Sidney Crosby was back in his practice stall Saturday in the Pittsburgh suburb of Cranberry, away from the hostile environs of Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The Islanders had sent Crosby’s Penguins packing with an 0-2 deficit, the first time they’ve been in that spot since the 2013 Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Bruins. And, much like in that series, Pittsburgh has encountered a team whose style has all but shut down their offense.
“There wasn’t a lot of zone time for either team; a lot of it was through the neutral zone,” Crosby said. “That’s the challenge that both teams are faced with is trying to create zone time and putting pressure on the other team.”
The stats say the Penguins have largely done that, driving possession 54.51% of the time to the Islanders’ 45.49% in all situations so far. But the high-danger stats say something else, with the Isles having a 58.06% to 41.94% possession edge there.
That’s been the result of the Islanders’ strong forecheck forcing the Penguins into poor decisions with the puck and East-West passes that lead to turnovers.
“I think their forecheck in Game 1 was really effective; they gave us a lot of trouble,” said defenseman Kris Letang, whose turnover led to the Isles’ overtime goal in that game. “We looked at the video and I think last game we did pretty good at coming out of our zone with tape-to-tape plays.”
“As far as getting out of the zone, I think it’s executing, making tape-to-tape passes if they’re there,” Crosby said. “If not, winning those battles along the walls to get the puck out of the zone and relieve pressure.”
You could say Crosby and linemate Jake Guentzel are feeling some pressure, much of it in the form of the Islanders’ fourth line of Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin.
Though the Penguins outshot the Islanders 44-33 in Game 1, Guentzel, a 40-goal scorer in the regular season, was held without so much as a shot attempt. Crosby, who scored 100 points this year, had two shots and five attempts. Guentzel fared better in Game 2 with three shots and four attempts; Crosby was held to one shot and four attempts.
“As the game went on, we got more and more,” Guentzel said. “We know we’ve got to be better, and tomorrow’s got to be our best.”
For head coach Mike Sullivan, having more time with the puck would go a long way.
“The zone time is down on both sides relative to the numbers we’re accustomed to game in and game out,” Sullivan said. “I think when Sid’s line is at its best, they command a lot of puck possession, a lot of offensive zone time. We can do a better job hanging onto pucks; there are some areas where we think we can help them strategically to try to allow them to have more success. But when they’re at their best, I think they have more offensive zone time.”
Sullivan made one tactical switch to try to facilitate that increased zone time Saturday, plugging forward Dominik Simon alongside Crosby and Guentzel in place of Bryan Rust. Though Simon has only two goals in his last 40 games, that’s not what Sullivan is looking for from him.
“He’s really stiff on the puck and he makes plays,” Sullivan said. “Even though he may not score, his line scores. And usually, when his line scores, he’s a part of it. He’s a guy that’s good in traffic, he’s good in battle areas, he’s got a good 200-foot game, he’s strong defensively and he’s a good playmaker.
“Even though he hadn’t had the finish we hoped he would develop over the course of the season, there’s a lot of attributes of his game that help his line have success.”
For the Penguins, no attribute would go as far as matching the hunger the upstart Islanders have displayed in the first two games of this series. The situation Pittsburgh is in, plus a return home to PPG Paints Arena, should provide plenty of motivation.
“Our mindset’s got to be to go out there with the urgency and desperation to get a win,” Crosby said. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to get one there, but we’re coming back home and it’s a big game.”
Crosby will spend the rest of Saturday taking a mental break from hockey by – what else? – watching hockey. Even down 0-2, the Penguins captain hasn’t lost sight of the bigger picture.
“I’ll watch a few games,” he said. “Maybe not the whole thing or whole games, but it’s a fun time of year. It’s intense and all those things, but it’s also fun.
“There’s a lot of teams that would love to be playing right now. So you get your mind off your own game and your team’s game, but you still follow along and enjoy this time of year.”