Despite the New York Islanders frenetic pace which lasted well into the second period and rabid fans who were loudly behind their little engine that could, the Pittsburgh Penguins still forced overtime in Game 1. New York played its best game while the Penguins decidedly did not, yet the game still went to OT and the Penguins easily could have won it.
Could is the operative word, if not for playing undisciplined hockey after the Zamboni cleaned the ice for the fourth time.
The experienced Penguins took the best New York punch and now have a chance to respond in Game One, but it won’t be easy. New York has played the same way, all season. They don’t let up nor do they break from the system.
The Penguins breakouts in Game 1 were not clean. New York forechecked with abandon the Penguins defensemen were caught in the crosshairs.
“Having our centermen or the first forward supporting our D that are getting back,” said Nick Bjugstad. “I think (we need) the hard strides right away getting to pucks. Obviously, (New York) are a physical team. It’s important to be able to support each other as a triangle down low.”
The Penguins will need the deep center to generate support and speed out of the zone. They will also need wingers getting to their spots quickly so the Penguins can advance past the first wave. Once the Penguins advanced past the first wave in Game 1, they had success against the average New York defense.
One old school trick the Penguins will need to employ Game 2 will be forwards impeding the forecheckers. Call it accidental interference. The forwards will have to get in the way of the New York forecheck to buy more time for the defensemen to play the puck.
“Their F1 (first forward) is hard on the puck. They’re a team that’s predictable in their own locker room. They know the puck is going deep. They’re not slowing down at the blue line,” Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “They’re going full speed. They get pucks in and we know we’re getting hit. We’ve got to do a good job and keep the puck moving.”
A little forward help at the blue line may spare the Penguins defenders a few hits and generate a faster transition, too.
Mike Sullivan Tactics
Real simple: Get Sidney Crosby away from the New York fourth line. Wingers Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust were not able to generate enough puck possession because they were not able to win the puck battles.
The New York fourth line is special. They can’t beat teams too often but they can prevent teams from winning. The Game 1 win is as much on that fourth line as it is on the Penguins defensemen who lost their heads.
Double shifting, sliding Crosby between other wingers on odd shifts, or even double shift the Penguins very competitive third line to alter the rhythm.
Also, it doesn’t appear Sullivan recognized the Penguins were missing a physical element when they needed it most. That’s a mistake. The Penguins need Jack Johnson in the lineup. On paper, the New York forecheck would be more lethal to Johnson’s game than to Maatta or Pettersson but the game isn’t played on paper and the results were loud.
“The first few shifts, it is as loud as it can be and everyone is playing physical. We have to counter that as well and be a little more physical,” Bjugstad said.
Johnson would certainly help with that, wouldn’t he? Game 2 will likely be the same lineup, however. New York used physicality to generate momentum and offensive chances. The Penguins forwards aren’t built to do the same but their defensemen are built to handle a rugged game and return the favor, but without Johnson, they’re a lot less able.
Finally, Sullivan may have to juggle the lines to find more space for Crosby. Guentzel and Rust didn’t do it. The trio generated only two shots at even strength (according to the game summary on NaturalStatTrick.com), and both of those were tight angle shots from the goal line.
If Sullivan can change the disparity of scoring chances and shot attempts on his first line, the Penguins will be worlds better than they were in Game 1. Crosby needs help. It’s up to Sullivan to find it.
Yesterday, we detailed Olli Maatta’s night to forget. That doesn’t mean Marcus Pettersson, Kris Letang, or Brian Dumoulin were innocents. It does mean the Penguins cannot again be a mess on the blue line.
If the Penguins miss more assignments or turn the puck over at the same rate as they did in Game 1, the next go ’round tonight could have the same negative result.
The defensemen will have a higher than normal turnover rate because New York isn’t afraid to go hard after them on the forecheck. The defensemen will have to find a way to deal with that and be quicker with the puck and smarter.
The Penguins again had few rebound chances in Game 1. The rebounding issue has been a problem for weeks; the Penguins just aren’t getting enough. They are cutting off the supply to Patric Hornqvist.
Tactically, when Mike Sullivan says “We have to hang onto pucks,” he means the Penguins have to maintain possession. If they shoot too quickly on an offensive sequence, New York can transition on them.
The Penguins made New York goalie Robin Lehner work to make saves, but they did not force Lehner to make the second save. The Penguins have to “hang onto pucks” until they are able to create traffic in the slot or a net-front presence. The Malkin line especially had good chances but was quick on the trigger, before Hornqvist could get to the net.
Hang onto pucks.
That will also pressure the New York defense which the Penguins can buckle.
But, beware the underdog with nothing to lose. Just making it to the playoffs was a coup for the New York Islanders but they’re experienced enough to want more.
The Penguins remain the better team. The Islanders threw their best punch in Game 1. Now it is up to the Penguins to hit back. With better breakouts, a little coaching strategy, meeting assignments, and a few more pucks, the Penguins should have better results.