The Penguins should brace themselves. The Columbus Blue Jackets are coming. Per their head coach, John Tortorella, the Blue Jackets must fight their way to the Penguins net and fight for space in the dirty scoring zones between the dots.
The Penguins surprise strategy and quick strike offense earned Game 1. The Blue Jackets will try to play to their advantage in Game 2: Brute force.
The Penguins won Game 1 of their First Round series by controlling valuable real estate between the dots. The Penguins forwards crashed low in the defensive zone, which clogged the scoring zone, protected their defensemen and protected goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
If the Blue Jackets had an advantage, it was against the Penguins blue line corps. Several of the Penguins defenders had rough nights, including Brian Dumoulin. Olli Maatta played just his second game since February 16, also had a couple rough moments.
The Blue Jackets sent 16 shots on net in the first period of Game 1, and 32 shots overall. However, the shot charts show the Penguins were not challenged. The tweet from Natural Stat Trick probably says it all:
…have you tried maybe going near the net, Columbus? pic.twitter.com/KfVfHBH9Rk
— Natural Stat Trick (@NatStatTrick) April 13, 2017
Have you thought about going to the net?
The Blue Jackets game is gritty and physical. 49 hits in Game 1 is only part of the story. They love to dominate the boards and their offense springs from those battles.
The Penguins simply ceded that territory. It was another brilliant strategy from Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. The Penguins staff, including noted strategist Jacques Martin, got the better of Lightning coach John Cooper in last season’s Eastern Conference Final and Pete DeBoer’s San Jose Sharks were never able to answer the Penguins attack.
The Game 7 forecheck and a rover against the Lightning, which the Penguins unleashed again in the Cup-clinching Game 6 against the Sharks was a work of art.
This time Sullivan and company surprised their opponent not with a creative forecheck, but a defensive zone lockdown and offensive patience.
“It was their first chance of the game,” Tortorella said postgame. “After the second one, we lost ourselves a little bit.” (Torts is a treat and educational. You can watch the postgame press conference here: https://www.nhl.com/bluejackets/video/post-game-john-tortorella-412/t-277437100/c-51389703
They allowed the Blue Jackets to control the territory 30 feet from the net in exchange for protecting the territory 10 feet from the net. The Penguins also gambled their talent would be able to capitalize on fewer scoring chances
It worked perfectly for the Penguins.
Game 2 will be the true test of the Penguins defense corps ability to withstand a direct assault.
The Penguins offense was a quick strike. Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Bryan Rust were the most effective with a pair of markers. While the Guentzel-Crosby-Sheary line may have generated a few more chances, they weren’t able to convert.
You just have to laugh with Kessel. Two goals in his last 26 games. With the money on the table, Kessel flopped aces.
Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel must convert chances. They will get fewer chances than the regular season and need to up their percentages.
A tale of two goalies. Bobrovsky will likely win the Vezina Trophy, but the Penguins were close to breaking the dominant netminder. Through the second period and into the third, Bobrovsky was rattled and shaky. When a goaltender is searching for the puck after each save, you know he’s in trouble.
Bob was in hot water.
Fleury was a different story. He admitted to being nervous early in the game, and it showed. A few loose pucks were misplayed and his glove didn’t keep a couple shots. After that, the number of “Fleury!” chants told the story.
Paul Zeise, of 93-7 The Fan, asked me a great question during my little postgame guest spot, “Were those Fleury chants because of his play in Game 1 or because of his career?”
Yes, Paul. Yes to both. Both are worthy.
Let’s be honest—Fleury will have a chance to make the Penguins reconsider their future plans. Or, at worst, send his trade value through the roof. It has not been a dull season, so why stop the drama now?
Game 2-3 will tell us what we need to know about this series. Enjoy!
–Check back at noon for the Penguins Notebook! We’ll have updated lines, news and anything else noteworthy from the morning skate.
–Thanks to Ron Meyer’s Twitter account for the Featured Image. Follow Ron who is also covering the series, @Blessed2Play. Ron’s show, Blessed to Play airs on SiriusXM channel 130.