Kovacevic: Penguins do it their way
It took no more than a shift or two, I'm guessing, for a half-million Western Pennsylvanians to reach for the TV remote to see if something was amiss, given … how … slowly … everyone … was … moving.
Funny, but nobody's laughing at those last-seeded Islanders anymore, are they?
If anything, the perhaps unrivaled speed of the Penguins' vanquished first-round opponent never looked more impressive than after what we witnessed Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center.
Look at it this way …
“I thought they were a little bit quicker than us,” Ottawa coach Paul MacLean opined after the Penguins flattened his Senators, 4-1, in Game 1 of this Stanley Cup quarterfinal series. “I thought they had the hop.”
Well, now you've got the full measure of how fast those New York kiddies really were flying: The Penguins, who comparatively moved like molasses on Long Island, suddenly are the fleet of foot.
Get used to it.
This series will be different.
Whereas the first round was all about containing and countering speed, this one will focus on size, toughness and skill, commodities both parties carry in abundance.
And to that end, the Penguins functioned in much more of a comfort zone and acquitted themselves well: They outdueled the Senators for 50/50 pucks, they outhit them all over the rink, and, as they're wont to do against any opponent, they buried their chances.
“Yeah, it was different,” Sidney Crosby was telling me afterward. “I actually felt like there was more up and back, but you didn't see as much clogging in the neutral zone like with the Islanders. Definitely a lot of battles. A lot of competing out there.”
Sure was. Kind of like Ottawa thug Chris Neil's curiously unpenalized punch to the captain's jaw protector in the third period. If you want to call that competing.
Did it hurt?
“No, honestly,” Crosby said. “I didn't feel it.”
“Yeah, that's pretty much what it is at this point, right?”
He laughed a little, and good for him. He and his mates had ample cause to be feeling it. This once again looked like the Penguins, not the Headless Chickens. They knew who they were facing, how they wanted to beat them and what level of performance it would take, and for the most part pulled it off.
The top priority might have been cracking Craig Anderson, Ottawa's goaltender who presents about a zillion times greater challenge than the Islanders' cardboard cutout Evgeni Nabokov.
Anderson made a couple of sharp early saves, but the Penguins' plan to attack him with sticks, bodies, pucks and any other paraphernalia paid in the form of a Paul Martin goal screened by Brenden Morrow, an Evgeni Malkin tap-in from the crease and a Chris Kunitz power-play swat from just outside the paint.
None of it was by accident.
“We want to make life miserable for him,” Morrow said.
“Always have traffic,” James Neal said. “Go to the tough areas. When you're going against a hot goalie, that's what you have to do.”
Another order of business, as the Penguins quickly absorbed, was to keep Ottawa from likewise ganging up on Tomas Vokoun. The Senators might not have had a single Islanders-type rush all night, but they made up for that by having one, two, even three men taking up squatter's rights in Vokoun's crease.
This facet wasn't as strong, but it was enough. Brooks Orpik saw to that almost single-handedly on a limb-by-limb basis, and Vokoun made it count with 35 saves that validated Dan Bylsma's decision to stick by him.
Still, there's another notch for the Penguins here.
“They just want to get pucks to the net, from the boards, behind the net, wherever,” Martin said. “It's our job to clear people and clear rebounds. We can always do better.”
They can do even better at the one size-skill area that remains a glaring deficiency: They can't get back on their cycle, still mostly unable to generate extended shifts on offense.
“You always want more of that,” Kunitz said. “When we can spend 20-25 seconds in their zone, that's time they can't spend coming at us.”
Let that resonate.
What Game 1 illustrated above all is that, put on even speed terms, the Penguins' talent will win out. They've got the size. They've got the toughness. That's true not only against these Senators but also against the Bruins and Rangers, the other Eastern Conference survivors. The only other team equipped with Islanders-type wheels was the Maple Leafs, and they're now being administered the Heimlich.
So get it deep, and get it done.
The rest of the blueprint's been put into motion, however slow that motion might appear.