With arguably the four best teams in the NHL settling in for the conference finals, we looked to be in for a couple of long series at this time last week. But just six days after the start of those two series, the two Original 12 teams are wobbling and we’re edging closer to the first Original Six Stanley Cup final in four decades, since Montreal ousted the New York Rangers in five games in 1979.
After sputtering their way through the first two games of their Eastern Conference final series with the Boston Bruins, the Pittsburgh Penguins played arguably their best all-around game of the playoffs to date in Game 3. But it wasn’t enough to prevent them from a 2-1 double-overtime loss, a setback that pushes Pittsburgh into an 0-3 chasm in the series.
Teetering on the precipice of playoff elimination, the Pens take on the Bruins again in Game 4 tonight in Boston. It’s got to be tremendously frustrating to play so well – well enough that you could be playing to even the series tonight instead of playing to stay alive – and to still come up short after 95 minutes of toil. But the Pens have no choice. They’ve got to lay it on the line tonight and deliver another effort like they did in Wednesday’s immensely tense and entertaining Game 3.
Once again, Boston grabbed an early lead on a David Krejci goal before Game 3 was even two minutes old. Pittsburgh battened down its hatches and Pens goalie Tomas Vokoun blanked the Bruins for the next 93 minutes or so. Pittsburgh fired 101 shots toward the Boston nets, and Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask stopped 53 of the 54 that made it as far as him.
Fifty-four of the 101 shots Pittsburgh launched came from its four most offensively gifted players: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang. Chris Kunitz scored the lone Pittsburgh goal midway through the second period.
The game itself was marvelous to watch. Both teams were physically, mentally and emotionally invested. It was hockey at its best and playoff hockey at its finest. Pittsburgh will need to deliver more of the same tonight to force a Game 5 in the ‘Burgh on Sunday.
The challenge for a team down 0-3 in a series is not to win four in a row. It’s to win one game, four times. The Penguins have won four straight games during these playoffs; they took the last two of their first-round series with the Islanders and the first two of their second-round set with Ottawa. Pittsburgh entered the conference final series having won six of its previous seven games, and having scored at least three goals in 10 of its 11 playoff games this spring.
During the 2012-13 regular season, the Pens never lost more than two games in succession. The last time Pittsburgh dropped three straight games was the first three games of its 2012 opening round playoff series with rival Philadelphia. The Pens haven’t lost as many as four in a row since a six game skid that spanned the turn of the calendar from 2011 to 2012.
Pittsburgh has scored just two goals in 215 minutes of hockey against the Bruins, and the Pens have been outscored by a combined 11-2 in the series. The Penguins have never held a lead in any of the three games against Boston, and they’ve fallen behind early in all three. The Bruins have outscored Pittsburgh by a combined 6-1 in the first period of the first three games.
The Penguins have had a dozen power play opportunities to 10 for the Bruins in the series, but all 13 goals in the first three games have been scored at even strength.
On the other side of the coin, the Bruins are on a serious roll. Including a comeback win in Game 7 of its opening round series against Toronto, Boston has won eight of its last nine games, outscoring its foes by a combined 32-16 in the process.
On the other side of the country, the Los Angeles Kings appeared to be in decent shape in the Western Conference final in the wake of their 3-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 3. Although still trailing 2-1 in the series at that point, the Kings had two things very much in their favor as they took to the ice for Game 4 of their series against Chicago last night.
First, the Kings were at home where they hadn’t lost since late March. Second, the Hawks would be playing without No. 1 defenseman Duncan Keith, who drew a one-game suspension for a careless retaliatory slash/hi-stick on Los Angeles center Jeff Carter in Game 3. With Keith out of the lineup, the Hawks were forced to dress journeyman defenseman Sheldon Brookbank in his stead.
Seeing his first game action since April 27 and his first NHL playoff duty since April 22, 2011, Brookbank looked rusty and the Kings twice exploited that corrosion for goals that enabled them to nurse a 2-1 lead into the latter stages of the second period.
Hawks coach Joel Quenneville limited Brookbank’s ice time thereafter; he had eight shifts in the first 22 minutes of the game and just four over the final 38 minutes. Chicago scored twice in a span of 2:49 over the waning seconds of the second period and the opening ticks of the third, and got out of town with a 3-2 win.
Chicago’s 3-1 series lead has to be a daunting one for the Kings to face because Los Angeles has won only one of its eight road playoff games this spring and it has scored a combined 11 goals while posting that 1-7 road mark. Los Angeles is now without margin for error in the series, and it must win twice in Chicago where the Hawks went 18-3-3 during the regular season and are 8-1 during the playoffs. Chicago has outscored its opposition by a combined 29-14 in its nine home games this spring, and it has surrendered just one power-play goal in those games.
If the Bruins and Hawks finish off their respective foes, we’ll be looking at the fourth Original Six series of the 2013 playoffs. Back in the days of the Original Six, there were only three playoff series in total. We’ve never had more than four Original Six series in a playoff year, and if we get a Boston-Chicago final this year we’ll have witnessed four Original Six series in the same playoff year for the first time since 1978.