Daunting task awaits Penguins

Commentary

PITTSBURGH — This has become a best-of-one series, the deciding game to be played tonight.

Make sure your pizza order arrives by 7:30 because this will require your full attention.

Despite having leads of 2-0 and 3-1 in the series against the Washington Capitals, the Penguins find themselves in a do-or-don’t situation tonight.

Win and move on to the conference final. Lose and become yet another Stanley Cup champion that found it impossible to repeat.

What happened to get to this point?

n The Capitals ramped up the physical play. Down 3-1 in games, maybe Washington figured it had nothing to lose but a series that was slipping away anyway.

So they started hitting. In particular, Tom Wilson took runs at anyone wearing black and gold.

The Penguins aren’t really equipped to play that kind of game. When teams use those tactics, they try to make them pay the price but using their superior speed. Or they lure the aggressive opponent into penalties and take advantage of the power play opportunities.

That hasn’t happened here. The Capitals have been taking the body and dictating the play. The Penguins have to find ways to be quicker with the puck and leave the Capitals behind.

n The gas tank could be low. Are the Penguins paying the price for those extra two months they played last spring?

They’ve looked lethargic at times. It certainly isn’t a deliberate lack of effort. They know what the stakes are and how unforgiving the playoffs are.

Sometimes when players try to kick into that higher gear, it just isn’t there.

The energy level hasn’t been where it needs to be. The Capitals look like the fresher team.

n The goaltending is no longer spectacular. The Penguins might be on the golf course already if it hadn’t been for Marc-Andre Fleury.

Fleury hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t been as flawless as he was earlier in the series.

Has the disparity in shots and scoring opportunities caught up with him?

The Penguins need one more extraordinary performance from Fleury to advance.

n Where are the stars? Is Sidney Crosby 100 percent after the infamous cross check to the head he took from Matt Niskanen?

Crosby came back, but do the effects of that hit linger? He took a frightful head-first tumble into the board Monday night, and that couldn’t have helped anything.

Evgeni Malkin has gotten points, but has yet to rise up and dominate. Phil Kessell hasn’t come close to matching what he did in the playoffs last season.

The Capitals are a talented team. So are the Penguins.

But the Penguins’ stars have to play up to their pedigrees.

So here we are. It’s down to one game.

You need a pick? It’s 50-50. Flip a coin. Throw a dart. Put out two treats for the dog. Label one Washington and one Pittsburgh and see which one he goes for first.

That system is as good as any in this situation.

Shocking news

It didn’t seem like there could be a bigger bombshell announcement relating to the Pirates than Starling Marte’s 80-game suspension.

Sadly, the Pirates topped that Monday with the news that pitcher Jameson Taillon is undergoing treatment for possible testicular cancer.

Far beyond what this means for the team this year, there’s the issue of Taillon’s long-term health. He’s 25 years old.

Here’s hoping that Taillon can follow James Conner and Mario Lemieux and make a recovery from this scary situation.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com

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