Why Did the Penguins Try to Out-Bruins the Bruins?

Jamie Sabau

Pittsburgh's insistence on mirroring Boston's physicality cost them in Game 1, but what was the point of adjusting to the Bruins in the first place?

A few bounces here and there change the narrative of Saturday's game against the Boston Bruins, in which the Penguins came close but couldn't get one behind goaltender Tuukka Rask.

Instead of getting those bounces, the until-now-historically high-scoring Penguins were shut out for the first time in 2013, dropping Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Boston Bruins by an unfamiliar 3-0 final.

The loss marks the first time this season the Penguins have lost to Boston (3-0-0 in the regular season) and the first time in these playoffs they have trailed in a series.

Coming into the series, Pittsburgh coaches and players spoke ad nauseum about, well, everything. Eight days off between games was comically poor planning by the NHL and every narrative out there was wrung for all it was worth. One narrative that gained particular traction, at least from the Penguins, was the premium that would be placed on taking the physical game to the mythologically physical Bruins.

The Pens indeed found their churlishness in Game 1. Crosby jawed with towering Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. Evgeni Malkin got into an honest-to-God fight with Patrice Bergeron. The Pens registered 34 hits to the Bruins' 19, and played what was their most all-around physical game of the entire postseason.

Just as they planned.

And they lost.

Just as they should have.

There's no underselling the notion that physicality is a plan built to succeed over seven games, not one. But if playing with that kind of physicality means putting shackles on an offense that scored unabated through the first two rounds, what's the point?

Again, the Penguins still generated scoring chances in the loss. They were dominant down low at times, and were robbed in equal portion by good goaltending and bad luck.

However, the bad-luck narrative loses steam when top-line center Sidney Crosby spends four minutes in the box because he wanted to play with an edge.

The physicality-is-attrition game plan looks awfully questionable when top-scoring center Evgeni Malkin spends five minutes in the box, two of which on a critically important third-period power play, because he and also-not-a-fighter Patrice Bergeron had a bout as tensions rose late in the second.

By the third period, the Penguins were flustered. Angry. "Off their game," to borrow a nauseating phrase.

But it's what they planned on, after all.

These Penguins are a team of proven hotheads. The Philadelphia Flyers exposed nearly everyone on this roster as thin-skinned in 2012. Emotions run high when the game gets physical, and emotional hockey is the Penguins' proverbial banana peel.

Why invite that kind of game, then? Why initiate it?

The Bruins' mythos of physicality is a red herring. They aren't a physical team that happens to win a lot of games -- they're a structured team that happens to be physical when it suits them.

Pittsburgh has their own identity. They score goals. A lot of them. And Boston, good as their defensive group may be, aren't going to be able to keep that attack at bay for seven games if the Penguins stay committed to it. Structured teams are vulnerable to the Penguins' speedy, improv-happy attack. The Senators featured a less-skilled version of the Bruins' defensive style, and the Penguins turned them into mud with relentless offensive play.

That's the only game plan the Penguins need to stay loyal to.

Game 1 seemed less like the first of a seven-game investment in smart physical play and more like a willing devolution into the very type of hockey that the Penguins are too immature to play effectively.

By all means, hit Boston's defensemen when they retrieve the puck. Take the body when it's given and make them earn their ice. And if takes building highway barriers, barb-wired trenches and a moat in front of Vokoun, them build them, and make sure they keep David Krejci out of the slot.

Pittsburgh can play a physical game when given the opportunity. But the Bruins' true identity lies in their composure, not toughness.

If the Pens can't be tough without losing their composure, the series won't last long enough to see their plan of attrition bear fruit.

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