, Jake Guentzel has certainly made his mark in the Penguins Playoff lore for time to come regardless of the outcome of this season. He is currently the first rookie in Penguins history to net a Hat Trick in the playoffs and the 2nd rookie in Stanley Cup history to do so with an OT goal besides G. Plamondon in 1949. He’s currently had points in each of the Series games and has seen an average ice-time of 18:32.
This should not surprise anyone considering in what line Guentzel happens to be on. Accompanied by Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary to round up the 1st line of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the young guns have made an immediate impact in the speed and style of play of said line. It’s been no secret that Sidney Crosby has been hard to pair for coaches, he’s got a talent, speed, and vision that many can’t grasp and as of right now Conor and Jake have it. Sheary has seen a slower production than Guentzel this Playoff year compared to his last, but in 3 games played with 0G, 1A, 1PT Sheary’s play has mainly been off the puck. Sheary has shown that he’s solid defensively and setting up plays in his second Stanley Cup appearance and perhaps with the newfound confidence in Guentzel it’ll just be a matter of time before his linemate lights up the scoreboard.
Carter Rowney has been another solid rookie addition in the Penguins 4th line that deserves a notable mention. In his 3 playoff games played even though he’s blanking on the score sheet, he’s seen an ice time of 11:44 and he’s made the most of it in physicality. He’s been solid with his hitting and backchecking towards Columbus, including a massive hit on Dubinsky in game 2. Rowney, like his linemates, are showing good grit that will eventually pay off as the Playoffs come along and get deeper in Series.
Ron Hainsey who’s seeing his first playoffs in spite of having played 907 games in the regular season, has been incredible throughout. His defensive play has been solid, often being paired with Dumoulin with an average ice-time of 20:36 he’s already tallied an assist and boasts a +2.
Playing the Right Way:
Coach Sullivan has preached to the Pittsburgh Penguins to play ‘the right way’ since he took over as the bench boss of the team. Since then the Penguins have found a way to turn around the seemingly losing mentality they had with Mike Johnston.
After leading them to a Stanley Cup Championship last year, this year Sullivan reminds them to play whistle to whistle almost every game. This mentality is what seems to have set in the player’s minds that there’s no task too adverse or steep for them to conquer if they continue to play in this manner. Playing the ‘Right Way’ showed dividends in the first 2 games of the series when Pittsburgh dominated the Blue Jackets on home ice. The Blue Jackets wanted to make their game after the whistles, creating scrums and battles then that the Penguins didn’t want to take part of. The mentality even cost the Blue Jackets LW Calvert for an illegal play after the whistle with a cross-check to Kuhnhackl’s neck. Even with aggressive hitting and checking the Penguins just answered back with similar hard hits and lighting up the scoreboard. Still playing whistle to whistle gave the Penguins energy to set up plays, see more of the ice and complete tearing down Columbus spirits before they took home ice for game 3.
However, the biggest display of the payoff of Sullivan’s philosophy was seen in game 3. With a deficit of 3-1 in a game that many had given to the Blue Jackets within the 1st Period, the Penguins reminded that mantra through their bench. Only giving the Jackets 2 PP’s the Penguins stayed with the task and played a compelling brand of hockey that took them to an OT victory.
The Blue Jackets in the other hand had given the Penguins only 3 PP’s and had played a disciplined game themselves. They had good momentum in their building which leaves them wondering: What now? for game 4. With adjustments made for game 3, and a W proving elusive for the Blue Jackets, it’ll be interesting to see which brand of hockey they come out in game 4. Tortorella has already confirmed a line-up change with the addition of Quincey, Nutivaara and Calvert but also the subtraction of Werenski (face fracture) Scott Hartnell and Scott Harrington.
“I’m sure there was a lot of hockey talk in his household growing up. His hockey sense might be his greatest asset.” Sullivan on Guentzel’s HT performance.
Maatta on the come from behind W: “When we play the game the right way, we are a good enough team to beat anybody.”
Coach Sullivan on Marc-Andre Fleury’s Game 3 performance. “When goals go in early on a goaltender, it’s easy for a guy to get rattled and I didn’t think Marc did at all. I thought he was focused, I thought he competed extremely hard and stayed in the moment, and that’s important, especially in that position.”
“Nothing’s over, we gotta win one more.” Marc-Andre Fleury on the Series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.