During the first round against Columbus, defenseman Rob Scuderi said the Penguins, a team that carries a heavy burden of pressure and expectations with the talent they have on their roster, was sometimes held back by the fear of losing.
That was epitomized during three games in particular, where the Pens either blew or nearly blew big leads. In Game 2 against Columbus, the Penguins were up 3-1 and ended up losing 4-3. In Game 4, the Penguins were up 3-0 and ended up losing 4-3 in overtime – blowing their chance to take a 3-1 series strangehold and instead evening it up at 2-2.
And in Game 6 vs. Columbus, with a chance to close out the series, the Penguins had a 4-0 lead in the third period. They then allowed Columbus to score three quick goals to make it a one-goal game and nearly force a Game 7, but the Pens were somehow able to hold on and escape with the win.
“I think that we care so much that nobody wants to be the guy to screw up,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said afterward. “We just, lately, have been forgetting to play the game. We stop moving our feet and just slap the puck around. ... A win’s a win and we win the series, but we’ll have to talk about that.”
They have been talking about it, as head coach Dan Bylsma said Tuesday – and it looks like they’ve remembered how to play the game.
In this second-round series against the New York Rangers, the Penguins have turned into a team playing with confidence and resolve. They’re fresh off the first back-to-back shutouts in Penguins playoff history going into Wednesday’s Game 4 and were able to hold onto their leads in both games.
“(Our resolve) is one of the things that we’ve talked about,” Bylsma said. “There’s been some talk of the identity of our team and how we’ve played. I’m not terribly sure we’ve gotten that true identity to our team. We’re learning to get there. I think we learned that significantly in the first round. Especially being tested there in a 2-2 series, best-of-three. Going back home, we had to learn quick. And I think we did. I also think we’re still not at our best yet. We’re still learning and getting better and that’s been our approach. We looked at the first round and said where we need to get better and did learn from that series and trying to apply it now.”
Sunday’s Game 2 was gorgeous, as it was perhaps Pittsburgh’s best and most complete effort of the entire season, not just these playoffs. And it was a virtually flawless response to Game 1’s overtime loss.
Monday’s Game 3, on the other hand, certainly wasn’t as pretty execution-wise. The Pens didn’t look as strong as they did the night before. And while they took a 2-0 lead in the second intermission, they recorded just one shot on goal in the third and played a lot of the game in their end.
But the difference is that in the last round, every shift would have been watched with bated breath. That wasn’t the case last night, as now the Penguins look like a team entirely capable of closing games out.
“Last night, it wasn’t maybe exactly how we wanted to play the third period of hockey, but a lot different than our mentality and approach than games we saw in the first round for our team with the lead,” Bylsma said. “I don’t think one shot and four scoring chances in the third was what we were looking for, but a real calm and confident group going over the boards and defending and being confident defending. We had to. They came at us hard and get the power play. But I loved the resolve in our group from the top right on down, jumping over the boards in those situations.”
What’s been so promising about these last two wins in particular is that they’ve been perhaps the two best team efforts the Pens have put together in recent memory.
“I think at the end of the day, when we look at our team, it’s pretty well built from the forwards to the goalies,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “It’s all guys who want to want to win for each other. I think that’s how we’re built and I think that’s how we answer every game. There’s guys stepping up every night. It’s not always the same guys. I think collectively, we know if we don’t play as a five-man unit on the ice, we’re not going to do anything good.
"Yes, we have (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin), who can make outstanding goals end-to-end. But at the end of the day, in big games you need those big goals and I think all four lines came up big at different times in the playoffs.”
But for as well as the Pens have played over these last couple games, this series is still far from over, as Bylsma warned on Tuesday. While these last two wins have been big and crucial for the team’s psyche, the Pens need to get four total if they want to move on. The positives from Sunday and Monday will be long forgotten if the Pens can’t get it done moving forward.
“You get down 1-0 in this series and Game (3) coming into the Garden, they have home ice. And we were able to win that hockey game largely due to our penalty kill and our goaltending,” he said. “We win that hockey game and go up 2-1. But it’s really just the second win. We don’t want to give any opportunity to make this a best-of-three. We have to get desperate, we have to understand that situation and take that approach with coming back here Wednesday night for Game 4. It’s only two wins. We have to go after three and four.”