A best-of-five playoff series is a different situation than a best-of-seven.
There’s less margin for error. One loss and the urgency rises quickly; with just one more, a team knows they’re on the brink, staring down the end of their season.
So, when the heavily favored Penguins dropped Game 1 of their best-of-five qualifying round series to the Montreal Canadiens in overtime Saturday, you couldn’t have blamed head coach Mike Sullivan if he decided to switch things up.
Shuffle his forward lines, perhaps. Make a personnel change on his bottom D pairing. Even make a switch in goal, where Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry have been battling it out for the No. 1 job all season.
Sullivan declined to comment Sunday about any lineup changes he had made in that day’s practice and, when the Game 2 roster was announced, it turned out there was a good reason for that – there weren’t any.
All four forward lines, three defensive pairings and Murray in net remained exactly the same. It seemed like a message of confidence from Sullivan to his club – a largely veteran group that boasts 1,206 games of playoff experience to Montreal’s 353, with 22 Stanley Cups to the Habs’ none.
“I wasn’t trying to send a message at all,” the Penguins coach said. “We believe in the group we have, and we felt as though Game 1, there was a whole lot to like about the game that we played. You can’t always control whether or not the puck goes in the net.”
The Penguins still couldn’t get the puck to go in the net on the power play; after going 1-for-7 in Game 1, they struck out on all five opportunities in Game 2. This time, though, instead of falling into an early deficit, Pittsburgh got the game’s first goal just 4:25 in, on a cross-ice pass from Jake Guentzel to captain Sidney Crosby.
Playing from ahead for the first time in the series so far, the Penguins were able to avoid Montreal clogging up the neutral zone and go on the offensive. Pittsburgh put 38 shots on goal – along with 14 blocked and 19 missed – but, with their power play unable to break through and Canadiens goaltender Carey Price on his game, had to settle into a tight, 1-0 game until late in the third period.
“I think it’s important to learn how to be comfortable in tight games like that,” Murray said. “When the playoffs come around, things tend to tighten up, and the goals that you see going in are fluky ones, weird bounces, stuff like that.”
There was nothing fluky about the Penguins’ Game 2 goals, though. They finally got a second one for insurance at 14:41 of the third, starting with a kick down the ice from defenseman Brian Dumoulin, to a perfectly managed, patient play by Conor Sheary to feed newcomer Jason Zucker at the net.
“That was an unbelievable pass, all-around play by him,” Zucker said of Sheary. “Defensively, chipping that by him, getting the speed. Got up the ice quick for me; I’m just trying to get open and put it on net.”
The insurance goal turned out to be important, with 20-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi getting the Canadiens on the board just three minutes later. That made things interesting until Guentzel was able to score into an empty net to make the final score 3-1.
The Penguins did do a better job of putting pucks on the net during the power play, with 14 shots on their five chances, and of making Price’s night difficult.
“We always want to talk about getting net-front, getting traffic around there, no matter who we’re playing against,” Zucker said. “Obviously Price is a great goalie and we want to try to get in front of him, get some rebounds, get some dirty goals. In the playoffs there’s a lot of those; you’re always grinding trying to get those second-chance opportunities.”
“All I can say is he’s given us a chance to win both games,” Canadiens head coach Claude Julien said of Price. “He’s by far our best player right now; he’s been outstanding. That’s what Carey is, that’s what he’s known for, and he’s living up to his reputation right now.”
Price’s excellence was matched in Game 2 by Murray, who only faced 27 shots but had to deal with a big push from the Canadiens in the third period. Through two games, he has a goals-against average of 1.79 and a .935 save percentage.
“Real solid again tonight,” Sullivan said of his netminder. “There weren’t a ton of scoring chances in the first couple periods, but Montreal pushed hard down the stretch and they generated a couple high-quality chances, and Matt made some big saves. And for me, that’s what Matt does at this time of year – he makes big saves at key times that help us win games.”
Murray didn’t much care about the one he didn’t make that cost him the shutout.
“It’s not about getting shutouts this time of year or, really, ever,” he said. “It’s about winning games. If one goes in, you worry about the next one. That’s all you can do.”
Now the Penguins can shift their focus to the next one – Wednesday’s Game 3 – with the series tied, a small step closer to moving on to Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.