The playoffs resume tonight, and Penguins forward James Neal thinks a key to winning Game 4 will be making things tougher on Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson (who turned 32 yesterday…maybe he was out late celebrating?). Anderson was the one making things tough on the Penguins in Game 3, and the Penguins hope that doesn’t get him on a roll. Neal wants to get on a roll himself. He’s in a bit of a scoring drought, having scored only one goal in the playoffs, and none against Ottawa. I believe the Pens are still in firm control of this series, but they’ll need to respond after letting Game 3 get away. A loss is acceptable, but losing a game like they lost on Sunday night has a way of staying with a team. Dan Bylsma said he won’t make any lineup changes after that game, so expect Tomas Vokoun to start in goal.
Steelers rookie quarterback Landry Jones, the team’s 4th round pick in the recent draft, had a lot on his mind other than football as the Steelers begin their offseason team workouts. Jones is originally from New Mexico, but played for the Oklahoma Sooners from 2008 to 2012, and now calls Oklahoma home. He and his wife Whitney live in Norman, which is about 30 miles from the tornado destruction in Moore. While Jones joined the Steelers for the first of their ten OTAs, Whitney remained in Norman, and on Monday, in the hours after the tornado struck that Oklahoma City suburb, Jones scrambled to get in touch with her. He’s talked with Whitney, and although she’s fine, Jones is passing along his thoughts and prayers to the people who died, to the many who lost their homes, and to thousands affected in some way by the horrible tragedy. Jones says they can expect at least one or two tornadoes every year, and that those who live there have to have a “plan” and know where to go when the “sirens go off.”
As former Penguins head coach, the late Badger Bob Johnson used to say, “you’re allowed to lose three,” so one loss certainly isn’t devastating as the Penguins look to rebound in their best-of-seven series with Ottawa. BUT, it’s never a good thing to lose a game that was seconds away from being a win. The Penguins had a lead, AND a power play in the final minute of Sunday’s Game 3. They were literally seconds away from taking a 3-0 lead in the series. They didn’t need to score. They just needed to control the puck. They didn’t and Ottawa, after pulling goaltender Craig Anderson, scored the tying goal. Then the Sens won it in double overtime. The Senators snatched a win from the jaws of defeat! So that’s what the Pens are dealing with. Rebounding from one loss is not that daunting. Responding to this kind of loss is, so that’s the challenge going forward: putting Game 3 behind them and regaining the momentum in a series where “they’re allowed to lose three.”
I’ve been spending a lot of time outside the Trib Total Media gate of the Consol Energy Center, and when I’m there, I can’t stop staring at the bigger-than-life mural that sits right above the entrance. In fact, while waiting to report live from Consol last night, I experimented with the “panoramic” feature on my phone and snapped a picture of it. Minus the reflection of the sun, and a “break” in the picture, I think it’s some pretty good work! The cast of characters certainly is. The Penguins have highlighted their stars, including many of the “new” players that have joined a team already deep with world-class talent. After a more difficult time than expected in the first round, the Pens could be ready to settle in on their road to the Stanley Cup. In the Game 1 win over Ottawa, the Penguins’ special teams led the way, with two power play goals and a shorthanded goal. “Special” could be the key word, because from where I sit, only something unusual can keep this special group of players from going all the way.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are more than a battle of consecutive series, they’re a series of consecutive battles. When your team disposes of one opponent, another one falls in front of them. That’s exactly what happened over the weekend. The Pens finished off the New York Islanders, and the Ottawa Senators move in. The schedule for the second-round series hasn’t even been announced yet, and already, the storylines are starting. To understand one of the subplots, you have to go back to February 13th, when Matt Cooke gat tangled in the corner with Ottawa star Erik Karlsson. Cooke’s skate sliced the back of Karlsson’s ankle, slicing his Achilles, and, as we thought at the time, ending Karlsson’s season. That wasn’t the cae. Karlsson is now back, and ready to face the Pens. The aftermath of that incident was filled with accusations. Ottawa’s General Manager, Bryan Murray, said they believed it was intentional. Now, the owner of the Senators, Eugene Melnyk, is calling the words of some Pens fans “classless” after what he calls “profanity filled” tweets were sent his way. Get ready for the next battle, and keep in mind, the Pens are only one quarter of the way to where they want to be.
…and about those Penguins! Forget the fact that they struggled at times in their first-round series. It doesn’t matter that it took them 6 games, 2 overtime wins and a goalie change to get to the next round. You’ve heard it countless times, style points don’t matter. The playoffs are all about surviving and advancing. If anything, maybe their opening round troubles will serve as a wakeup call. The Penguins are talented. They’re deep and they have a boatload of Stanley Cup experience. Survive and advance. As far as I’m concerned, so far, they’re perfect.
Your job as a Pittsburgh sports fan is not only to root for the Penguins, but to root for the Penguins to win this series in six. The Penguins now have a grip on their first-round series with the feisty Islanders. Now is the time to end it. The Pens may not need a Game 7 to win this series, but I know this, they don’t want a Game 7. Strange things happen in Game 7. Shock and dismay are very often the way that Game 7s end. That’s the way it ended in 1993, when the Pens were trying to win their third straight Stanley Cup. That Game 7 loss (to the Islanders) is still fresh in the minds of Pittsburgh sports fans. I remember it like it was yesterday, even though two decades have come and gone since David Volek silenced the Civic Arena. Monday will be the 20th anniversary of that loss. I’ve never heard a crowd go fro so loud to so quiet so quickly. Game 7s were made to disappoint you. That’s why the Pens would be best served to end the series in six.
The backup goaltender, like the backup quarterback, is always a popular player, and today, many opinions will be heard suggesting (maybe even demanding) that Dan Bylsma make backup Tomas Vokoun the starter for Game 5 against the Islanders tomorrow night. In his postgame news conference, Bylsma didn’t commit one way or another when asked about his goalies, but what Bylsma did say was far from an endorsement, or even a vote of confidence, for Marc-Andre Fleury. The fact is, as of late Tuesday night, Bylsma probably hadn’t made a decision, but the goalie predicament is at the front of his thoughts this morning. A change at goalie, like a change at QB, is not easy. There’s a danger in making a change at this point. The stakes are high, and a demotion, even for one game, could destroy the starter’s already crumbling confidence. A change could also affect the psyche of the entire locker room. Show me a team with two starting goalies, and I’ll show you a team with none! That may be true, but Bylsma may have no choice than to make a change. The series is hanging in the balance.
The Penguins are a long way from finished in their first-round best-of-seven series with the Islanders, but after losing Game 4, and because of how they lost, there is trouble brewing. The first, and perhaps most pressing issue, is what to do about their goaltender situation. Marc-Andre Fleury was not sharp in the latest loss, and already, the voices demanding a change at goaltender are growing louder. Replacing Fleury as the starter for Thursday’s Game 5 seems like the logical thing to do. Fleury is struggling, and he has a very capable backup in Tomas Vokoun. The conventional wisdom says this is the very reason the Pens signed Vokoun. Be that as it may, what would a change do to Fleury’s pysche? It’s my opinion that, despite his struggles, Fleury is this team’s goalie. If you start playing the goalie carousel, then you might be inviting more problems. If Vokoun gets the start in Game 5 and if it doesn’t go well, then where do the Pens go from there? That’s right, to the golf course! There are other problems to be sure. The Pens are committing too many turnovers, and the younger Islanders look faster, especially in transition. Slowing down the Isles has to be the number one goal, regardless of who Dan Bylsma decides will be between the pipes.
I have a few Monday morning thoughts on the Penguins, and perspective, and over-analysis. Even very talented teams lose, and even when very talented teams win, it’s not always easy. In fact, it’s usually not. A playoff series has to play out. Six weeks from now, if the Pens are skating with the Stanley Cup, their first-round, game-three overtime scare will be nothing but a footnote. In hockey, you don’t win the Cup without overcoming adversity. If the Penguins do win the Cup, all the struggles they endured in doing so will be, in many ways, forgotten.