What to make of NHL playoff hockey? I sure can't figure it out, and, apparently, neither can the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that is struggling against a lower seeded team for the fourth straight year, after winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.
You may have been able to forgive last year's early round exit to the Flyers. After all, Pittsburgh just missed earning the number one seed in the Eastern Conference and had to settle for the fourth seed and a first round date with its cross-state rivals--a team that only finished a few points behind in the standings.
But this year? The Penguins are the Miami Heat of the NHL (at least in terms of talent), but unlike the top seeded Heat, who dispatched Milwaukee in four games in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, top seeded Pittsburgh is in a dog fight with an Islanders team that finished the regular season with 17 fewer points.
The Penguins lost Game 4 in New York's Nassau Coliseum Tuesday night before a raucous crowd, and the first round series now heads back to Pittsburgh for Game 5, Thursday night. Many thought Pittsburgh would dispatch the Islanders in as little as five games, but now the best a game five victory will do is send the Penguins back to that old rat's nest on the Island.
But in a league where last year's champions, the eighth seeded Los Angeles Kings, practically waltzed through most of the competition along the way to winning the Stanley Cup, the fact that New York is taking the play to the Penguins should be a surprise to no one.
People are blaming Pittsburgh for not playing "playoff hockey," but the mere fact that the style of play so severely changes in the postseason is all you need to know about the crazy nature of hockey.
Can the Penguins recover in time and get back to the kind of play that earned them the second most points in the NHL and the top seed in the Eastern Conference? Even if Pittsburgh does make it out of the first round, I can't imagine facing a tougher opponent than the Islanders the rest of the way.