When a fighter is outmatched by his opponent, steady jabs are eventually replaced by a desire to land one haymaker that’ll injure his body and his pride, and make him reconsider the sustainability of his domination.
The Pittsburgh Penguins cocked their collective fist back – think Lil’ Mac, preparing for an uppercut in “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out” – and unleashed their best shot against the Boston Bruins in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final. It wasn’t the middling agitation of Game 1. They weren’t the ones getting pummeled like in Game 2. It was, finally, what the Penguins were expected to be in the penultimate round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
And the Bruins took the punch. Shook it off. Won the game in double overtime for a 3-0 series lead.
“We threw a lot at’em. Fifty-plus shots. We played exactly how we wanted to play and just couldn’t find the second goal,” said a solemn Dan Bylsma after the loss.
“We’re going to regroup, get back and play just like that again.”
It’s staggering to think that this Penguins team might be swept out of the conference final. A defeat to the Bruins in a lengthy series wouldn’t have been acceptable by Pittsburgh’s lofty standards, but at least the introspection of “WHAT WENT WRONG?!” wouldn't nearly have been as intense as it’s going to be if the Bruins close this thing out in four.
(Keeping in mind, of course, that many of these Bruins have had trouble doing that in the past. They say the 3-0 lead is the most dangerous in hockey for a reason.)
So what went wrong?
It starts in the general manager’s office, and ends on the power play.
If the Bruins continue on to victory, one narrative that’s going to dominate the analysis is that of GM Ray Shero and his construction of the team. Bruce Arthur is, predictably, ahead of the curve:
Shero knows what disaster looks like, and how easily it happens. He has been charged with the Penguins for seven years now, and they have reached two finals and won one Cup, and the pressure is there, every year. When you have a Crosby, much less a Crosby and a Malkin and a pile of other talent, the bar is the Cup. No lower. Every general manager operates under pressure and expectations; they’re just higher in Pittsburgh. Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr only won it twice, though. Things happen. It’s hard.
It is, but the Penguins went all-in this season at the trade deadline, adding Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray. They brought in veteran leadership and scoring from the wing; most importantly, they added toughness in direct response to the team up in New England that Shero and Co. figured they’d have to tangle with on the way to the Cup.
Other teams have reacted like this to the Bruins. The Buffalo Sabres, after Milan Lucic turned Ryan Miller into roadkill, knuckled up with Steve Ott and John Scott and became a worse team because of it. Trying to add toughness to that roster was like trying to splice alien DNA with that of a human: Sometimes you get the hot girl from “Species” and sometimes you get a melted sack of a cells suspended in ether.
The Penguins have always been a tough team, or at least fancied themselves as one. But in getting tougher, they got older and they got slower. That was exposed in the first round against the New York Islanders. The Bruins are by no means the same kind of speed-skaters, but the Penguins have looked plodding in a series in which they needed to skate away from the Bruins’ suffocation.
The acquisition of Iginla wasn’t just for even strength: Shero was finally giving Bylsma a veteran right wing for the power play, one that transformed that unit into something so star-laden that you usually have to wait for the Olympics to see it.
For two rounds, the Penguins’ power play was the best in the NHL. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Iginla and Paul Martin were all averaging over two minutes per game on the man advantage; after Game 3, Crosby and Malkin were over five minutes.
But here’s the Pittsburgh Penguins’ greatest failure in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final, and arguably the reason they’re a loss away from elimination:
Twenty-four minutes of power-play time – including four minutes in overtime of Game 3 on Wednesday night – and nothing to show for it. Twenty-five shots against Tuukka Rask on the power play, and nothing got past him.
The power play was the lifeblood of this team through two rounds, as 28 percent of their total goals were scored on the man advantage. By comparison, the Bruins had 18 percent of their total goals come from the power play.
The power play’s failure hurt the team the most in Games 1 and 3. In the opening game, the Penguins had three chances to even the score after David Krejci’s first-period goal, and failed. In Game 3, they had two power plays in OT – including one in double-overtime after a two many men on the ice call against the Bruins – and failed to end the game.
The Bruins obviously deserve credit, coming into the playoffs with the fourth-best kill in the regular season. Rask has been superb as the last line of defense.
But this was an all-star team masquerading as a power play. This had potential Hall of Famers and Norris Trophy winners and Rocket Richard candidates. This was a power play that made jaws drop in practice, and that was rolling at a 28-percent clip entering the Bruins series.
Yet the Penguins’ stars have come up empty: Zero points for Crosby, Malkin, Iginla, Neal and Letang. Two goals in 275 minutes of hockey, 24 of them spent with the Bruins down a man.
And now, they could be ousted in four games because of that futility.