Tweaks and adjustments are a staple of the Stanley Cup playoffs as the momentum of a series shifts back and forth from one side to the other throughout the course of a tightly contested best-of-seven affair.
Those teams that can find ways to make the changes required to combat what the other club might be doing to establish its game are the ones that often times walk away with the smiling faces during the post-series handshake line.
Following the Montreal Canadiens’ 3-2 come-from-behind victory in Game 4, which evened their Eastern Conference semifinals series with the Penguins at 2-2, it’s now Pittsburgh’s turn to find the chinks in Montreal’s armor they can best exploit.
Thus far in the series, which has now been reduced to a best-of-three affair that shifts the home-ice advantage back to Pittsburgh, the Penguins have controlled the play for long stretches at a time. Because of that, it’s not so much about making major changes both philosophically or within the game plan, but instead honing the finer details of head coach Dan Bylsma’s up-tempo system which has helped win the Penguins five consecutive playoff series, including last season’s Stanley Cup championship.
That’s true even following Game 4, where although as we said the Canadiens pulled out the dramatic third-period victory, there was still plenty for the Penguins to be happy with in terms of dictating the pace.
Overall, the Penguins outshot the Canadiens for a third straight game, 35-25, and won the special teams battle for the third time in four contests – two critical elements to having success in the postseason. They also had the better of the quality scoring chances, including a couple of sequences where Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
were able to get behind the Montreal defense in alone on Jaroslav Halak. Only a fluke bounce which resulted in the game-winning goal for the Canadiens kept the Penguins from taking the game to overtime.
“We felt like it was a pretty solid effort, but sometimes that is just not enough,” said Jordan Staal
, who made an inspirational comeback Thursday from a lacerated tendon in his foot, of Game 4. “You are going to lose some games and have some ups and downs. We are going to stick to our game and what we know works best. We know that will be enough. Hopefully we can come up with a more desperate level (Saturday) night.”
Desperation seemed to be the key theme of the day from the players who came to the podium during the Penguins’ optional skate at Mellon Arena on Friday.
“We knew that it was a situation where they didn’t want to go down 3-1,” Mark Eaton said. “They were going to come out desperate and play their best hockey of the series. They did that. I just don’t think we matched their desperation in the third period. You have to tip your hat to them. They came out and did what they had to do to create some offense in the third.”
“It’s the playoffs,” Matt Cooke
said. “There is always a desperation level, but I would hesitate to say there is a concern. We feel like we are doing the right things and playing the right way. If anything, we have to be a little more desperate when we have the puck and when we are playing in the offensive zone to get those opportunities.”
Of all the positives the Penguins have going for them, and there have been many despite the fact that the series is all squared, generating zone time and scoring chances has to be considered at the forefront, which is a good thing based upon how well the Canadiens are clogging up the neutral zone and eliminating odd-man rushes with their neutral-zone trap.
“We have to adjust a little bit in terms of how we look for offense and how we get offense,” Bylsma said. “We have not had a lot of rush opportunities against this team and odd-man chances. They’re not going to give them to us.”
Which means the Penguins are going to have to dig deep and work for those dirty goals – rebounds, tips, etc. – even more so than they already have in the series. Scoring ugly goals has never been a problem for the Penguins under Bylsma, and the Penguins bench boss thought his team did a better job of getting traffic around the net in Game 4.
“I think that we were good in Game 4, and maybe better than we have been in a couple of the other games, in terms of getting to the inside,” Bylsma said. “We were close to second chance opportunities. … We have to continue to get better at that to fight for those chances.”
Getting to those loose pucks and rebound opportunities, however, is easier said than done against the Canadiens because of the way they play defense.
“Our focus needs to be on second-chance opportunities. We have to get there with more bodies and more pucks and not look for outside or rush plays and not try to take guys one-on-one. We have to have that mentality that it will be second chances with people at the net.” - Dan Bylsma
Montreal tends to back all five skaters into the house area in the defensive zone, hoping to play defense just well enough so that teams are forced to take low-percentage shots from the perimeter.
When those shots then get onto Halak, the Canadiens are good at boxing away the opposing team’s forwards, severely limiting the amount of second-chance shots.
Getting inside the Canadiens’ defensive box won’t require rocket science for the Penguins, but instead a willingness to go the extra effort to make sure they make Halak feel uncomfortable in his crease.
“They are a tough defensive team – there is no question,” Staal said. “They are a much different team than Ottawa. They almost let you play in their end but they keep it tight. They get in front of shots and they have a lot of bodies in front which makes it tough to get rebounds. It’s not going to be easy to score goals but we have to find a way.”
Finding a way for the Penguins might include stealing a page from the Chicago Blackhawks.
Chicago was unable to create many rebound chances in front of Roberto Luongo in Game 1 of its Western Conference series with Vancouver, scoring just once in a 5-1 loss.
The Blackhawks have come back with a vengeance the last two games, tossing nine pucks into the twine behind Luongo as net-front presences such as Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Adam Burish have made life miserable on Luongo by opening up shooting lanes and cashing in on rebounds by standing just outside, and sometimes even inside, Luongo’s crease. In fact, Byfuglien’s big-body presence practically pushed Luongo into the cage when the Chicago forward notched his hat-trick goal in Game 3.
The Penguins have plenty of players willing to play this way too, including Cooke and Chris Kunitz
, who have both tallied against the Canadiens in the series. Another veteran warrior who knows a little bit about creating havoc in front is Bill Guerin, who has missed the past two games due to injury. His probable return in Game 5 should also help the Penguins get inside Halak’s grill.
“That’s part of what Billy brings, especially to our power play – that net-front presence,” Bylsma said. “He draws people there and adds traffic and creates second opportunities. … Hopefully we can get Billy back in there and add to the area that we need to be better at.”
Whether it’s Guerin, Cooke, Kunitz or any of the other flightless birds, getting to the net and creating more second-chance shots will be the No. 1 key on Saturday night for the Penguins if they want to take full advantage of the dominating zone time they are creating for themselves. As a veteran team with ample playoff experience, look for Pittsburgh to once again make that winning adjustment at the critical juncture in a series.
“Our focus needs to be on second-chance opportunities,” Bylsma said. “We have to get there with more bodies and more pucks and not look for outside or rush plays and not try to take guys one-on-one. We have to have that mentality that it will be second chances with people at the net.”