The Pittsburgh Penguins Show Newfound Mettle

Whatever the Pittsburgh Penguins have managed to do the last two nights in the NHL playoffs is something they need to keep doing.

The Penguins, a team with immense offensive talent, can usually be relied on to fold up like a tent if they’re hit hard and forced into defensive games, which is usually what a postseason series against a genuinely good team amounts to. But after dropping Game 1 to the New York Rangers, the Penguins have won two straight games of the kind they usually blow.

Pittsburgh took Game 2 by a 3-0 count on Sunday night. For some reason, the league made the Pens and Rangers come back on Monday night, even though they had to travel to New York, and even though having Boston-Montreal play their Game 3 would have kept both Eastern Conference series on the every-other-day schedule. It was the Penguins who responded to the adversity, with a 2-0 shutout win to take a 2-1 lead in games.

I want to go beyond the obvious point of the shutouts, though even here we have to note that Marc-Andre Fleury would have been the last of the four remaining Eastern Conference goaltenders I would have expected to put two straight zeroes on the board. And he didn’t do it because his defense protected him—last night, Fleury faced 35 shots and turned them all back, making him 57-for-57 in two nights.

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But let’s go beyond that and into the style of play the Penguins have won by using. This is an offense that normally breaks opposing goaltenders with a high volume of shots from the wings, from James Neal to Chris Kunitz. As skilled as the centers are—and in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin they’re as skilled as it comes anywhere in the world—they’re excellence lies in facilitation, rather than assaulting the net.

These last two nights have seen Pittsburgh win a different way though. Crosby and Malkin took the lead in taking shots in Sunday night’s series-tying win. Game 3 also saw Neal and Kunitz being kept off the puck.

This has to be frustrating for the Rangers—they’re doing what an underdog has to do, and its force the favorite into playing a way they might be uncomfortable with. When the Penguins still respond and deliver wins, it can rip the life out of you (at least it can as a fan, maybe the players and coaches are a little more resilient).

However New York responds, they’ve spent three games playing exactly the kind of hockey they need to win this series…and yet, they’re in a 2-1 series hole. That’s not a good feeling.

Elsewhere in the NHL playoffs…

*Boston and Montreal play Game 3 tonight. The Bruins have outplayed the Canadiens in each of the first two games, but the normally reliable Boston goaltender Tuuka Raask has looked uncomfortable, particularly against the power play. Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban is scoring and distributing with the man advantage with such ease that his shooting percentages are going to look like basketball stats rather than hockey.

*Chicago and Minnesota looked like a mismatch at the outset, and after the Blackhawks won the first two games by a combined 9-3, it’s up to the Wild to give us a reason to tune in when they return home for Game 3 tonight.

*Marian Gaborik is having the series of his life for the Los Angeles Kings against the Anaheim Ducks. Or maybe I should narrow it down and say he had the best period-plus stretched over two nights in his life. Gaborik scored the tying goal of Game 1 with seven seconds left. Then he scored the OT goal that won it. He came out in Game 2 and scored less than two minutes into the game to set the tone for a 3-1 win and put his team in command.