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Defense Holds; Ian Cole Blocks Caps



Ian Cole blocked eight shots, broke up at least a half dozen Washington Capitals scoring chances, then set up Nick Bonino’s game winning goal with a sharp stretch pass to Scott Wilson in the neutral zone. The Penguins survived the Capitals, 3-2, Thursday at the Verizon Center. Cole and his fellow defensemen played their best game of the playoffs, despite being on the receiving end of the Washington Capitals 30 minute blitzkrieg. In fact, the defenseman an goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, are the reasons the Penguins escaped Game 1 with a win.

In Round 1, the Penguins defensemen looked disorganized and slow. They were beaten too often, but bailed out by the Penguins forwards in the “5-man unit” defensive scheme.

In Game 2, Game 1 it was a role reversal. Two of the Penguins four lines were defensive liabilities. And that is being a generous. Evgeni Malkin’s line with Phil Kessel and Bryan Rust was bad. Bonino’s line with Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson figuratively served as a Capitals punching bag.

Bonino, Sheary and Scott Wilson line had less than a 5% Corsi.  Yep–less than FIVE percent. Each member of the line yielded over 20 shots while registering just a few shots. Sheary was the culprit on the Capitals tying goal. He failed to cover Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was WIDE open.

Sheary’s reaction to the goal said it all. It encapsulated several of the Penguins forwards night. Only this time, the Penguins defense and Fleury came to the rescue.

The Capitals got 35 shots on Fleury, and the Penguins defense blocked 19 more (the forwards blocked 10). In addition to Cole, who was noticeably disruptive, the duo of Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley were also good. That pair were strong getting out of their own zone, and when it mattered, they kept the Capitals off the scoreboard.

Report Card

Ian Cole: A+. 8 blocks. 3 hits. The most important play of the game.

Olli Maatta: A.

Trevor Daley A. 3 shots. 3 blocks. 2 hits.

Brian Dumoulin: B

Justin Schultz: A very quiet (which is a good thing, in this case) B. 3 blocks.

Ron Hainsey: A solid B. 3 blocks. 2 hits.

Marc-Andre Fleury

Fleury made 35 saves may well have stolen the game from the Capitals. Just as he stole Game 5 from the Blue Jackets.Fleury made several big saves, but none bigger than the trio he made during the mad scramble in the crease with about three minutes remaining. His legs and blocker seemingly covered all points like an octopus.

Fleury played with an edge in Game 1. A point I tried to explain last week, may be coming clearer. Fleury is guiding and directing rebounds. He’s kicking pucks to defensemen, aggressively using the blocker to deflect the puck forward (in theory it should spring the transition game), and steering shots to the corner.

On the surface, it may appear Fleury is giving rebounds. But an examination shows Fleury in command of them. The Penguins defense strong play in Game 1 further helped Fleury. The defensemen cleaned up a few rebounds and denied the Capitals valuable second chances.

It’s getting tougher to pull him out of the net, especially after two consecutive thefts in big situations. Fleury returned midway through the Capitals series in 2016.  Murray is not yet back on the ice, so Fleury is guaranteed Game 2 and highly likely Game 3.

As hundreds of fans argued last spring, “you play the hot hand”.  In 2017, that is Fleury.

Counter Attack

The Penguins have been an advanced stats darling. However, they were outplayed by the Columbus Blue Jackets in Round 1 (They allowed 51 shots in Game 5). There were again outplayed and outshot against the Capitals.

The Penguins registered just 21 shots on goal. The 2016 Penguins, who controlled the puck against every team, would scoff. But these are different Penguins: Opportunistic. Efficient.

The Penguins have enough talent to continue converting chances at this rate, so it isn’t the great concern some may think. However, it is interesting to see the Penguins win, but outperform the advanced stats predictions.

If the Penguins are able to marry their opportunism with their puck possession, another Stanley Cup isn’t far away.

Game 2 Adjustments: Hagelin-Sheary-Wilson

The Penguins took the Capitals best punch, but lead 1-0. The Capitals have a right to feel good about their performance. However, the Penguins are now able to adjust and do so with the one game cushion.

Four players have been playing poorly: Scott Wilson, Conor Sheary, to some degree Evgeni Malkin, and to the same degree Phil Kessel. Malkin and Kessel won’t be leaving the line-up.

Carl Hagelin has practiced the last two days, and took limited contact, Thursday. He could play, Saturday, which means someone has to sit. With the return of Chris Kunitz, the fourth line centered by Matt Cullen was good.

Will it be Sheary or Wilson? It’s hard to predict. Both deserve some press-box nachos. Sheary was benched after allowing Kuznetsov tee up the wide open shot, and was Sheary wasn’t good against Columbus. Gut feeling–Mike Sullivan will sit Sheary as a motivational tool.

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