Penguins' Way Back From Deficit Involves Five Steps
BOSTON -- The comeback, if there is to be one for the Pittsburgh Penguins, starts Friday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS) at TD Garden in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final.
The Penguins trail the Boston Bruins three games to none in the best-of-7 series that determines who represents the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.
The odds are extremely long -- only three teams in the history of hockey have done it -- and the work required will be arduous.
It can be done, though. In fact, the Philadelphia Flyers did it to these same Boston Bruins three years ago.
The Bruins have coughed up a 3-0 series in the recent past and almost coughed up a 3-1 lead in the first round this spring against the Toronto Maple Leafs. But the Penguins see little solace in that recent history.
"As far as numbers and odds and everything like that, every year is different," Pittsburgh winger Pascal Dupuis said. "If you ask them, they were up 3-0 a couple years ago, and they lost. So it's numbers, different players, everything is different about this one."
That means that Pittsburgh will have to make its own history here in this Eastern Conference Final. If they do, they will join the hallowed company that has faced sport's longest odds and refused to blink. If they falter, they will start their summer earlier than anticipated.
Here, then, is a five-step plan for Pittsburgh to extend this series to a game 5 on home ice, which can be the team's only goal at this point.
LIVE IN THE MOMENT
At this time of the season, a team's mental health is almost more important than its physical health.
A team must believe winning is possible before winning becomes a reality. A belief in winning four times without a misstep is a tall order for even the most confident player. So the Penguins shouldn't spend time convincing themselves that they can win four Games -- including two at TD Garden -- in the next six days.
Instead, they need only convince themselves that they can win Friday night. Do that and they can go through the whole process again Sunday night in front of their home fans at Consol Energy Center. As coach Dan Bylsma said, the only goal now is to get this series "back to the Burgh."
"Personally for me, I think being in all different types of situations in the playoffs, and I've said this in the last two series, it always becomes about the next game and the next game is the most important, and you quickly have to move forward," Penguins forward Matt Cooke said Thursday afternoon. "There's a lot of belief in our dressing room and the group that we have and what we've accomplished, and right now it's about Game 4 and that's it."
Pittsburgh's power play has been absolutely catatonic against Boston, going 0-for-12 in three games in this series, including 0-for-6 in Game 3, when a power-play goal could have turned the tide immensely.
That's unacceptable for a man-advantage unit loaded with skill players that dominated the first two rounds of the playoffs. Pittsburgh had 13 power-play goals in the first 11 games this posteason.
The Penguins need to put the advantage back in the man advantage if they hope to survive for another game. There is no way around it.
"Evaluation of the power play is always going to end with whether the puck goes in the net, and it has not this series," Bylsma said Thursday afternoon.
GET THE REBOUNDS
The Pittsburgh Penguins fired 54 shots at Tuukka Rask in Game 3. That is a more-than-respectable total, but it is not about quantity at this stage of the playoffs. The goalies are all good enough to handle a high volume of shots.
It has to be about quality. The Penguins need to embrace a shot selection that will force Rask into giving up more rebounds. But that is only the first part of the equation. When the rebounds happen -- and they have at times throughout the first three games -- the Penguins have not been in position to reclaim the puck and get off a second shot.
In hockey circles, these are often called "greasy goals" and they are the goals the Penguins need because they are not getting the open-ice, skilled goals that are often the foundation of their offensive game.
"We have to do a better job of getting to [rebounds]," Crosby said Friday morning. "There's been a few where we haven't gotten great bounces, where they hit skates or [we] haven't quite capitalized. But I think we can do a better job of getting to the net and finding a way. It's a tough area to get to this time of the year, but that's where the goals are."
STACK THE DECK
Pittsburgh's top-end players have produced precious little in this series. But they are too good to give up on with the season on the line.
Instead, Bylsma should lean even more heavily on his top guys, playing them as much as possible and in different combinations.
Boston has won the matchup game so far by being able to get their top defensemen -- Zdeno Cahara and Dennis Seidenberg -- out against the Penguins top skill players with regularity, be it home or away.
One way to do get away from that intense matchup is to put the top players in unusual or unexpected positions. Throw Sidney Crosby with Evgeni Malkin whenever possible. Double-shift both those players as centers on the third and fourth line. Shorten your defensive rotation depending on the game situations.
There should be no concern about ice time here. Empty the tank in Game 4 and, if you win, hope it refills for Game 5.
SAY A PRAYER
The Penguins can't come all the way back from the hole they are in without some puck luck.
The Bruins have gotten the majority of the puck luck so far. The series-opening goal by David Krejci was the product of the slightest deflection by defenseman Paul Martin, who was laying down to block the shot. Crosby almost scored in Game 3 on a brilliant, no-look backhand, only to find the post. Craig Adams hit the post in OT of Game 3.
Sure, each of those is a tough break, but the Penguins have been around hockey long enough to know that good fortune comes to those who work the hardest.
"Yeah, we hope the law of averages starts to even out here," forward Brenden Morrow said Friday morning. "But, you work for your breaks. They earned theirs, they have worked hard. We have to fight through this. I mean, our backs are against the wall and we have to scratch and claw for every little bit."
Surely, though, a little beseeching to the hockey gods can't hurt as insurance to go with the application of maximum effort.