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It All Starts (and Stops) With the Breakout

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

If there is one major thing to take away from the Penguins’ 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 3 of the First Round Stanley Cup playoff series that puts them down 2-1 in the series, it’s that this team desperately misses Kris Letang.

And Olli Maatta.

And Christian Ehrhoff.

Obviously, any team that loses three of its top four defensemen isn’t going to be at its strongest in a playoff series. But the Pens’ inability to break out of their own zone for the first 50 minutes of Game 3 really showed how much Letang’s, Ehrhoff’s, and Maatta’s puck moving abilities mean to the Pens.

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The biggest factor in the Pens’ loss was their breakouts.

Pittsburgh couldn’t get clean, crisp outlets to get out of their own zone. That resulted in them getting trapped for extended periods of time. The Pens then settled for just getting the puck out of the zone and trying to change to get fresh bodies on the ice. The Rangers countered by quickly re-entering the Pittsburgh zone.

That scene repeated on a loop.

And at one point a bad line change by the Pens resulted in New York’s first goal of the game when Keith Yandle made a superb breakout pass (yep) to spring Carl Hagelin for a breakaway goal.

The Pens played long stretches on their heels, settling to just get the puck out of the zone, which meant they spent little time in the offensive zone. When they did get to the Rangers' zone, their forecheck was ineffective at generating scoring chances.

And that’s where the likes of a Letang, an Ehrhoff, or a Maatta are missed. All three of those blueliners are great at reading the play and moving the puck out of their own end. Letang possesses the unique ability to skate the puck out of the zone all by himself.

This isn’t to make excuses for the Pens. Every team has to deal with injuries (though not as many or at one position as the Pens seem to deal with on a yearly basis).

It’s just to say that having maybe just one of those guys in the lineup could have been enough to change the outcome of a one-goal game. Certainly having two of them back would really improve their breakouts.

But the Pens still have to win with the team they send onto the ice every night. The Pens will have to figure out – either through coaching, strategy, or maybe just good old execution – a better way to get the puck out of their own zone.

The Pens executed their breakouts with crispness and ease in Game 2. That resulted in the Rangers being backed up, better offensive zone entries, better zone time, and more scoring chances.

It all starts with the breakout.

The Pens need to make whatever adjustments are necessary to retool their breakouts. The coaching staff did a great job adjusting in-game and between games so far this series. We’ll see what they come up with for Game 4 Wednesday night.

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