By Sarah Kwak
The Penguins scored in every possible way on Tuesday night, showing once again their offensive depth and flexibility as they handed the Ottawa Senators a 4-1 loss in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Pittsburgh’s special teams shined, contributing two power play goals and a shorty, but despite the big win, the game was a perfect display of the Penguins’ strengths and weaknesses. This team has, without question, the conference’s best lineup from top to … well, not quite bottom.
After starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s meltdown in Game 4 of the first-round series against the Islanders, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma turned to backup Tomas Vokoun, a 36-year-old veteran who hadn’t played a postseason game since 2007. Vokoun went on to seal the series with two wins and Bylsma stuck with him for the opener of Round 2. Though he made 35 saves in a solid effort, Vokoun did not erase the sinking feeling that if the Penguins are to lift the Stanley Cup in June, it will be despite their goaltending and not because of it.
Other thoughts from Game 1:
• The Senators may not be the most elegant skaters — yes, defenseman Erik Karlsson glides with ease even after his amazingly quick return from a serious Achilles injury — but they have been successful thanks to their energy and effort. In Game 1, they fired pucks at Vokoun as often as they could, and from any angle. It’s a smart approach, given the state of Pittsburgh’s netminding. Take Ottawa’s lone tally, for example: Erik Condra shot from below the goal line, Vokoun lost the puck (it was just behind him) as he sat in the crease and Colin Greening was able to poke it in to tie the game at 4:51 of the first period. That goal had to make the Penguins’ bench or, at the very least, the team’s fans, nervous.
• Greening’s goal was an unfortunate bit of luck for Vokoun, but what should be more worrisome for the Penguins is his rebound control, or lack thereof. When Pittsburgh won the Cup in 2009, its defense corps did a splendid job of taking away second and third chances by clearing pucks from the dangerous areas of the ice, and that’s the sort of protection Vokoun or Fleury probably need if this team wants to go deep into June.
• The ability to sustain offensive zone time, protect the puck, see options emerge, and execute at a high level easily makes the Penguins the most fearsome offensive team in the East. Though Ottawa held Sidney Crosby pointless for the first time in this postseason, Evgeni Malkin finished the game with two points, and defensemen Paul Martin and Kris Letang produced a goal and an assist, respectively. The Pens can make the possession game look easy, but the Islanders were able to disrupt it. If the Senators want a chance in this series, they’ll have to challenge Pittsburgh’s puckhandlers much more and then get some sustained time in the Penguins’ zone.
• Look at the Penguins’ top power play on paper: Crosby, Malkin, Letang, James Neal and Chris Kunitz. Look at it. Those five have combined for 2,091 career points. The second unit isn’t too shabby, either, with Martin and, oh, Jarome Iginla, who has 1,106 career points himself. Pittsburgh is now 9-for-25 (36 percent) with the man advantage during these playoffs. So Ottawa must improve its discipline and penalty killing to prevent that lethal power play from exacting a serious toll.
• Here’s the great thing about Pascal Dupuis, whose short-handed score in the third period was his league-leading sixth goal of the playoffs: when he came to Pittsburgh from Atlanta in the Pens’ 2008 trade for Marian Hossa, he was by most accounts a throw-in, an afterthought. To that point in his career, Dupuis had produced one 20-goal season (for Minnesota in 2002-03). Well, five years later, the 34-year-old winger has turned into quite the scorer. Of course, Dupuis benefits immensely from playing alongside Crosby. But even during Crosby’s absences the last two years, Dupuis continued to contribute in meaningful ways. He was second on the team to Malkin with eight game-winners last season, and he plays in all situations. He’s still as defensively responsible as he was when he arrived in Pittsburgh, but he’s rounded out his game to show that he’s got some serious offensive upside as well. His goal on Tuesday, a slick and precise wrister on a 2-on-1 break, was a goal-scorer’s goal. The Penguins lost Hossa long ago, but that trade continues to pay dividends with Dupuis.