BOSTON -- The Pittsburgh Penguins essentially will be playing to save their season when they face the Boston Bruins in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
That desperation should serve the Penguins well in a hostile environment at TD Garden, and even could be described as a potential edge for Pittsburgh.
However, the same could have been said for Game 2 when the Penguins should have been fighting to avoid the very situation in which they find themselves. Instead, Boston scored 28 seconds in and never looked back, cruising to a 6-1 victory.
It's somewhat obvious the Bruins will want to maintain the status quo in Game 3, while the Penguins will need to make some drastic adjustments.
Here are five things to watch for:
1. Early indicators
When Sidney Crosby made the poor decision to attempt to bat a bouncing puck to the opposite point instead of simply stopping it and getting it back in the Bruins' zone, it not only led to Brad Marchand's opening goal for the Bruins, it was a sign of things to come from the Penguins.
It was apparent very early in Game 2 that the Penguins were not on top of their game, particularly when it came to managing the puck and limiting turnovers. Breakouts were regularly stymied at the Penguins blue line by errant passes or poor decisions.
The first few shifts of the game, particularly in the case of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, should give an idea of their level of focus and effectiveness.
"I expect them to be at their best," Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid said. "And that's what we have to expect."
2. The match game
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma generally doesn't get overly concerned with matchups, which is a luxury you have as a coach when two of the world's best players center your top two lines.
Bruins coach Claude Julien, on the other hand, does like matching top defenders Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg against the other team's top forwards, and ideally he likes to have Patrice Bergeron's line out there with them.
Julien couldn't get the matchups he wanted all the time in Pittsburgh, but he will have more control on that aspect of the game at home in Boston. So Crosby and Malkin, as difficult of a series as they've had thus far, can expect it to get a little bit tougher at TD Garden.
"We're going to look for ways -- it's a little bit harder -- but look for ways on the road to get either Sid or [Malkin's] line on the ice in situations where they don't have those guys on the ice,” Bylsma said. “A lot of that's dictated by us being able to play in the offensive zone.”
3. Neutral zone battle
Speaking of playing in the offensive zone, the Bruins did a tremendous job building a wall between the blue lines in the third period of Game 1 and in all of Game 2, forcing the Penguins into trap situations and benefiting from a number of turnovers as a result, thus triggering a good counterattack.
"We deviate from our game plan because we either try to force plays or try to do stuff that is not there," Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said. "You don't want to play into the strengths of another team. They're really good defensively, they clog the neutral zone pretty well, so you don't want to go in there and try to go through that."
The Penguins will need to find an alternate route to the offensive zone if they want to have more success scoring against the Bruins in Game 3, while Boston is hoping to maintain the same ability to clog things up and slow down the Pittsburgh attack.
“We take pride in that part of our game, and that part of our game has also given us the opportunity to be better offensively, turn that puck over quick and then everybody comes back and we go up the ice as a unit," Julien said. "That's been a big part of our game, and when it's good, it provides us with some good offense.”
4. Penguins defense
The Penguins, to a man, called the way they played in Game 2 a gift for the Bruins. While debate swirled around whether Tomas Vokoun or Marc-Andre Fleury would be chosen to start Game 3 in goal for the Penguins -- it will be Vokoun -- the bigger problem facing the Penguins was their inability to limit Boston's quality scoring chances.
Bylsma insists his team changed its mindset after its defeat in the first round of last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, one where the Philadelphia Flyers scored 30 goals in a wild six-game series victory. This year, particularly on the road, Bylsma said the Penguins have been able to focus on the defensive side of the game, and he is hoping it serves them well in Game 3.
"We played a lot of hockey games on the road where we were up, and we didn't necessarily dictate the offensive zone or get a lot of shots in the game but were comfortable playing what typifies a road game and playing good defense," Bylsma said. "That mindset, I think we've talked about it and it's something we have to bring to [Game 3."
5. From the net out
The Bruins needed Tuukka Rask to bail them out at times in Game 1, then gave him what amounted to a night off in Game 2 as the Penguins were unable to muster much of an attack against a stingy Boston defense.
Rask is on a great roll, having allowed two goals in his last three games and just one in this series. He became the first goaltender to shut out the Penguins in 16 months in Game 1.
Rask said that by the Bruins' count, the Penguins had 23 scoring chances in Game 1, an astronomical number in a 60-minute game. Pittsburgh can be expected to once again swarm the offensive zone like they did in the first half of Game 1, so Rask will need to be just as strong.
"You try to limit time and space; try to limit their opportunities," McQuaid said. "It's probably no surprise that Tuukka's been there, no secret that he's been there to bail us out at times when we don't do it."
Author: Arpon Basu | Managing Editor LNH.com
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