Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby (87) carries the puck during the second period of Game 3 against the Washington Capitals in an NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semifinals in Pittsburgh, Monday, May 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Calling it a desperate situation would be inaccurate. Any team up two games to one in a best-of-seven playoff series isn’t desperate. And yet, the Penguins find themselves leading the Capitals, halfway to a series victory, yet surrounded by dark clouds.
The immediate thunderhead threatening to open up on their collective heads is the one created by Kris Letang’s one-game absence. Letang is arguably the Pens’ most important player, a workhorse regularly logging 30 minutes or more of ice time every night. Letang is a one-man breakout, a mistake eraser defensively, and an asset whose talents are not closely approximated by any of his replacements.
Letang’s suspension leaves the Penguins in the lurch, lacking their best defenseman, as well as Olli Maatta, who may well be out for some time after taking a vicious hit from Brooks Orpik that earned Orpik a three-game ban.
The other storm, and perhaps the more troubling one, took the form of a dominant territorial effort from the Capitals in Game 3. The Penguins, despite only forging a split in Washington, had reason to feel good about themselves as the series shifted back to Pittsburgh. One win later, it’s fair to question if they were put on notice by Washington.
The Caps took the fight to Pittsburgh from the opening faceoff. Under siege would be a clutch performance, coupled with superlative, historic goaltending by Matt Murray, that saved the day for Mike Sullivan’s squad.
Thought a runaway freight train by many, myself included, the Penguins were beaten in every way except on the scoreboard. If Washington comes out with a similar effort tonight, envisioning a Penguins victory is almost impossible. Envisioning them winning two of three from a suddenly confident President’s Trophy winning outfit also becomes more difficult.
Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? The gathering storm seems like the type that might only intensify with time and end up washing the Penguins right out of the postseason. Thing of it is, the Pens have two guys very uniquely qualified to part the clouds and make things sunny once again.
Their names are Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and it’s understandable that you might have forgotten about them if you’ve only been looking at point totals through these three contests. Combined, they have one assist, Malkin’s, and nothing else.
They aren’t playing noticeably poorly, though neither one, along with everyone else on the team not named Matt Murray, was good in Game 3. Crosby and Malkin aren’t run-of-the-mill guys, though. They are players for whom mediocre outings are rare, and cause for discussion.
They need to be better, bottom line.
This is superstar time. The outlook approaching Game 4 is somewhere between sub-optimal and flat-out bad. One third of their top talent is going to be sitting in the press box while the team tries to put a stranglehold on the series, and do so in more authoritative fashion. It is time for Crosby and Malkin to make their imprint on the proceedings. Those two dominating shift after shift would take pressure off of a beleaguered, short-handed defense corps. It would send a message right back to the Capitals. Most of all, it would help the Penguins get back to the style of play that made them so tough for the last two months of the season, and for the majority of these playoffs.
It can’t just happen on the power play, where the Penguins have yet to score in this series. It needs to be a mindset, something that permeates the entire game. It needs to be the kind of dominance that both tilts the ice and shows up on the score sheet.
Alexander Ovechkin was a thunderous presence all over the ice on Monday night. The Penguins didn’t beat him so much as they survived him. He and his teammates are probably the furthest thing from panicking right now. The only thing they don’t have is the series lead.
That belongs to the Penguins, and if the birds want to head back to Washington in command, having short-circuited the gathering storm, a few lightning strikes from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would go a long way.