Tuesday, May 17, 2016

An Old Friend Stops By With Some Thoughts on Games 1 and 2

I'm not going to lie. Thanks to prime time programming and a busy week at work I've watched a total of about 25 minutes of Games 1 and 2 live.  So, in order to get a feel for how the series has been going, I've recruited friend of the blog and fellow hockey wanderer Jason (aka Link), a Penguins season ticket holder, to help out. While I’m jetting down to Tampa for Game 3, we had a little email conversation to see how he feels about the series so far.

Justin G: So. How’s your heart?  Quite a few overtime games for you and your Penguins so far.  We talked a little before the series started and we were both excited at the match-up.  It hasn’t quite been the goal fest we were expecting, but what are your initial thoughts after two games?

Jason L: The heart rate is doing ok, but going into the third period last night I felt that if the Penguins lost, the series would likely be over.  I am surprised the Penguins haven't been able to get great scoring chances.  Their best chances have come off of rebounds and scrambles in front of the net.  The Penguins best lines have been the Matt Cullen and Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel lines.  Crosby and Malkin continue to struggle 5 on 5 and I think it is only a matter of time until they are paired together. 

The Lightning are really fast.  The Penguins have been skating teams out of the building for the past 4 months but Tampa is just as quick if not quicker.  Their ability to block shots has impressed me as well as their transition game.  I am surprised how poorly they have done in the faceoff circle.  The won Game 1 despite getting destroyed in the circle.  Its one thing to lose a draw but the Penguins have won draw after draw cleanly.  Both team split the faceoffs in game 2 primarily because Tampa started winning draws in the 3rd.  This is an area of concern for the Bolts and it could prevent Tampa from playing their A game against the Pens.

JG: I saw you posted on Facebook in Game 2 that you were a bit worried that Matt Murray looked a little shaky.  Luckily for you the Pens shut down the Lightning and limited their shots.  Is he still your guy moving forward?

JL: I am a Marc Andre Fleury guy.  I think he is vastly underrated throughout the league and this year he is the reason the Penguins weren't twenty points out of a playoff spot before they caught fire.  The question I ask myself is who is your best goaltender?  Matt Murray may be the answer in a few years but right now the answer is Fleury.

best at blowing bubbles maybe

Fleury may be the most athletic goalie in the league while Murray is positionally sound on every play. Unlike the last series where battling traffic was the key to success, in this series the Penguins need a more athletic goalie to counteract the Tampa offense.

Sullivan is in a no win situation.  I feel as if he is waiting for Murray to have a bad game.  Game 2 was Tampa's chance to expose the young netminder but the Lightning failed to generate shots, let along scoring chances, against the Penguins.

JG: Everyone (by that I mean Twitter) thought that Ben Bishop’s leg had detached from his body in Game 1.  Now it looks like not only is it still on his body, but may be healthy enough to go in Game 3.  In his absence young Mr. Vasilevskiy has played quite well.  You’re John Cooper.  What do you do?

JL: I was watching Game 1 from my season ticket location in section 205 and I thought Bishop was done.  Everyone in the arena thought the same.  I have attended close to 500 hockey games and I have never seen a goalie leave on a stretcher.  I am not a big Ben Bishop fan.  In my opinion Ben Bishop is just a really big goalie who plays on a talented team.  Vasilevskiy is the better goalie.  Don't let  age fool you, he has the game that can take the Lightning to the cup.  He just needs the opportunity.

it was a hell of a stop

JG: The match-up game switches as we head to Tampa.  Now that the Lightning have the last line change, who should they put Hedman on?  In other words, as a Pittsburgh fan, which Pens line is the most dangerous?

JL: I would put Hedman against the Kessel-Bonino-Hagelin line.  This has been the Penguins best line in the playoffs by far.  The key to beating the Penguins is making them play a 200 foot game.  The HBK line has been great and creating neutral zone turnovers and using their speed to back off opposing defenseman.  This is going to sound odd, but trust me on this one.  Hedman against the HBK line is a must.

JG: Before his overtime goal, Sidney Crosby had been held goalless in 9 games.  From what I saw, Coach Sullivan tried to shake things up by putting him on a line with Evgeni Malkin.  It almost worked as Malkin fed Crosby for a one-timer that Vasilevsky made a fantastic save on.  What’s up with Sid?

JL: The reason you saw this happen more than once late in the 2nd and during parts of the 3rd period was that Conor Sheary was benched or hurt.  I don't think Sheary has been the same since the Tom Wilson knee on knee hit in Game 1 of the Washington series.  In Game 2, the Penguins had to rotate 11 forwards and when that happens you will see Crosby & Malkin together.

I think this strategy is one the Penguins need to employ a lot more going forward in the series.  As for Crosby I think you saw his best period in a while in the 3rd but a lot of his scoring issues has to deal with the Penguins lack of success on the power play.  The Penguins just haven't been bad on the power play since round one, but they have been dreadful.  When the Penguins power play controls the action the Penguins feed off of it, even when they don't score.  I think it is no coincidence that the Penguins have a tendency to give up goals following uninspired power plays.

JG: You’ve now seen the Lightning in back-to-back playoff games.  Anything strike you as different than regular season Lightning?  Who has been their best player?

JL: Drouin has been their best player.  He was everywhere on the ice in the first two games.  When he had the puck I feared him.  I still think Yzerman/Cooper were nuts for playing him on the 4th line and then sending him to the minors.  Drouin although young is a top NHL talented forward.  If you are not going to play him 15+ minutes a game you are doing him a disservice.

Look at the butt on that. He must work out.

The Lightning are at their best when they use stretch passes against the Penguins.  The Killorn breakaway goal in the first period of Game 1 was evidence of that.  They continued to use this during Game 1 and I think it was a big reason the Penguins defenseman were on their heels.

As a team what impresses me the most if their ability to get into the shooting lanes.  No one talks about the Lightning forwards defensively but they do a great job and clogging the shooting lanes.

JG: How worried are you about the return of Steven Stamkos?  Anton Stralman came back in Game 2 and scored a goal (granted he was also on the ice for the overtime winner, but that’s not important).  Do you think Stamkos makes a difference?

JL: Honestly I was more worried about Stralman than Stamkos.  I think Stamkos will offer the Penguins more chances on the counter attack.  Do I think he could be a threat on the power play? Yes, but I also wonder if he will disrupt the Lightning team chemistry.  Stralman is a Penguins killer and he gives Tampa a big threat on the blueline besides Hedman.  He has scored 4 goals in 5 games against the flightless birds this season and is someone I truly fear as a Penguins fan.

JG: With the exception of the power play goal in Game 1, all of the Lightning goals have been scored in transition.  How is Pittsburgh going to stop that?

JL: I don't think the Penguins can stop the Lightning transition game other than to keep control of the puck.  The Penguins engage their defense and they do it well, but when it doesn't work it leads to chances the other way.  The Lightning are the one team in the league who can make the Penguins pay.

In the second half of Game 2, the Penguins won the battles along the wall and prevented the Bolts from leaving their zone with speed.  This is the key to the series.  If Tampa successfully gets into transition they will win the series.  If they don't, they will raise another banner at the Consol Energy Center.

There ya go.  Many thanks to Mr. Link for taking the time to answer my questions.  Despite his lifelong affiliation with the Steel City he's a good man.  Check him out on Twitter at @Linkes25.

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