The Pittsburgh Penguins rode an Evgeni Malkin hat trick to a 4-3 win over Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night, in turn advancing to the second round of the 2014 NHL Playoffs. But despite picking up a relatively easy 4-2 series victory, Monday night’s game and the opening series as a whole provided genuine reason to believe the Penguins won’t make it past the second round of the playoffs.
During the series-clinching victory, the Penguins suffered from a classic lapse in focus and defensive structure during the third period, in turn letting up three goals and nearly giving away a 4-0 lead. Predictably enough, the defensive core of Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi weren’t able to stabilize things with physical prowess, an issue which was exacerbated because Brooks Orpik was scratched from the lineup. In what has become a recurring theme, the Blue Jackets showed the world that Pittsburgh can be exploited when they are put on the back foot, and in a big way.
After compiling an unsightly 74 percent penalty kill percentage and 3 GAA during the first round series, it is obvious the Penguins defense has work to do before teeing off in the second round. To make matters even worse for this unit, they can’t blame their issues on Marc-Andre Fleury this time around.
And although Fleury was able to overcome obstacles during the first series, recent history has shown the world that doesn’t necessarily foreshadow success moving forward. After all, Fleury compiled absolutely brutal GAA of 3.51 and 4.63 during the previous two postseasons, succumbing to the pressure that comes with letting up a bad goal or two. It would be a bit speculative to predict an implosion similar to what occurred in 2012 and 2013, but the opening series also showed that he won’t be anything more than an average goaltender.
Surely Pittsburgh will be happy that they made it out of the first round alive and hope that Sidney Crosby, Malkin and company can simply score their way to the Stanley Cup, but that doesn’t look realistic at this point. With either the Philadelphia Flyers or New York Rangers coming up in Round 2, it can be assured that offensive opportunities will be rare to come by, and that Pittsburgh’s own leaky defensive and shaky goaltending will be tested. And barring an unforeseen changes to their playing style, it looks like an exit from the playoffs is beckoning for the Penguins.