PITTSBURGH — Claude Giroux‘s review of Game 1 was … blunt.
“That’s one of the worst games I’ve been a part of,” the Flyers captain said a few minutes after the Penguins finished smoking his squad, 7-0, on Wednesday at PPG Paints Arena.
Derick Brassard didn’t feel much better about his game, from a strictly individual perspective. You see, he was faced with the task of jumping directly into the playoffs after missing the final five games of the regular season with what’s believed to be a groin injury.
“It was really tough,” he said after playing 13:44 in his first game in two weeks. “I just have to keep it simple out there, get my legs under me.”
Frankly, Brassard’s rust showed. The Penguins were outshot 17-6 at even strength when he was on the ice, the worst differential among Pittsburgh forwards. He made a beauty of a pass to Jake Guentzel for a tap-in power-play goal, but Brassard wasn’t close to himself.
Fortunately for him, the Penguins were every bit their usual playoff selves under Mike Sullivan. Brassard has witnessed the phenomenon first-hand in each of the past two postseasons, but from the losing end, with the Rangers (2016) and Senators (2017).
This time around was a lot more fun, even if it’s just one game.
“We were really quick on the puck,” Brassard said, relaying his first impressions. “We were trying to use our speed as much as we can. We had a lot of guys with their ‘A’ games tonight.”
In some ways, Brassard hasn’t gotten the full Penguins experience since arriving in late February. By the time the trade deadline hit, the champs had just wrapped up several weeks of suffocating pressure-based hockey, but they struggled to summon it consistently when another playoff berth was all but assured.
In Game 1, with Penguins swarming Flyers in all three zones and constantly covering for each other, that was the team that sent Brassard home early the past two springs. Afterward, his appreciation was obvious.
“We were on the same page out there,” Brassard said. “It was good to see. We had a lot of guys who wanted to play tonight.”
Not that the Flyers didn’t want to be there, but it was easy to agree with their coach Dave Hakstol, who characterized his team’s early play as “tight.” For the guys in white sweaters, hands and feet weren’t moving as well with most experiencing their first taste of playoff adrenaline.
Combine a jittery group from Philadelphia with a battle-forged bunch on the other side eager to churn into its high gear, and you get a result like Wednesday’s.
“Guys in this room just love playing playoff hockey,” Justin Schultz said. “Everyone obviously gets up for it. The stakes are raised. It’s just fun.”
We’ve gotten past the point where players will even dispute that they lack full mental engagement at lower-leverage points of the season. It’s also indisputable that this group can — pick your cliché — turn it on/flip the switch/rise to the occasion on demand.
“We know what it takes,” Bryan Rust said. “Sometimes it’s hard to keep that consistently. We gotta keep that mindset, that consistency is key.”
Brassard doesn’t have the level of championship experience that most in the Penguins room do, but he can speak to managing the variability of the postseason. Wednesday marked the 30-year-old’s 79th playoff game over the past six seasons. Furthermore, his teams have advanced out of the first round all but one of those years, in 2016 when the Penguins dispatched the Rangers in five games.
“Like always in the playoffs, you try to enjoy that one for the night,” Brassard said. “When you wake up the next day, it’s back to getting ready for Game 2.”