Coming off a big, emotional overtime win to oust the Presidents Trophy-winning Washington Capitals Tuesday, the Penguins came out Friday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final and laid an egg.
Did an emotional letdown after winning that hard-fought, physical series have anything to do with Pittsburgh’s lethargic play in the opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning?
“I’d like to think it didn’t, but it may have,” said veteran forward Matt Cullen. “I don’t think we had our best game.”
Tampa nearly got on the board just seconds into the contest, when defenseman Victor Hedman cleanly beat rookie netminder Matt Murray but hit the post. A few minutes later, a hit from behind from Ryan Callahan left the Penguins’ most important blueliner, Kris Letang, down on the ice for several minutes. Letang left the ice but eventually returned to the game.
“That seems to be the way everybody wants to play against us,” said defenseman Ben Lovejoy. “We want to be a fast team; we want to get out of our end quickly. The Rangers tried to intimidate us, the Capitals tried to intimidate us, and we know this team also wants to come out and hit our talented defensemen.”
“As far as the hits go,” said head coach Mike Sullivan, referring to Callahan’s and a later one by Ondrej Palat that knocked defenseman Brian Dumoulin out of the game, “they’re hits from behind.”
Callahan earned a boarding major on the play, but the Penguins’ struggling power play couldn’t score on the five-minute penalty. Instead, Tampa gained momentum from the penalty kill and, by the end of the period, had converted Olli Maatta’s defensive miscue into an Alex Killorn breakaway goal.
“We need to get a goal there and we can’t let up that one,” said Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist. “If we can do that, it’s a different game. It’s a game of small things out there.”
The 1-0 lead allowed Tampa to clog up the ice and limit the Penguins’ opportunities.
“I think we need to work on getting the puck to the net a little bit quicker and not giving them time to get in the shot lanes,” Murray said. “We’ve got to make an adjustment there.”
“They played well,” said defenseman Ian Cole. “You saw a lot of forwards on their team that aren’t traditionally shot blockers or checking forwards dive in for shots. They knew they had to play really strong defensively, and they did that.”
And the Penguins played right into the Lightning – a team very similar to their own in speed and skill – by playing a sloppy hockey game.
“We played in stretches pretty well, but I didn’t think we executed with the puck,” Cullen said. “I didn’t think we managed the puck coming through the neutral zone, or hung onto pucks in their end. The things that make us successful, I don’t think we did consistently enough.
“Against that team, you can’t let your foot off the gas. If they get an opportunity they’re going to score, and that’s what they did to us tonight.”
The Lightning’s Palat and Jonathan Drouin added two more goals before the end of the second period. Although the game wasn’t Murray’s finest moment as a pro, stopping only 17 of 20 Tampa Bay shots, he didn’t get much in the way of defensive support.
“I don’t think they saw our best today,” Sullivan said. “This team has set a high standard for their play, and that’s what we need to have success at this point in the season.”
As for Murray’s counterpart in the other net, Vezina Trophy nominee Ben Bishop had a scary moment when the Penguins were buzzing around the goal midway through the first period. While tracking the puck, Bishop appeared to catch his skate on the post and suffered a potentially debilitating leg injury. He was clearly in severe pain, could not get up and had to be stretchered off the ice, making his availability for Monday’s Game 2 and beyond very much in doubt.
Fortunately for the Bolts, they have a highly capable backup in Andrei Vasilevskiy, their own 21-year-old, up-and-coming star netminder, who replaced Bishop in goal. Vasilevskiy stopped 25 of 26 Penguins shots, with only Hornqvist finding the net at point-blank range late in the second to get Pittsburgh on the board in the 3-1 loss.
“He’s obviously a great goalie,” Murray said of Vasilevskiy. “He was drafted the same year as I was; he was a first-rounder, played World Juniors. He’s a heck of a goalie. I don’t think it was much of a dropoff [after] losing Bishop. He’s such a good goaltender.”
To beat Vasilevskiy and the Lightning, the Penguins will need to generate more traffic and rebounds in front of the net. Their 35 shots on the night were misleading, as most of those were low-danger chances.
“I thought we generated a fair amount of chances; we’ve got to find a way to convert,” Sullivan said. “There are a lot of positives we can pull out of this. We’ve got to do a better job managing the puck and being on the right side of certain puck battles. I don’t think we gave up too many chances, but the quality of the ones we did give up were high.
“For me, that’s the lesson learned – we’ve got to make better decisions with the puck in some of the key areas of the rink.”
“We need to bring a better game,” Lovejoy said. “This is an elite team that has gone deep in the playoffs the last couple years. They are opportunistic and talented. We need to worry about ourselves. We feel that, when we’re playing our best hockey, we’re a tough team to play against, no matter who we’re playing.”