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Blog : Reflections of Game 4 And Expectations Heading Into Game 5

By Kipper @pghsportsforum
Janus-dimon21.jpg
(The bust of the Roman god Janus, the gatekeeper, who was granted from Jupiter the abilityto see both the past and future)
It is amazing how fast one can be cured of the fear of losing. Just take last night’s 7-3 victory over the Senators as a classic example. While most of us felt (and largely still do) that the Penguins were the better team heading into this series, there was a certain degree of uncertainty that existed, at least there was for me.

First, let me start by saying that Game 4’s are generally VERY pivotal games. Just look at the math. Game 4’s are guaranteed, but they usually define a series. Heading into a Game 4, there are only two different outcomes with respect to the series lead. The series is either 3-0 or 2-1, headed into that game. If it is 3-0, the “0” team is faced with getting swept and the insurmountable task of having to win 4-straight. This much is well known to all of us and can be left at that. But let’s look at the other scenario, the 2-1 scenario. This is where the “rubber meets the road”. For the team with “2 wins”, they have the ability to put a stranglehold on the series and go up 3-1. For the “1 win team”, a victory knots the series at 2-2, and it now becomes a “Best of 3”, not to mention the huge momentum boost that comes with it. These two outcomes couldn’t be more polarizing. Game 4’s are critical. (For those numbers types out there, the site WhoWins.com is an EXCELLENT resource).

There is another level of uncertainty that I was dealing with headed into Game 4 as well. How well would the Penguins look after loosing in double overtime? The reason why I focused on the Penguin’s reaction vice the Senators, has less to do with my allegiance to the Penguins and more to do with the fact that they were the ones who lost. I always look at how the losing team bounces back. Furthermore, the Penguins were also the road team in the 2nd game of the “road trip”. I felt that if the Penguins looked flat, tired, or still reeling from the 2OT loss, that Game 4 could have an even bigger impact of the series than one might think. We all knew the Senators would be full of life and chomping at the bit to start Game 4 and look to even the series. In my mind I felt as if, the Penguins would rebound just fine, but recent memory gave me reason to doubt. They won Game 3 in OT against the Islanders and came out in Game 4 flat as a pancake. The result was a 6-4 drubbing that wasn't as close as it looked. They were out-worked, out-matched, and all around out-played. So I had reason to be slightly intrigued and concerned about this Game 4, versus the Senators. The anticipation was thick and was made worse when I reflected on the thought that I have found that in recent memory, most OT winners come out flat the next game, and generally lose. That used to never be the case, and I have no statistical data to support that, that is just my empirical observation. Could this work in the Penguins favor? Would they be more motivated in defeat, than the Senators were in victory!? My theory was about to be put to the test.

I am a huge fan of believing that you can glean a ton about a game by its first 7-10 minutes. In fact for the road team, the first 7-10 minutes of a game are critical. I was anxious to see how the Penguins would handle Game 4’s “1st 7-10 minutes”. With the drop of the puck I immediately felt a sense of calm. “The wait was over”. And the first two shifts for the Penguins were EXACTLY what I wanted to see; puck possession and offensive zone time. As an added bonus the Penguins got a PP just about ~1:20 into the game. I was elated. Then disaster struck. Less than 3 minutes in and the Penguins give up a shorty…not good. But one thing stood out as I rewatched the game (God love DVR), the Penguins resolve and composure never flapped, never waivered. In fact, they got stronger, pummeling Anderson and the Senators. The last fearful hurdle was “cracking Anderson”. Having saved 49 of 50 shots in Game 3, Anderson was briskly at about 18 saves on 18 shots, many of them made by “standing on the tip of his dick”. I was worried that Anderson was so focused the Penguins might never score. I *****ed in the GDT that I wanted a dirty, ugly, flukey goal to be the Penguins’ first. And I kind of got my wish. After a TK deflected shot into the seats, the faceoff was to the left of Anderson on the right faceoff dot. To make matters worse, Malkin was booted from the draw, and Iggy was sent in to handle the faceoff duties. When the puck dropped, no one “won” the draw, in fact the puck just kind of “sat there” as Iggy basically tied up the Senator’s faceoff man causing a “faux-scrum”. James Neal then wrapped behind Iggy, took the puck and somehow went unchallegend “between the dots” and ripped a shot past Anderson. In my estimation, this was a flukey, lucky, ugly goal. Don’t believe me? Those that listened to Mike Lange’s call of the goal, probably had no idea the Penguins even scored, because neither did Lange! In fact, he never raised his voice in his typical fashion. He was just as stunned as everyone else. However, no one was more stunned than goaltender Craig Anderson. The Penguins had done it; they cracked him. Not just by scoring, they cracked him mentally. Take a look at his body language when Neal scored. His arms were lifeless as he aimlessly skated out of the crease, with his head and eyes looking into the Scrotum Bank (credit to 419 or itsonlygame for that quote) rafters. That friends is the sign of disbelief and hopelessness. It was then that my faith had been restored…only to see it smashed when ~1:45 later the Senators retook the lead on yet another Kris Letang mistake. Tanger essentially was so out of position that he checked his own goalie to the ground and out of the crease, to get to a man that was already covered, allowing Kyle Turris to slam dunk a rebound into a virtual empty net. In spite of smashed dreams, there was a glimmer of hope. Craig Anderson was shaky and the Penguins were continuing to pour shots at him. My “new fear” was that the Penguins might score 6 or 7 goals, but in the process, give up 7 or 8 due to ****ty defensive lapses.

I knew the 1st 7-10 minutes of the 2nd period were going to be critical. And were they ever. Just 1 minute into the 2nd period, the Senators neutral zone ineptitude shone, and the Penguins hit a homerun 2-on-0 breakaway, with Kuni beating Anderson 5-hole with ease. And :30 later, Iggy slams a rebound into a virtual empty net as Anderson fumble-forked a soff low, pad-level shot by James Neal from the right faceoff dot. Anderson had come undone. The demonic penguins that were in his head had taken over. And the Penguins had their first lead. This is where my uncertainty turned into solid confidence that the Penguins would win this game. As the Penguins cemented their play I knew that the 1st 7-10 minutes of the 3rd period would be very important. The Penguins needed to kill the final ½ minute of a Senators PP to start.

As the Penguins killed that penalty, they wound up getting a PP of their own. Sid gave his best TK impression missing the cage from about 6ft away, by about 8ft only to have that shot be the perfect “slap-pass-off-the-boards-to-a-teammate” you will ever see. Neal buried the shot and the Pens were up 4-2. In fact, the Penguins would tally 3 more goals, all within the 10 minute bubble. The rest was just killing time. However, I did not want the Penguins to just “waltz” their way to the final horn. I wanted a hungry team that wanted to beat not only the physical energy out of the Senators, but also the mental energy. For the most part the Penguins did that, although their play in the final 5 minutes was slightly sloppy, and the Zeebs (referees) didn’t help either. There is a lot to be said of how a team finishes a game and starts the next one. I wanted the Penguins to go out in a dominating fashion, not a meek glint.

As a whole I thought that Vokoun played about as well as one could expect. In fact I thought he was solid. The shorthanded breakaway wasn’t his fault, and the fact that Tanger checked him off the puck on the 2nd goal wasn’t his fault either. Alfredson’s meaningless PP goal with 4:00 left was, as Kip put it, “a goal scorers goal”. Not much he or any other goalie could have done about that one. Overall, I liked his focus and mental toughness. I liked his angles, distance, and crease presence. What I really liked, which is actually a “weakness” of his; was his puck possession in the trapezoid. This steady improvement has to be something he and goalie coach Gillies Meloche have worked on over and over in practice. Finally, I thought his rebound control was adequate, but he is still giving up those “tweening” “squirting” rebounds that luckily slide out of the crease and to the end boards. He needs to clean that up. If we face Boston, guys like Horton/Lucic/etc. will bang home those loose pucks in and around the crease.

The final thing that shocked me was the VERY END of the game. First, the Senators fans were clapping and cheering as if this would be the last they would ever see of their beloved team. There was no life, it was consolation. That very gesture was a sign the fans had given up on this team, and they were giving their team one last positive salute to a great season and final home game. Secondly, the Senators themselves gave no reason to draw out of their fans any other reaction. Generally in a blow out of this magnitude, someone starts a fight, or at least, is physical to the final whistle (or just beyond), enacting a sort of “scrum along the boards”. There was no of that. As the final horn sounded, the Senators did nothing. No hits, no checks, no fights. They limped off the ice, tails between their legs, and the fans giving them one final cheer. It was like watching Katniss and Peta leaving District 12, lambs to the slaughter (yes I loved "The Hunger Games"). That shocked me. That was not the ending I anticipated one bit from the Senators nor their fans.

Ok, wow; that was a lot of introspection and reflection on Game 4. Now it’s on to my thoughts heading into Game 5. As a stats guy, I would not be myself if I didn’t provide some sort of stat or statistical analysis into one of my blogposts. So here it is. According to the aforementioned WhoWins.com, the team who is leading 3-1 in a series, headed into Game 5 has an all-time record of 153-112 (.577). For Quarterfinal series’ the 3-1 leader in Game 5 has a record of: 46-29 (.613). These numbers are literally based off of hockey stats starting around 1905 or thereabouts, so the data set is enormous. Basically, the Penguins have about a 60% chance (based on past history) of closing out the Senators in Game 5. Enough with that.

My own personal thoughts are that, if the Penguins are to win Game 5, the 1st 7-10 minutes will be a deciding factor. Based off of how the Senators meekly ended their performance last night, there is a part of me that thinks, they are only going to show up because “they have to”. However, if the Penguins think that, they will get blown out. The Penguins have to think that the Senators are going to come out of the gate in Game 5, throwing everything “and the kitchen sink” at them. The way the Penguins handle this initial surge will be critical. If they go “turtle shell” much like they did in the first round against the Islanders, this may be a very long game. The Penguins must match or increase the amount of energy and intensity that will be thrown at them. Weather the storm and they will win the game; go “turtle-shell” and watch the Senators confidence increase. I don’t want that to happen. I want the Penguins to come out and bury this team right from Jump St. There is no excuse not to.

The Penguins have made Craig Anderson look like Evgeni Nabokov. That is something to be credited and thrilled about. The Penguins should give no shred of hope that Anderson can rebuild his confidence and composure in goal. Right now, he has none. The Penguins have chased him twice, and his numbers are atrocious. In 4 games he has given up: 4G, 3G, 1G, 6G for a total of 14 Goals. That’s a Goals Against Average of: 3.50! Coming into this series his GAA was (2G, 3G, 1G, 2G, 1G) 9G in 5 Games = 1.80! That’s an increase of nearly 2 goals per game! That’s unreal! Furthermore his Save % has plummeted as well. Against Montreal his Save % was: 171/180 = .950. That’s in 5 games. In 4 Games against the Penguins his Save % is: 125/139 = .899…WOW! Talk about making a great goalie look sub-par! That’s a 5 percentage point drop! Drastic indeed. This is why the Penguins need to come out with energy and that proverbial “killer instinct”. Anderson is reeling and we can not afford to allow him to regroup. Now is the Penguin’s chance to cut the head off of the snake.

One thing that I have seen out of the Penguins that had largely been missed in the Islanders series (partially due to the terrible ice surface in Long Island) was the Penguins’ patience with the puck. Many times during Game 4, several Penguins, most notably, Sidney Crosby, were extremely patient when receiving passes into and through the neutral zone, sacrificing entering the offensive zone, for a controlled patient attack, that seemingly took the Senators aback and knocked them off kilter. I think the Penguins need to keep that up. Unnecessarily skating into the Offensive zone with no cohesion and support is simply asking for an odd man break the other way or simply skating into nothingness and coughing the puck up trying to make an awful cross-ice pass that is turned over. The Islanders goaded us into that several times and was able to use our lack of patience against us, often with speed and our defense out of position. So far through 4 games I feel the Penguins have been extremely patient, and it has led to great scoring opportunities and has also limited the overall time of possession for the Senators. This in turn causes them to unnecessarily rush into the zone, and they are often offside or simply turn the puck over. Patience and possession leads to shots on goal and time away from your own zone; the Penguins would be wise to employ that tactic in Game 5.

I also think the Penguins need to stay out of the penalty box. This isn’t because our PK is bad, in fact, it is quite the contrary. The story of this series has largely been about special teams. Win the special teams battle(s) and you most likely will win the game. No need to give the Senators life by playing down a man. Psychologically we have the Senators where we want them. Let them take stupid, undisciplined penalties. Furthermore, if the Penguins can stay disciplined, out-of-the-box, and true to their system, they will goad the Senators into mistakes and bad passes. We have seen throughout this series that the Senators do not control and pass the puck well out of their own zone. They are highly inconsistent, because the Penguins’ forecheck and pressure have given the Senators fits all series long. There is no need to change that philosophy now.

Finally, the Penguins must have consistent and dominant defensive play. They must control the crease and continue to give Vokoun clear lanes to see the puck and the shots from the point. When Vokoun has clear lanes, he has been unstoppable and his angles of attack are spot on. If the Penguins start to lose the crease battles this is when Vokoun is most vulnerable to the “juicy rebound”. Solid defensive play also leads to the ability to easily clear the zone, something the Penguins struggled mightily with against the Islanders. Solid defensive play also fuels the quick-strike counter attack that the Penguins seem to employ quite well. When the D gets “helter-skelter” that is when teams maintain possession in our end and we begin to make bad passes and commit untimely and back-breaking turnovers. This can not happen.

I expect both teams to come out looking for blood. The 1st 7-10 minutes will be critical for the Penguins and if they can weather the storm early they will most likely be the winner. I think that the Senators will have nothing left in the tank if they are empty in their initial push/flurry. Stay patient, solid defensive play, and be relentless on Anderson, and the keys to the Eastern Conference Finals will be well within reach! My prediction is that the Penguins close out the Senators and the series. This will be a methodical dissection of the Senators, and the Penguins will break their will to play by weathering the storm and picking apart Anderson’s fragile psyche. The Penguins win this game 4-1, with the 4th goal being an empty-netter. As always, thoughts and comments are much appreciated. Let's Go Pens! :D
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