After squeaking into the last playoff wildcard spot on the last day of the regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ reward was a first-round matchup against the league’s best team. For the first time since 2007, Pittsburgh entered the postseason as a heavy underdog with few expectations.
The Penguins were still decimated by injuries as they headed into Thursday’s opening contest at Madison Square Garden, with their best defenseman (Kris Letang) and two very good puck-moving ones (Christian Ehrhoff and Derrick Pouliot) replaced by Taylor Chorney and Brian Dumoulin, who would make their NHL playoff debuts after playing most of the season as a pair with the Penguins’ AHL affiliate.
And it took the New York Rangers all of 28 seconds to exploit their speed advantage, with forwards Rick Nash and Derick Brassard finding themselves with plenty of time and space to take a wide-open shot and bury a big rebound, respectively.
“I think we were tentative,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “I thought [in] the first period, we were probably guilty of thinking a little bit too much, trying to play the right way, be disciplined, play our position. But, sometimes, if you’re thinking out there, you’re not reacting, and you get behind.”
The rout looked to be on, and the Penguins didn’t make it easier on themselves as they got rattled by the early deficit and went on to spend almost the entirety of the first period in the penalty box. Pittsburgh killed off all but one of four New York power plays, with Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh driving the net and padding the lead to 2-0 late in the opening frame.
“Two of them were bad penalties for sure, maybe a third,” said Penguins head coach Mike Johnston. “The emotion of playoff hockey, the intensity, you can’t get caught up in it. When they scored the first shot, the crowd gets going. What do you want to do next? You want to settle things down. We don’t need to stir it up, we don’t need to go and take any liberties, any extra shots. We certainly can’t be handing them power plays.”
But the Penguins found their composure in time for the second period. Six minutes in, they also found a way to beat Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist, as forward Blake Comeau netted his first career playoff goal – with a big assist to Maxim Lapierre wreaking havoc in Lundqvist’s crease – and cut New York’s lead to 2-1.
“It’s a great effort from Comeau and [Nick] Spaling, being on the puck and shooting from everywhere,” Lapierre said. “I made traffic in front and was just there enjoying what they’ve done.”
“At that point, it’s anyone’s game,” Crosby said.
But the Penguins couldn’t capitalize on their only power play, when Nash boarded defenseman Rob Scuderi midway through the second, and couldn’t earn more opportunities with the man-advantage. They only made Lundqvist deal with 25 shots, while the Blueshirts in front of him blocked 22 more.
“We’ve got to find some ways to get some more pucks to the net and get some more rush plays, too,” Crosby said.
In the end, a loss was still a loss, but the Penguins’ play through the last 40 minutes gave them reason for optimism going into Game 2.
“Our forecheck got a lot better in the second and third periods,” Johnston said. “We gave them some trouble in their own zone. I thought we had some loose rebounds around the net that we didn’t convert on, but I liked the way our momentum started to shift in the game. We got better, and we continually took momentum away.”
“We just have to learn from it,” Crosby said. “They did exactly what we expected, but there’s little things you can adjust that you’re much more aware of after playing Game 1. And the start, being tentative, that’s got to be gone. It does happen sometimes in a series, that first game when everyone’s trying to feel their way through it, and we’re definitely guilty of that. We’ve just got to make sure we improve our start and play much more like we did in the second and third.”
More cause for hope came from Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who found a way to shake off what could have been a devastating early goal to stop 36 of 38 shots and be his team’s best player, just as he was throughout a regular season in which he was voted their MVP.
“He was solid,” Crosby said. “He’s been doing that all year for us, so I don’t think it’s anything new. It was quite a storm there early on, and he did a good job of sticking with it, staying focused and allowing us time to get ourselves back in the game.”
“It was a tough start for a goaltender with that shot and rebound,” Johnston said. “We have to cover those; we have to take away those opportunities on the first shot. But I thought Flower was really good. We needed him to stem the tide, we needed him to prevent the surge, and he was there at key moments in the game.”
The Penguins will opt for off-ice work instead of practice Friday, then take the ice again Saturday in hopes of bringing home a split that suddenly looks much more possible than it did Thursday morning.
“We had a few good scoring chances and, if they go in, we’re right there,” Lapierre said. “We’ve still got more to do. We’ve got to be a little more physical; we’ve got to be more patient with the puck. Our plan was to win one game out of the first two, and it’s still possible. We’re going to regroup and fix what we have to fix.”