Tim Benz: Evgeni Malkin's health, Islanders goaltending just scratch the surface for Game 3 topics

May 20—Many thoughts are sticking with me from Game 2 of the Pittsburgh Penguins East Division playoff series against the New York Islanders.

I'm wondering how much of that result will carry over to Game 3 on Thursday night after the Penguins evened the series at a game apiece with a 2-1 victory Tuesday.

Particularly who will start in goal for the Islanders, how the Penguins will handle some specialty situations, Evgeni Malkin's status and what the crowd will be like when Game 5 comes back to Pittsburgh.


—I was confused by Islanders coach Barry Trotz's decision to start Semyon Varlamov. Even more so after the first period when he whiffed on that floating shot from Bryan Rust and was beaten by Jeff Carter.

Remember those two stellar saves by Game 1 starter Ilya Sorokin in the first contest? If he doesn't make that great stop on Sidney Crosby by the net in the first period or stuff that Teddy Blueger wrap-around in the second period, that game is 4-1 before Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry has a chance to mess it up.

Without those moments, maybe the whole game is different, and perhaps the Islanders are now down 2-0.

Not only that, but it's not like Varlamov was a brick wall against the Penguins in the regular season. He was 1-3-2 with a .897 save percentage and a 2.86 goals against average.

Was it worth benching Sorokin for him? I don't think so.

To be fair, Varlamov stopped 43 of 45 shots overall. And Trotz called him "outstanding" after allowing that first goal.

However, as Jarry can attest from Game 1, a high volume of good saves won't erase bad goals that cost you a playoff game.

"If you talk to Varly, he'll want that first one back," Trotz admitted after the game.

That said, Trotz didn't seem to regret the decision to play Varlamov. He only regretted the first goal allowed.

"Varlamov has been our number one goalie all year," Trotz said. "He's got seven shutouts. He was outstanding. He set team records, and he's fully healthy. We wouldn't be — maybe — in the playoffs if it wasn't for Varly's performance this year. That's, to me, very simple."

Trotz was also coy about who will start in Game 3.

"I will tell you this, there will be a Russian goaltender in net for the Islanders next game."

OK. Will there be a Russian forward wearing No. 71 on the ice for the Penguins?

—Yeah. Let's get to that topic. Because that's an equally important question for the Penguins.

Malkin participated in the optional practice before Game 2 but didn't play. And it didn't feel like it was a very close decision. However, before the team left for Long Island, head coach Mike Sullivan said Malkin will make the trip.

The Penguins could use Malkin's offense against the stingy Islanders. Frankly, they need more offense, in general, in the playoffs. The normally talented scorers on the Penguins continue to have trouble finding the net in the postseason.

Sullivan's team hasn't scored more than three goals in a playoff game since the 8-5 series clincher over Philadelphia in the first round of the 2018 postseason. They are averaging just 2.35 goals per game in that time.

—The Penguins power play stinks so far in this series. It needs to get better. Fast.

The man-up unit is 0 for 5. The first opportunity in Game 1 was very sharp and nearly scored on a few occasions. Since then, it has been rotten. The Islanders are too good defensively 5 on 5 for the Penguins power play to add nothing.

—Extending that point, Game 2 featured a pair of 4-on-4 opportunities. The Penguins need to capitalize on those chances when they present themselves. The Islanders' vaunted structure and systematic play are more prone to breakdown in a specialty situation like that with more open ice to cover.

Sure, 4 on 4 is an even situation. Theoretically, though, it should be an advantage for the Penguins.

All the time.

The scoreboard needs to reflect that should we see similar opportunities during the rest of the series.

—The quick lead and solid start for the Penguins was important from a fan perspective, too.

Whether it's 18,087 for a normal playoff crowd or 9,344 like it was on Tuesday with covid-19 restrictions relaxed a bit, the tension of being down 1-0 in the series was cut in a hurry.

The energy was built. It felt loud. The fans got to yell about big hits and scream at the referees for a few non-calls. They got to cheer a quick goal. And they got to heckle the opposing goalie for letting in a softy.

Instead of booing their own goalie. After the way Game 1 went, if it was 2-0 after 20 minutes of Game 2 in favor of New York, that could've happened.

So the positive start and early goal were good for everyone wearing black and gold, especially the guy in the home team's crease.


Seth Rorabaugh joins me for Thursday's "Breakfast With Benz" podcast. We touch on all those topics, some beat-up defensemen, where Evgeni Malkin can help the most and a return to road trip life.

Listen: Tim Benz and Seth Rorabaugh discuss the Penguins playoff series

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.