August is sweaty enough normally. Now here were the Penguins down a game in a best of five, which is no day at the beach they will assure you. A year ago, they blinked, perhaps in disbelief that Sidney Crosby could be held to one point in four games, and it was over, a deeper but far less star-studded Islander team grinding down another 100-point Pittsburgh season to dust.
The Ignominy Hall of Fame needs to build a new wing every few years. If we’ve seen it in one April, then we have in 50: An all-for-one and one-for-all opponent turns the higher profile stars of the favorite into individualists and suddenly that team is not as deep as presumed. All the good work of 82-games flashes before their eyes as they stare into the abyss of a hot goalie’s catcher; a self-fulfilling prophesy of doom.
Ask the players, there is no pressure ever like first-round pressure, This year there was only one exhibition game coming out of four months of all of us being in the penalty box, further invitation to one of the biggest ever backyard grilling of favorites.
No excuses accepted. At a time of year where, all things considered, these guys would rather be out on their boats, everybody is in the same one. In fact, the absence of paying customers in the midst of a pandemic notwithstanding, the scrutiny may even be even higher than normal. People niore out of their minds than even Mark Messier playing in a Roger Neilson system are riveted by early-August hockey, as evidenced by NBC’s numbers for game one of Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin vs. a club that was 11 points out of a playoff spot with 11 games remaining.
Only that logo keeps the Canadiens from being about as generic as a team can be, except for a goalie, Carey Price, who has been forced into the federal witness protection program – do they have one of those in Canada? - for years by all the mediocrity around him. While, 27 years since the last of 23 Cups, there remains no place for a Canadien to hide in Montreal, to an entire generation of U.S. fans who couldn’t tell you who was Steve Shutt, Nos Glorieux might as well be the Cincinnati Stingers.
All this anonymity stands to contribute to the potential terror for the Penguins, one year off a first round humiliation–and three off a championship– with an ever rotating supporting cast to its thirtysomething stars. Can Crosby and Malkin, both of whom missed a chunk of time this season, still bring it? Will Jim Rutherford’s raging against the dying of the light in these rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul-later salary cap times, pay off in a last hurrah?
Not only are we watching closely, but frankly, would hate to see it end for a second straight year almost before it can begin. This might be the best theatre – summer stock this time – in these playoffs.
The Penguins handled it well in game two. Mike Sullivan, liking most of everything of game one but the overtime result, resisted any lineup panic. Crosby got a soul-soothing early goal–hey, they all feel it, no matter how accomplished –for a precious 1-0 lead, Matt Murray robbed Tomas Tatar on an unconscionable breakdown off a start-of-the-third-period center ice faceoff, and Pittsburgh stayed the course to win 3-1 Monday night and even the series.
Not out of the woods yet; one loss isn’t going to deter the Canadiens from what they have been doing. But at least the Pens got off the schneid of seven straight playoff game losses and showed no sign of panic, which is much of the battle when a favorite falls behind in a first round.
Surely it helped that this isn’t this Penguin core’s first waltz with disaster. Thinner clubs than this one-actually Rutherford may have put together the best defense corps this time of any Penguin team in the Crosby era¬rashed in the first round in 2012 and 2015, and in the latter case, won the Cup the following two seasons.
There was no such experience in the bank a year ago for the Lightning as it suddenly was turned from overwhelming to overwhelmed by the Blue Jackets’ buzz saw. And there isn’t any for the Oilers either in this first experience as a favorite. It showed in game one, when, up 1-0 before the fans settled into their seats–as they once liked to say–Edmonton gave one up and promptly fell apart. Like the Penguins, the Oilers escaped the rabbit hole of 0-2 game two, but it was hard to see it as a test passed, more as Chicago goalie Corey Crawford’s struggle to get up to speed after dealing with the protocol.
When you are down in first round, any help in a storm. Despite the 11-point difference between the Oilers and Blackhawks when the season was interrupted, if still hard to see Edmonton as better. Depth, that great evener in the long run, isn’t going to make the difference in that series because it doesn’t much exist. The plot here doesn’t thicken much beyond the Oilers’ young stars against the Blackhawks old ones and certainly Connor McDavid is not shrinking.
No did a Carolina team that, remember, was a conference finalist a year ago, and made the Rangers look like the first time rubes that that they were.
The Florida underachievers – whether they be real or imagined – drew a tough opener in the well-drilled Islanders and are down 2-0. Nashville, three years removed from its last run and in a struggle just to get in when the season shut down, is at a crossroads, having already fired an accomplished coach and Ryan Johanssen, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg rode to the rescue Tuesday to get its series even against a decent Arizona team.
The initial round is where the drama is. And this year, as the round-robin qualifiers join the list of potential victims after an inadequate three-game run-up, we’re going to get essentially two first rounds, double the fun for those of us who love a good train wreck.