Special Teams is the Difference in Game 1
In a game that was closely contested during even strength, Pittsburgh’s ability to score on the power play while denying Ottawa’s numerous man advantages proved to be the difference in the Penguins’ 4-1 win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at CONSOL Energy Center Tuesday.
Heading into the series, the Penguins knew they would face a big challenge in the Senators’ vaunted penalty killing unit, which topped the league by killing 88 percent of their chances against during the regular season, and goalie Craig Anderson, who held a 1.80 goals-against average and .950 save percentage in the postseason after the first round.
But this task didn’t faze Pittsburgh’s power-play unit – ranked atop the postseason leaderboard with a 36 percent efficiency rate - as it surgically dissected the Senators for two power-play goals on three chances. Paul Martin, who was just as effective on the Pens’ penalty kill, opened the scoring with a slap shot from the point set up by Evgeni Malkin about three minutes into the game, while Chris Kunitz wristed a puck past Anderson late in the second period as the result of several through passes to give the Pens a two-goal cushion.
“The threat’s always there,” Kunitz said. “You need to make sure you go out and execute every single time. It’s not something that’s just going to carry over because it happened before. You have to go out and create the momentum, make sure you have crisp puck movement and get in the zone clean, shoot pucks on net. Just create momentum every time that you’re out there.”
Oh, and Pittsburgh did score a third goal on a power play – it just so happened it was on an Ottawa power play. Shortly after James Neal was called for interference with 7:02 left in the game, Douglas Murray made a play up to Pascal Dupuis despite two Senators making a Crankshaft sandwich out of him. Dupuis went down the ice on a 2-on-1 with Matt Cooke, fooling Anderson into thinking he was going to pass before placing a shortside shot into the top corner, putting the proverbial nail into the coffin.
“(Playing well on special teams) is definitely one thing you need to do in the playoffs to win hockey games,” Dupuis said. “Our power play got that big goal there at the end of the period and obviously the PK was huge.”
The Pens’ special teams separated them from the Senators in a game that was more evenly matched when each team had its full allotment of the players on the ice. Both defenses and netminders played well while on the 5-on-5, which put the onus on each team’s special teams unit to make key plays to propel either side ahead.
On this night, it was the Penguins who were able to control the all-important “third-facet” of the game on both ends. While the Pens power play was impressive, their penalty kill – ranked only behind the Chicago Blackhawks among the remaining teams – was just as big a factor to the game’s outcome, shutting down Ottawa on all five of its power play opportunities.
“The penalty kill came up really big for us,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “Did a good job numerous times in the second and third periods. You see Pascal Dupuis coming up big for us on the penalty kill. So, I thought we were able to do a lot of good things.”
The Pens made it difficult on the Senators while trying to enter the Pittsburgh zone, clogging the area around the blue line, which resulted in a considerable portion of their time on the power play being spent constantly retrieving the puck from their own end. Brooks Orpik made his presence felt throughout the game, while Craig Adams, Matt Cooke, Brandon Sutter, Douglas Murray, Dupuis and the rest of the crew did an excellent job of never letting Ottawa feel comfortable while a man up.
And let’s not forget the play of Tomas Vokoun, who made his third consecutive playoff start and, with it, earned his third consecutive playoff win. Whenever the defense did allow a puck through, Vokoun made the stop and absorbed many of the Sens’ chances, limiting the possibility for rebound goals.
“There’s a cliché here that your goaltender has to be your best penalty killer,” Dupuis said. “Well, he was again tonight.”
Special teams earned Pittsburgh a 1-0 series edge and the Penguins will look to continue their efficiency as the series progresses.
“The more you can kill, the more confident you get,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “I think with any special teams, it’s kind of about the next one. There are times where you might have a tough power play or they might score on the PK, but it’s always about the next one and that’s usually the biggest one.”