On paper, the challenge for the Penguins seemed clear as they entered their first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders. How would the NHL’s sixth highest-scoring team crack a system that, under first-year head coach Barry Trotz, allowed the fewest goals in the league?
As it turned out, though, the Penguins got their chances in Game 1. They put 44 shots on goal to the Islanders’ 33. They had the better of the puck possession, 58.82% to 41.18%.
But the Isles had the better of the high-danger scoring chances, because the defensive problems that plagued the Penguins for much of the season were on full display in this contest. Like their 22 giveaways – sometimes forced by the Islanders’ structure, but often forced by nothing but the Penguins’ poor decision-making.
“It’s everything that we expected,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “We knew [the Islanders] were going to try to come in with a heavy forecheck. They’re a team that has a high dump-in rate, and we knew they were going to put pucks in deep and try to be physical. We knew exactly the game we were going to be up against. I think we can do a better job handling their pressure.”
The Islanders had the Penguins playing catch-up all night, starting with a goal just 33 seconds in that was called back for being offside. Pittsburgh’s good fortune was short-lived as the Isles’ Jordan Eberle got one that counted just over a minute later, but the Penguins’ Phil Kessel, a nearly point-per-game postseason performer, tied it soon after to quiet a raucous Nassau Coliseum.
For the rest of the night, though, the teams traded goals – always with the Islanders going ahead and the Penguins clawing back to tie. Evgeni Malkin got Pittsburgh’s second, and defenseman Justin Schultz got the third to send the game to overtime with just 1:29 remaining in regulation. It was the first time all season the Penguins had cashed in with their goalie pulled to tie a game 6-on-5.
“It’s a tough building to play in; their fans are on top of you,” Schultz said. “I liked the way we battled back.”
It was all for naught, though, when the Penguins got too aggressive in trying to win the game in OT, allowing the Isles’ Mat Barzal and Josh Bailey to get a break going the other way against netminder Matt Murray.
“It’s everything we talked about for the last couple days, just making sure we manage the puck and we have situational awareness in mind,” Sullivan said. “When you’re late in shifts, especially when it’s a long change from your bench, you’ve got to make good decisions with the puck.
“If we had numbers and an opportunity for a potential scoring chance, I think that’s a calculated risk. I’m not sure we had the awareness we needed there in that situation.”
The Penguins will have work to do cleaning up their defensive game and decisions with the puck before Friday’s Game 2. They also have the option to make personnel decisions on the blueline. With Brian Dumoulin returning for Game 1, Sullivan made the call to scratch blueliner Jack Johnson for the first time this season over another option like Olli Maatta, who went on to struggle in Game 1.
Regardless, these Penguins – many of them just two years removed from back-to-back Stanley Cup championships – feel their experience can and will come into play.
“These games are going to be close; it’s going to be tight the entire series,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “We did some good things, [but] we didn’t find a way when it was a tie game to build and get a lead, and it ended up costing us. You’ve got to learn from it.”
“All the guys have been here before,” Schultz said. “We know it’s a long series and you can’t hang your head on each game. You’ve got to move on and worry about the next shift.”