If it’s broke, fix it.
That was the Penguins' attitude following three poor showings that had them locked in at 2-2 in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the New York Islanders.
But the Penguins coaching staff saw the problems and found the solution in Game 5 as Pittsburgh gained a 3-2 series lead with a 4-0 triumph Thursday night at CONSOL Energy Center.
The Penguins were not happy with the way they managed the puck and executed in the previous three games. There were a few areas of the game that they wanted to improve upon. The coaching staff made the necessary adjustments to correct those points: goaltending, the Islanders’ team speed, the Penguins breakout, line play and composure.
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma delivered a wakeup call to the team when he announced that Tomas Vokoun would be starting in goal in place of Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 5.
Fleury had given up some fluky goals in the past three games. However, the goals and losses cannot be blamed solely on him. His teammates know they share the blame in the team’s performances. And their failure to execute helped make Fleury a spectator. Fleury, a popular, happy-go-lucky teammate who always has a smile on his face, took the fall and it was a gut check for the rest of the Penguins players.
Vokoun’s play in the first period was crucial. The Islanders tilted the ice in their favor, but the 36-year-old netminder stopped all 14 shots he faced. Vokoun, who admitted he had nerves going in, was fighting the puck on the initial shots but was cool in handling any rebounds. Over the final two periods he was a rock. In all he finished with 31 saves for his second career postseason shutout. Not bad for a guy who hadn’t played a playoff game in six years.
The Penguins have had difficulty handling the Islanders’ team speed all series long. The Penguins responded by adding speed to their own lineup. They dressed Tyler Kennedy and Joe Vitale for their first games of the series. Both provided a much-needed boost with swiftness, as well as a tenacious attack. And just for a good story’s sake, Kennedy scored the game’s first, and winning, goal.
The Islanders had been killing the Penguins with their transition game. They were thriving off turnovers and using their speed to attack the scrambling Pittsburgh squad. To counter, the Penguins needed to cut down on their turnovers. So they tweaked their breakout.
The Penguins tend to break out as a five-man unit and maintain speed by keeping their feet moving. When the defensemen had the puck, they were trying to make lead passes to their quickly moving forwards. However, the Islanders had been intercepting those passes. So the Penguins had one of their forwards hang high inside the blue line in the defensive zone, giving their defensemen a safe outlet. As a result, the Penguins cut down on their turnovers (they were credited with eight giveaways, but three were by Vokoun) and cut down on the Islanders’ transition opportunities.
The Penguins coaching staff sent out their usual line pairings at Thursday’s morning skate. They even opened the game status quo. But a few shifts into the contest, everything changed.
Jarome Iginla was moved to the right wing with Sidney Crosby as his center. Human Swiss army knife Pascal Dupuis moved over to the left wing (what a commodity No. 9 is for the coaching staff with his versatility). The Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal trio was reunited. Both lines accounted for one goal.
Lastly, the Penguins were much more composed in Game 5. They’ve lost a couple two-goal leads in this series. This time when they grabbed a 2-0 lead, they didn’t stop playing. When they grabbed a 3-0 lead, they didn’t stop playing. When they grabbed a 4-0 lead, they didn’t stop playing.
More importantly is how they played with the lead. Instead of looking for the big “home run” play for a breakaway or making the perfect pass through traffic for a great scoring chance, the Penguins opted for the smart plays. Pittsburgh got the puck out of its zone. They backed off 50-50 pucks in a defensive posture. And they utilized their defensemen for security.
The end result of all the team’s adjustments was the Penguins winning 4-0 and taking a 3-2 series lead.