ROUND 1, GAME 3
By Dave Fryer, Contributor to InsidePittsburghSports.com
For many reasons, special teams were a major player in Game 3. To start, both teams took ill-timed penalties that either killed their own momentum or gave the opposition a tremendous opportunity to build on their own momentum. More directly, the goals scored – or even not scored – in special teams situations very much wrote the story and dictated the outcome of the game. Special teams also highlighted some of the many adjustments both teams are trying to make in order to find a slight edge in the series. So it was only fitting that a power play goal was the game-winning goal in overtime, and the fact that the Penguins won the special teams battle allowed them to be the team who got that win.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS POWER PLAY
Power Play Goals = 3
Power Play Opportunities = 5
Power Play Percentage = 60%
Power Play Shots = 4
5-on-3 Situations = 1 opportunities, 1 goal, 1 shot
Shorthanded Chances = 1 shot allowed, 1 goal against
Minutes of Power Play Time = 5:49 (1:56 per PPG)
Power Play Faceoffs = 4 of 9, 44%
Primary 1st unit = Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Kunitz, Iginla/Martin
Primary 2nd unit = Jokinen, Morrow, Niskanen, Iginla/Martin
Power Play Goal Scorers = Kunitz (2), Iginla
The Pittsburgh power play was the true difference-maker in Game 3. It first bailed them out of a 2-0 deficit in the opening period then won them the game in overtime. Not only did New York have all the control and momentum in the opening minutes, they also seemed poised to go ahead, 3-0, at any moment. But the game swung a big step in the opposite direction when the Islanders took back-to-back penalties and took another big swing when the Penguins scored on both of those power plays.
The Pens were back to looking more structured from the very start of the 5-on-3. They set up in a Box+1, placing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Jarome Iginla on the four corners and Chris Kunitz in the middle. This is the first time we have seen an extended 5-on-3 in the series, so this is not necessarily an adjustment to the standard power play. Pittburgh has employed this formation several times this season on 5-on-4 situations, often placing James Neal in the middle.
This approach worked quite well, as the Penguins were able to move the puck a full rotation around the perimeter of the rink, including Letang crossing with Malkin at the top of the zone while carrying the puck lateraly. The passing initially got the Islanders stretched, and the motion along the blue line then caused them to back off in order to avoid chasing the puck. When the puck moved low to Crosby, he was able to freeze the scattered defenders by being in a threatening position – open to the net with a forehand look to equally shoot or pass. This opened up ice for most of the Penguins to move into good positions. Crosby fed Letang for a quick shot, and Iginla tipped it in as he moved to the net on the back side. It was a perfectly designed and flawlessly executed power play, and a pivot moment in the hockey game to breathe some life back into the Pens.
The goal still left Pittsburgh plenty of time to work with on the remaining 5-on-4 advantage. And the versatility of the Penguins attack showed on this one. After using structure and a set play to score the first goal, the next goal came on a read-and-react play from Malkin to Kunitz. A great cross-ice cut by Kunitz got him open between and behind the defenders, and an excellent pass from Malkin sprung Kunitz free to the net. Kunitz is always very strong coming to the net off the right-wing side, and he buried a wrister to the glove of Evgeni Nabokov to tie the game.
Not only was this a huge goal in the game, but it was nice to see Kunitz make a big play again after being relatively silent to that point in the series. This was a sign of good things to come for Kunitz, but in the immediate, the two goals 19 seconds apart put far more of a balance back into the game, as well as created a slightly slower pace that actually favored the Penguins over the remainder of the period.
When their third power play began, which was the only special-teams situation in the second period, the Penguins were up 4-2 with 2:10 left in the 2nd period. A goal to create a three-goal lead at the intermission would pose an extremely difficult hill for the Islanders to climb. Interestingly enough, Pittsburgh changed their power play look yet again. Iginla, Letang, and Malkin set up in an umbrella formation across the top of the zone, and Crosby appeared to be somewhat of a rover. When Michael Grabner lost his stick during play, Crosby intelligently locked himself to that side of the ice to try to exploit this.
Two good shot attempts from Iginla also put the left half of the ice back in play, something that was missing from Game 2. But neither of those shots (or any others during this PP) got through to Nabokov, and the Islanders came through with a good kill to keep their chances alive into the final period. Also of note on this opportunity, the Penguins’ second unit was supposed to finish the situation, but only Paul Martin and Brenden Morrow were able to get on in place of Kunitz and Iginla.
The fourth power play began with all the promise the Penguins could ask for. They were still holding a two-goal lead with 16:50 left in the game. It was their chance to put the proverbial nail in the coffin. But almost inexplicably, Pittsburgh went with yet another look for the power play. Iginla did not take the ice with the first unit, being replaced by Paul Martin. It can be assumed that the intent of this was to give a more defensive look to protect the lead – having two defensemen on the ice was a slight sacrifice over going for the jugular. The move initially paid off after a Letang turnover led to Martin nicely defending a good NYI rush the other way. But the downside of the move reared its ugly head when the second unit took to the ice.
In place of Martin was Mark Eaton, who rarely sees power play time. This put the unit out-of-sync from the start, and when Morrow threw a mindless cross-ice pass in the vicinity of no one, Matt Niskanen had already moved low and Eaton had moved to the middle. The Islanders were able to quickly gather the puck and counter-strike against a scrambling Eaton. Kyle Okposo would end up with a huge shorthanded goal, as a result. That goal instantly changed the face of the game and, in the long haul, could have re-written the course of the series.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, the course of the series was later overwritten during their fifth power play situation. It came in overtime as a result of the pure talents of Crosby. Since Crosby, Kunitz, and Letang were just on the ice, Dan Bylsma smartly called a timeout at the start of the penalty to rest his star players and plan the attack. But very strangely, part of the strategy was again to put Martin on the top unit instead of Iginla. The only strong explanation for this was that Bylsma feared allowing another shorthanded goal, but it worked anyway.
The initial look of the power play was to set up Malkin on the end line and have him try to power the puck to the net. This did not work as planned, but the second attempt at it led to the puck going high in the zone towards Martin. Two Islanders forwards went to Martin, leaving no backside forward support in the slot. Martin recognized the challenge of trying to shoot through two oncoming forwards, so he instead moved the puck low to Crosby. The synergy between Kunitz and Crosby both recognized the hole in the Islanders defensive posture, and Crosby held the puck while Kunitz brilliantly planted himself in open ice. A strong one-timer from Kunitz overpowered Nabokov, as he was also smart enough to again exploit the weak high-glove side on the NYI netminder.
The Pittsburgh power play going 3-for-5 and scoring on 3 of 4 shots is as big a reason as any for the Penguins grabbing a 2-1 lead in the series. The shorthanded goal against and the drop in performance on face-offs (44%) were two significant negatives, and the jury is still out on the effects of the coaching staff making so many adjustments to personnel and alignments. But all-in-all, the power play gets a gold star in this one.
Power Play Goals Allowed = 0
Power Play Opportunities = 3
Penalty Kill Percentage = 100%
Power Play Shots Allowed = 4
5-on-3 Situations = 0 opportunities, 0 goals, 0 shots
Shorthanded Chances = 1 shot, 0 goals
Minutes of Shorthanded Time = 6:00
Shorthanded Faceoffs = 2 of 6, 33%
The story on the penalty kill remains the same: the Penguins are taking very ill-timed penalties but working hard enough during the kill to avoid disaster. Fortunately they only put themselves shorthanded three times in Game 3, but the coaching staff cannot overlook the problem these penalty situations are causing. Due to the poor timing and careless nature of the penalties, the Penguins are only able to exhale when they get through the full penalty kill rather than build some momentum from it. And eventually this behavior is going to cost them.
The most-interesting aspect of the penalty kill in this game was personnel. Three Penguins were on the ice well over half of the six minutes Pittsburgh was down a man: Paul Martin, Pascal Dupuis, and Craig Adams. Letang, Eaton, and Douglas Murray were all in the two-minute range.
The Pens only employed four defensemen for the kill, as Niskanen and Simon Despres did not log even a second of ice time while five-on-four. Additionally, Brandon Sutter, who is supposed to be a shutdown center, only saw 50 seconds of PK time. It is hard to argue with this since it worked, but at the same time, the Penguins are going to need all of their defensive specialists to make strong contributions to the PK throughout the playoffs.
The Penguins were much more aggressive on the kill again in Game 3, which kept New York from getting set-up soundly inside the zone. The first two kills were not as aggressive on the forecheck, allowing a rather easy, north-south skate through the neutral zone (quite similar to five-on-five play, as well). But Matt Cooke established a very strong forecheck during the third kill, forcing a turnover, generating a shot, and most-importantly, killing off valuable ice time during a tied game.
The Islanders are increasingly intent on simply getting pucks to the net any way possible, with bodies in front and more bodies crashing with it. The Pens did a commendable job of containing this by going headstrong at it with aggressive play. The fact that NYI only got four shots on Marc-Andre Fleury is the best evidence to the effectiveness of this counter-approach. The Islanders never really adjusted and only managed to get one shot on goal from below the top of the circles.
During the third penalty kill, Okposo collided with Fleury inside the crease, sending Fleury to the ice. It was a potentially dangerous play, but fortunately Fleury came away unharmed. However, there was an unexplained whistle on the play, and the subsequent face-off stayed inside of the zone to the right of Fleury. It seemed at first that the goal post may have been dislodged, but that was not the case and, even if true, should have sent the face-off to the neutral zone Per the NHL rulebook, a penalty should have been issued if the referee stopped the play with a whistle because of the contact with the goalkeeper.
The only real negative to the penalty kill in Game 3 was face-offs. After going 9 of 14 (64.3%) in the two home games, the Pens fell to 2 of 6 (33%) in Game 3. As the away team, the Penguins’ centers must place their sticks onto the face-off dot first, which is an edge to the home team. This did not hurt the Pens much at even-strength, going rate at 50% in those scenarios. So the drastic drop while shorthanded seems a bit illogical at first. But without much PK ice time for Sutter and Jussi Jokinen – and none to Crosby and Malkin – the Penguins are relying on non-traditional centers to take their draws. It will be important to watch how this unfolds and if Bylsma and his staff feel the need to make further adjustments in personnel.
The only thing bigger than the play of Crosby in this game was the Penguins’ special teams contributions. The power play got the Penguins back into the hockey game at a crucial time and later buried the game-winning goal in overtime. The penalty kills were very strong, especially for a team that otherwise struggled defensively at even strength. Pittsburgh took bad penalties but saw through to taking care of business on the PK, whereas the Islanders paid dearly for their careless infractions.
The Penguins still have plenty to work through to win this series, including some considerations on the power play and penalty kill. But one of the many reasons this team finished atop the Eastern Conference in the regular season was due to the versatility of their roster and their “next man up” mentality. It is simply a team that finds a way to win because it has many options to get to there.
Power Play Goals = 6
Power Play Opportunities = 13
Power Play Percentage = 46.2%
Power Play Shots = 22
5-on-3 Situations = 2 opportunities, 1 goal, 1 shot
Shorthanded Chances Allowed = 2 shots, 1 goal against
Minutes of Power Play Time = 18:14 (3:12 per PPG)
Power Play Faceoffs = 18 of 27, 66.7%
Power Play Goals Allowed = 1
Power Play Opportunities = 11
Penalty Kill Percentage = 9.1%
Power Play Shots Allowed = 16
5-on-3 Situations = 0 opportunities, 0 goals, 0 shots
Shorthanded Chances = 1 shot, 0 goals
Minutes of Shorthanded Time = 20:08 (20:08 per PPG)
Shorthanded Faceoffs = 11 of 20, 55.0%
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