The Pittsburgh Penguins lost Game 6 5-3, resulting in a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. The bad news is that the Penguins have had two chances to beat the Rangers and failed. The good news is that the Penguins contributed just as much to their defeat as the Rangers did to their victory. And this is a fixable problem.
During the last two games, we’ve seen that the Penguins can beat the Rangers even without a few of their finest players.
The Penguins got out of the gate with a successful game plan in both games, taking a 2-0 lead. They didn’t exceed the Rangers in those periods, but they played flawless hockey and took what was handed.
The Penguins also did an excellent job in both early sessions of keeping the Rangers away from the crease in the defensive zone, allowing Louis Domingue to see shots coming in, and trusting him to smother any second-chance possibilities.
The Penguins’ path to victory was laid out in the opening periods of Games 5 and 6. They must follow through.
The Penguins’ problems in these elimination games occurred after the first frame. The second period has been the most crucial in this series, with 26 of the 50 goals scored in the middle stanza. In both elimination games of this series, the Penguins have been on the losing end of that period.
Even before Evan Rodrigues was called for roughing, the Penguins were on their heels from puck drop. With the loss of Brian Boyle, one of the Penguins’ premier penalty killers, late in the first period, they were down a forward. Once Rodrigues took the penalty, the door was open for the Rangers.
Mika Zibanejad scored his first goal of the series barely five seconds into the man advantage, and the momentum shifted dramatically. The Penguins responded with an unproductive five-on-three power play, followed by a botched penalty kill change, which resulted in a goal from Chris Kreider, putting the Rangers up by one.
Even though it may not appear so, the Penguins outperformed the Rangers at even strength over that time frame. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Penguins out-chanced the Rangers 9-6 at even strength and finished with 65% of the expected goals share.
If they had played better on special teams at that time, the entire game would have looked quite different.
The Penguins have a clear advantage if Game 7 is played at even strength. So the Pens must play smart hockey and avoid the costly penalties that plagued them in Game 6.
The game-winning goal allowed by Louis Domingue with less than two minutes remaining in the third period may be the game’s abiding memory. Many people have been concerned about his penchant for trapping pucks between his blocker and glove during this series. As time passed, more Rangers began to aim their bullets high and at Domingue’s left shoulder, eliciting this reaction from him.
It may have been as easy as Domingue’s lack of confidence in his high blocker side, but it lost the Penguins Game 6.
Despite his reputation, Domingue held down the fort throughout this series. His ability to make crucial saves was essential in the Penguins gaining a 3-1 series lead early on, but that aspect of his game has faded in his last two appearances. Fortunately for the Penguins, reinforcements may be on their way for Game 7.
Tristan Jarry, the Penguins’ starting goalkeeper, was ruled out of Game 6 earlier. With the season on the line, he might make a comeback, providing the Penguins with a much-needed lift between the pipes.
Sidney Crosby and Rickard Rakell, two more injured players, might return to the lineup for Game 7.
When Crosby went down in Game 5 after colliding with Rangers defender Jacob Trouba, the series was turned on its head, and his comeback may be what swings the pendulum back in the Penguins’ favor.
Crosby has been able to halt the Rangers’ momentum with extended offensive zone shifts that swing the course of a session. That was impossible for the Penguins to do when he left the second period of Game 5 and the whole second period of Game 6.
The path to triumph for the Penguins in Game 7 has been set out. Multiple injured players are expected to return. The Penguins’ ability to keep the game even by limiting poor penalties will make them the favorite winner-take-all match at Madison Square Garden.
All the Penguins have to do now is put the piece together.