The Penguins have had a lot of trouble with the New York Islanders through the first three games in this series. What was expected to be a quick stroll through the first round of the playoffs has turned into a major struggle for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Pittsburgh’s problems stem with poor puck management in their own end, undisciplined play, and lack of composure. When Douglas Murray is your best puck-moving defenseman through three games, you should be in trouble. When Matt Niskanen, Mark Eaton, and Kris Letang are giving up the puck, leading to goals for the other team, you should be in trouble. And yet, the Penguins are UP in this series 2-1.
Why? Well Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been dynamite for the Pens and guys like Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, and Jarome Iginla have filled in here and there. But the biggest difference has been, surprisingly, the goaltending.
Through all of Marc-Andre Fleury’s faults in this series, the puck going off the boards and in the net (twice), being unable to come up with THE save, Fleury has been the better goaltender by far. His .923 save % is tenth in the playoffs but it towers over Evgeni Nabokov’s .836 save % which is good enough for dead last.
If the goaltenders continue their trends, you certainly have to give the edge to the Pittsburgh Penguins. But it doesn’t just speak to how bad Nabokov has been, but how good Fleury can be at times. Yet, people want Tomas Vokoun to start in Game 4.
What helps Vokoun’s play is when the team in front of him is playing sound defense. When Vokoun gets a lot of clean looks at shots, he’s able to make saves. However, when his defense is turning the puck over and giving up a magnanimous amount of scoring chances, Vokoun struggles. He’s 36 years old and has to rely on positioning over athleticism. In the playoffs, especially during the modern era of hockey, you need a goaltender that can make athletic plays and that’s where Fleury can shine.
If you need more proof, look at the 37 year old goaltender on the other end. Evgeni Nabokov has had to face breakaways, 5 on 3 power plays, and countless shots from point-blank. For an “experienced” (aka old) goaltender, that’s a major problem as his save % illustrates. To make matters worse, his team is the one that has outshot the opponent by roughly six more shots per game.
Evgeni Nabokov was brought in to stabilize the goaltending position for the Islanders. He’s not supposed to steal games in a playoff series, but to hold the fort while his team forces the play in the other end. If the Penguins manage the puck and press the Islanders in their own zone, they will crack Nabokov and possibly end this series early. Playing against a team that was sixth in the NHL in shots forced this season, that will be easier said than done.
The Islanders finished with 139 goals scored and 139 goals allowed meaning they had to give up defense to score. They’ve had to do it in this series against the Penguins and while they’ve dominated play at times, they are still down 2-1. Simply put, they cannot rely on Evgeni Nabokov.
Smarter defense will lead to better goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury and it will force the Islanders to press leading to more mistakes and more chances for the Penguins. Just in case the Penguins don’t play smarter (and they haven’t shown the ability to do so through three games) keep Marc-Andre Fleury in net over Tomas Vokoun. He’s more athletic and better suited for a series like this.