It had been a while since the Pittsburgh Penguins had outshot an opponent. Since April 16, to be exact, when they outshot the Columbus Blue Jackets, 47-37 – and had 94 shot attempts – in the third game of their first-round series.
Generating that kind of offense against the Ottawa Senators’ shutdown system isn’t likely, but the Penguins entered Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final with the goal of generating more offensive-zone time, and getting more shots to the net.
They accomplished that mission, carrying play through the majority of Game 2 and outshooting the Senators, 29-23, and leading total attempts by the even wider margin of 57-35. Through 53-plus minutes, though, they had nothing to show for it.
“It’s the time of year when you might have to win like that, and I think we understand that,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “It wasn’t a lack of chances, so that’s the most important. When you have chances, you trust that they’re going to go in.”
The Penguins, though, could have been forgiven if they got a little frustrated.
For starters, already down defensemen Kris Letang and Trevor Daley, Pittsburgh lost their best net-front presence, Patric Hornqvist, before the game even started. They then went on to lose two more important players in the first 11 minutes – big-game scorer Bryan Rust on a crushing open-ice hit from Ottawa’s Dion Phaneuf, and offensive-minded defenseman Justin Schultz to an apparent shoulder injury after he fell awkwardly into the boards.
And, well, the Penguins did get a little frustrated with their inability to get a shot through. One of them in particular.
Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin verbally joust after a shift. Sullivan has to calm Geno down pic.twitter.com/KTuidhd9GO
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) May 16, 2017
So, when the Penguins finally got rewarded for their efforts, was it any wonder that passion manifested as the game’s first and only goal?
Evgeni Malkin cut through the neutral zone and found Phil Kessel, who took one blocked shot, recollected the puck and fired off a patented Kessel wrister past Senators goalie Craig Anderson.
— Hockey Night Punjabi (@HkyNightPunjabi) May 16, 2017
“We had a lot of chances, right? I think I yelled more than once tonight; it’s an emotional game,” Kessel said. “There’s ups and downs and we found a way.”
“Yeah, he’s always like that,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “It tells me he’s invested; I love that about the guy. I think our players get a kick out of him, quite honestly.
“He’s a vocal guy. He’s an emotional guy, and he’s all in. He wants to win. So, when he comes back to the bench, if he thinks he wanted a puck or he was open, he lets a player know, hey, give it to him. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
“For me, that’s all part of the team process. That’s how we improve as a group. I think it galvanizes our group.”
Also galvanizing the group? The way players stepped up to log extra minutes with a shortened blueline and forward corps for most of the game.
“I think our strength is our depth,” said Olli Maatta, who started the play that led to Kessel’s game-winning goal. “It happens; it’s part of hockey. It’s obviously unfortunate, but we did a great job. There’s always the next guy who’s going to step up.”
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury came up big, too, though that’s hardly news at this point of the postseason. His second shutout in three games was the 10th of his playoff career, and his 62nd playoff win surpassed New York’s Henrik Lundqvist for most among active goalies.
Fleury deflected credit to his teammates, who prevented the Senators from taking so much as a shot for about a 15-minute stretch between the second and third periods.
“I think it was just the patience, showing up for 60 minutes,” Fleury said. “We knew what to expect from them, and we stuck with it. We kept playing our game. Everybody talks about how good of a defense they are, but tonight we had the puck so much and we didn’t give them much.
“I thought we controlled the play from start to finish.”
The stats bear that out.
Took the Penguins a while, but they finally pulled off a 2016-esque domination on the shot front in these playoffs. pic.twitter.com/YycAgODeeP
— Bill West (@Just_BWest) May 16, 2017
“They’ve got some really good players that turned it on, and they were hard to manage,” said Senators head coach Guy Boucher. “I thought we didn’t manage the puck well on our breakouts at all. We gave the puck away a lot. We threw the puck away, and it created some momentum in our zone for the opponent.
“I think, when you look at the two games, we played five good periods out of six, and the third period cost us the game tonight.”
The game also saw these teams – not rivals in the conventional sense – develop some bad blood, with the early injuries and hits like this one by Phaneuf on Penguins rookie Jake Guentzel.
GIF: Phaneuf hit on Guentzel pic.twitter.com/C0XCVg4Ruy
— Benstonium (@Benstonium) May 16, 2017
Pittsburgh responded to Ottawa’s physicality with 50 hits – Scott Wilson led the way with 10, followed by Chad Ruhwedel and Carter Rowney with seven each – and the teams combined for 40 minutes in penalties, including 10-minute misconducts for Malkin and the Senators’ Kyle Turris with 14 seconds remaining.
With the series tied, 1-1, heading to Ottawa, the Penguins now have a feel for the kind of game they need to play if they hope to beat the Senators’ trap.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is just play fast and not let them set up,” Wilson said. “The 1-3-1 takes a little bit of time to get into, and it’s efficient when you give them time. So we’re just trying to play fast and get pucks behind them and wear them out that way.”