The Stanley Cup Final is tied at 2-2. Two of the last three games are in Pittsburgh, home of the defending champion Penguins. But for some reason, Game 5 feels like a must-win for the Penguins, who have lost two in a row and needed a shaky Pekka Rinne in net to beat Nashville in Games 1 and 2.
Who is to blame for the poor showing in Nashville?
You guessed it! Sidney Crosby, according to a website that gutted its hockey staff during the playoffs!
Yes, the Crosby with a goal and three assists in four games of the Final. Yes, the Crosby that was a one-man wrecking crew in Game 4 that was constantly derailed by Jake Guentzel, who failed to bury at least four golden chances in the contest. Yes, the Crosby that is playing with a worn-down, borderline-AHL group of defensemen.
That same Crosby!
Despite what you may have read about next three games determining the legacy of Crosby (I still can’t believe someone wrote that), it’s everyone around Crosby that needs to help if the Penguins are to win two of three against the Predators.
Looking at the team from least responsible to most responsible for doing more, we can now determine where the blame truly lies for the Penguins’ recent woes.
No blame at all
All that’s required of the backup goaltender is the continued love and friendship he offers Crosby. He also scooped a catfish off the ice before Game 4, so he’s doing more than most despite not playing in the series.
The tiniest amount of blame
He has two goals in four games. That’s plenty good in a small sample size. Leave the 101st greatest player of all time out of your discussions of legacies.
Maybe a little more blame than Malkin
Yeah, he has four goals in the series, but man, he needs to bury at least one of those chances in Game 4. Think of it like this — if he gets four great chances and fails to convert any of them as the Penguins lose the series, will you be more upset with his last three games than happy with his first three games? I’m betting yes.
Some blame after some deep thought
Nick Bonino’s bones
If there was one area the Penguins had an edge entering the series, it was at center. They still do, as Ryan Johansen isn’t coming back for the Predators, but Subban (probably) broke the foot of Nick Bonino with a slap shot in Game 2. Bonino had two goals in Game 1 and has missed the past two games.
Surprisingly not a lot of blame
When you score a game-winning goal in overtime of a conference final Game 7, you’re bulletproof for at least the first four games of a Final.
“Hey, Chris, where’s your production?”
“Hmmm, where’s your goal in Game 7 overtime last round? Oh, right, that was me and without me there is no Final. Now get out of my locker, coach.”
But he has four assists. Nothing in the two losses, but Kunitz isn’t why the Penguins are in trouble.
The smallest possible blame for a defenseman
Scott Rovak-USA TODAY SportsScott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports
He’s been good. Steady. He should never be your best defenseman over four games when you’re playing for a Cup, but alas, these are the players the Penguins have left.
A smidgen of blame but not really
Individually, you can’t get upset you’re not getting dynamic scoring from these guys. Cullen is playing a bigger role with Bonino out. But as a group, you need a little something to support the big scorers.
The first bit of blame that’s somewhat serious
Hasn’t been bad. Hasn’t been great. He needs to outplay Rinne at some point when Rinne isn’t allowing a plethora of bad goals in a game. Murray was average at best in Nashville.
The obvious group that needs a lot of blame
Justin SchultzCharles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
They don’t deserve blame in that they are grossly underperforming (except for Schultz on the power play), but their inability to move the puck is affecting everything. Forwards are coming back deeper into the defensive zone, which is slowing the attack, which is resulting in fewer chances, etc. etc. They looked genuinely exhausted in Game 4, so two days between games may help them.
Maatta has been particularly terrible. James Neal took the puck off him in Game 4 in a way you only see in beer leagues. You know things are going poorly when “maybe they should turn to Mark Streit” is a serious consideration.
The intangible blame
Yes, the Penguins are 2-0 at home. Yes, I’m pretty sure they’ve scored at least one goal while the mascot is blowing that dumbass horn, but the horn has to be hurting the team. I can’t prove this but I’m hoping Iceburgh reads this, feels guilty and throws away the horn before Game 5 so I can enjoy the game.
The ‘It’s not your fault’ blame
Can you imagine if the Penguins had their best defenseman for this series? Or the playoffs? They probably don’t need seven games against the Capitals and Senators, so they’d be a more-rested group and a far superior team to the Predators. But since we’re not cloning humans yet, the Penguins can’t use Letang.
The big forward blame
Zero goals, zero assists, nine shots. There’s no question he is playing hurt, but come on, man. The reason the Penguins were so good last year was the depth scoring, namely the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel third line that created matchup nightmares. Hornqvist could be part of that depth this year, but he wasn’t scoring with Cullen and nothing worked with Malkin last game.
If Hornqvist isn’t working with Cullen, you get it. But if he’s not contributing with Malkin, that’s a problem that needs to be remedied.
But the biggest problem right now?
The biggest forward blame
Zero goals, one assist, nine shots. Kessel entered the Final as a point-per-game player and has seemingly lost his willingness to shoot the puck from the left wing. Much like Hornqvist, it’s hard to completely blame Kessel when he’s saddled with Cullen instead of Bonino, but you have to hold Kessel to a higher standard, and he’s nowhere near it.
But just like Hornqvist, he wasn’t doing much with Malkin, either. If he finishes this series with one point in six or seven games, it’s doubtful the Penguins are crowned champions for a second straight season.