The Pittsburgh Penguins had opportunities to win this game. Did they ever.
A first period where they came out shooting, racking up a 10-1 shot advantage on the Montreal Canadiens in the first six minutes. Seven power play opportunities, including a minute and a half with a two-man advantage. A penalty shot with three minutes left in regulation.
When you can’t capitalize on all of that, and the Habs player most likely to steal a game – goaltender Carey Price, naturally – is putting on exactly that kind of performance? The writing was on the wall for the Penguins well before defenseman Jeff Petry picked up a loose puck in the right circle and fired it past Penguins netminder Matt Murray, giving the Canadiens a 1-0 advantage in this short, best-of-five qualifying round series.
The power play, where head coach Mike Sullivan elected to sub in the skill of newcomer Jason Zucker over the net-front presence of Patric Hornqvist, was the biggest letdown.
“The thinking was [Zucker’s] a real good player, and that’s why we chose to put him up there,” Sullivan said. “We understand that the power play has to be better, and we’re working through this process here. Obviously it had an opportunity to be the difference tonight and it wasn’t. We’ll go back to work tomorrow.”
Sullivan pointed to net presence as an area where the Penguins needed to improve – not just on the power play but in their overall game.
“Just making it hard on Price to see the puck,” he said. “I thought we had opportunities to get to the net and take away sightlines, and we didn’t do as good a job at that tonight.”
With a goalie like Price at the top of his game, that’s a solid strategy. And the two goals the Penguins were able to get past the Montreal netminder showed that they could probably use more of it in Game 2.
After the Habs had staked out a 2-0 lead on goals from Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki, both up-and-coming stars under 20, the Penguins stuck with their fast, zone-controlling game, but worked harder to get pucks to the net.
First there was captain Sidney Crosby, throwing the puck toward the net from an impossible angle below the goal line that found a way to deflect in off of Price.
“We generated a fair amount of scoring chances, so it wasn’t that there wasn’t opportunity; there was lots,” Sullivan said. “Areas where we can make it harder on Montreal is if we get to the net more consistently and take the goalie’s sightlines away, make it harder on him to find the puck, and maybe create some rebound opportunities. We had our moments when we were at the net, but we think we can get better at that.”
Murray, speaking of rebound opportunities, was giving up plenty of them to the Canadiens, while Price played a more conservative, controlled game. There wasn’t much the Penguins netminder could do about the Kotkaniemi goal, which Pittsburgh defenseman Jack Johnson essentially body checked into his own net, but he was soundly beat on the one-timer from Suzuki, going down early as the puck sailed over his left shoulder.
Murray did get stronger as the game went on, especially when the Penguins allowed several shorthanded opportunities on their lackluster, 1-for-7 power play. He finished with 32 saves on 35 shots, while Price shut down 39 of Pittsburgh’s 41 attempts.
“I thought he was solid,” Sullivan said in a succinct assessment of Murray’s game.
The fifth-seeded Penguins, a heavy favorite against the 12th-seeded Canadiens, now find themselves needing to win three of four games to make it to the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Luckily it’s not a single-elimination tournament that we’re going through here,” Rust said. “I think we’ve just got to heed the lessons. We did some really good things. Our start was phenomenal; we had some really good chances. There’s always areas to clean up. We’re going to look at those things and we’re going to come out even better.”