When the Penguins lost game four of their first round series to the Blue Jackets - in about as ugly a fashion as most fans of the team could imagine - I made the comment to several different people that I thought it was a good thing and maybe the best thing (in the long run) for the team would be to lose the series and exit the playoffs early.
I got the "Are you really a fan of the team?" look on more than one occasion.
My reasoning was that the Penguins were simply not playing very good playoff hockey (and had not for a while) and that needed to change. From my point of view, they might right the ship in the short term...and beat a Columbus team that they SHOULD beat...but maybe that wouldn't serve them best in the long run.
Again, am I really a fan of the team?
Well, yes, I am...and that's why I have said for a few years now, that this team is missing something. I want to see them be successful (and they are, to an extent) but it has been clear to me they are missing something that makes a team a champion.
Fast forward to about four days ago, when the Pens were up 3-1 in the series against the Rangers and I made these comments:
"The Penguins are playing well...
I think a big part of that is more control when on the attack. Smarter positioning in the offensive zone and just an all around more logical approach to playing the game. Makes you wonder why it's there now and didn't seem to be there before?
The other big part is that the Rangers...to put it bluntly...have sucked.
...the Rags have been painful to watch. Again...have been...past tense.
...Things can turn quickly in sports...especially the NHL playoffs.
...the Penguins would be best suited to take care of business Friday night. Don't give the Rangers anything Friday...not one sniff at a chance to come back...get it over and done with."
It's Monday, May 12th and the series with the Rangers is tied at 3 games a piece.
Tomorrow night the two teams face off in the 'loser goes home' game.
I'm not really that surprised the Penguins are in this situation.
The Rangers, to their credit, have found a way to play better hockey. The unfortunate passing of Martin St. Louis' mother, just a few days before Mother's Day, has certainly helped to motivate a team that simply was not playing well for most of the first 4 games of the series.
But we should also consider that part of the reason the Penguins find themselves facing a game seven Tuesday is that, like we have seen before with this group, when they really need to step up and take their game to another level...they fail.
Now I know I will get people saying or thinking..."Closing a team out is always hard"... " Winning that fourth game is always the toughest"...and I don't doubt that for a second.
But when you consider what the Penguins have shown us in the last two games in terms of visible determination, effort, resolve...etc...you would be hard pressed to convince anyone who knows anything about the game, or sports in general for that matter, that this team was hungry enough to finish off the Rangers.
"A hungry team".
It's a funny phrase used in sports to describe a team that wants to win badly enough to do all the little (and big) things necessary to win.
The Rangers have been a hungry team these last two games.
The Penguins, not so much.
My contention over the past few playoff seasons has been that the Penguins simply are not a hungry team. They are a team that too often appears to be 'well fed'.
Sure, I might be over simplifying the situation, but I can tell you this...I watched the end of the Blackhawks and Wild last night. The Wild lost 2-1 and are now down 3-2 in the series, but nothing about that loss appeared to be because the Wild didn't want to win badly enough. Those guys really wanted to win...so much so that my impression is they will win game 6 in Minnesota and force game 7 in Chicago. Of course I could be wrong...but I know the Hawks are in for a fight in game 6.
The Penguins, likewise, are in for a similar fight in game seven.
Watching the end of the second period last night and seeing Crosby, Kunitz and a couple of other guys get into it with the Rangers was reminiscent of the recent playoff failures against the Flyers and Bruins.
Hearing the NBC announcers make the asinine comments about 'frustration'...and how "that's not the way to do it" (thanks Pierre...you ARE Captain Obvious) brought back all those good (sarcasm intended) memories.
Of course they are frustrated and of course that's not the way to do it (but since controversy sells...please continue to stir the pot). But I really think the frustration is something internal now.
I know I will get slammed for this...but here goes.
I have played lots of games in my life...and lots of hockey games too. I know there is frustration when you play a team that is beating you and that can definitely be the result of being outplayed, even though you are playing your best.
But, there is also this kind of frustration that comes from losing when you simply are not playing the best you can...and sometimes the reason for playing below your potential is not necessarily tied to how well the other guys are playing.
Sometimes you play below your potential because you simply are not putting in the effort.
Sometimes that's because you simply don't care enough...or...aren't hungry enough to do all the small things necessary to win.
Sometimes you are angry with yourself more that you are with the other guys.
Based on the number of times in the last two games I have watched players 'coast' back to play defense...or the body language of players when a play breaks down or does not result in a positive outcome...my thought is this:
The Penguins players want to win...in their minds...but their bodies are not doing the work necessary to get the job done. The result is very frustrating and we are starting to see it play out again like we have before.
Herb Brooks used the phrase "the legs feed the wolf" when coaching his players. Anybody that has played hockey on any level can understand this concept.
Over the past two games the Penguins have played like a wolf that's well fed...but will eventually end up starving.
If this team can't get hungry for game 7, then it's time to finally address why.
Another favorite by Brooks...
"You're playing worse and worse every day and right now you're playing like it's next month."