Game 1 in a playoff series is always a little surreal. Both teams come out sizing each other up, testing the waters, getting a feel for how they will set the tempo they want to set and executing. Given the hellfire and brimstone of Pittsburgh’s first two series versus the Flyers and Capitals respectively, Monday night’s game against the Hurricanes seemed a little tame by comparison.
This is not a complaint, and knowing how the ‘Canes got to this point, they are masters of illusion. As long as the Pens do not become mesmerized, they can dominate and succeed.
What Went Right
- Goaltending–First and foremost, Marc-Andre Fleury made it known early (and more often than some would like) that he was on his game and not to be trifled with. When the players in front of him were on assignment, he saw the puck and made the saves from any distance or lack thereof. There’s a lot of highlight reel footage.
- Keeping the puck north-south–Play moved swiftly up the boards and into the offensive zone. Dump-ins were controlled and forechecks were strong.
- Spreading it around: a winger, a center, and a blueliner–Right off the bat, the Penguins got goals from a diverse group. Miroslav Satan, whose play has continued to improve since about Game 4 of the last series, brought his game up to another level with a goal and some very active play. Evgeni Malkin continued to roll with a goal of his own, and defenseman Philippe Boucher joined in by contributing the team’s only powerplay goal. This is a good omen.
- Separation–All Pens players were on a mission to separate a ‘Canes body from the puck. When the Penguins did this, they won the puck, made the necessary transition up ice (from their defensive zone) or made a play to the net (in their offensive zone) with speed. While the hits were dead even between the Pens and ‘Canes, those of the home team were more memorable and jaw-jarring with the exception of Eric Cole’s longtime-coming payback hit on Brooks Orpik.
- Controlling the neutral zone–Penguins dominated the neutral zone, forcing the ‘Canes to slow down and try to break through into their own offensive end. When the Pens played a tightly controlled game, they virtually shut the the ‘Canes down. Their 12 shots in the first period were cut in half for the entire second period, and they were relegated to 7 shots in the third.
- The power play–After a dismal season and early playoff series on the power play, who would have thought that coming into this game, the Penguins’ power play would be a shade over a blistering 30%? After this game, with the help of blueliner Philippe Boucher, the Pens have registered a power play goal in each of the last seven playoff games. At this point, it is better to encourage it rather than to question it. They have weathered this particular storm at a time where the power play is crucial for a successful run deep into the playoffs.
Room for Improvement
Coming out with the win is key, and now the Pens have two days to look at the film and make adjustments. They might find that they are, in many ways, looking at mirror images of themselves. A few times, there were breakdowns where ‘Canes forwards were able to get behind the defense and buzz the net. They like to bring bunches to the front of the net, so Pens defensemen need to keep the path clear for Fleury.
The Penguins need to play smarter to decrease the number of giveaways–they had 9 tonight versus Carolina’s 2–and to increase takeaways–Pens and ‘Canes were nearly even at 2 and 3 respectively. Faceoffs could have been better, particularly in the defensive end, though the stat sheet shows both teams even at 50% apiece.
Lastly, the Penguins cannot let the Hurricanes hang out for long periods of time in their defensive end. Five-on-five and on the power play, the Hurricanes pass quickly and look for odd bounces anywhere in the zone, not just in tight to the net. If they are not alert, the Penguins could get burned on this, and because of this style of play, it is even more imperative that Fleury have a clear line of sight at all times. Communication and gap control are crucial.
Brothers’ Keeper: The Staal Tracker
The big story line in this series so far aside from Cam Ward versus Marc-Andre Fleury is that of the Brothers Staal, Jordan and Eric, literally squaring off against each other in this series. Again, Game 1 may have shown some nerves, but in looking at the entire game, Eric appeared to have been neutralized by the Penguins, and Jordan appeared to continue to be his dominating defensive self, anchoring the ever-consistent 3rd line. While of the same gene pool, Eric and Jordan have decidedly different styles, but it is still interesting to check in on the match-up during this series and compare how they fared in their previous series.
- Goals/Assists/Points: Jordan (0/0/0), Eric (0/0/0)–In their previous series, Jordan had 2 goals and 2 assists for 4 points while Eric had 4 goals and 2 assists for 6 points. They are just getting warmed up. The Pens did a good job keeping Eric away from the net, and the one time he got close, he was robbed by Fleury literally on the doorstep. For Jordan’s part, in the series against Washington, he was getting some decent numbers in the shots category, registering 3-4 shots on net. The ‘Canes kept him away from the net as well.
- Plus/Minus: Jordan (even), Eric (-1)–In their previous series, both were in the minus with Jordan at a -5 as his line was regularly matched up against Ovechkin who still managed to get on the board. If Eric is kept in check by Jordan’s line, then Jordan’s numbers should remain even or better.
- Penalties: Jordan (0), Eric (1, 2-minutes)–In the previous series, the numbers were reversed.
- Total Ice Time: Jordan (18:39), Eric (22:42)
- Shifts/Average Shift Time: Jordan (24 at :46), Eric : (25 at :54)–In the previous series, Jordan averaged about 25 shifts with a shade more ice time, and Eric averaged 29 shifts.
- Shots on Goal: Jordan (0), Eric : (3)
- Hits: Jordan (2), Eric (2)
- Giveaways: Jordan (1), Eric (0)
- Takeaways: Jordan (0), Eric (1)
- Blocked Shots: Jordan (1), Eric (1)
- Faceoffs Won: Jordan (6), Eric (14)–It was interesting to note that Jordan was getting kicked out of the faceoff circle regularly in this game when he was set to draw against his brother.
- Faceoffs Lost: Jordan (8), Eric (8)
- Faceoff Percentage: Jordan (43%), Eric (64%)–In general Jordan is usually pretty strong on the faceoff, averaging 47% in the last series with a number of games over 50%. His average of 43% in this game is one of his lowest. He will settle in and get to know the styles of those he draws against, so his percentage should bounce back up again. Conversely, Eric averaged 43% in his last series, and this game’s 64% is his highest.
All in all, the Penguins are off to a good start. With continued tweaking and shoring up, they are in good shape to take the series. The Hurricanes are a tenacious, proud team who remember hoisting the Stanley Cup three seasons ago. In the last two seasons, they missed the playoffs entirely, so to be here again, they, too, can smell the shiny metal of the final round. This series will heat up, starting with Game 2 Thursday night. Stay tuned.