Reason to 3elieve, cause for concern

posted by Mike Prisuta -

For the majority of the six games required to eliminate Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, who the Penguins are and why they’ve consistently advanced through two postseasons and counting now was recognizable.

But we also saw glimpses of what can get the Penguins beat short of a Three-peat.

For the most part the stars were shining, the scoring balance and depth were evident, the puck management was responsible and there appeared to be as sincere a desire to transition quickly from offense to defense as the other way around.

The penalty killing went above and beyond, the goaltending was solid, shots were willingly blocked and when all else failed, the Pens were able to rely upon the resiliency that has become their trademark under Mike Sullivan.

But that said, they also wobbled at times against the Flyers.

The Pens took more than an acceptable share of retaliation penalties, including Phil Kessel in the second period of Game 6 (the Flyers led, 3-2, at the time) and Kris Letang in the third period of what turned out to be the clincher on Sunday afternoon (when the Pens were trying to protect a 5-4 lead). 

Such fits of frustration _ Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist had all been guilty to varying degrees in Game 2 and Evgeni Malkin, when healthy, confirmed repeatedly that he’s still far from immune _ were reminiscent of what used to occur with lethal regularity in the dark days between the 2009 Stanley Cup and the arrival of Sullivan.

The Penguins are better than that.

They’ll need more of the type of resolve personified by Jake Guentzel taking a punch to the chops from Jakub Voracek and continuing to play, or Dominik Simon refusing to be suckered into an after-the-whistle infraction by Andrew MacDonald in subsequent rounds.

They’ll also need better from their power play.

On the surface, a 5-for-25 effort through six games (20 percent) would appear more than satisfactory. Except this is a Penguins team that converted at a 26.2-percent clip during the regular season. The Pens are also a team that went 15-21 when failing to score a power-play goal in the 82 games that preceded the playoffs. They didn’t just set a franchise record with their power-play prowess during the regular season, they depended upon it.

They’re 1-2 in the postseason when they come up 0-fer with the man-advantage. 

When that happens it’s bad.

And when a game-tying, short-handed goal is hemorrhaged late in the second period with a one-goal lead in an elimination game, as was the case in Game 5, the ramifications can be potentially disastrous.

The Pens survived a similar gaffe in Game 6, when another cross-ice pass resulted in another turnover and, eventually, another puck hitting the back of their net, this time just five seconds after a power play had come up empty.

At least the No. 1 unit wasn’t scolded by the head coach for over-staying the shift this time.

The net-front defense also broke down with more regularity as the series progressed.

It was either that or Wayne Simmonds didn’t show up until Game 6.

And the periodic habit of passing up shots for a perceived higher-percentage play remains baffling.

The good news is such transgressions were in the minority.

The Penguins were the better team for extended stretches, as they should have been against the over-matched Flyers, even in the two games the Penguins wound up losing.

And when they weren’t, they were eventually able to get it back together with the hard-earned swagger of a champion without sustaining too much damage.

“No loss of composure on the Penguins’ bench,” NBC analyst Pierre McGuire observed after an early 1-0 deficit had been turned into a 2-1 advantage on Sunday. “A younger team without the pedigree of the Pittsburgh Penguins, they would have panicked and probably melted down.”

It wasn’t the last time the visitors would have to bounce back in an oh-so-hostile environment.

The Pens still have that going for them, which is nice.

Having to rely upon that identifying characteristic with less frequency moving forward would be even better.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

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