Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (71) collides with New York Rangers' Derick Brassard (16) during the first period in Game 2 in the first round of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs in Pittsburgh, Saturday, April 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Tic-tac-toe is a simple game, but to win, you need to do just that — keep it simple.
The Penguins played a lot of tic-tac-toe on Saturday during their 4-2, Game 2 loss to the New York Rangers, but they definitely forgot to keep it simple.
Gone were the crisp tape-to-tape passes that kept the puck moving north and south. In their place were flips to the left and right that typically missed their mark. That affected puck movement, speed and zone entry.
“Yeah, I think you could say we got caught a little too much east-west with them,” goaltender Jeff Zatkoff said. “We have so much skill I think sometimes we fall into that, but I think we’re most effective when we play north-south and we can get a forecheck on them, and I don’t think we were able to establish the kind of forecheck we wanted.”
Zatkoff’s opinion on the matter is a good one based on his vantage point on the ice. If you thought you were screaming at your television upon watching a play screech to a halt due to a backward or lateral pass, imagine how he felt.
He saw those passes go awry and turn into chances that he had to try and stop. Odd-man breaks, breakaways and east-west passing plays right in front of him from the Rangers.
He held his own, but couldn’t find a way to offset the things that were out of his control.
What caused this change? Could it have been the return of Evgeni Malkin, who logged 18:47 minutes, one assist and no shots on goal? Maybe, but that wouldn’t effect the entire lineup.
Malkin’s line, or lines, since he spent time playing with Conor Sheary and Brian Rust, who also made his return to the lineup, as well as Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist, seemed to overpass the puck. That kept their speed from ever becoming a factor in the game.
"There’s a lot to get used to in your first game," Crosby said of Malkin. "I think he did a good job in generated things. I think as a line we had some chances. I think that’s something that’s going to get better and better here with time."
Here's hoping Crosby is right, because those two lines forced him to switch between the wing on one and center on the other. Changing positions shift-to-shift, sometimes during the same shift since he was double-shifted often is not something that comes easily, especially for a player who has missed over a month.
"I think in a perfect world, he's a center,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “That's where he's at his best. I think his natural position is at center and we used him there at times. We used him on the wing with (Sidney Crosby) at times. Him and Sid have the ability to make plays when they're out there together. As far as moving forward, we'll sit in a coaching staff and come up with a way to deploy these guys."
Sullivan opted to leave the line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel together, but Malkin’s shuffling seemed to disrupt the rest of the lineup. That isn’t to say they are better off without him -- that isn’t true -- it just means they have to find a spot and keep him there.
His presence might have had everyone feeling like they just might be able to out-skill the Rangers, especially after they took a 1-0 lead.
It could have encouraged linemates such as Sheary and Rust to play a bit over their pay grades. Rust agreed with Zatkoff in that they were lulled into playing a game that didn’t suit them.
“We try to use our speed and our smarts to our advantage,” Rust said. “Tonight, yeah, we played into their hands, we were playing a little too much east-west and we weren’t getting pucks in behind their ‘D’ and getting on the forecheck which is a big part of our game.”
They didn’t possess they puck the way that they had over the past month and they started to take unnecessary chances. They were out-hit 57-25 and were credited with a 10 giveaways.
All of it was very uncharacteristic of the team that roared to the second best point total in the Eastern Conference ahead of these playoffs. The giveaways were of particular concern to Sullivan, but they have two days to work through those situations and get back to playing the simple game that was working so well for them up to this point.
“I think it was just execution. In a couple of the instances the puck was bouncing. I think when the puck does bounce in those instances, I think we've got to recognize that and make a simple play and a safe play. When we do that, I think it makes us harder to play against. We don't give opponents a chance to counterattack on us.”