If the Penguins drop their series to the New York Rangers and go out in the first round for the fourth consecutive year, one thing is for certain – third-string goaltender Louis Domingue will have given them his best in a challenging situation.
“I think he’s played well to this point,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s a confident kid, and that really helps him in this circumstance. I think he’s really excited about the opportunity in front of him.”
With Friday’s news that Casey DeSmith, already a backup starting these playoffs for the Penguins, will miss the rest of the season following his second core muscle surgery in a year, the net belongs to Domingue for the foreseeable future.
No. 1 netminder Tristan Jarry took a step forward in his recovery from a foot fracture Saturday morning, when he got back on the ice for the first time since his April 14 injury. Still, there’s likely another step or two between that initial on-ice work and Jarry’s return to game action.
“I think it’s significant that he’s on the ice; it always is when a player takes that jump from the rehab process,” Sullivan said. “I’m not going to speculate on where he goes moving from here, but we’re certainly real encouraged with this day that he got on the ice, and we’ll take it from there.”
So, Domingue it is for Saturday’s critical Game 3 in the series, tied 1-1 after Thursday’s 5-2 Rangers win, and likely beyond. And that means it’s time for Penguins not named Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust to step up.
Pittsburgh’s formidable first line has a combined 11 points in the first two games of the series. Evgeni Malkin has two; five others have one. And while a few players have stood out with strong performances, their chances haven’t yet translated to the scoreboard.
“I feel like 5-on-5, every line has got some quality looks,” Sullivan said. “Obviously when you get scoring throughout your lineup, it helps you win games. But I think these guys are trying to play the right way. They’re competing hard; they’re trying to go to the net. They’ve had some pretty good looks.
“[Kasperi Kapanen], for example, has had some real good looks on [Evgeni Malkin’s] line in the last two games, some off of faceoffs, some off the rush, some at the net front. I think if they continue to get some, they’ll convert.”
The team defense hasn’t helped, with the Penguins allowing an average of four goals per game while they’ve scored an average of three. That’s not a long-term recipe for success.
Neither is their continued struggle on special teams, where playoff games are often won and lost.
The Pittsburgh power play has managed just one goal in six opportunities in the series so far. But perhaps the biggest battle in this series is between the Penguins’ penalty kill, which faltered toward the end of the season, and the Rangers’ dangerous power play.
The Penguins have now given up power play goals in six consecutive games, including both games of this series so far. Their 60% penalty kill rate is second worst in the playoffs, while the Rangers’ 40% power play conversion rate is second best.
“There’s a number of things that we’ve got to get better at,” Sullivan said. “We’re not winning many faceoffs [on the PK], so they’re getting a lot of zone time. We’re not getting clears. We’ve got to do a better job with our pressure when we have an opportunity. They’ve just spent too much time in our end zone; we’ve got to do a better job.”
“I think it just comes down to attention to detail,” said forward Brock McGinn. “We went over some film today, things that can bring us a little more success, and I think we’ve just got to do a better job bearing down, focusing on getting the puck down 200 feet and not giving them as much time in-zone.”
A key area of focus for the Penguins coming into the series was limiting chances from the Rangers’ transition game, where they frequently burned the Penguins off the rush in the regular season. They’ve largely been successful at that.
“I think we’re doing a good job of putting pucks behind them and then putting them in the right spot to give us the opportunity to go get them back, and not giving them the time to be able to execute a clean breakout and get on those rushes,” McGinn said. “We’ve just got to do a good job at staying on top of them and limiting their time and space.”
Pittsburgh has also done a significantly better job in this series of getting traffic in front of the net, as opposed to trying to set up the perfect play, which has proven to be their best chance of scoring on Igor Shesterkin.
“You’ve got to get traffic on this goaltender,” Guentzel said. “If he’s going to see it, he’s going to stop it. If you’re getting shots and creating rebounds, that’s when we have our best chances.”
“That’s something we talked about coming into the series,” McGinn said. “He’s obviously a very good goalie so the more bodies we can get in front of him and get in lanes and maybe get some more sticks on pucks, I think that creates those second opportunities where hopefully we can cash in on those.”
That concept of trying to manufacture goals by putting more pucks on the net is a change for the Penguins, but a necessary one, especially in tighter, physical playoff contests.
“I think that’s just an evolution of the NHL game, if you look at how goals are scored around the league,” Sullivan said. “There’s a fair amount of them that result from some sort of an outside shot with traffic at the net and it breaks coverage down, because it forces decision making and within that usually lies opportunity.
“Teams in the playoffs defend really hard. All the teams that are left, one of the common denominators is that they make it hard for you to get quality looks. If you’re not going to get an easy look off the rush, you’ve got to be able to manufacture some goals, and that’s one way to do it.”
The Rangers, meanwhile, will look to do the same in a goaltending matchup that, for now, feels even more like a mismatch than it did at the start of the series – and one the Penguins can improve by getting their full roster on board with the effort.
“Louis is an awesome goalie,” McGinn said. “He’s got a lot of confidence, and we have a lot of belief in him. I think the more we can help him out, the more it’s going to help our team.”