There has been a very common and consistent theme for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs over the past couple of years. Play well, mostly do the right things, but never get the result.
At this point we know the recent playoff history. The Penguins have lost in the First Round three years in a row and have not won a playoff series since defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in the First Round of the 2018 playoffs. In some of those recent series, particularly the past two against Montreal in the bubble and against the New York Islanders a year ago, it has not necessarily been the result of them getting badly outplayed. In a lot of games they actually did a lot of the right things. They had the right process. There was reason to believe they played well enough for better results. They simply did not get the results for one reason or another (goaltending, both theirs and the other team’s, being one of the most significant reasons).
Just look at the 5-on-5 numbers from the past two postseasons. They had a 55 percent shot attempt share, better than 53 percent share on scoring chances and expected goals, yet were outscored 16-27 during those situations. They could not finish or get goaltending, wasting the strong process that was in place. Sometimes that happens. When it happens in the middle of the regular season or early in the season you still have 40-70 games to allow it to correct itself. When it happens in the Stanley Cup Playoffs you lose, your season is over, and you look for excuses and problems.
There was a pretty extensive stretch in the Penguins’ 4-3 triple overtime Game 1 win against the New York Rangers on Tuesday night where it seemed like that same script might be happening again.
After a slow start in the opening 20 minutes the Penguins completely turned the game around in their favor and were overwhelmingly carrying the play. Overall, the Penguins absolutely dominated the game from a shot attempt, scoring chance, and expected goals perspective, doubling up the Rangers in every single one of those categories. It was was even more lopsided after the first period. Yet here the Penguins were, stuck in another overtime game against a world classs goalie (Igor Shesterkin) that was seeing and stopping everything, and when he was not, shots were ringing off the post and crossbar behind him and not going in the net. It seemed almost inevitable that it was going to be another “played great, did everything well, did all of the right things, but did not win” playoff game.
Then they did win. They had a call go their way, they got the goaltending they needed from two very unlikely sources (Casey DeSmith and Louis Domingue, who entered the game in extremely unusual circumstances), and they turned their overtime dominance into a goal to win the first game of the series.
Aside from the result, there were a lot of things to like about this game on a team and individual level. Does that change your outlook for the series (and the playoffs as a whole) at all? After scoring just four goals in four games against the Rangers during the regular season, the Penguins matched that total in one game on Tuesday. Granted, it took nearly two full games worth of hockey to reach that mark, but it still counts. They also completely dominated the overwhelming majority of the game. The expected goals in this game were 7-3 in favor of the Penguins, they controlled the puck in the offensive zone and played their game. After hearing about the Rangers’ physicality non-stop in the first 25 minutes the Penguins completely negated it the rest of the way by just owning the puck and creating chance after chance. It is the type of winning hockey they played when they were winning Stanley Cups. It is also the exact opposite type of hockey we have seen from this team over the past couple of weeks when they were backing into the playoffs losing most of their games.
The hope all along is that they would be able to flip the switch in the playoffs and regain their playing style. On Tuesday night they did exactly that. The top line of Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust was about as dominant as a line can be. The other lines may not have scored much (only one goal, but it was a huge goal) but they still helped control the pace of the game. Kasperi Kapanen played one of his best games of the season, Danton Heinen looked good. Even Jeff Carter’s line tilted the ice at times. There is a lot to like here.
The concern now though is going to be if they can sustain this, and if they can sustain it with the current injury situation. Jason Zucker is still out and we do not know his timeline. It is probably safe to assume that Rickard Rakell is going to miss time. The goalie situation is also a mess as we are looking at the possibility of Louis Domingue starting Game 2 on Thursday night with some guy as the backup goalie. That is two top-six forwards and your top two goalies not available for the time being. That is going to be a challenge. It also makes the Game 1 all the more important because it gives you a little bit of cushion and margin for error until, hopefully, Jarry, DeSmith, Zucker, and Rakell can return. No matter what happens in Game 2 on Thursday night you have taken home ice advantage back in your favor and you have the confidence and knowledge you can play this way.
Still a long series and still a long way to go in the playoffs. But it is a good start for the Penguins, a team that needed a result like this in a performance like this. The process has been there. Just need the results.