Game 1 of the NHL Eastern Conference final didn’t exactly go according to plan for the Penguins, and after beating the Pens in overtime Saturday night, it’s the underdog Senators that have the early advantage in the series.
The loss in Game 1 has the Penguins behind in a series for the first time in this year’s playoffs, while Saturday’s victory marked the Sens’ sixth overtime win. Pittsburgh appeared to be feeling the effects of only having 72 hours to recharge after an exhausting seven-game series against the Washington Capitals, as Ottawa controlled the puck for most of the night, topping them a sizeable 49 to 34 in even-strength shot attempts.
There were plenty of positives for fans to take away from the loss, however. For starters, if you picked the Pens to win in five, you’re right on track with your prediction — obviously, the Pens aren’t in trouble after just one game. There’s also the caveat that any one of the three posts the Pens hit could have completely changed the outcome of Saturday’s game. They’re at home again Monday night, and the loss could prove to be a nice wake-up call that the second round is over and there’s another hurdle to clear before a shot at repeating as Stanley Cup champions becomes reality.
Still, we know the Penguins are going to have to make some adjustments for Game 2. Ottawa’s proving they’re no pushover, and the Pens can’t take them lightly anymore. Here are five things we know the Pens need to do to even this series:
1. Keep beating the Sens’ neutral zone trap
The Senators love clogging the middle of the ice. It’s their bread-and-butter, and has been a staple of every team head coach Guy Boucher has coached. Their neutral zone trap, specifically the 1-3-1 formation, is a migraine for teams who like to carry the puck — like the Pittsburgh Penguins, for example. Essentially, this style works when the puck carrier beats the initial forechecker then runs into the wall that is awaiting him.
The Flyers had the most infamous solution to beating the trap back in 2011:
It’s as effective as it is boring, but it’s one of the main reasons a team that gave up four more goals than it scored in the regular season (206-210) made it to a place where they can say they are up 1-0 on the defending Cup champions in the Eastern Conference final.
The Pens handled the trap adequately in Game 1, however, it could have been much better, and Mike Sullivan seems to agree:
The Pens would be better served to stop puck handling in the middle of the ice and chip-and-chase the puck behind the Sens’ bigger, slower defensemen. The majority of their successful zone entries came this way, and has historically been the blueprint for beating the 1-3-1.
We know utilizing their speed is the Pens’ best bet to get some offensive zone time. We also know another sure-fire way to take the trap out of the equation all together…
2. Score first
And keep the lead, while you’re at it. The Sens can’t focus as much on playing defensively if they’re behind on the scoreboard. The Pens were 30-10 during the regular season when they scored first, and an impressive 37-1-1 when leading after two periods. It’s an easy recipe for success — especially against a team who likes to trap — and something that becomes a little more important for a team that has struggled with their starts this postseason.
We know scoring first is going to be big this series, and we also know how the Pens could really help themselves in this area…
3. The power play has to be better
The Pens had the third-best power play in the NHL in the regular season but went a pedestrian 0-for-5 against Ottawa in Game 1. What’s worse; they only managed 10 shots with the man-advantage, which was 8:39 of ice-time of 5-on-4. One shot every 52-seconds against a team that is down a skater is not good.
These struggles are nothing new, unfortunately. Over the past six games, the Penguins power play has scored twice on 22 chances. Since the start of Round 2, the Penguins have scored just 3 goals in 27 power play attempts.
While the Senators’ penalty kill clicks at 88.9 percent, they still take more minor penalties than any team left in the playoffs and have been shorthanded 45 times this postseason, third-most among all 16 teams.
It didn’t matter if it was 5-on-4 or 5-on-3 in Game 1, the Pens just couldn’t get anything going. The big issue Saturday was too much perimeter passing and, obviously, not enough shots. The Pens’ power play is at its best when the puck is going deep — it just so happens that’s where Sidney Crosby is usually positioned.
4. Crosby. Crosby. Crosby.
The Pens need to get the puck on the stick of their captain.
Crosby only has three games this playoff season in which he didn’t register a point — including the Game 3 loss to Washington in which he suffered a concussion early in the first period. Still, Crosby hasn’t scored a goal since netting two in Game 1 against Washington, and he’s only had three points in the four games since his injury. After Game 1, the Pens are now a lousy 17-33 when Crosby fails to score a point in a playoff game.
His two shots in Game 1 were right on his average the last four games, which is a major red flag for a player like Crosby. He also came-up just short of gaining control of the puck on the play that led to the overtime game-winner.
It wasn’t exactly an awful game for Crosby, though, just maybe one he’d like back. He and linemates Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust had no issues at all with the trap — their issues were more executing once they were in the zone. The results weren’t there, but there may have been some bad luck to blame, too. Crosby set up two plays that ended with pucks ringing off the posts.
The opportunities were there for Crosby all night Saturday, but everything was just slightly off. Whatever is wrong — if anything — we know the Pens will need Crosby’s game to round back to the elite level he was at before the latest concussion.
5. Keep bouncing back
Resiliency may be the Penguins’ greatest character trait. They proved time and time again during the regular season that they can rebound after a loss, and the push-back mentality has been prevalent again in these playoffs.
The Pens were 19-11-2 after a loss in the regular season and are 3-1 after a loss this postseason. Another reason for optimism? The Pens are 38-13 in their last 51 games after scoring 2 goals or less in their previous game.
As we know, there’s no better place than home for the Penguins, and the table is set for some redemption for them in Game 2. They’ve already faced plenty of adversity in these playoffs — injuries, ridiculous playoff seeding, injuries … injuries — but one thing they haven’t faced yet is how how to bounce back from a 2-0 deficit in a series.
We’ll know a lot more about these Pens after Game 2.