Pittsburgh Penguins rookie Beau Bennett has a face that might look more at home in the lineup of the young New York Islanders. The clean-shaven, 21-year-old native of Gardena, California – nicknamed “Sunshine” by his teammates after a similarly blonde, California kid in Remember the Titans – joked that, while he’s just started growing out his hair, he’s been working on his playoff beard all season.
In a first-round matchup most notable for its heavy imbalance in playoff experience between the two clubs, however, it was the California kid who got the Penguins’ veteran-loaded lineup going. Just 3:30 into the contest, on the first NHL playoff shift of his career, Bennett fired a sharp-angle shot past goalie Evgeni Nabokov, the Islander whose 80 games represented his team’s most postseason experience by far.
“That’s something I work on quite a bit, that short-side shot,” said Bennett, who only learned he was going to crack the Penguins’ deep roster Wednesday morning. “Luckily, it went in the spot I wanted it to.”
“I don’t know if there were jitters, but it’s not the way we wanted to start,” said Islanders head coach Jack Capuano.
After that, the high-powered Penguins offense kept coming. Forward Pascal Dupuis scored two goals, defenseman Kris Letang and grinder Tanner Glass – matching his regular-season goal output – added the others, and forwards Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla and Jussi Jokinen each contributed two assists en route to a 5-0 Penguins victory and 1-0 lead in the series.
“It was definitely good to get the team going right off the get-go,” Bennett said. “We shut them down from there on out and had some big goals from other guys. It really was exciting and got the confidence up a little bit, and that’s pretty big going forward.”
On the Islanders’ end, “I just thought that our execution was very poor tonight,” Capuano said. “When you don’t have the puck and you’re chasing the whole night, you’re not going to accomplish a whole lot. They worked harder than us and, this time of year, the teams that work harder win hockey games.”
Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stopped all 26 shots he faced to earn the shutout, while the Islanders’ Nabokov – rattled early in the game when he took a shot off his helmet – allowed four goals on 15 shots before being replaced by backup Kevin Poulin.
Fleury and the Penguins’ penalty kill shut down the Islanders’ dangerous power play in each of its four opportunities. “They do have a good power play, and guys were putting their bodies on the line, blocking shots,” Dupuis said. “And Flower was playing great for us. It obviously helps quite a bit on the penalty kill when your goalie’s hot like that.”
Pittsburgh also managed to hold John Tavares, New York’s biggest offensive threat, without a single shot on goal in more than 17 minutes of ice time.
“There’s other dangerous guys on their team but, certainly, that top line and Tavares is a guy we have to be very careful of, and [Brandon] Sutter’s line largely got the assignment to do that tonight,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “I thought we did a good job tonight at both ends of the rink.”
The win was marred by injuries to two of the Penguins’ most important offensive players, James Neal and Jokinen, in a physical contest that saw a combined 77 hits thrown between the two teams. Neal was injured on a crushing hit by Travis Hamonic during a Pittsburgh power play to open the second period, while Jokinen was injured late in the game when Marty Reasoner kicked out his skate, sending him down on all fours.
The early injury to Neal meant that the Penguins were forced to shuffle their lines and special teams. Bennett, who started the game on the fourth line, quickly found himself playing alongside Malkin and Chris Kunitz on the top power play unit.
“We have a lot of depth on this team, so we’ve all got to be ready whenever we’re called upon,” Bennett said. “I got the call tonight, and I tried to take full advantage of it.”
“We play one way, and it doesn’t really matter who you play with on this team anyway,” Dupuis said. “Anybody you play with, you play with a great player.”
And, although the Penguins have no shortage of talented, experienced hockey players, they’re taking nothing for granted in a series many experts predicted to be as lopsided as the first game.
“Playoffs is playoffs; every game has its own [dynamic],” Dupuis said. “It’s one win. We definitely feel good about it, but we’ve just got to put this one behind us and get ready to work for the next one. They’ll definitely look at tapes and come out hard.”