PITTSBURGH — They don’t need a coach. They need a couch, a session with a sports psychologist, a chance to figure out their fears, calm their anxieties and rediscover the balance between desperation and patience.
X’s and O’s aren’t the reason the Pittsburgh Penguins face a 2-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference final. They especially don’t explain why the Pens have been outscored, 9-1, as sound and as structured as the Boston Bruins have been. Losing two games is one thing; losing them by such a lopsided margin is another.
The X’s and O’s are fine. The problem is that the Penguins have veered to W’s and T’s and F’s and gone to &#$% at the first sign of trouble. They have all these superstars, and they’re supposed to win the Stanley Cup, and they want to win it so badly, and they’re trying so hard, too hard.
They have fallen behind in both games and played catch-up hockey. Instead of trusting their talent and tactics, they have slipped into bad habits, tried to do too much too quickly, played as individuals instead of as a team and made things worse.
“We’re all humans,” said Penguins defenseman Douglas Murray. “Sometimes when you try harder, it doesn’t work out well. Like a sprinter, when he flexes when he sprints, he’s not running faster. They need to be relaxed when they run. It’s a little bit the same thing. Trying to do more doesn’t always help the situation. It can cause a lot more problems.”
The temptation is to compare this to the first round last year, when the Penguins fell behind the Philadelphia Flyers, 3-0, and lost the series in six. They got caught up in the physical play and extracurricular stuff, like they did in Game 1 in this series. They were too loosey-goosey, as they were in Game 2 of this series. Their goaltending was suspect at times, as in this series.
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Captain Sidney Crosby sees frustration creeping in again. But he said the Penguins are “a much different team, much more composed.” They don’t look like it right now, but they should be and they can be – not just because of the lesson they learned last year, but because of what they went through this year.
Everyone remembers the 15-game winning streak. But do you remember how it started? Do you remember how it developed? The Penguins lost at Florida and Carolina by a combined score of 10-5. Then came a 7-6 victory at Montreal they didn’t feel good about, then three more victories in which they allowed 11 goals total. They were not strong defensively. They were not playing what they consider their game. Then they won 11 straight, never allowing more than two goals in a game, racking up four shutouts
The sixth game of the streak was against the Bruins. The Penguins fell behind in the first period at home, 2-0, just like they did Monday night. Except they didn’t panic that time. They stuck with it. They figured they would break through eventually – and they did, scoring three third-period goals for a 3-2 victory.
“That’s who we want to be,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen. “Something happens in the game, we just don’t deviate from the plan and just keep going, keep going. We believe we have the guys in here that we’re going to find enough opportunities that we’re going to have a chance to tie that game up or win the game. That’s kind of what we want to get to.”
The Penguins won all three meetings with the Bruins in the regular season, and all were one-goal games. The Bruins aren’t playing any differently now in the playoffs, but the Penguins are. Maybe it is easier to stay patient in the regular season. If you lose then, you lose only two points. If you lose in the playoffs, you lose much more – especially if you have high-profile players and high expectations.
“Here, it puts you in a big hole,” said Penguins winger Chris Kunitz. “That anxiousness … maybe skewed us from what we wanted to do.”
“The stakes can add to the fact that people want it even more,” Murray said. “They want to work so hard and do so much. A lot of times it can go wrong that way.”
“Even though they scored six goals [in Game 2], why they score?” asked Penguins center Evgeni Malkin. “We didn’t control puck because, you know, maybe we were nervous and maybe the puck starts bouncing because we were nervous. If we just relax and control more pucks, the puck never bounces, and we score goals, and we control the game.”
Playing with a lead would help. So would scoring on the power play. That would force the Bruins to open up. No matter what happens, though, the Penguins have to play a simpler style. Stop trying to make fancy plays. Stop trying to carry pucks through the middle. Stop turning over pucks. Chip pucks in deep, get in on the forecheck, sustain possession – do what they planned to do all along.
“Guys obviously want it so bad that you just want to do whatever you can to help your team win,” Kunitz said. “We know by looking at video from last night that it doesn’t look very good when you do that. It makes the other team looking really dominating. It plays right into their game plan.”
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“You play good teams in the playoffs,” Murray said. “They can focus on shutting you down. It takes time to break teams down, so you’ve got to stay patient. You’ve got to do less mistakes than the other team. You’ve got to put a lot of pressure on them and stay down in their zone and get them tired, and they will end up doing mistakes as well, especially with a team like Boston that is so responsible. So just got to stay the course. It might take all 59, 60 minutes or even more to break them down.”
The Bruins have psychological scars of their own. Though they are rolling now, they have had trouble closing out series in recent years. They blew a 3-0 series lead – and 3-0 lead in Game 7 – against the Flyers in 2010. They blew a 3-1 series lead – and had to come back from a 4-1 deficit in the third period of Game 7 – against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round this year.
Thanks to the 2-0 deficit, balancing desperation and patience will be even harder for the Penguins. Especially if something goes wrong again, will they be able to stick with it, knowing a loss means a 3-0 deficit? But if they can win Game 3, they have the ability get on a roll again and send the Bruins to the couch.
“At the end of the day,” Crosby said, “it’s what we’re going to do here in the next little while that’s going to decide the outcome of this series.”
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