Monday, 6 June 2016

Three Down, One To Go

There might be no greater story than that of Eric Fehr, he who appeared to only have a career if he was draped in the red-white-and-blue of the Washington Capitals. Seeing Fehr snipe the Penguins' third goal in their 3-1 victory tonight brought back memories of him in the black-and-yellow of the Brandon Wheat Kings. The Winkler, Manitoba native twice hit the 50-goal mark in the WHL, and was a reliable sniper for Kelly McCrimmon's team. To see him jump from a rival to the Penguins and become not only an outstanding defensive forward and penalty-killer as well as an occasional sniper has been nothing short of a fantastic surprise for this Penguins fan.

In saying all that, the Penguins took Game Four by a 3-1 score over the Sharks to take a 3-1 series lead, and it has been said on occasion that the playoffs don't start until you win on the road. San Jose failed to win twice in Pittsburgh in this series already, and they'll now be forced to win in Pittsburgh on Thursday if they hope to send this series back to the SAP Centre in San Jose.

I had written yesterday about the struggles that Evgeni Malkin had faced in the series against the Sharks thus far, but tonight's game was a bit of a breakout for the Penguins centerman. In fact, I'd say he threw a couple of middle fingers up to writers like me who questioned his dedication or ability to the game in a post-game interview with CBC's Scott Oake!
Sleepless nights, a new baby, and all the excitement surrounding that arrival was something I totally had forgotten about, and it should be noted that wee Nikita Malkin might be a better reward than a Stanley Cup for Evgeni Malkin. If the Penguins do win at home on Thursday, Nikita could be the first baby in the Cup!

The analysts working in Toronto's Sportsnet studio might have pointed out why the Penguins are doing so well (approximately 7:00 in) against the Sharks: they're chipping and chasing the puck out of their defensive zone! The analytics crowd will go bananas over the loss of possession that Pittsburgh is showing at their own blue line, but the Penguins remain content to get the puck out and win the footraces against the Sharks' defencemen. And it's working!

The problem with the Penguins' stance towards this analytical anomaly is that replicating the success they are having against the Sharks is tough to do. There are 29 other teams looking to get to the same place the Penguins are now, but finding the right blend of speed, skill, and chemistry are variables that often don't come along in a trifecta very often.

The other thing the Penguins have done very well is focused on hemming the Sharks in their own zone when certain players are on the ice. In particular, the defensive pairing of Roman Polak and Brenden Dillon have been victimized by the Penguins over and over again. I'm not sure what Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer can do with the series moving to Pittsburgh in looking at salvaging that pairing, but the Penguins are chewing them up and leaving them behind like the mess they are in their own zone. If something doesn't change with those two, Thursday night might be their final game of the season.

Seven years ago, it was a 24 year-old French-Canadian goalie backstopping a magical run for the Penguins where they got excellent contributions from stars and secondary players in every round. This season, it's a 22 year-old Thunder Bay goalie who is backstopping a Penguins team that is being defined by their role players while getting excellent contributions from their stars. While it took seven games last time for the Penguins to savor their victory, I have a feeling it's all over on Thursday.

For the first time in some 50 years, the city of Pittsburgh might be able to litter the streets with confetti and celebration. Let the good times roll!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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