Penguins Must Eliminate Mistakes To Succeed In NHL Playoffs

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 15: Zbynek Michalek #4 of the Pittsburgh Penguins battles Simon Gagne #12 of the Tampa Bay Lightning in front of the net during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 15, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

For the Penguins to beat a talented Lightning team, they'll need to keep mental errors to a minimum.

In the Penguins' first two playoff games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, we bore witness to two different Penguins teams. One featured brilliant goaltending, aggressive defense and enough offense to be dangerous. The other simply made a lot of mistakes.

The differences between an impressive 3-0 victory in Game One and a resounding 5-1 defeat for the Penguins can be boiled down to poor execution and lapses in concentration. Shockingly, three of the five goals the Tampa Bay scored on Friday could be chalked up in the 'lapses in concentration' category.

A quick look at the three major lapses in Friday night's game shows evidence enough of the Penguins' recent failings and how much they'll need to improve in Game Three. 

Exhibit A: Kris Letang's ill-advised pinch.

Jordan Staal gets the puck deep into the Lightning's zone during 4-on-4 play early in the first period. Immediately after, Pascal Dupuis goes in hard behind the net on defenseman Victor Hedman, who had just gotten control of the puck, to support Staal. But Dupuis' hit is a second too late and Hedman's pass to his outlet, Simon Gagne, on the near boards gives Tampa Bay a bit of room to break out.

Here's where the problem arises. Lightning defenseman Eric Brewer sees a play developing and disengages from action behind the net before Gagne even gains control of the puck. Kris Letang, playing aggressively in the 4-on-4 situation, pinches in on Gagne to try and keep the puck in the offensive zone. But, because Brewer gave Gagne a simple outlet pass, Letang took himself out of the play. As a result, the Lightning get a 2-on-1 break. Bingo, Brewer cashes in. 1-0. 

Letang, from his vantage point, should have seen the play developing and sat back to keep the play at a 2-on-2. Instead, he misread the play and gave the Lightning a prime opportunity to take an early lead.

Exhibit B: Paul Martin misplays a bouncing puck.

That any Penguin made this mistake is bad enough, but the fact that it was Martin, the Penguins' smartest defenseman while in possession, makes it all the harder to swallow.

Just after jumping on the ice, Martin is presented with a wobbling puck, skipping its way up the ice towards him,with an aggressively forechecking Steve Downey following just behind it. Martin has a few options with the puck, but he chooses the worst in trying to stick-handle around Downey while flat -ooted.

Compounding matters is the fact that the puck is skipping. Martin, predictably, loses it to Downey and compounds his error further by taking himself out of the play via his flat feet. Nate Thompson then cleans up the ensuing rebound from Downey's shot and increases Tampa Bay's lead to 3-0.

Exhibit C: Marc-Andre Fleury gets caught cheating. (skip ahead to 4:13)

With the Penguins controlling play throughout most of the second period and pulling a goal back to make the score 3-1, Brooks Orpik was called for a cross check, and the hosts were back on the penalty kill (a major no-no that we'll get back to later).

With a handful of seconds left in the period, Tampa Bay cleanly wins a faceoff in the Penguins' zone and quickly sets the power play up, kicking the puck high to Brewer, who then makes a short pass to Gagne, who then finds Martin St. Louis just south of him, adjacent to Fleury's net.

Knowing time is short - and not really looking - St. Louis turns and blindly fires the puck towards the side of the Penguins' net.

This is where fortune and folly intersect and lead to a Tampa Bay goal. The Lightning are fortunate that the puck deflects off of Martin's stick and went high at Fleury's near post. But Fleury takes some of the blame as well, leaning off of his goalpost in anticipation of the pass, leaving an open spot for the deflection to go in.

That makes three goals off of serious mistakes made by the Penguins. A mistake here and there can be forgiven, but repeated mental lapses are a sure way to make your stay in the Stanley Cup Playoffs a very short one. 

The Penguins were so effective in Game One because they played aggressively, yet intelligently, and Fleury was on his top game. Game Two served as a lesson as to what can happen when a solid team, and especially its goalie, aren't at their best against skilled competition.

Other factors help explain the differences between the Penguins' results in the first two games of the series:

Penalties. The Penguins were only forced to kill one power play in Game One, compared with five in Game Two. Two of Tampa's five goals came on of the man advantage.

Turnovers. The Penguins only turned the puck over three times in Game One, compared with eight times in Game Two.The Lightning scored two goals off of turnovers. Additionally, Tampa Bay only registered one takeaway against the Penguins in Game One, compared with five in Game Two.

But everything comes down to execution. For the workmanlike Penguins to defeat a more talented Lightning squad, it must execute effectively and minimize turnovers. It did neither in Game Two and, thus, the series heads to Tampa Bay tied at 1-1.

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