Goalie doesn't give up rebounds, defensmen don't tie up sticks or let passes through, forwards don't get pucks deep and disrupt quick counter-attacks. Don't do little fundamental things from top to bottom and the puck ends up in your net more often than not. That's what the Pittsburgh Penguins dealt with in the first game of their Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Ottawa Senators. The top Penguin players got their chances and points mainly on the man-advantage, but Ottawa played an excellent game and took an early edge in the series.
At first, things were great for Pittsburgh. Sergei Gonchar fed a pass on the power play to Evgeni Malkin and Geno drove it by short-side on goalie Brian Elliott and all would seem well for the Pens. Less than five minutes later Peter Regein drove the net, collected a rebound from a Jason Spezza effort and tossed it past Marc-Andre Fleury. Later Chris Neil would take another Fleury rebound and bury a shot high short-side.
Early in the second period, on the power play Anton Volchenkov shot the puck in on an innocent dump-in. The puck took a less than innocent bounce and flipped right out to Chris Kelly who easily shoveled the puck into the net past Fleury, who was expecting to play the dump-in behind the net. Malkin would strike again, 5 hole, past Elliott on the PP to bring the lead to 3-2 but that margin was short when Erik Karlsson collected a Mike Fisher effort and drilled the puck into the net.
Down 4-2 the Pens were not out. Craig Adams (who hadn't scored all regular season) took a backhand shot that beat Elliott gloveside to keep Pittsburgh in it. Then Chris Neil made a great pass that Mark Eaton couldn't play and former Penguin Jarkko Ruutu potted home to push the Senator lead to 5-3. Sidney Crosby made a great backhand pass behind the net right to Alex Goligoski's stick that Goose put past Elliott to bring the Pens to within a goal. But they'd get no closer. Game one, Sens.
- The Pens best two players (Crosby and Malkin) went a combined 2 goals, 4 assists. The Sens best two (Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza) went 0g, 2a. The difference was made with guys like Chris Kelly (1g, 2a, +3), Chris Neil (1g, 1a, +2) and Jarkko Ruutu (1g, +2).
- Didn't help that the Pens best roleplaying line of Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke had 0 points and were a combined -6. The roleplayers often determine the outcome of a playoff game, and there was no doubt that Ottawa's grunts came through big time.
- Marc-Andre Fleury was shaky. No way around it. While a couple of times his defense let him see some shots he shouldn't have, Fleury gave rebounds in the wrong places that opportunistic Ottawa players were able to bang home more often than not.
- Spezza and Fisher combined to win 71% of their total faceoffs (22 for 31). Ottawa was better in the circles than Pittsburgh.
- A typical Penguin playoff games involves a bevy of hits and shots. The Pens managed 38 hits, which the Sens held tight with 34 of their own, but Pittsburgh only managed 21 shots on target. That's not going to cut it, and not playing up to capabilities.
- In terms of getting in the way of shots, Ottawa was superior too on this night. The Pens only blocked 11 total shots, paced by Kris Letang's 5, the Sens got in the way of 18, led by Andy Sutton's 4. Ottawa's team defense mentality collapsed better on their goalie.
- Brian Elliott, in his first career playoff game at the NHL -- or AHL level -- was sturdy enough to get the W. He'd probably like the Adams goal back, and he wasn't dominate by any means, but for his first dip into the NHL playoffs his team helped him and he escaped with a win.
It's not panic time yet. The Penguins may have lost, but to be quite honest, they deserved to lose this game. The Senators were better in all three zones, and as we've seen all season Pittsburgh's defense wasn't stout and Fleury let in a goal or two that you'd hope he wouldn't. Flower made a couple of robbing saves, but he wasn't tight enough to seal all the definecies.
90% of the "experts" picked Pittsburgh to win this series. Maybe the Pens thought, subconsciously at least, that this would be an easy series. Especially when they were 18-4 at home in the past two years in the playoffs. When a lot of this team had swept Ottawa a time ago. All that is out the window now.
As usual for a Pittsburgh team, it's not going to be quick, and it's not going to be easy.
So after virtually sleep-walking through a regular season, when they show up for the playoffs they get punched in the mouth. How do you bounce back? How do you respond?
That's what defines a champion.
The Pittsburgh Penguins need to look themselves in the mirror, see what's there and come out a lot better on Friday night. It's not a cakewalk any longer. The Senators (or anyone else) aren't just going to shrink away because the black and gold lines up against them. It's going to take a better effort, by every player, in every zone, and every situation to earn a win.
We wouldn't have it any other way. Because there is no other way.