“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….”
This opening line of “A Tale of Two Cities” was quite possibly written for the 2012-13 Pittsburgh Penguins playoff team. At times the Penguins were the dominant team that everyone expected them to be, and other times they looked like they were overwhelmed and outmatched.
At times the Penguins looked like beings with intellect far superior to mere humans, and at other times it appeared that they forgot that they weren’t supposed to pass the puck to the opposing team.
In games 1 and 5 the Penguins tossed shutout hockey and operated like a well-oiled machine. The rest of the series they appeared at times to play confused and on their heels.
Let us recap.
Result: Penguins 5 Islanders 0
The Penguins owned the Islanders in every facet of the game. The Islanders looked like a scared small town tourist in a big city. Evgeni Nabokov looked shaky, Tavares was invisible except when getting hit, and the rest of the club just looked like they didn’t belong.
As bad as the Islanders looked, the Penguins looked that good. They dismantled the Islanders game and physically dominated. Pittsburgh owned every area of the ice and sent a message to the Islanders that they were the better team.
Result: Penguins 3 Islanders 4
Despite the return of Sidney Crosby, the Islanders sent their own message to the Penguins that they could hang. While it did appear that the Penguins relaxed a bit after Crosby returned, the Islanders beat the Penguins to loose pucks, showed more effort, and showcased their speed against a slower opponent.
The Penguins thought that they were going to steamroll over the Islanders, and the young team from Long Island made a statement to the odds on Cup favorites that if they didn’t step up they would be working on their golf game sooner than later.
Result: Penguins 5 Islanders 4
We can say here that the Penguins won, but it isn’t really clear that they deserved to. The Islanders put forth the same effort that they showed in game two, but the Penguins took advantage of some opportunities to win the game in overtime. The Isles could very easily have won this and the Pens were lucky to walk away with a win.
Result: Penguins 4 Islanders 6
It was in this game that not only the Penguins play was concerning, but the coaching decisions by Dan Bylsma. Bylsma kept goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in the game far longer than he should have. He was clearly being out-coached and wasn’t reacting. One of the most frustrating things was the absolute insistence on keeping Jarome Iginla at left wing on a line with Evgeni Malkin rather than playing his natural right wing position with Sidney Crosby. With this embarrassing loss it was clear that things needed to change, even though most people following the Penguins already knew this.
Penguins 4 Islanders 0
Once again we have Penguins dominance. Bylsma finally made some changes and they proved valuable. Tomas Vokoun started in net while Jussi Jokinen, Tanner Glass, and Mark Eaton sat in favor of a speedier group in Joe Vitale, Tyler Kennedy, and Simon Despres.
The fresh faces injected speed into the lineup and gave a calming influenve and confident presence to the rest of the team. The Penguins of game 1 had returned.
Result: Penguins 4 Islanders 3 (Penguins win series)
Here we go again. This could have easily ended up 10-0 in favor of the Islanders. The Islanders again worked harder, hit harder, and really dominated most of the game. The Pens penalty kill was soft and frankly scary, but somehow managed to survive.
While the Penguins mostly failed to take advantage of a shaky Nabokov, they made the most of the opportunities that they had and answered the Islanders goal for goal.
Was it overconfidence? Difficulty meshing with players returning from injury? Who knows, but important things did happen in this series.
If the Penguins are to make a cup run they will need both goalies to perform strong, and hopefully this was a wakeup call to Fleury. He will likely get another shot and needs to be the Flower of 2009. While he did allow some soft goals, the Pens struggles were put too heavily on MAF as his teammates admittedly hung him out to dry. Thankfully though, we have been shown that even if Fleury struggles, Vokoun can stand tall in high pressure games.
The Penguins “interchangeable pieces” can show up big. The insertion of Kennedy, Vitale, and Despres were viewed as a move just to shake things up, but each performed admirably and clearly were game changers. It could be said that the Penguins may have been headed to a game 7 were these moves not made. This is not to say that we have seen the last of Eaton, Jokinen, and Glass, but it is nice to know that the Penguins have the players to fill the need of the situation.
Finally Bylsma gave in to whatever stubborn attachment he had to playing Iginla with Malkin and put him on the right side of Sidney Crosby. The pair showed what magic could be performed while the two massive talents are combined.
Inconsistency, effort, coaching, overconfidence, any of these things could be blamed for the Penguins play in round one. How about blaming the Islanders for playing well?
While you can’t expect the Penguins to be dominant every moment of every game, the complete night and day gameplay that we have seen recently is concerning. The Ottawa Senators easily dispatched the Canadiens and they have an axe to grind with Matt Cooke and the Penguins, so should the Penguins wish to survive to round 3, they can’t afford to display the effort and poor decision making that they showed for much of the series.
Dominance or listlessness have been our choices. While we all prefer dominance, surly there is room for somewhere in between.
Greg is the editor in chief of www.hypeduphockey.com
Photo Dan4th flickr.com