Tormented at the Consol Energy Center yesterday, I had just one thought. Okay, I had several thoughts, but one very disturbing one which was this -- the Penguins must hate Pittsburgh fans. They simply refuse to clinch a series on home ice, depriving the 18,000-plus on hand of witnessing in person the magnificence of the NHL playoff hand-shake line.
The atmosphere at the drop of the puck was electric, as loud as I've ever heard a sports facility. I don't mean all the electronic gagetry or the airhorn -- just the organic noise generated by the fans, no vuvuzelas or drums or thundersticks, just the din generated by the throats and feet and hands was ear-splitting.
The Pens got off to a good start, matching the intensity of the crowd for the first 10 minutes of the game, allowing the Bolts only one legitimate attempt on Fleury. Then it was all pissed away. It's hard to put a finger on where it went wrong, terribly, horribly wrong and there were so many problems, I could be here all day enumerating them, but here are a few ideas.
With about four minutes left in the first period, I was thinking that if the Penguins could keep the Lightning off the scoreboard and go into the first intermission 0-0, that would be a good thing. Why? Well because Marc-Andre Fleury can be a slow starter. And the team as a whole is not a great early game team. The earlier the game, the greater the chance you're going to see a stinker. I don't know if it's just the routine of night games or some other weirdness, but they're often better at night. And while it would certainly have been nice to have scored in the first period, I thought that holding the Lightning scoreless for a full period might dampen the Lightnings' spirits a bit, and allow the Penguins to just lean on them, wear them down, the way they did in the first game.
They couldn't close out the first period. In fact, it was so bad, that they let in two goals inside of the final three minutes (or thereabouts).
The first Lightning goal was scored by Simon Gagne, a long time pain in the balls to Penguins fans. They had kept him quiet so far in this series, pretty much limiting the Tampa offense to Marty St. Louis exclusively. With Gagne emboldened, the second goal that got behind Flower just 46 seconds later was scored by Steven Stamkos. My great fear was that if Stamkos got going, the whole team would rise up.
I really think that is what happened. Tampa's whole bench loves when Stamkos gets going; they all get a lift from it. It's like a shot of emotional Red Bull for Stamkos to score. And it turned out to be a portent of things to come later in the game. It snowballed from there. Eventually Dan Bylsma pulled Fleury, but Johnson wasn't really any better. The goal differential was the worst playoff differential in the history of the franchise. It was literally: The. Worst. Playoff. Game. Ever.
I don't know that the team can linger on this loss. In fact, I suspect they have to just toss this one out. When Fleury is bad, he is often epically bad. This was one of those days, for a fact. Of course, his usually stalwart defense didn't help him much. Nor did the wingers or anybody else, for that matter.
There are three things that they need to do on Monday:
1. Flower has to have a bounce-back. And I think he will. He often follows up his worst performances with stellar ones. I think we'll get the Game 4 Marc-Andre Fleury on Monday night, not the Game 2 version.
2. Penalty Kill. Through the first four games, the Pens had allowed four power play goals on 15 opportunities. That penalty kill percentage of 73% is nowhere near as good as the regular season killer percentage of 86%, but still, against a power play unit like Tampa's, it's not bad, all things considered. Yesterday, the Pens allowed goals on four of seven power plays. That's just unacceptable. They have to get the kill back down in the neighborhood of 75% effectiveness, if they want to advance to the second round. It's just that simple.
3. Power Play. The Penguins power play is so putrid, so miserable, that I wish hockey were like football and the Pens could just decline the penalty. They have scored one power play goal on 25, opportunities, a scoring percentage so low the folks at the Carnegie-Mellon are studying it to see if they can learn anything new about absolute zero. The biggest problem with this, of course, is that the Lightning have no fear of taking a penalty. The power play won't punish them for the occasional board or cross-check or slash, so why should they give a rat's ass if they get caught administering one? Heck, it just gives that offending player a chance to rest in the penalty box and come out refreshed after watching the Penguins muck about ineffectively for two minutes.
The power play has been a problem for most of the season, frankly, so this is not a new development. The Pens do not establish possession well. And when they do establish position, they don't get enough traffic in front of the net. I know it's radical, but I wonder if Bylsma shouldn't start Eric Tangradi in place of Chris Conner for this game? I like Conner a ton, but he hasn't done much this series. Also, he's small. Tangradi's a big body. He has shown a willingness to plant himself next to the net. I don't think it's an accident that the Penguins one and only power play goal of the entire series came when Tangradi shielded Dwayne Roloson, preventing him from getting a bead on Tyler Kennedy's shot. Just saying.
If this thing goes to seven games, I may have to get one of those medic alert monitor things, because I'm sure I'll stroke out before the end of the first period.
(Photos from the Pittsburgh-Tribune Review)