If the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2013, they are going to have to figure out a way to score goals against the Washington Capitals. That’s easier said than done as Braden Holtby has looked like the best goalie in the World during this semifinal series, but Mike Sullivan has some work to do with his team between now and the start of Game 3.
On the one hand, Pittsburgh’s shot suppression was impressive in Game 2. They held the high-powered Capitals to 10 shots through the first two periods of play, and created four power-play opportunities in the second period alone by using their speed. That’s the good news for the Penguins.
The bad news is all that shot suppression and time on the power play still wasn’t good enough to pull away from Washington in the second period. Holtby made a handful of outstanding saves, and he deserves credit for keeping his team in this contest. There were just too many blown opportunities for the Penguins to simply chalk this up as a game they almost lost due to a hot goalie.
There were at least three or four odd-man rushes that Pittsburgh failed to register a shot on in the second and third periods. They continuously tried to slide passes through sprawling players even though the puck looked more like a bouncy ball. Instead of taking the shot and driving to the net, the Penguins seemed intent on forcing pretty plays.
Maybe Holtby is in their heads to some degree. Perhaps they are convinced that it’s going to take the perfect play to beat the Vezina Trophy finalist. Regardless of the reason, Sullivan needs to fix his power play, and fast. The Penguins have too many weapons at their disposal to go 0-for-5 with the extra man in a single game.
Washington’s penalty kill is incredibly aggressive. The Penguins’ skill players had a lot of time and space in the first round against the slower New York Rangers, but they aren’t getting the chance to settle the puck down in this series.
As soon as they touch the puck on the power play, they are being contested by a penalty killer. Washington is boxing the Pens into corners they can’t — or haven’t been able to — pass out of yet, and it almost came back to haunt them in Game 2.
This is where Sullivan and his staff need to make adjustments. If the Capitals want to rush the puck carrier, they are leaving odd-man situations available elsewhere on the ice. The Penguins have kept the puck on the perimeter while looking for ways to pass out of the coverage. Instead of doing that, the players ice need to do a better job of recognizing where they can outnumber Washington.
The best place to do this would be at the net mouth. If the Capitals charge Kris Letang (we can assume it’d be him since he never leaves the ice) at the blue line, all he needs to do is get the puck in on Holtby where two or three Penguins should be waiting. That leaves a penalty killer in no man’s land out by the blue line while his teammates are outnumbered down low.
It’s OK if this doesn’t result in goals right away. All Pittsburgh needs to do is convince Barry Trotz to call off the dogs to some degree. Right now his penalty killing unit appears to feel like they can do whatever they want against the Penguins, and it’s tough to blame them for being confident. They have the best penalty kill in the postseason so far, and they’ve yet to give up a power-play goal at home.
If there’s a team in the league that has the horses to play this aggressive setup to their advantage, it’s the Penguins. This is where Patric Hornqvist can be particularly effective. He’s fantastic in front of the net, and Sidney Crosby is one of the game’s most dangerous players when skating off the post or operating out of the corners.
The most important part of Pittsburgh’s game is already in place. They look like the L.A. Kings because of the way they are supporting each other during 5-on-5 play. The Penguins are presenting layers of shot blockers for the likes of Alex Ovechkin to contend with and seem to be getting sticks on just about every chance against. These are hallmarks of good playoff teams.
They go for more stretch passes than you’ll see from Los Angeles, but they rarely end up in a 50/50 puck battle alone. They kept Washington’s potentially devastating offense at bay in Game 2 and only got beat up by one line in Game 1. The pieces are in place for the Penguins to go on the road and steal home ice advantage back in Game 3 or 4, but they’ve got to get their formerly high-octane power play rolling.
Edgy players like Brooks Orpik were able to take liberties because Pittsburgh hasn’t threatened on the power play — they went o-for-2 in Game 1 — so Washington can poke its toe over the line when it comes to physical play. That will change if the Penguins get it going with the extra man.
It’s not like the group doesn’t know how to get it done. They just need to deviate from their norm a bit to shake up the Capitals in every situation.