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Tim Benz: Penguins looking to avoid rare series deficit scramble

May 4, 2018 GMT

Among the many things the Penguins have done well over these last two Stanley Cup championship runs is that they have been tremendous frontrunners.

Sometimes that phrase — “frontrunner” — has a negative connotation. In this regard, it shouldn’t. It’s actually quite a compliment. In playoff series, the Penguins tend to get ahead and don’t get surpassed.

In Mike Sullivan’s nine series as coach, the Penguins have never been down more than one game. They’ve never really had to chase in a best-of-seven situation. They’ve never been down 2-0, 3-0 or 3-1.

Even in that dicey 2016 Eastern Conference final against Tampa, where the Pens needed to win two elimination games, they gave themselves the cushion of a 2-1 start.

That will change if they lose Game 4 to Washington at home Thursday night. If the Capitals win, that will put the Penguins down 3-1 and on the brink of elimination heading back to D.C. on Saturday night.

It will also mean they will need to win three in a row versus the Capitals to advance.

After practice Wednesday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry though, the players didn’t seem concerned about the direction of the series.

“I don’t think anything concerns us,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “There’s always things you have to clean up and get better as the series goes on, and there are things we definitely want to improve on. But I think that’s pretty typical for any series.”

What isn’t typical the last two years is the Penguins facing a 2-1 series deficit. The only time they have was last year against Ottawa. After winning Game 1 at PPG Paints Arena, the Penguins dropped the next two against the Senators.

What made that situation different than this one is a very large piece of low-hanging fruit shifted momentum in that series — a goalie change.

Despite his stellar play over the first 14 games of the 2017 playoffs, Marc-Andre Fleury was benched and Sullivan went with Matt Murray in Game 4. Fleury had been pulled during a 5-1 defeat in Game 3.

That’s not going to happen in Game 4 against Washington. Despite being — in his words — “shaky” in Game 3, there’s a better chance of Josh Dobbs starting at quarterback for the Steelers in the 2018 opener in Cleveland than Casey DeSmith starting Thursday.

So, short of something seismic like that, what gets the Penguins back on track?

“You are going to go through ups and downs,” Sullivan said. “Emotional highs and emotional lows. And it’s all about how you handle those and how you react and respond.”

Where the Penguins need to respond is taking away the amount of odd-man rushes the Capitals had, particularly in the third period. The scant shots on goal total of 22 for Washington doesn’t properly reflect the amount of dangerous situations the Penguins allowed off the rush Tuesday night.

One of those dangerous situations ended up being Alexander Ovechkin’s winning goal with 67 seconds left in the game.

“We’ve just got to be smarter with the puck in that time of the game in that area of the rink,” said Sullivan, referencing Olli Maatta’s turnover that led to the winning goal. “Make sure we give our forwards another opportunity to make another play at the net.”

Murray needs to be better, too. Not only did four get by him, but a few others nearly squeaked through as well.

“I have to be comfortable with it,” Murray said of the amount of odd-man rushes. “Just try to be aggressive when you can. Read the play. Be aggressive and compete.”

Being more steady with his glove wouldn’t hurt either.

All of those things, though, are on-ice, correctable situations. Things a good coach and a Cup-winning roster should be able to fix. Maybe what can’t be fixed is a talent-depleted blueline compared to recent years, and an injury-addled forward unit featuring banged up contributors such as Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin, Zach Aston-Reese, and likely Phil Kessel.

That’s part of the reason this series feels like the Penguins may be playing in “catch-up” mode more than just the one-game difference in the win-loss column implies; and why a two-game deficit would feel incredibly daunting even for a team with as much fiber as the Penguins have shown the last two postseasons.

“Thursday is a really important game, particularly on home ice,” Conor Sheary said. “We want to keep it close, so it doesn’t get out of reach for us.”

And reaching for a series late is something the Penguins haven’t had to do since getting down 3-2 before Game 6 in Tampa in 2016.

They would like to avoid finding out if that kind of a series comeback still exists in their bag of tricks.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.