The Penguins’ series opener against the Ottawa Senators played out as a microcosm of their season. There were moments of individual brilliance befitting the defending Stanley Cup champions. There were also big defensive breakdowns, bad rebounds and soft goals. Three times, Pittsburgh closed within a goal of the Sens and ratcheted up the intensity. And, three times, they felt just short, with sloppy execution and the lack of a 60-minute effort costing them in the end.
"I think it’s more mental than any kind [lack of] of physical effort," said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, after his team dropped the opener to Ottawa, 5-4. "There’s an execution level, the way we want to play each shift; there’s also a mentality about how we’re going to play, and that’s something that we need to be better at throughout the game. That execution allows you to get to that work ethic you need to have to get to your game, and we need to get better at that."
The Senators, meanwhile, arrived at Mellon Arena with few expectations and nothing to lose. They didn’t panic and remained poised when the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin got the home team on the board first, just 3:03 into the contest. They got the matchups they wanted, pairing defensemen Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips and forward Mike Fisher against Sidney Crosby’s line and holding the Penguins’ captain without a shot on goal through two periods — though he did manage to assist on three of Pittsburgh’s four goals. They got a big effort from a line known more for its hard work and hard hitting than its skill — Jarkko Ruutu, Chris Kelly and Chris Neil — who accounted for three of the Senators’ five goals.
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"They deliver whenever we need some momentum, whether it’s a hit, a good defensive play or, in this case tonight, it was three goals," said Senators head coach Cory Clouston. "They seem to find ways to contribute in a lot of different areas."
And, perhaps most importantly, the Senators exploited the Penguins’ inexplicable lack of shots against Ottawa’s rookie playoff goaltender, Brian Elliott. Ottawa outshot Pittsburgh 11-4 in the opening frame — a period when the Penguins should have been intent on taking their game to the Senators — and continued to dictate the play for most of the night, against a team whose success is built on spending time in the offensive zone and wearing its opponent down. "We only had 21 shots, and their team did a great job of protecting [Elliott] and getting five [players] around the cage when we had that zone time we were looking for," Bylsma said. "When we went to our point, they were in shooting lanes and blocked shots. They did a very good job of that, and he was up to the task, for the most part, with the shots we did get through."
The Senators came back hard through the neutral zone, took away the Penguins’ time and space with the puck, created turnovers, got pucks behind Pittsburgh’s defense, and capitalized on their opportunities. Essentially, they outplayed the Penguins at their own game.
In a battle against a more experienced, Stanley Cup winning team, the Senators, who had several young players making their playoff debuts, proved to be up to the challenge. And their coach believes they can be even better now that they’ve gotten their nerves — and their first playoff win — out of the way.
"I think, in the first five or six minutes, we were tentative," Clouston said. "We sat back some of the time and, toward the end, instead of sticking with our game, we got off of it a little bit and gave up some of the momentum. [The Penguins] did some good things at the end and they made us a little bit nervous with some of the pressure that they put on us. We’ll get better."
The Penguins will have to be much better in Friday’s Game 2 if they hope to avoid falling into a 2-0 hole at a building where they’ve been dominant in recent playoff years. So will goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, often spectacular through Pittsburgh’s playoff run last year, who struggled with rebound control and let up a few goals he’d surely like to have back.
There were reasons for Penguins optimism — Crosby’s three helpers, Malkin’s two goals that made him look like the playoff MVP he was last year, a wicked backhand goal from journeyman forward Craig Adams, the Penguins’ lack of quit even when they went down by two goals early in the second period.
But finding a way to get to that level of play throughout the game, as opposed to sporadically would be a good start.
"We have to be well aware of what happened tonight. They’re the team that got to their game, and we weren’t able to do that," Bylsma said. "We’re down 1-0 in the race to four [wins], they got the first one, but we have to be ready to execute better and have a different mentality than we did tonight. We’ve got to go back to the drawing board a little bit with our focus and mentality."