Were the New York Islanders really that good?
That question came to mind Tuesday night during Game 1 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators. There was space on the Consol Energy Center ice to create plays and time to make decisions as the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs began, a glaring contrast to the bedlam that reigned for much of the Pens-Isles matchup.
In short, it was manageable hockey. The Senators may have outshot the Penguins 36-30 and the run of play appeared generally even, but the odds favor Pittsburgh’s immense offensive talent if the rest of the series plays out that way.
Dan Bylsma’s system is designed to tilt the ice and create a territorial advantage, which only played out in spurts in Game 1. Still, that inconsistency might not matter against an Ottawa team that has struggled to score all season before exploding for 20 against Montreal in the first round.
Acknowledging small-sample caveats, perhaps Tuesday’s biggest winners were the Islanders. The Penguins might’ve been the only team in the East that had the firepower to outgun the Isles in the high-tempo transition game they were hell-bent on imposing. Pittsburghers, myself included, spent much of the first round fretting over the Pens’ lack of disciplined play, but at a certain point you have to give the opponent a stick tap for forcing the issue.
In this round, the Penguins may have a slight edge in speed. Ottawa coach Paul MacLean admitted as much after Game 1, although he suggested that might change after “nerves” wore off for some of his younger guys. At any rate, even if the skating battle is a wash, Pittsburgh’s playoffs-leading power play (36 percent conversion rate) can easily provide the difference in what should continue to be a fairly tight-checking series.
Special teams were key Tuesday, with the Penguins scoring two power-play goals, killing all five Senators man-advantage chances and adding a clinching shorthanded goal off the stick of Pascal Dupuis. For the third straight game, Tomas Vokoun was more than serviceable in goal, an awkward early Ottawa goal notwithstanding.
The Penguins can improve for Friday’s Game 2. They didn’t play in the Senators’ zone enough for their liking, a critical ingredient of Bylsma’s gameplan. Ottawa’s 68-48 advantage in shot attempts reveals as much, although a team trailing in the third period tends to get more rubber on net out of necessity.
Blemishes aside, Game 1 provided the Penguins a blueprint for winning the series. Pittsburgh won 5-0 in its playoff opener against the Islanders, but it proved to be fool’s gold. Here’s betting that this series’ first act told a more authentic tale.