PITTSBURGH — Finally. The Pittsburgh Penguins are officially playoff bound for the 13th consecutive season. The veteran Stanley Cup contenders needed almost every moment of the regular season to punch their ticket to the grand ball to see who dances with Lord and Lady Stanley. Phil Kessel scored two goals and Sidney Crosby dove headfirst into the crease for his first goal in nine games as the Penguins overpowered Detroit
Detroit scored just seven minutes into the first period. However, the Penguins quickly took control of the game. They exerted their “old-man” muscles over the Detroit whippersnappers. The Penguins controlled every inch of the ice for most of the first period and the second half of the second period.
It appeared as if the Penguins figuratively had enough and laid to rest any doubts about the outcome.
Tactically, the Penguins took the open ice and took the puck. It was textbook Mike Sullivan preaching. Detroit wanted to defend the slot and gave the Penguins space along the wall. The Penguins simply took that and drove deep into the zone. Call it a controlled zone entry with a dump-in chaser.
The Penguins superior strength coupled with holding on the pucks in the low zone forced Detroit to defend the Penguins in what Sullivan calls “the battle zones.”
The Penguins opened up Detroit, especially in the first period. The Penguins had several rebound chances which magically hopped over their stick or took a funny bounce. They were only credited with a pair of rebound chances at even strength but that number doesn’t count the players in position and bad luck.
When the Penguins faltered in the first half of the second period, their goaltending was there. Matt Murray was in top form. From stopping Martin Frk on a breakaway when the Penguins trailed 1-0, to robbing Dylan Larkin who was left alone in the slot just 30 seconds into the third period.
Detroit is not hard on the puck, so the Penguins did not have to fight for space. The Penguins biggest challenges against Detroit and similar teams are maintaining defensive responsibility despite the temptation to engage in a free skate and controlling the puck. Detroit made headway in the second period and forced the Penguins to defend.
However, Detroit’s surge did not last beyond the midway point of the period, and the Penguins titled the ice towards themselves again.
The special teams X’s and O’s were interesting until the Penguins power play broke open the game. Initially, Detroit dropped the back side forward into the slot to cutoff the cross-ice pass. It was interesting to watch Christoffer Ehn looking over his shoulder to see where Phil Kessel was standing, then positioning himself between the puck and Kessel.
At different points, it made Detroit’s PK look like a 1-2-2. However, the result was Sidney Crosby skating the puck low and busting the packed high slot by going around it. Kessel finished the rebound chance because the Penguins attacked the PK from down low instead of high.
The Penguins PK was aggressive at the blue line, and sometimes the red line. The Penguins defenders were stepping into the Detroit puck carriers and disrupting zone entries and attempting to force the puck to the wall or cause a turnover.
On Detroit’s first power play, the tactic worked for 1:45. However, in the waning seconds, Detroit was able to gain zone time and Matt Puempel deflected Filip Hronek’s shot.