CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — We hear it all the time, that playoff hockey is just different. But if you’re annoyingly inquisitive like me, you might wonder about the specifics.
What exactly is so different about Game 83, compared to the 82 that preceded it? Who better to ask than the two young men on the Penguins who just experienced their first playoff game: Jamie Oleksiak and Zach-Aston Reese.
“I think it was another half-step faster,” said Aston-Reese, who has all of 16 regular-season NHL games on his Hockey-Reference.com page. “Intensity level being that much higher, it’s definitely a harder game.”
Like Aston-Reese, Oleksiak was dazzled by the volume and ferocity of the gold-clad PPG Paints Arena crowd, which set the evening humming like a tuning fork throughout the 2 1/2 hours of hockey. Oleksiak had 187 games under his belt at this level before drinking from the playoff cup.
“The emotions were obviously there,” Oleksiak said. “The fan involvement, it was definitely noticeable how loud it got in there. Just the momentum (of the game), you really felt it. It was a cool experience. Before I was a little anxious to get out there, but after I got on the bench and got into it, it was comfortable.”
Oleksiak should feel no shame about some pregame anxiety. Conor Sheary has lifted the Stanley Cup twice, has scored an overtime goal in the Final and has suited up for 46 playoffs games over the past two years, but he admitted to some nerves in Wednesday’s first period.
That is, he was nervous until he smoked Flyers forward Scott Laughton in the opening minutes.
Sheary with a big hit. Yes, Sheary. pic.twitter.com/kCdFbQZAW9
— Penguins Nation (@EngellandsEye) April 11, 2018
“I definitely had energy,” he said. “I definitely was ready to play. I was probably a little bit nervous for whatever reason … even if you’ve been there before. Once you get started, it’s that intensity that gets you going. I think once I got settled down I was able to find my game a little more.”
If there’s one guy who seemed exceedingly amped to start the game, it was Kris Letang. It had been 22 months since his previous playoff game, the Cup clincher out in San José.
Letang was Peak Letang in the first period especially, getting his feet moving up ice and sticking his nose into the attacking zone. Brian Elliott denied Letang’s attempt to tip Phil Kessel‘s goal-mouth pass, but Letang nevertheless got on the scoresheet when he joined the rush and snapped a wrister that Elliott punched directly to Rust:
Mike Sullivan said after Thursday’s short practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex that Letang was “noticeable in the right areas of the rink,” not something that could be frequently said about Letang during the regular season.
“He’s active, but he’s not forcing it,” Sullivan said. “He was taking advantage of those windows of opportunity.”
The easy conclusion to draw was that Letang wanted to announce his return to the playoffs with authority, but he denied it.
“It was just how the game went,” he told Pittsburgh Hockey Now. “Saw some openings. We made great defensive plays, allowing me to join the rush.”
If Letang himself is different in the playoffs, that would be just fine for the Penguins, of course.
They’ve also been searching for a reliable fourth line all season long, but with the return of Derick Brassard, they just might have it in the form of Riley Sheahan, Tom Kühnhackl and Aston-Reese.
That trio’s effective work put them all on the positive side of the shot share in Game 1, not to mention their extended shift in the attack zone led directly to Carl Hagelin‘s first-period goal that made it 2-0.
“We talked a lot about trying to keep it simple and setting the next line up,” Aston-Reese said. “We sustained that offensive zone shift, then the next line came out and it went in.”
It should be noted that Sullivan had his fourth line out against the Flyers’ top unit of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Michael Raffl, so he was hoping for a shutdown shift. Instead, he got even better from Sheahan’s unit.
“That’s a line we can use against anyone,” Sullivan said. “When Riley’s on there, it’s a real good 200-foot line. It can help us get momentum.”
So, to run down the checklist, we have increased intensity, responsible assertiveness and unheralded heroes. Just one thing is missing: Blocked shots.
The Penguins got in front of 24 of the 59 shots the Flyers attempted, matching the total that were on target. Chad Ruhwedel led the way with six blocks, Justin Schultz had four and Olli Määttä stymied three, including a golden chance for Shayne Gostisbehere. (Maybe that’s why Määttä needed a “maintenance day” Thursday.)
In case you’re curious — I know I was — the Penguins averaged 14.4 blocked shots per game in the regular season. What changed when the playoff lights activated?
“I think it boils down to commitment,” Sullivan said, matter-of-factly. “That’s playoff hockey. It’s about if you have the willingness to do the little things that add up. To be in the shot lanes and blocking shots, that’s indicative of a commitment to playing defense.”
There you have it. It might not be the most ringing endorsement for regular-season hockey, but it’s the honest truth.
When the game means more, the substance of it changes. Call it human nature or whatever you will, but the little extra that defines playoff puck is unmistakeable.
And with 50 playoff games played over the past three seasons, no group of players is more familiar with that step up than the Penguins.
“Little plays are just that much more important,” Sheary said, “because one loss is a lot bigger of a deal than in an 82-game regular season. I think every little thing is important.”