For the first time in his career, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby will play a meaningful hockey game on his Aug. 7 birthday. It couldn’t be much more meaningful, as it turns out, as his fifth-seeded club now faces elimination at the hands of the 12th-seeded Montreal Canadiens.
The Penguins have only themselves to blame after letting a two-goal lead Wednesday slip away.
After falling in an early, 1-0 hole on a goal from Montreal defenseman Shea Weber, Pittsburgh battled back – with, of all things, the power play. The unit that went 1-for-12 in the first two games of the series found a way to connect twice in a 59-second span, starting with star center Evgeni Malkin faking a shot on Habs goalie Carey Price, then sending a pass across to Patric Hornqvist for the goal.
WE HAVE POWERPLAY GOALS.
Just some guys winning puck battles and races, taking a beating, and Malkin getting shifty with the fake shot-pass to Hornqvist to get this back to level. pic.twitter.com/9h4fpx9X1e
Bryan Rust set up Jason Zucker to double down on capitalizing on the Canadiens’ early lack of discipline – a theme in the first two games of this series – and give the Penguins a 2-1 lead.
“We were quick to pucks but also executed really well with some nice plays,” Crosby said. “Probably just a combination of working hard and using our skill.”
When Pittsburgh’s hardworking fourth line got a goal from Teddy Blueger to increase their lead to 3-1 early in the second period, the playoff-tested Penguins seemed to be well-positioned to close out the contest and take the series lead.
But then the Canadiens rallied for three unanswered goals.
A deflection in front of the net from Jonathan Drouin, who’s been a playoff thorn in the Penguins’ sides before when he played for the Tampa Bay Lightning. A wraparound from Paul Byron late in the second period. And early in the third, right after the Penguins came off a penalty kill, the dagger from Jeff Petry, who scored the overtime winner in Game 1.
“I think we just made a few mistakes, and this time of year those mistakes are magnified. And they’re opportunistic; they’re waiting for those mistakes and they capitalize on them,” Crosby said. “We might’ve been guilty of getting a little too loose there with the lead, and that changed pretty quick.”
“We took our foot off the gas a little bit, and then momentum shifted and they were able to get those two goals,” Blueger said. “It was a pretty even third period, but we gave up that one goal after the power play and after that just couldn’t find a way to climb back into it. We didn’t defend hard enough and allowed them to get into the blue paint and get those chances in and around the net.”
It was an extremely disappointing outcome for the Penguins as they watched the lead – and with it, perhaps, their season – slipping away.
“At this time of the year, you’ve got to find a way to close those games out,” Blueger said. “We just didn’t do it; we weren’t hard enough. It should be a good lesson for us going forward, but obviously not a whole lot of room for error here.”
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan made one lineup adjustment Wednesday, scratching forward Jared McCann from what’s been a mostly invisible third line and looking for a spark in the speed and physicality of Sam Lafferty, making his NHL playoff debut. Lafferty only saw 7:40 of ice time, though, as the Penguins instead began double-shifting other players, like Malkin, in his spot.
Defenseman Jack Johnson and forward Patrick Marleau were on the ice for three of the four Canadiens goals. Goalie Matt Murray wasn’t quite his stellar Game 2 self, letting in a couple of soft goals on 31 shots.
“They played a good game; you have to give them credit,” Sullivan said. “They played hard; they defended hard. I think we had our moments but we just couldn’t find a way to score in the third.
“We gave up two goals right at the end of penalty kills where the penalty expires, and we’ve just got to be diligent there. Those are situations where I think we could’ve done a better job. Overall we were on the wrong side of the puck a little bit too much tonight. We’ve got to make sure we defend hard, and we create some of our offense off of our defense.”
Now the Penguins, who lost 302 man-games to injury in the regular season, face a different kind of adversity. Win Friday and they’ll earn a winner-takes-all Game 5, for the right to advance to Round 1 of the NHL postseason. Lose and they’ll head home, with another year of Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang’s Stanley Cup window lost.
“I just think going into Friday everyone’s going to be at their best, and we’ve got to pick up the intensity a little bit and be hard to play against,” Blueger said. “We know we have a good team in here, but on paper it means nothing if you don’t go out and perform.”
“Anytime you go through challenging times as a group, I think that’s how groups become stronger,” Sullivan said. “You overcome challenges. And so this is one more we’ve got to find a way to overcome. I have a lot of confidence in this group of players. We’ve just got to bring our best game; we’ve got to win the one game in front of us.”