Tim Benz: Penguins better finish or they’ll be finished a lot quicker than we thought

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For a team that is supposed to have a lot of finishers, the Penguins haven’t finished much of anything during the playoffs lately.

And if that trend doesn’t change fast, they’ll be finished in the reformatted 2020 NHL postseason a lot quicker than the hockey world anticipated.

The Penguins lost Saturday 3-2 in overtime of Game 1 of their preliminary round series against the Montreal Canadiens. This game marks the 11th postseason contest in a row where the Penguins have failed to break three goals in a game.

They’ve lost their last seven postseason contests.

The Penguins haven’t scored more than three goals in a playoff game since their 8-5 win to eliminate the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of the first round back in 2018.

Creating chances wasn’t the problem Saturday. The Penguins unleashed 41 shots on Montreal goaltender Carey Price. Many of them were easily seen by the star netminder, though. Rarely were his sightlines compromised, nor was he bumped around by traffic from Penguins forwards.

“The one area where we could’ve improved throughout our overall game is just more of a net presence, making it hard on Price to see the puck,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought we had opportunities to get to the net and take away his sightlines. And we didn’t do that tonight.”

How else did the Penguins’ failure to finish chances manifest? Well, let us count the ways.

• Conor Sheary missed the net on a penalty shot.

• The Penguins were just 1 for 7 on the power play.

• The Penguins blew a 5-on-3 power play in the third period.

• The Penguins assailed Price in the opening moments of the first period without a score, totaling 14 of the first 17 shots on goal.

• According to naturalstattrick.com, the Penguins had a 29-12 advantage in shot attempts in the first period. Yet after the first 20 minutes, they were still trailing 1-0.

Sheary may have been the greatest offender, looking skyward in frustration after numerous missed scoring chances. Meanwhile Sidney Crosby’s other linemate — Jake Guentzel — spent most of the night scraping himself off the ice after being shoved off the puck — and his skates — by the Canadiens throughout the game.

I had to laugh at a comment from NBC’s color analyst Mike Milbury, who blamed Pittsburgh’s failed 5-on-3 on a lack of extended practice time coming off the pandemic shutdown.

C’mon, Mike. I know you are a former coach and practice is everything to you. But if you are the Pens in that situation, you have five. They have three. And your five are allegedly All-Stars.

So … just score. Especially since you don’t have that practice time. Hence, don’t worry about drawing up anything fancy. Grip it. Rip it. Get in on the net. Crash the rebound. And score.

I mean, it’s a third-period 5-on-3 in the playoffs for crying out loud. How often do those opportunities come along? And what coaching acumen really needs to be nuanced into the process to make something like that effective?

Finish. That’s what this team is supposed to be good at doing.

The power play all night for that matter. Blah! This contest was presented as a “home game” for the Penguins in the permanent neutral site of Scotiabank Arena. I was waiting for the Penguins fake crowd noise to start booing the power play as we hear at PPG Paints Arena all the time.

It would’ve been justified for doing so.

I know the man-up unit scored once. But that was the second group. To the point, it wasn’t the prettiest goal in the world. Simply Bryan Rust shoving one in with Patrick Hornqvist providing rare net presence in front of Price.

“We understand that the power play has to be better,” Sullivan said. “We’re working through this process. It had an opportunity to be the difference tonight, and it wasn’t.”

The Canadiens forcecheck more intently, they trap better, and their goaltender is better. But, in theory, the Penguins are supposed to be better. Because they have more good players. More skilled ones anyway. Players with more perceived raw scoring talent.

But as the numbers indicate, they are not proving that in recent postseasons. Over the last 11 playoff games, the Penguins have netted a putrid 22 goals.

The Penguins need to win 19 of these games if they are to be Stanley Cup champions. Unless they bust out for a big offensive performance soon, they’ll be finished within the first five of them.

Again, not exactly the kind of “finish” the Pens are trying to find.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

Categories: Penguins/NHL | Sports | Breakfast With Benz | Tim Benz Columns

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