You didn’t have to be Dr. Phil or Joyce Brothers (rest in peace) to see the Pittsburgh Penguins were a little tight in their first-round series against the New York Islanders.
Even after a 4-0 home victory in Game 5 that figured to stabilize the Penguins’ collective psyche, Pittsburgh needed late goals from defensemen Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik to snatch Game 6 and win its first Stanley Cup playoff series since 2010. Yesterday I credited much of the Pens’ first-round struggles to the Islanders’ speed and skill, but some quotes from recent days suggest pressure played a role, too.
Immediately following Game 6, coach Dan Bylsma told the media his top-seeded Penguins didn’t play to win as much as they should have, at times getting too absorbed with trying not to lose. That type of reflection continued even after Pittsburgh beat Ottawa 4-1 in Tuesday night’s second-round opener, except this time it came from the players.
“I think we were on our heels at times [in the first round], maybe afraid to make a play,” said blueliner Matt Niskanen in the postgame press scrum. Sixth-year Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis was even more introspective, saying he thought the team has welcomed recent wins with “not so much joy, more just meeting expectations.”
Dupuis went on to say the Penguins need to continue to enjoy their success, despite the widespread belief – both within the team and from outsiders – that anything short of an Eastern Conference championship will be a failure.
Savoring good moments sounds like an obvious reaction, but a grueling tournament like the Stanley Cup playoffs tends to narrow an athlete’s focus. As Bylsma said after Game 1, “It’s difficult to learn to enjoy [the wins] without getting ahead of yourself.”
Carpe diem remained a theme during Wednesday’s media availability. “Winning’s fun and you feel that good vibe around our room today,” said James Neal when asked about Dupuis’ remarks. “You feel that confidence and that’s a good thing. It keeps you playing well.”
For his part, Orpik has repeatedly said this year’s team is different from the ones that have faltered in previous springs. While I respect the perspective of the longest-tenured Penguin, human beings can be adversely affected by unsavory memories, no matter how mentally strong they are.
Judging from some of their recent comments, the Penguins have stopped denying the shadow of the past three years and have begun to accept it. That’s a progression any psychologist would love.