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Mack: Patience Key For Penguins In First Round

Sullivan's Responsible Brand Of Hockey A Focus In Islanders Matchup

Chris Mack
April 09, 2019 - 10:57 am

It's early April, and with the talents of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Phil Kessel, and Jake Guentzel at their disposal, the Penguins are getting ready for do-or-die time. With that much talent, they should be able to rip through a First Round opponent who ranks 15th out of 16 Stanley Cup Playoff qualifiers in goal scoring, right? You think they'd try to show off all that offensive skill and blow the doors off the New York Islanders... right?

Hope not.

Hope Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan doesn't think that's the way to go. Hope his players have listened to him enough this season and learned enough from their 12-4-4 run to end the season to know better. During that span they adhered to Sullivan's system more than at any other time during the 2018-19 season, and in doing so limited their opponents to just 2.3 goals per game - 4th best in the NHL since February 26th. Hope this team realizes that Sully knows best if they want to advance past the stingiest team (191 GA in the regular season) in the NHL.

Hope they grasp the importance of playing smart hockey if they want to have any chance of winning a third Stanley Cup in four years.

With the number of odd man rushes the Penguins have surrendered this season, the prospect of watching the few skilled forwards the Islanders have at their disposal racing back through the neutral zone behind Pittsburgh defensemen should haunt Pens fans like the hushed mention of David Volek's name.

Related: Penguins Notebook: A Series Against The Islanders Is Never Easy

"We just have to make sure to take care of the puck," said Patric Hornqvist on Tuesday morning. "Don't give their transition game the chance to be the difference."

The temptation to "open things up" is lingering there, not just for the fans, but you know just below the surface for a now finely tuned "200-foot game," as Sullivan calls it. Crosby, Guentzel, Letang, and especially Malkin and Kessel, want to show the world what they are capable of doing. They're some of the most offensively gifted players in the world, and their instinct is to score. Especially in times of stress and frustration, they will feel the desire to go back to their default mode of seeking offense first. 

They will press. They will push. On the blue line, they will pinch.

With those gambles will come the inevitable consequences.

They will turn the puck over. They will create opportunities - for the opposition.

We've seen it so often this season. The Penguins, when they forget to faithfully execute Sullivan's brand of responsible hockey, will become the very thing he so detests. They'll play fast and loose with possession of the biscuit, hang their goalie out to dry, and act as if there are no repercussions to the risks being taken.

And that will be the exact prescription ordered up by Barry Trotz, who is imminently familiar with the Penguins, having faced them with the Washington Capitals in each of the past three postseasons. He will look to trap, slow, obstruct, and most importantly, frustrate Sullivan's team. 

It just may work if the Penguins allow it. 

They can't, though. Jared McCann has been here for just two months, but he knows it.

"I feel like we just gotta keep it simple, and know that we're going to have to learn from how they play us," said the 22-year old forward entering his first postseason action since his time with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the OHL.

What if their frustrations boil over though? Not in a physical manifestation, but rather, in a mental gaffe.

Imagine it. It's halfway through the 3rd period of Game 2 at Nassau Coliseum and the contest is locked in a scoreless tie. Just two days after losing a 1-0 opening game, all the Penguins need is one goal to earn a road split and steal home ice advantage. Yet they've grown tired of chipping and chasing, and here they come up the ice again, staring down a picket fence of Islanders as they try to enter the offensive zone, perhaps even on a power play.

Malkin, or Letang, or maybe even Kessel, decides he's done chasing and he's simply going to do what he's done 1,000,001 times in his life: Dance a defenseman at the blueline and get the damn puck in the damn zone so they can finally get a damn goal.

Only he doesn't dance around anyone. The puck is poked off his stick and it goes the other way for a 2-on-1. The Islanders bury it, and go up 2-0 in a series that returns to PPG Paints Arena with confidence clearly wearing blue and orange and a gnawing, nagging need to break through offensively draped in black and gold. The risks continue, and the Penguins lose two of the next three. They head to the golf course a full two-to-four weeks earlier than any of us expected, and players like Kessel and Olli Maatta are moved out in the offseason.

We can hope it doesn't work out that way. We can hope that the Islanders don't capitalize on any extra chances they're given. And when it comes down to do-or die time, we can hope that the Penguins play the way Sullivan has asked them to play all season; the way they successfully accumulated 28 points in their last 20 regular season games. 

We can hope they understand the importance of remaining patient and letting the game, and opportunities to take over and score, come to them.

Otherwise, they'll have all summer to sit around and do just that: Hope.