After Monday’s 2-1 defeat to the New York Rangers – a loss that put his club down in their first-round playoff series by the same margin – Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Johnston bemoaned his team’s shot selection in the first two periods.
Specifically, how they didn’t take any.
The Penguins went more than 15 minutes of Game 3 without registering a shot on goal. They ended the opening frame with three, added eight in the second and, by the time the third period rolled around, found the desperation level to surpass their output in the first two combined.
“I didn’t like our shot selection early, and it probably carried through the first half of the game,” Johnston said. “From the midway point of the second period on, we were better in our shot selection. And, really, in the third period, loose puck battles – our intensity got to the level it needed to be. Early in the game, I didn’t think it was there. They had the edge in that category.”
By the midway point of the second, the Rangers’ edge in intensity had given them a 2-0 lead, including an opening goal where defenseman Keith Yandle spotted speedy winger Carl Hagelin and made a pinpoint pass to spring him on a breakaway, exploiting a slow Penguins line change.
The goal quieted the CONSOL Energy Center crowd and put the Penguins on their heels.
“The other night in New York, I thought we were good in our start, except the penalties got us into trouble,” Johnston said.”Tonight, what we had talked about before [the game] – sometimes at home, you get the energy, you’re trying to do things, you’re trying to force. We forced a lot of plays in the first period, and we can’t do that. We have to make sure we get more pucks to the net early, and that’s what’s going to create the loose-puck intensity, if you get the puck to the net.”
The Rangers gave the Penguins trouble in the neutral zone through much of the game, taking away the gaps that allowed Pittsburgh to generate offense in Game 2.
“They did a hell of a job being in our face the first two periods,” said winger Patric Hornqvist, the lone Penguins goal scorer. “We didn’t have much time and space out there, and we didn’t get the puck to the net, either.”
Both teams have had their issues with officiating in the series, though New York holds a 14-7 edge in power-play opportunities. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said he’d let the series’ supervisor of officiating, former referee Don Koharski, handle those judgments, but added that he had mentioned concerns about the Penguins interfering with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in the blue paint where he prefers to play.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, saw two obvious interference infractions go uncalled Monday with Rangers goals following shortly after, including a hold on captain Sidney Crosby by Yandle shortly before he set up Hagelin. “I felt like it was a little longer than it needed to [be],” Crosby sad. “Ultimately, I don’t think that causes the goal, but it might’ve been nice to get that [call] there.”
Regardless of whether the calls are going their way, the Penguins will put themselves in a better position by finding a way to play more of the game’s 60 minutes the way they did a frantic final 10 that saw them register Hornqvist’s goal and threaten to tie the game.
“Our starts have to be way better,” Hornqvist said. “Go back to the first game; they win the game on the first shift. Tonight, our first period was not good enough. If we keep playing like we did in the third, we know we have a great team. The crowd was going and everything was going for us. We have to have a short-term memory here and build from the third period.”
“Just play a full 60 the same way we finished off in the third there,” Crosby agreed. “[In the] playoffs, every play matters. Our desperation level was much higher in the third and you saw the difference in our game and our play. Sometimes it’s hard to realize that what you’re doing in the first and second really means as much as it does, but you have to find that desperation level for the whole game.”