Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Signs of Pens and Canucks Struggles Visible in Game 1

Sometimes you can see the cracks in a team's mentality that gives you the ability to anticipate bigger problems coming down the road. Pittsburgh and Vancouver revealed cracks in Game 1 that are leading to their struggles.

On Sunday the Flyers and Kings won on home ice to deal a fatal blow to the Cup hopes of the Pens and Canucks. Prior to the 2012 NHL playoffs Pittsburgh and Vancouver were favorites to win the Cup but are now on the brink of elimination. What has gone wrong? There were signs early in Game 1 that both of these teams were in trouble.

Pens Losing Emotional Control

For Pittsburgh the breakdown has been as much emotional as it has been defensive. The way the Pens started Game 1, and how the Flyers had come back on them in the last month of the regular season, made the Pens emotionally charged up but also fragile. Losing Game 1 in overtime after having a 3-0 lead put the Pens emotionally on “tilt”. They have been unable to manage the extreme intensity of this series. Good starts all three games, but they lose focus, breakdown defensively, Fleury gives up rebounds, and they are again on an emotional rollercoaster.

In Game 3 the Penguins lacked emotional control in the frenzied Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. The frustrated and angry Pens were looking for blood on Sunday, and the Flyers were more than willing to oblige them. The game lasted forever with numerous scrums. Arron Asham received a 5 minute match penalty for attempting to injure Brayden Schenn. Kris Letang and Kimmo Timonen were ejected for starting a second fight after the first fight was ongoing. James Neal was trying to take the heads of Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux, two main culprits for the Pens deficit. Craig Adams punched Scott Hartnell in the back of the head several times, and the grabbed his hair during their fight. Pittsburgh put Philly on the power play routinely in Game 3 and paid for it dearly. 

Pittsburgh lost emotional control at critical times in this series. The Flyers’ resiliency has frustrated Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and gang. Even the most centered player on the roster this series, Jordan Staal, took a bad hooking penalty after giving up the puck in the neutral zone. 

What has also been alarming is how ineffective the Pens third and fourth lines have been since the first period of Game 1. When is the last time Tyler Kennedy made an impact on the game in a positive way? This partially is due to the shortening of lines, but it seems Pittsburgh’s role players have taken a back seat in this series.
The play of Marc-Andre Fleury also has the Pens reeling. Every time they scored to make it a one-goal game in Game 3 the Flyers bounced back and scored. The play of the goalie either boosts or undermines a team’s confidence. In this case, Fleury’s play has unfortunately doused the flame of the Pens anger and frustration with gasoline. 

To get back in the series the Pens must find their composure and emotional control. Coach Dan Bylsma said this in his post-game conference. They have allowed the Flyers disciplined, resilient, intense play (not dirty plays) to get to them. Pittsburgh’s task is not easy because Flyers’ fans will be supercharged for Wednesday’s Game 4. Will the Pens be able to pull it together in time? Sid Crosby’s quote tells me that at least the captain has not taken responsibility for the lack of composure.

"It's the playoffs and a lot of things happen out there from both sides," Crosby said. "Everyone is guilty of it. Nobody is blaming anyone here. It's heated out there and that's what the playoffs are like." (NHL.com)
So, the playoffs are about match penalties and taking shots at heads? Do you think that Giroux and Couturier being targets was an accident? Clearly the Pens forgot the lessons of discipline, emotional control, and composure they learned and used to win a Cup in Detroit.

Canucks Frustrated by Quick

For Vancouver the nightmare took full form late last night with Dustin Brown’s third period goal, and Jonathan Quick shutting down everything that the Canucks threw at him. Los Angeles took a commanding 3-0 series lead last night not by dominating the Canucks, but by turning them away every time they pushed. The seeds of this upset, however, were planted in a terrible Game 1 for Vancouver. 

In Game 1 the Canucks repeatedly put the Kings on the power play. They played undisciplined hockey and the hit by Byron Bitz gave the Kings a chance to take the lead in the second period. Vancouver would tie it prior to the end of the second period, but the Kings were in a good position, tied going in to the third because the Canucks kept them on the power play. And, something I have witnessed about a close game in the third period at Rogers Place? You can feel the anxiety of the fans and it may affect the team.
The Game 1 performance was reminiscent of the Canucks of old that would get psyched up for playoff games and then come out and play undisciplined. In last year’s run to Game 7 of the Finals the Canucks did have their moments where they lost composure, but were able to regain it. This year is different, however. Jonathan Quick is not allowing the Canucks to get back in to this series.

Jonathan Quick posted a playoff shutout and looks Tim Thomas-like. While Fleury’s goaltending in Pittsburgh has undermined the Pens’ confidence, Quick’s performances in this series has the Kings feeling like world-beaters. The Kings are able to stay patient, not take chances, and know that Quick will stop anything he sees. LA did a great job of minimizing any prime scoring chances for Vancouver in Game 3 and Quick did the rest.

Not unlike what Tim Thomas did last year, Quick’s performance is frustrating the Canucks. When a team gets frustrated when they are not scoring they will take chances, get out of position, and give up odd-man scoring chances. Vancouver held its defensive discipline well last night, and will have to do the same in Game 4. 

I have seen this so many times where a goalie dominates a series. The team struggling to score may begin to “turn the stick in to sawdust” because they are gripping the stick too tightly and feeling the pressure of getting a goal. Further, the expectation is that the goalie will make the save. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that you can’t beat the guy. I can imagine the Canucks are skating towards Quick with the puck and thinking “where do I beat him?”

The answer for scoring woes is simplicity and that goes against the natural tendency to try and make a perfect set-up pass or shot. The Canucks need to keep it simple; throw pucks at the net with screens and look for rebounds. Simple hockey is the way the Canucks get back in to this series.

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