Grove: Islanders Wanting It More Than Penguins Biggest Issue In Sweep

Reshaping the Penguins into a team that doesn't lose a series because the other guys were more determined -- that's the priority.

Bob Grove
April 17, 2019 - 9:47 am

© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Related: Islanders Finish Off Penguins 3-1 For Stunning Playoff Sweep

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - When it was over, Mike Sullivan talked about the need to defend harder, about his team's inability to keep a lead.

Evgeni Malkin, among other things, said they weren't fast enough. 

Sidney Crosby, not surprisingly, blamed himself. 

The Penguins, as they should, also credited the New York Islanders after being swept out of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs Tuesday night, for New York delivered a masterful four-game lesson on structure, on puck and coverage support, on how to win playing defensive hockey, on every man delivering his piece of the puzzle.

But Malkin and Kris Letang both said the Islanders wanted to win this series more than the Penguins, and that is a much bigger issue than any discussion of Pittsburgh's roster shortfalls or its special teams and scoring failures, its defensive shortcomings or the lackluster performance of any individual players.

That is the issue that should drive the off-season adjustments GM Jim Rutherford now faces.

Teams that aren't driven hard enough to succeed in the spring are playing on borrowed time, and the Penguins would know, since they were the team in 2016 and 2017 that refused to lose.

If this particular group lacks the collective will and focus it takes to win a single game in the first round -- Pittsburgh hadn't suffered a first-round sweep in 47 years -- assembling a hungrier team should be management's biggest goal.

And address the other issues along the way.

Unlike their last sweep, when Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask almost single-handedly silenced them in the 2013 Conference Final, the Penguins in this series were blanketed by a team that worked harder, won more loose pucks and puck battles and committed itself to placing sticks and bodies in every possible passing and shooting lane.

New York goaltender Robin Lehner was terrific, but he was not outstanding, not the biggest reason why Pittsburgh managed only three goals over the final three games and just six in the series -- the second-lowest number in team history behind that 2013 defeat.

Lehner didn't need to be a one-man tour-de-force, as demonstrated by Scott Mayfield's third-period block of a Phil Kessel power play shot that was headed for an empty net.

That block, followed by a Lehner save on Jake Guentzel, started a sequence that really capsulized how the Islanders played this series.

They supported each other with and without the puck on shift after shift, and if the Penguins found a way around one man, there was always another backing him up.

The Penguins, in contrast, did not provide cover for Letang when he mistakenly pinched in the opening period and created yet another odd-man break that resulted in yet another Jordan Eberle goal.

The Penguins' speed issues in this series seemed striking but really were often exacerbated by the Islanders' flawless positioning and their aforementioned desire to win pucks.

After all, the Penguins' speed was good enough to get them within four points of first place in the Metro Division -- how big a detriment is it?

When the Penguins took five of six possible points from the Islanders in their final three regular season meetings, the Pittsburgh lineup included Jamie Oleksiak, Tanner Pearson, Riley Sheahan, Derek Grant, Olli Maatta, Zach Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson. Not a swift skater in the bunch.

They could use more speed for sure, especially on a back line that now includes Maatta, Erik Gudbranson, Jack Johnson and Marcus Pettersson.

But the Penguins' shouldn't lean on that simple change fixing everything. Management has a lot of hard questions to ask, among them the future of Maatta, who shouldn't be a healthy scratch at this point in his career, and the future of Kessel, who lost or gave away the puck with alarming regularity in this series and endured a prolonged second-half scoring slump that can't be ignored.

But reshaping this into a team that doesn't lose a series because the other guys were more determined -- that's the priority.

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