Pittsburgh Penguins’ Plan: Do What Needs to be Done, Repeat

With the series tied at a game apiece, how the Pens fare the rest of the way will depend heavily on how their brand of physicality counters the Islanders’ heavy-hitting approach.

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Through two games of what initially appeared to be a first-round matchup with the Islanders that would have a lot in common with the pulling of teeth, we now have an even better idea as to the type of series it’s going to be.

The Penguins also have established they’re capable of delivering what’s required.

And no, I’m not talking about goaltender Tristan Jarry actually catching a puck launched at his glove side.

Among the snapshots that resonate through a combined six periods and an overtime in a battle heading back to Long Island are these:

  • Game 1: Islanders winger Kyle Palmieri shoves the puck deep and then runs through Pens defenseman John Marino along the boards, discards Marino like a rag doll and eventually heads to the net unobstructed, accepts a pass and delivers a remarkable, bad-angle shot that wins the opener in overtime.
  • Game 2: Pens center Teddy Blueger emerges from below the goal line and delivers a vicious cross-check to the back of Islanders center J.G. Pageau in response to Pageau trying to set up just off the crease with his back to the Penguins’ net in the third period. NBC’s Pierre McGuire assesses Blueger’s attack as “graphic,” before adding, “Boy, we’ve got some nasty stuff going on in front of both nets.”

We do, at that, and it’s only going to escalate.

The Pens’ 2-1, series-evening victory in Game 2 suggests they understand as much and are capable of responding accordingly again on Thursday night in Game 3 and beyond.

Their definition of team toughness, as often expressed by Mike Sullivan, is rooted in hockey plays as opposed to head-hunting mayhem. It’s not about fights, blow-up, open-ice hits or other types of retribution for Sullivan. What matters to the Pens’ head coach is defending the front of the net, taking a beating in front of the other net when necessary, winning one-on-one puck battles and being as strong as you need to be behind the net or along the wall.

The Pens were perceptibly better at that stuff in Game 2 than they’d been in Game 1.

They’ll continue to be tested in those areas and by an Islanders’ approach to physicality that’s resulted in New York having emerged with more hits than the Penguins in eight consecutive head-to-head matchups.

The Blueger hit on Pageau, assault in the regular season but just another example of the by-any-means-necessary resolve that’s encouraged in the postseason, is an example of what it’s going to take the rest of the way.

A better example was the goal from center Jeff Carter goal that gave the Pens a 2-0, first-period lead in Game 2.

The play began with a simple dump-in, but winger Kasperi Kapanen got below the Islanders’ goal line and made a play on the puck while under duress from defenseman Adam Pelech. Winger Jared McCann was there to support Kapanen, and made a deft pass to Carter in the slot. Carter patiently worked his way around defenseman Ryan Pulock and finished the play Kapanen’s grit and tenacity had jump-started.

The Pens will need to rely more on that the rest of the way than they will highlight-reel brilliance against what was the second-toughest team to score against in the regular season, especially if both goaltenders are finished whiffing on seemingly harmless shots. Jarry cleaned that up in Game 2. Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov should be expected to do the same in Game 3.

If it plays out that way, the series is going to come down to the Pens’ brand of toughness that emerged on Tuesday night proving to be repeatable-slash-sustainable.

Sullivan called the Carter goal and the will-more-than-skill plays like it “an important part of this team’s identity.”

He elaborated before the Pens departed for the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

“You’ve gotta be hard on pucks,” Sullivan maintained. “You gotta make sure you’re strong at the (blue) lines. You have to get pucks down below the goal line. You gotta force your opponents to play 200 feet. I think that’s part of the playoff-success formula. That’s something we have a conversation with our players frequently about.

“We’re gonna have to continue to be diligent with the puck, to be hard on pucks. And if we can establish a forecheck and control territory, it’s gonna increase our chances of winning.”

Against the Islanders and beyond, provided what we saw from the Penguins in Game 2 turns out to be who they really are.

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section