OTTAWA – Weakened, punchless and floundering, the Penguins kept getting showered with greedy, giddy venom in their first northern trip of these Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“We! Want! Six!” the Ottawa citizens chanted lustily in the Canadian Tire Centre, bellies full of a three-hour tailgate and their team already leading the champions 5-zilch in third period of Game 3.
A 2-1 series lead was essentially locked at the 12:52 mark of the game, when a four-goal onslaught chased Marc-Andre Fleury and signalled the 2017 post-season debut of backup-turned-starter-turned-backup Matt Murray.
We’ve purchased grocery store flowers that lasted longer.
“Fleurrrr-rrrrrry!” the Red Zone taunted the Penguins netminder long after he had exchanged mask for ballcap and taken a seat on a chair next to the visitors bench.
“He’s played so well for us,” Matt Cullen lamented. “That makes it even worse that we hung him out to dry.”
The arena rocked with full-throated momentum, the Senators company account got sassy for retweets, and — most alarmingly — the champions’ cracks were laid bare for mocking.
The Penguins defencemen — all seven of them on this night, to coach Mike Sullivan’s chagrin — couldn’t keep a more ready and determined Sens rush at bay, the talent-rich forward units couldn’t score an even-strength goal, and, uh oh, looky here, we now have ourselves the seed of a goaltending controversy.
Murray, who injured his lower body warming up for the first game of Round 1, hadn’t played since April 6. He stopped 19 of 20 shots (.950 save percentage) in cold relief.
Fleury is indisputably the Penguins’ MVP of this run. They would not have defeated Washington had he not stood on his head and cartwheeled.
“We both know the drill, and we both know how to handle ourselves,” said Murray.
Yet Sullivan hesitated to throw his support behind either one of them for Game 4, the debacle of Game 3 still red on his face.
“I haven’t even given any consideration to that at this point. We give up four goals as quickly as we did, sometimes when you make a change, it’s for more than one reason,” the coach explained. “It’s a little bit of a wake-up call, I guess, for the whole group.
“It wasn’t like we gave up a lot of scoring chances. We didn’t. But they all seemed to go in the net.”
This is the biggest bout of adversity Pittsburgh has faced since falling behind 2-3 in last spring’s Eastern Conference Final to Tampa Bay. That team rallied. That team also had Kris Letang.
“It’s hard to replace to top players, but I don’t think that’s the problem,” said Conor Sheary, a top-line winger still searching for his first playoff goal after exploding for 23 in the regular season. “We didn’t work hard enough.”
That was the prevailing sentiment in the losing room. This wasn’t about a depleted defence core or lingering injuries to star players or Craig Anderson’s .965 save percentage in this series. And it certainly isn’t about the Senators’ suffocating 1-3-1 trap.
No. The Penguins believe they lost because they weren’t ready and didn’t exert the effort.
“I don’t think any of it has to do with how they play. It’s about how we played. We didn’t play well enough to expect to win, I don’t care who we play. That’s what you get,” said Cullen, cutting to the heart.
“The offence comes down to winning battles. There’s no secrets. We know the systems, we know where to be, we know how to win, we know how to score. We didn’t work hard enough to score. We didn’t win battles. You have to fight. You have to earn your space. Get loose pucks. Win a battle in a corner. We didn’t have that.
“To be able to say that right now in the conference finals… it’s pretty hard to stomach.”
The inflated 5-1 final score was a shocker, but themes are bubbling to the surface. The Penguins offence is not being driven by the slow-footed shot-blockers remaining on their blue line. They’ve benefitted wildly from terrific goaltending. And Sidney Crosby’s line — two-thirds of which suffered brain injuries this month — is still searching for an even-strength goal.
Pittsburgh has never scored more than once against the Senators in their past five meetings, dating back to the regular season. The Sens have won eight of nine periods, by their own scorecard.
“It can be frustrating. We’re definitely a team that likes to make plays and score goals, and we have the talent to do that,” Sheary said. “When a team stymies that and makes it difficult to keep the puck on your stick, it can get frustrating.”
Crosby says when teams skate this deep into May, they’re committed to their systems, their styles. They’ll live or die by them. Pot committed. “All in,” as the Senators’ playoff slogan rings.
“When you get to this point, everybody believes in their own game and what gets you here, but there are little adjustments you have to make,” Crosby said. “In this case, probably a few more adjustments, considering how they play.”
So, do they get a few more healthy bodies for Friday night? Will Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist and Justin Schultz help punch up an offence that needs to show itself regardless of which goalie gets the nod?
“We’re going to use the guys that we have. We’re going to try to put them in positions to be successful,” Sullivan vowed. “And we’re going to attack the next game.”