Editor’s note: Cold As Ice co-founder Stephen Mapes returns with a look at how his team fared against the Bruins this year. Hint: It didn’t go so well.
As a lifelong Penguins homer who spent his formative college years in Boston, the annual Pens/Bruins games have always held a special place in my heart. Not only does it allow me to engage in some good-natured trash talking with my wayward Bruins-loving friends, but it showcases the talents of two perennially successful franchises (well, for the past decade at least) who have found success in different avenues: flash and finesse for Pittsburgh and gritty, tough, and defensive play for Boston. In years past, these match-ups have been close, nerve-wrecking affairs from start to end.
… Except for this year.
The three game series against Boston has been a microcosm of every weakness the Pens have tried to downplay all season long. We were outscored 14-3, despite outshooting Boston 108-92. That means our goalies combined for a save percentage of .8478 and a GAA of 4.67 while Tuukka Rask posted a .9722 and a 1.00 GAA. This is the equivalent of an elite goalie squaring off against Gary Laskoski, a goalie so wayward and forgotten you probably just had to Google him (his career split was actually .857 and 4.56).
Even the most recent game, which boasted the return of Fleury in net, ended exactly as those before: a blowout.
So what went wrong? How did a team posting the full might of Crosby, Malkin and Kessel look like the scrub squad in a Harlem Globetrotter’s game?
A lot of the credit has to go to Rask, who stood on his head and then some in all three games despite facing an ever increasing barrage of shots. Rask has always come up big against Pittsburgh, and his Penguin-killing ways were in top form. But the Boston defense as well deserves credit for flustering the talents Pittsburgh offense, forcing them to take low-quality shots and just hope to make something happen with a puck on net.
On the reverse, the Penguins’ defensive struggles have been on full display across the series this year. Despite my snark about the combined save percentages of Zatkoff and Fleury, a lot of the blame falls rightly on the Pittsburgh blueline, which seemed to be of no help to either goalie. Shot counts don’t mean everything when the story is quality over quantity, and Boston made their limited shots count. The problem is even worse when dealing with an occasionally leaky goalie like Fleury. Rebounds and trickling pucks need to be swallowed up and cleared, and the Pens defense seems to be consistently weak on giving up silver platter chances.
From day one, any honest Penguins fan would have let you know about the defensive failings of the 2016 roster, but we knew if we could keep things even average on our side of the ice, we’d give our forwards room to do their thing. It’s a game plan that works when it does, but when it falls apart, as it has in all three Bruins games, you’re left wondering how a team this good on paper could look this bad in person.
There are still 20+ games to go, but right now, Boston’s in the driver’s seat for the wildcard. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, needs to plug up their defensive holes and find ways to make their own luck against strong defenses and wall-like goalies. Otherwise, they may earn a different place in history than they hoped: as one of the NHL’s premiere “WTF happened” stories.