Are the Pittsburgh Penguins letting Jaroslav Halak get inside their heads, as the Washington Capitals did?
The Penguins say no, although there is growing evidence the Montreal Canadiens goaltender is doing just that. All concerned insist they simply have to stick to their game plan: make Halak as uncomfortable as possible in his crease and everything will work out Saturday in Game 5 of the NHL Eastern Conference semi-final series.
"A-1 is you have to make sure you don't let the way a goalie is playing change the way you play and change what makes you successful," Penguins defenceman Mark Eaton said. "We aren't going to change too much. We'll just keep - and I hate throwing clichés out there - but keep plugging along and not let frustration set in. When you do that, you're giving in and you definitely can't do that, especially in the playoffs."
However, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma spent a lot of time Friday talking about his team's need to beat Halak - who has stopped 94 of 98 shots in the last three games - by creating "second-chance opportunities" (scoring chances that come by hanging around the net and whacking at rebounds and loose pucks).
Aside from the troubling total of one goal from the Penguins' dynamic duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the last five games, the big problem has been letting the Canadiens defence keep them to the outside. Bylsma admitted the absence of veteran winger Bill Guerin to a suspected case of back spasms in the last two games hurt his team's "net-front presence" and allowed the Canadiens to tie the best-of-seven series 2-2.
There was no sign of Guerin on Friday, although the practice was optional, and Bylsma would only joke about Guerin's chances of playing on Saturday. When he was asked to rate the possibility on a scale from one to five, Bylsma said: "One being the lowest, five being the highest? It's day-to-day."
However, the coach was anything but light-hearted in discussing what the Penguins need to do to get to Halak. There were veiled references to the Capitals, who fell to the Canadiens in the first round when they stubbornly refused to change their tactics against the goaltender.
"From a team standpoint, we think we can manage the puck better," Bylsma said. "Everybody can get to the inside more and expect the goals to be second-chance opportunities, so we're not just trying to shoot and make hope plays and go for home runs. We need to get to the inside both to create havoc in front of [Halak]and create second-chance opportunities. That's for everyone, not just [Crosby]"
Getting Guerin back, the coach added, would make life much easier for the Penguins and far more difficult for Halak and his defencemen.
"You saw Game 1 [a 6-3 Pittsburgh win] on every one of those goals [Guerin] was within a foot, two feet of Halak," Bylsma said. "That is what Billy brings, especially to our power play, is net-front presence. In the absence of Billy, we need guys to do it. Hopefully, we can get Bill back in there and add to that area we need to be better.
"We have to get there with more bodies and more pucks and not look for hope plays, not look for rush plays and try to take guys 1-on-1, but have that mentality it's going to be second chance with people at the net."
Bylsma will have a leg up on Saturday, even if Guerin is not able to play. Centre Jordan Staal's remarkable return to the lineup on Thursday, five days after surgery to repair a torn tendon in his foot, gives the coach the ability to play Crosby and Malkin on the same line more often.