The importance of the first goal is oft-repeated in and around the sport of hockey. It’s a concept borne from common sense, because wouldn’t you rather be up 1-0 than down by the same score?
I’ve contended for a while that the second goal of a game is more crucial, since it either ties the game or puts one of the teams ahead by two. (Good luck finding any statistics on how the team that scores the second goal of a game ends up faring.)
At any rate, the Penguins have been superb at getting a leg up on opponents through 16 games, as they’ve netted the first goal 13 times. Their record is 10-3-0 when they break the ice first, accounting for nine of their league-leading 10 regulation victories.
Taking it a step further, the Pens have led 2-0 in seven games this season, with their only loss in that situation occurring on Jan. 25 at Winnipeg. Pittsburgh took sprinting out the gate to a new level Sunday afternoon when Pascal Dupuis and Sidney Crosby beat Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller in the opening 1:27.
The value of getting on the scoreboard first can be debated, especially for a high-scoring team like the Penguins that is well-equipped to erase an early deficit. The Pens led the league in scoring last season, and they’re fifth in the NHL in goals per game (3.19) and eighth in shots (30.2) this year through about a third of the 48-game schedule.
However, the Penguins’ consistent readiness to compete does signal one thing, at least to this writer: the coaching staff and team leaders are doing a great job creating a productive pre-game atmosphere.
Hockey is a frantic, random game at times, leaving coaches and players little opportunity to “slow things down” once the puck drops. As seen on HBO’s 24/7 series (and on the Penguins’ in-house series In The Room), coaches like Dan Bylsma use the moments before the opening faceoff to try to establish a mindset that will hopefully lead to success in that night’s game.
As you can tell from the above video, Bylsma is extremely detail-oriented, while also willing to show a little personality to engage his players. But while Bylsma’s coaching style has gotten good reviews from Penguins past and present, I’d also like to tip my cap to veterans like Chris Kunitz, Brooks Orpik, Craig Adams, Dupuis, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, all of whom have considerable influence in the dressing room.
A coach is only as good as his players, and that goes for preparation as well as on-ice tactics and execution. If a team’s best and most experienced players are going about their game-day business in a professional way, it’s easy for the rest of the players to follow suit.
Clearly the Penguins have found an effective formula for being ready to go from the national anthem to the final buzzer. Scoring first, or even simply competing well from the start, is a product of a healthy pre-game environment.
Whether a team can maintain a high level of play throughout the game is a different matter altogether, but the Penguins are taking advantage of the small amount of time hockey allows for calm planning.