After an undisciplined Game 4 at Long Island put the Penguins in a 2-2 series deadlock with the New York Islanders, they returned home to PPG Paints Arena Monday facing what could fairly be described as a must-win situation.
These playoffs represent perhaps the last, best chance for another Stanley Cup for the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Conversely, with another first-round exit and a new front office already in place, it might well be time for sweeping changes. Time to look toward the future.
Yes, Game 5 was important. And the Penguins responded like a team that knew exactly how much was on the line. They fired 50 shots on goal, 40 of them scoring chances. Sixteen of those were of the high-danger variety. They utterly dominated faceoffs, puck possession, every key metric.
“I was really proud of the team; I thought we played a really solid hockey game,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “All four lines were going; all six defensemen. [Goalie] Tristan [Jarry] made a couple of big saves for us throughout the course of the game. I thought we played with some swagger; we had some confidence. We were on our toes. I thought we played a speed game.”
“We had guys skating; we had guys working together,” said forward Bryan Rust. “We were working as a cohesive unit out there for a large portion of this game, and I think it showed. We had the puck a lot, we had a lot of good looks, we had a lot of good time in the offensive zone. That’s something we can be proud of.”
But after a great start, playing 19 minutes of exactly the kind of hockey they came out needing to play – complete with a power play goal from Evgeni Malkin, who took three penalties and plenty of heat in Game 4 – the Penguins got caught without a defenseman back. The Isles’ Anthony Beauvillier took full advantage, beating forward Jake Guentzel and Jarry with 55 seconds remaining in the opening period to send his team to the locker room tied, 1-1.
The Penguins went back ahead on a long-range shot from Rust 7:37 into the second, and the 2-1 advantage held until a period later, when a Brian Dumoulin turnover led to a goal from New York’s Jordan Eberle at 8:50 of the third. The teams were deadlocked again at 2-2 – just like the series – and would eventually head to overtime.
Pittsburgh held a slim (8-7) advantage in shots but a significant (8-5) edge in scoring chances in the first OT, but Islanders goalie Ilya Sorokin was locked in. Even luck was on his side, with bounces like a standing save off his right pad that he never even saw.
“We had tons of chances,” defenseman Letang said. “Their goalie made great saves and we were not able to get that goal.”
“You’ve got to give [Sorokin] some credit; he made some big saves,” Sullivan said. “We had a significant amount of scoring chances. Rebound chances, deflection chances, traffic at the net. There was a lot of opportunity there and we put a lot at the net. I’m not sure we could do much more to get a different result as far as the amount of goals that we scored. We generated a lot of scoring chances against a pretty stingy defensive team.”
Then, after battling to avoid facing elimination for 80 minutes, the Penguins got this from their goaltender 51 seconds into the second OT.
Though Jarry’s puckhandling is one of his biggest assets, in a next-goal-wins situation the play was simply unconscionable. He immediately paid for it when his attempted pass landed on the stick of the Islanders’ Josh Bailey, then in his net – but so did the entire team, which deserved a better outcome.
“I thought he had a heck of a game up until that point,” Sullivan said. “He made a mistake. He made some big saves for us throughout the course of the game as well. We’ll rally around him. He’s been a really good goalie for us all year long; he’ll continue to be a good goalie for us moving forward.”
Now the Penguins head to Long Island for Wednesday’s Game 6, facing the prospects of elimination, another first-round exit and, perhaps, the beginning of the end of an era.
Pittsburgh’s players say the way they performed in Game 5 gives them confidence, even now.
“Obviously the result was not what we wanted tonight, but I think we made a statement and that’s the way we need to play going in their arena,” Letang said. “I’m pretty confident if we bring the same intensity, the same urgency, we’ll get a better result.”
“It was unfortunate we didn’t find the net a little more often, but sometimes that happens in this game,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got to put it behind us. We have a lot of leadership that’s been through a lot of experiences in this league, especially in the playoffs. So we’ll just keep this thing in perspective, we’ll go to the Island and we’ll put our best game on the ice.”