Imperfect Penguins More Than Good Enough So Far
What’s delivered the Penguins into their first Eastern Conference Final since 2013 is the realization that imperfections need not be deal-breakers if you just keep coming.
That’s two up and two down for the Penguins, who aren’t cruising through the NHL’s postseason as much as they are navigating its myriad of challenges and their own inherent and sometimes obvious flaws along the way.
Their ability to do so isn’t just winning series, it’s earning the respect and admiration of their peers.
“They finished as the hottest team in the league and they play a real sound defensive game and when they get the opportunity, with the firepower that they have, they can finish,” New York head coach Alain Vigneault acknowledged after the Rangers had been eliminated in round one. “Right now they’re probably the hottest team in the league and they’re going to be a tough matchup for whoever they play against.”
Tuesday night at CONSOL Energy Center, it was Washington head coach Barry Trotz’ turn to pay homage.
“They did a really terrific job down the stretch being the hottest team in the National Hockey League and it carried over into the playoffs,” Trotz assessed. “I think they have a shot at it.”
The Penguins do, too.
They played Game 6 against the Capitals the way they played the five that preceded it, the way they had attacked the previous series.
Their game was defined much more by resiliency and relentlessness than it was artistry of execution.
They’ve had the latter at times.
But what’s delivered the Penguins into their first Eastern Conference Final since 2013 is the realization that imperfections need not be deal-breakers if you just keep coming.
“It’s very difficult to play mistake-free hockey,” head coach Mike Sullivan opined after surviving an elimination game against the Capitals that included so much ebb and flow it required overtime to decide. “What I love about this group is if they do make a mistake, they respond. It doesn’t affect their confidence level. It doesn’t affect their next shift or their next period, for that matter. That goes back to the resiliency this team has shown that’s so critically important to having success as an individual player, as a group as a whole.
“It starts with the character in the room, these guys just respond.”
Much occurred in the Washington series that demanded a response from the guilty party.
Rookie sensation Matt Murray wasn’t above allowing a soft goal. Brian Dumoulin turned the puck over and it ended up in the Penguins’ net. Olli Maatta looked like a pylon at times. Kris Letang earned a mid-series, one-game suspension.
And with the Penguins desperately trying to cling to a one-goal lead – that had once been three – while trying to once-and-for-all put the Capitals away, Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino and Ian Cole were penalized for lifting the puck over the glass in a 2:02 third-period span.
Such gaffes and unforeseen twists of fate are as inevitable as they are easy to identify when dissecting the details of a postseason series or game.
But the required response is likewise unmistakable.
And when you have that, who needs perfection?
“None of us are going to be perfect out there,” Sullivan continued. “It’s a hard game and we’re playing against real good teams right now. The way this group responds when things don’t go our way or you make an individual mistake is just so critically important to us having success.”
The Rangers and Caps have found out firsthand how difficult it can become trying to outlast a team that understands and accepts as much.
Once you come to grips with that anything can happen, including Lightning striking thrice along the way to the Stanley Cup Final.