BOSTON — Sidney Crosby and the potent Penguins have been punchless.
Pittsburgh led the NHL in scoring in the regular season. It averaged 4.27 goals per game in the first two rounds of the playoffs. And it poured in 13 goals in the last two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
No addition necessary.
The Penguins have just one goal in two losses on their home ice to the Boston Bruins. To play there again this season, they must win tonight or Friday and avoid what seemed so improbable just a few days ago — being swept in the best-of-seven conference finals.
“Right now, we’re not liking the picture, down 0-2. They’re in control,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “I don’t think we’re frustrated by the fact that we haven’t scored as much as (the fact that) they’re getting up leads, especially in Game 2.”
The Bruins won the opener 3-0 but led just 1-0 after two periods. The second game was much different. They rolled to a 4-1 lead after one period and remained aggressive in finishing off their 6-1 rout. The Penguins’ effort waned as the game went on.
“I didn’t do anything, didn’t change anything. It felt like every time we had a puck that was bouncing, we ended up giving it away,” Crosby said. “We gave them the game. We didn’t really do anything to give ourselves a chance to win.”
Combine that with the Bruins’ high level of play and the pre-series chatter about the Penguins being favorites seems like so much nonsense. But any talk that Boston will have an easy path to the finals is just as premature.
“We’re going to have to play even better than we did because they’re going to be desperate,” Boston’s David Krejci said.
With a day off to ponder their problems and work at eliminating them, the Penguins’ offense could resurface.
“It’s about what we do in the next game,” Boston defenseman Andrew Ference said, “not about patting ourselves on the back for what’s already happened.”
Winning the first two games is a good start but doesn’t always lead to a good finish. Both teams have overcome 2-0 deficits and gone on to win Stanley Cups.
In 2009, the Penguins dropped two games at Detroit by a combined score of 6-2 then took four out of five to clinch their first championship since 1992.
In 2011, the Bruins lost two games of the opening round at home against Montreal, then won the next two on the road and captured the series on an overtime goal in Game 7. In the finals, they got off to the same poor start, losing two in Vancouver, but then won their first title since 1972 with a 4-0 road win in Game 7.
But in the previous season, the Bruins won the first three games of the Eastern semifinals over Philadelphia then lost the next four.
“We have a large group of guys that have gone through this and been in that situation on both sides of the coin,” Ference said. “You can really lean on your past experience and not just talk about what could happen, because we’ve done it all. I think with this team, whether it’s coming back or having teams come back on us, we’ve all seen it together and we all know certain lessons that we’ve learned.”
They’ve also seen how powerful Pittsburgh’s offense can be. James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and Crosby were among the NHL’s top 17 in goals per game this season. Crosby was the leader in assists per game. And Crosby and Kris Letang were the top two in points per game.
“You don’t have a choice but to respect that team that you’re playing against, because they are a pretty potent team. Things can change pretty quickly in this game,” Boston coach Claude Julien said. “I don’t think there’s any comfort level in our team right now.”
The Bruins have stymied the Penguins’ offense with pressure the length of the ice. A puck carrier gets past one forward then must contend with another, then a defenseman and, finally, Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that we have layers,” Julien said. “Our guys are committed to come back and just making sure that there’s layer after layer that make it hard for them to get to our net.”
It’s been relatively easy for the Bruins to get to the Penguins’ goal, whether Tomas Vokoun or Marc-Andre Fleury is trying to protect it. Fleury replaced Vokoun after Krejci, the NHL postseason leading scorer, gave Boston a 3-0 lead at 16:31 of the first Monday night.
“We gave up the first goal both games and, from there, everyone is trying to do it on their own,” Vokoun said, “it’s just not going to work.”
Bylsma hasn’t said who will start today.
“I think there’s going to be some changes to our lineup,” he said, “and some of our combinations, our lines.”
No need for the Bruins to change anything.
All four lines have been productive. The defensive pairings have been strong. And Rask has been outstanding, stopping 55 of 56 shots in the series.
Overall, the Bruins have won seven of their last eight games with a 30-15 scoring advantage.
“Our team’s playing probably its best hockey this year right now,” Julien said, “but so is Tuukka. I think he’s been unbelievable so far in this series.”
The Penguins also have been unbelievable — the other way. Who would have expected an offense with Crosby, Letang and Evgeni Malkin to be so awful?
“We know that we’re looked upon to score and produce,” Crosby said. “We have to find ways to create chances and put the puck in the net. I’m not going to sit here and say it’s Rask or anything they’re doing. We have to get better.
“That’s the way it is.”