NHL playoffs: Lightning vs. Penguins Game 2 points to ponder
The Pittsburgh Penguins know what they are up against on Monday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN,CBC,TVAS). Lose Game 2 at home to the Tampa Bay Lightning and they're as good as done before the Eastern Conference Finals move on to the Sunshine State.
That's the way it's played out for the past 19 teams that went down 0-2 in the postseason's third round.
The Pens had their moments in Game 1. They enjoyed significant zone time and won the possession battle. But they couldn't convert their chances. And ultimately, their defensive breakdowns caught up to them. Coach Mike Sullivan believes they'll have to be mentally tougher to get the series back to even.
"We've got to have a resilience approach," he said on Sunday. "When you get this far in the playoffs, you're playing real good opponents. It's hard to win every night. When you don't win, you've got to respond the right way.
"We've got to learn what we can from Game 1. There were a lot of good things that we did. By no means was it a bad game for us. I don't think they saw our best."
Here are some points to ponder ahead of Game 2:
• This could be Matt Murray's last stand. The rookie keeper has played a key role in Pittsburgh's success through the first two rounds, providing a poised presence between the pipes as Marc-André Fleury has recuperated from a concussion. But the 21-year-old's game is fraying slightly at the edges. He allowed three goals on 20 shots on Friday. In Game 5 against Washington, he allowed three on just 19. His save percentage over his past three starts is just .885. That's not going to cut it against a Lightning offense that has generated 18 goals over its past five games.
The Pens' defense has to be better in front of him. Olli Maatta, whose blown coverage led to Alex Killorn's opening goal in Game 1, is likely to be scratched for Game 2. That's addition by subtraction. Maatta hasn't looked sharp since returning from the head injury that cost him three games in the Washington series. His replacement though is likely to be Justin Schultz—not exactly a shutdown specialist.
And it would help if the penalty kill Flex-Sealed the leaks. The struggling unit has allowed five goals on 13 chances over the past three games, a gruesome 62% failure rate. It's not just one problem area, either. They're getting beaten off the rush and on extended zone pressure. A more aggressive approach might not work against the precision passing of the Lightning, but they have to find a way to take away time and space without opening up the lanes.
If the Pens lose this one, they'll be up against the wall. Hard to imagine them not turning to Fleury for Game 3 under those circumstances.
• As much as they need a sharper effort on the back end, the Pens need their top players to deliver up front.
Sullivan shook up his top two lines in practice, suggesting they'll have a new look for Game 2. Rookies Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust skated with Sidney Crosby while Patric Hornqvist and Beau Bennett were with Evgeni Malkin. The two big guns have gone quiet since the Rangers series, combining for just one goal in their past six games.
Using fourth-liner Rust to boost Crosby, who hasn't scored in a career-high eight games, might seem counterintuitive. But Sullivan says the speed of the trio will make them dangerous. "Rusty can really chase down pucks," he said Monday morning. "He's very good defensively. He's got good awareness. He's good on the wall. But for me, he's a guy that brings a lot of speed to any line that he plays on. So he can chase down pucks, he can force turnovers, and through that he creates opportunity."
It's nice that Sullivan has so much faith in Rust. But it shouldn't be up to the rookie to light a fire under Crosby. This is the time of year when the captain needs to step up in the face of increasing odds and find a way to make something happen. The little things he does? They're great. But he gets paid to do the big things. Time for him to deliver.
The Lightning won't make it any easier on them. Tampa Bay is allowing a league-low 1.82 goals per game in the playoffs. Credit their relentless forecheck and the discipline of their blueliners, who make it almost impossible to enter the attack zone with possession. That's Pittsburgh's preferred method, but the Pens may have to adjust to the dump and chase. “We’ve got to force them to pivot and go back for pucks," Sullivan said. "Then we can use our speed and our quickness to try to take advantage of those opportunities.”
• Look for the Pens to key on Victor Hedman in Game 2. The veteran defenseman was a force in all three zones in the opener, impacting the game with his size and his skating ability. He made arguably the single best play in the contest, using his reach to nullify an imminent Tom Kuhnhackl scoring chance, and set up Killorn's goal on a slick stretch pass.
With Hedman's size, he's not an easy player to beat physically, but the Pens may take that chance. Hall of Fame coach Fred Shero famously beat the Boston Bruins by having his Flyers put the puck into Bobby Orr's corner and then punish him every time he touched it. That might be Sullivan's best option here.
"We have to continue to try to put pressure on him to force him to expend energy, to defend," Sullivan said on Monday. "We have to finish checks every opportunity we have to stop his momentum.
"He's a big guy. He plays a lot of minutes, and he's very involved in both ends of the rink. So I think we've got to try to make it a hard game for him. We've got to force him to have to go through people. We've got to try to break his momentum every opportunity we can so that he has to work for every inch of ice. When we have opportunities to force him to have to defend, we have to make him defend and expend energy defending our team with zone time, with working the puck underneath the hash marks."
• There's nothing but good news on the Lightning's side of the ledger, and not just because they've stolen home ice and have won five straight on the road.
The Bolts caught a break when the NHL chose, inexplicably, not to impose supplemental discipline on Ryan Callahan for his ugly hit on Kris Letang in Game 1.
Callahan's physical presence and leadership are key for a team that's missing its captain. "He's really kind of taken over the reins there in the absence of Steven [Stamkos]," coach Jon Cooper said. "You can't have enough of Ryan Callahan. It's just heart, passion. We're sure glad that he's going to be available for Game 2."
He's not the scorer he once was, but Callahan earns his keep. The fiesty winger is a top penalty killer for the Bolts and is key to establishing Tampa Bay's forecheck. If he's going good, the Lightning might spend a bit more time in the Penguins zone tonight, which means less pressure on Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is expected to make his first start since April 9, when he allowed four goals on 28 shots in a 5–2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
• There's been no announcement yet, but all indications suggest defenseman Anton Stralman will be back in the lineup. He has been taking part in full drills for several days now and appears to be completely free of any ill effects after fracturing his leg seven weeks ago. Cooper said, "it's kind of up to [him] now," while describing Stralman as day-to-day.
If he goes, it would be a huge boost to Tampa's chances. A right-handed shot with plenty of playoff experience,Stralman can make an impact at even strength and on both special teams. It's possible he could skate with Hedman, but he might play on the second pairing to spare him a match-up against Crosby's line in his first game back.
The Lightning will also have Tyler Johnson, who seemed to have no lingering effects from that knee-on-knee collision with Chris Kunitz.
• Starting goaltender Ben Bishop is somehow a possibility for Game 2 after being ruled day-to-day by Cooper.
Bishop didn't practice with the team on Monday, making it likely that Kristers Gudlevskis serves as the backup. But the fact that Bishop hasn't been ruled out for the season after being stretchered off the ice in obvious agony early in Game 1 is beyond the best-case scenario. It wouldn't be surprising to see him back between the pipes for Game 3.