|With a 5-3 victory over the New York Rangers on Tuesday night, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins improved to a perfect 7-0 in the 2008 NHL playoffs and moved within one win of advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.
Invincible is another one of those faux-pas words. No team is invincible the way no team is unbeatable.
Unless, of course, you’re talking about the Pittsburgh Penguins, who so far in the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs haven’t just been unbeatable, they have been invincible. The Penguins ran their playoff record to 7-0 with a 5-3 win at Madison Square Garden tonight in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the New York Rangers.
It would take a miracle — yes, those can happen in hockey, we know that — for the Rangers to win this series now that they’re behind three games to none. Only two teams have come back from 3-0 deficits to win a series, the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and the 1975 New York Islanders, against Pittsburgh.
However, these unbeatable — or invincible, if that’s the word you prefer — Penguins won’t let their fairy-tale ride through the first half of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs alter their original thinking that being crowned king of the NHL won’t be easy, or at least can’t be this easy.
“We’re looking for perfection,” Ryan Malone said. “All of us are still looking for that perfect 60 minutes.”
Although the Penguins are perfect in these playoffs, they have no trouble finding faults in their own game. It’s how they stay grounded.
On Tuesday night, that meant focusing on a sub-par second period when they let the Rangers outshoot them 14-4 and storm back to tie the game at 3-3 with a pair of goals.
Evgeni Malkin’s power-play goal with 2:07 remaining in the period gave Pittsburgh the lead and momentum back heading into the third, but it was almost an afterthought to these Penguins, who may even be searching for negatives now just to have something tangible to work on in practice.
“To be honest, I haven’t heard anyone on our team even make a mention or a point of what our record is,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “It might seem cliché, but we really are just going period by period here. We were probably lucky after the second period to still have a lead.”
Added Malone: “You take a period off like that … those bounces may not go our way sooner or later.”
“You can’t say that in hockey,” forward Pascal Dupuis said, referring to the word invincible. “It’s great to win. I can assure you that. It helps everything. Everybody is pretty confident out there, but we have to stay grounded. We’re playing a great team.”
Staying grounded should be easy because the Penguins have acted out the old “We haven’t won anything yet” routine following each of their seven wins. However, in this series in particular, they have proved capable of winning in different ways, which only builds confidence.
In Game 1, they came back from a 3-0 deficit to win 5-4 in a virtual track meet. In Game 2, they won 2-0 in a defensive battle that was a 1-0 game until an empty-net goal with 17 seconds left. In Game 3, they won by holding off a hungry and desperate team that would end up outshooting them 39-17.
The Penguins jumped out to a 3-1 lead after the first period, but that disappeared by 13:11 of the second period when Jaromir Jagr scored his third of the playoffs just 1:04 after Ryan Callahan got his second.
This was after the Penguins had to kill off three straight power plays, including a pair of 5-on-3s that combined for 75 seconds.
“We probably should have had the momentum there after we killed all those penalties, those two 5-on-3s,” Orpik said. “We didn’t. They kind of wore us out and they definitely had us back on our heels.”
However, back on the power play over two minutes later thanks to a needless boarding penalty by Ryan Hollweg, the Penguins somehow forgot momentum wasn’t on their side and went ahead and scored the go-ahead goal anyway.
“I don’t think anyone feels worse in this building than Ryan Hollweg,” Rangers coach Tom Renney said of the Rangers’ agitator, who played only 3:46 but destroyed the Rangers’ momentum when he drove Sykora into the boards from behind. “It was a very tough penalty to take, we know that. We came close to killing it, but (we were) unsuccessful at the end of the day.”
That’s because the Penguins kept the puck in the zone, exhausting the Rangers penalty-killers. Sidney Crosby eventually fed Malkin with a circle-to-circle pass and the Russian MVP candidate ripped a shot past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist with three seconds left in the power play for his second goal of the game and fifth of the postseason.
“Geno got a big goal and we were able to hold it,” Crosby said, “but certainly that second period is not what we want to see. That’s not our style.”
The second period stuck in the Penguins’ minds so much that instead of getting giddy at the potential of closing out the Rangers at MSG on Thursday, they were focusing on what they need to do better in order to have a chance at winning that game.
Yes, that means they were focusing on what they need to do in order to have a chance at beating the team they have already beaten three times in three distinct ways.
If that’s not staying grounded, what is?
“We’re not thinking about winning the first seven games,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien added. “What we did before is in the past. We learned, and tonight we have to learn from that second period and to make sure we’ll be better in the next game.”
Even if they’re not, who’s to say there will be a Game 5 anyway?