Kovacevic: Penguins find identical mismatch


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Matt Murray makes a save on the Islanders' Casey Cizikas, Friday night in Uniondale, N.Y. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- It's not the fire. It's the focus.

Now that the Penguins have fallen to the fledgling Islanders in both games of this first-round Stanley Cup playoff series, including this 3-1 throttling Friday night at Nassau Coliseum, the theme would appear to be unmistakable: All those New York Clutterbuckers play the role of the rabid aggressors, shift after shift, shove after shove. And all those Pittsburgh Fancy Pants get splattered in the process.

It would be accurate, too. But it actually isn't the foundation of what's taking place.

I mean, come on, if we're talking about passion, about fire ... does anyone seriously think Sidney Crosby is suddenly, for the first time in his legendary life, lacking fire?

Or Evgeni Malkin?

Or Kris Letang?

Or, for crying out loud, Patric Hornqvist?

That right there is where any semblance of doubt about passion should slam into a cement wall. If there's been any Pittsburgh athlete in the past decade wholly above reproach in that regard, it's Hornqvist.

And yet, because it involves that particular player, because it's so painfully instructive, let's rewind Jordan Eberle's winning goal 7:54 into the third period, beginning with the faceoff:

Matt Cullen, dispatched solely because of the defensive-zone draw, deliberately tied up Anders Lee, allowing Hornqvist to smartly swoop in for the win. But as Hornqvist broke up ice, the relentless Islanders still applied front and back pressure, forcing him to pass the puck -- laterally, still inside the zone -- to Malkin, where he couldn't handle it and lost possession out by center red.

More on Malkin's role in a bit, but it's critical to count up what else went wrong because, at least from this perspective, it's far more indicative of this team's ... oh, I'll save that word for later, as well.

Here's the still from that video again:

Paint by the numbers:

1. Cullen went off for Bryan Rust, changing on the fly as prescribed. But a loss of possession, particularly one so obvious, probably should have deterred that. This wasn't the worst thing that happened, but it was first.

2. Hornqvist never stopped skating forward. He'd wind up all the way at the New York blue line even though, again, there was a loss of possession.

3. Malkin also never stopped skating forward, pointlessly plowing hard into Johnny Boychuk even though Boychuk already had the puck and already had his chin up for the transition pass.

That beauty up there, numbers and all, should represent the Renaissance painting of these Penguins' season, should they proceed to flop in this first round. Because I'm isolating on three players who've proven their pedigree time and again ... just not doing the right thing.

What came next, in my eyes, was academic for the simple reason that a three-on-two can't be conceded in that situation. But here it is, anyway:

Because Rust was coming from the bench and the other two forwards took themselves a mile out the play, it was more of a two-on-one loaded toward Jack Johnson's side. He, too, chose aggression and chased the high man, allowing Eberle an open path down low, one that was further facilitated by Justin Schultz going for some strange swim.

One team knew precisely what to do at all points of this sequence. The other, somehow, transformed a clean faceoff win into a devastatingly ugly high-danger chance for the opponent.

There's fire aplenty. There's a freaking inferno, with all the emotion the Penguins spat out all evening.

What's missing?

Yeah, you know the word I was saving: Identity.

If we're being completely candid, the separator in this series has been that the Islanders, with lesser talent, with fourth-liner Casey Cizikas front and center, know precisely who they are. They know their identity. They embraced it back in October, and chemistry class was complete by Christmas.

Whereas the Penguins ... well, we've witnessed it all winter. They've had big moments, but they've had bigger breakdowns, and they'd never fully solved the latter even in the best times.

"It was a close game. We were competing," Mike Sullivan would say of the stretch that led up to Eberle's goal, though he could have been setting up the second half of countless other quotes from the regular season in concluding: "We could have done a better job with the puck."

Exactly. They didn't need to go harder. They needed to be smarter.

Look at how visibly disgusted Letang was with my questions about the Penguins' fire, but also listen to what he says:

Hear that through all that hair whipping around?

When I pressed for what's missing, what came back was not something about his team but about the opponent: "We're playing against a team that pays attention to details defensively. We'll have to work harder for our goals."

No. With all due respect, no. Not harder.  Smarter.

Remember No. 1 on my original list of what was needed to beat the Islanders?

Right: Don't be dumb.

Letang's one-on-three rush in overtime of Game 1 was dumb. He's not dumb, but the decision was. Malkin's multiple giveaways and multiple penalties in Game 2, as described by our Taylor Haase, were dumb. He's not dumb, but the decisions were. Hornqvist's selfish pursuit of Cizikas in the third period, preventing his team from gaining the New York blue line because they'd have been offside, as described by our Matt Sunday, was dumb. He's not exactly a dummy, either.

The Islanders might not be Ivy Leaguers, but they don't do many dumb things on the ice. That's their identity.

How many odd-man breaks have the Penguins had in this series?

How many egregious errors have New York's mostly no-name defensemen made?

How many lapses morphed into multiple-minute lulls from the Islanders?

That's about a collective hockey IQ. Barry Trotz took over a dispirited franchise last summer when John Tavares left for Toronto, and he immediately instilled an identity, from which the NHL's worst defensive team did a historic 180 and became its best. But it wasn't just coaching that achieved it. There was a genuine hunger among enough of the players, an eagerness to return to the playoffs for the first time in four years, a common cause. Those players, as with players everywhere, are ultimately responsible for what follows.

The Penguins talked about finding an identity. In training camp. In December, it nearly became a public rallying cry, if you'll recall. And even once they grew steadier through February and March, all too often, it was Matt Murray's resurgence masking the scope of those omnipresent bigger breakdowns.

Can they still find it?

They sound like they think so.

"It's the first team to win four games, not two," Sullivan stated flatly, recalling his message to the locker room minutes earlier. "We've just got to control what we can, go back home and win one game."

"We see it’s not easy, but we'll come back, for sure,” Malkin came with characteristic confidence. "Take one game, and we see what’s going next. It’s not positive right now after a loss, but we have a great team. I believe in this group. I believe we can change."

Wait, change?

“We lose puck and they jump quick,” Malkin proceeded. “We should probably play simple. We try to pass across so much. We know they like five guys on the forecheck. They stop our passes. Maybe from blue line, shoot to net and two guys look for rebounds. It’s not a fun game. It’s not a pretty game right now. We understand. It’s playoffs. Islanders, they play simple. We need to start to play simple, too."

Uh, about that identity crisis.

Look, anything's possible with the Penguins' skill level and, yeah, their fire. But they've got roughly 24 hours to recognize who's looking back in the mirror, and they're now in a hell of a hole against a team that's had a hell of a head start in that regard.

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