For the fourth straight game, the first-round series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers came down to a battle of the bounces. Unfortunately for the Penguins, when it matters most, the puck isn’t breaking their way.
In each of the first three games, the winner was decided by a single-goal and Wednesday night was no different. Pittsburgh took a 1-0 lead early in the first frame and had stifled the Rangers’ attack for most of the next 40 minutes, but a breakdown behind their goal led to a Derrick Brassard marker that brought the Rangers even late in the second period.
Throughout the entire third period, the teams traded chances, but in overtime, when it mattered most, it was Kevin Hayes who was able to knock home a loose puck to push the Rangers to a 3-1 series lead and put the Penguins’ backs against the wall. Now, heading back to Madison Square Garden, Pittsburgh is going to need their stars to shine if they want to stay alive.
Over the first four games, Sidney Crosby has looked like, well, Sidney Crosby for the Penguins, but he can’t single-handedly win this series or bring Pittsburgh from the brink. That’s why in Game 5, a must-win for the Penguins, Evgeni Malkin is going to have to snap out of his current slump and make something happen if he wants to give his team a chance moving forward.
Heading into Game 5, Malkin has failed to register a single point, has fired just five pucks on goal, and hasn’t generated much offense at all for the Penguins. What’s more concerning about Malkin not finding the score sheet through four games is that he’s actually mired in a much deeper slump than that. Over his past 14 games, he’s notched only three points – all assists.
Even if Malkin weren’t scoring and still driving play, it might be enough to turn the tides for Pittsburgh. Sadly, that’s not the case. While getting a healthy dose of offensive zone starts, Malkin had only managed to push possession to the tune of a 51.6 percent shot attempts for percentage at 5-on-5. Game 4 was much of the same, too. At even strength, even though he began less than 40 percent of shifts in the defensive zone, Malkin stumbled to a 45 percent shot attempts for percentage.
He missed eight of the Penguins’ final 14 games with a lower body injury, and was forced into Pittsburgh’s final games due to the wild-card race. It’s entirely possible that whatever his injury is – whatever knocked him out down the stretch – may be hindering his play.
If New York closes out the series in five games, Pittsburgh will look back on this series and wonder what would have happened had they managed to find the back of the net just once more in either of the three games they’ve dropped to begin the round. Ask Marc-Andre Fleury for one more save or the defense to step up and make some big plays all you want, but when it comes down to it, the Penguins have been held to just one goal in three of the first four outings.
Friday night, if the Penguins offense can come alive in a series where they’ve been far too quiet, they could make the series interesting in a hurry. If it’s another one-goal output, however, Pittsburgh can start making summer plans.