The Senators’ 1-3-1 system didn’t come as a surprise to the Penguins. And, while Ottawa executed it nearly to perfection in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Final series, Pittsburgh still managed to get their chances. They just didn’t get nearly enough of the high-quality variety.
Ottawa limited the Penguins’ offense and capitalized on their mistakes to win the opener, 2-1, and send Pittsburgh home thinking about better execution in Monday’s Game 2.
“From our estimation, we had a lot of clean [zone] entries. When we didn’t, we put pucks to areas. I don’t think that was the issue tonight,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan.
“I thought we got through the way we wanted to; we had a lot of offensive zone time. [But] I don’t think we got enough pucks to the net. We’re looking for that next play instead of putting pucks at the net.”
Trying to be fancy cost the Penguins in Game 1. They got four power-play opportunities in the first period alone and, by the end of the contest, had gone 0-for-5 on 8:39 with the man-advantage.
“We always play three triangle at top; they know, and they play close to us,” center Evgeni Malkin said. ”We need to play a little lower and maybe sometimes move behind net. Something new.”
“We have an opportunity there to grab a lead, and I just think we didn’t execute,” Sullivan said. “The movement wasn’t there. The passes weren’t crisp.”
A lot about the Penguins’ Game 1 performance wasn’t crisp, like the puck defenseman Brian Dumoulin left gift-wrapped behind the net at 14:32 of the first. The Senators are very good at pouncing on mistakes, and forward Bobby Ryan grabbed it and made a pretty, no-look pass in front of the net. Teammate Jean-Gabriel Pageau was there to put it home, giving Ottawa a 1-0 lead and laying claim to the second-most goals (8) by a Senator in a single playoff year.
It took the Penguins until 5:35 remaining in regulation to figure out that the way they’ll have to score against Ottawa is by driving the net. Defenseman Ron Hainsey started the play by dumping the puck in, chasing after it and drawing a defenseman from the slot. Chris Kunitz came to collect it and throw a shot on net, and Evgeni Malkin was there to tip it past Senators goalie Craig Anderson to tie the game. Malkin achieved a milestone of his own, surpassing Jaromir Jagr for third-place on the Penguins’ all-time playoff point list with 148.
“They play 1-3-1; it’s new for us,” Malkin said. “We understand they play so tight in neutral zone. Third period we played so much better; we understand how they play.”
“I think the fact that their top players can come out of nowhere and create something, that’s the biggest worry you’re going to have against that team,” said Senators coach Guy Boucher. “We’re aware of it, but it’s hard to be perfect. Those guys are really, really good. That’s the Stanley Cup champions, and it’s a top group.”
But the Senators are a highly confident group when a game heads to overtime, where they’d gone 5-1 in the playoffs this year so far. And all it took was another mistake from the Penguins for the Senators to seize the opportunity. Ryan got a step on Pittsburgh’s defense and skated in alone to backhand the puck past Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury.
“Tough goal,” Malkin said. “We lose one guy and they score. They wait for one chance and then they score.”
It could have been different, if the Penguins had scored one or two more of their own. That’s what they’ll have to focus on between Games 1 and 2 – turning that offensive zone time into good opportunities.
“We felt we had some significant zone time,” Sullivan said. “But I don’t think the amount of shots that we put on the net (28, to Ottawa’s 35) – we’ve got to make it harder on our opponent by getting more pucks to the scoring area. It’s the hardest area in the rink to defend.
“I thought we had opportunities to get there, and we were looking for that next play. Sometimes that next play never materializes.”
“It’s a lot different,” defenseman Justin Schultz said of Ottawa’s style of play, “but we knew it was coming. I think it just comes down to being patient and not getting frustrated.”