The Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves in a situation that they have only faced three times in the previous two postseasons: facing elimination.
2016 Eastern Conference Finals- Penguins lose Game 5 at home to the Lightning and find themselves down 3-2 going back to Tampa Bay. After winning a crucial Game 6, the Penguins go on to win Game 7 at home.
2017 Eastern Conference Second Round- Capitals storm back from being down three games to one and tie the series at three games apiece. In Game 7 at Verizon Center, the Penguins shut out the Caps 2-0 to move on to the Conference final.
2017 Eastern Conference Finals– Ottawa ties the series at 3 games apiece, but the Penguins end up taking Game 7 in overtime.
After being overwhelmed late last night in Washington, the Penguins find themselves facing elimination once again. Game 5 was one of the stranger games all series. Pittsburgh played extremely well for 90% of the game, converted twice on the powerplay and outshot their opponents 39-32. But when Braden Holtby put up a brick wall in the third period, the wheels just about fell off for the Penguins. Their sense of urgency turned to panic, careless mistakes were made, and the puck hit the back of their net four times in the final frame.
Kris Letang is a shell of his former self. As critical as that may sound, he is the root of the Penguins’ woes on the back end. Mistakes by Letang directly led to the Capitals third and fourth goals, which just happened to be the game-tying and game-winning goals. For some reason, Letang decided to slide over behind Brian Dumoulin on the left side, leaving the right side of the ice wide open for Evgeny Kuznetsov to even the game at three. Regardless of what he was trying to do, it was the absolute worst decision; Letang failed defense 101 on this play. Minutes later it was Letang trying to play goalie rather than taking the passing lane away, and Vrana put the Capitals in the driver’s seat with that goal.
Kris Letang has two goals and eight assists in 11 games these playoffs. His offensive contributions are obviously important, but right now his ineptitude on defense far outweighs his point production. Through six games against Washington, Letang is a -5. Something has to change in the way he approaches each game. He has proven that he can be a lockdown defender and he possesses more than enough skill to be elite. The 31-year-old defender needs to be the difference maker in Game 6, otherwise, there may not be a Game 7.
Everybody can do better, and each man needs to find another level. Matt Murray has shown flashes of brilliance in every game this series, but he’s also let in some stoppable pucks as well. Matt Murray is only 23 years old with two Stanley Cups in two years at the NHL level. Winning is all he has known, but right now, adversity is staring him in the face. He has been often praised for his calm nature and ability to weather the storm. Murray can dictate his own future. He shut the Capitals down in 2016, and he will need to channel that into Game 6.
As much as the Penguins have scored so far, there are more problems with their offense than meets the eye. Derick Brassard has been relegated to the fourth line and has only registered four points in 11 postseason games. Jim Rutherford certainly did not trade to get a fourth line center, and Brassard has shown that he can play far better than he currently is. As good as the Penguins top line is, that’s about where the offense ends in this second round. The Penguins are currently a one-line team. Brassard has the capability to be the difference maker.
Bottom-six scoring has been the deciding factor on the path to the last two Stanley Cups. If the Penguins are going to get out of this round against Washington, they cannot be a one-line team. They’ve had their backs against the wall before, and they’ve gutted it out. Game 6 on Monday will show what this team is made of.