In Saturday afternoon’s opening salvo between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the thing that seemed to worry the NBC commentators most in the first period was the fact that the sponsors wouldn’t get to plug their products. Meanwhile, the rest of Hockey Nation was transfixed by the rattling pace that ebbed and flowed end to end on the ice. It was a battle that might not have matched the sports prognosticators’ prophecies the way they had foreseen.
Literally, it was a game that hung in the balance from beginning to end, and it was so tight that there was absolutely no room for error. Interesting notables:
- 15 of 18 Penguins registered shots on net versus 11 of 18 for Capitals.
- Of the total 36 shots on net by the Penguins, 5 players registered 3 or more shots: Sidney Crosby (6), Sergei Gonchar (5), Jordan Staal (4), Tyler Kennedy (3), and Kris Letang (3). Production, then, came from the 1st line center, the 3rd line center and wing, and two defensemen, a nice smattering.
- Of the 26 shots registered by the Capitals, only three players registered 3 or more shots: wing Alex Ovechkin (9), wing Matt Bradley (3), and center David Steckel (3). Only defenseman Milan Jurcina registered more than one shot on goal among Caps defensemen with 2. For the Caps, they relied heavily on Ovi’s profusion of volleys at the net with production falling off dramatically to two other forwards and not much offense from the defense.
- Penguins defensemen registered 11 of 36 shots (31%) more than doubling Capitals defensemen who registered 4 of 26 (15%).
Spreading out the shots through the offensive lines and getting production from the defense as well plays in Pittsburgh’s favor. It’s easier to plan for and key in on a few guys known to be the primary shot takers. While Evgeni Malkin was harrassed and kept to two shots, there were others that were getting good opportunities, making it harder to defend. The Caps had to be cognizant not just of Penguins forwards but the blueliners as well. Eventually, the Caps will have to consider just about every player in a Penguins jersey an offensive threat, and not just from the location of the blue line on the ice. Gonchar, Hal Gill, Mark Eaton, Letang, and Brooks Orpik were all seen strong and deep in the offensive zone. Greenhorn goalie Simeon Varlamov can be shaken and looked shaken in a couple of instances; however, he recovered and stayed solid. To keep him rattled, the Penguins must continue to increase shot-production and get in Varlamov’s face in front of the net. He needs to feel the constant claustrophobia of rush-hour traffic.
- 13 of 20 hits for the Penguins came from the usual suspects: Kris Letang (5), Brooks Orpik (3), Maxime Talbot (2), Chris Kunitz (2), and Matt Cooke (1).
- 8 of 24 hits for the Caps came from defenseman John Erskine alone, then D-man Mike Green (3), followed by four forwards and one defensemen each with 2 hits, including Ovechkin.
While the Penguins are also spreading out the hitting, Orpik as the main man needs to keep the heat on. He does not necessarily need to bring 14 hits a night, but 14 would be a nice number in game 2 just to give the Caps something to think about on their ice. Matt Cooke also needs to step it up and do so smartly, particularly if Bylsma continues to match the Staal line against the Ovechkin line, which means that Cooke and Ovi will be seeing a lot of each other. If Ovi can’t have Sid to torment, he’s shown he’ll settle for Cooke. Now that he knows this, Cooke needs to be the brighter lightbulb.
- Interesting Match-up–Putting Jordan Staal’s line against Alex Ovechkin is an interesting and compelling match-up. First, it keeps Ovi out of Sid’s hair, and if Cooke can manage to stay disciplined, both he and linemate Tyler Kennedy can work him over to tire and frustrate him.
- Penalties–The Penguins managed to stay out of the box EXCEPT twice, and the fact that the two penalties happened in overlapping fashion set up the first error that cost in a tight game. Both penalties were mental mistakes. Gonchar’s delay of game penalty is avoidable if he takes the extra step across his blue line. Cooke’s hooking retaliation for Ovechkin’s hit on him moments earlier is avoidable if he refrains from using the can-opener, waiting for a more opportune time to separate Ovi from the puck. Cooke has to know that Ovechkin draws the ire of opposing players, and his own reputation as well adds to the magnetic pull of a ref’s vision when these two come together. As a result of heightened scrutiny, sneaky, dirty infractions will not exist for Matt Cooke in this series, so he needs to cut that tactic out of his repertoire.
- Power Play–While analysis of the Penguins power play has been done ad nauseum, it bears mentioning a couple of promising things. The second power play centered by Staal is getting out there for between :57 and 1:00 left in a 2:00 opportunity. This is up from the usual :35 to :42 range. Interim Coach Dan Bylsma also tried this unit with Malkin and Bill Guerin flanking him, which makes for a big, strong line, and they seemed to move the puck better than the first unit. There is still too much playing with the puck, in general, and too many attempts from above the circles resulting in 0-6, ouch. More shots need to be fired across Varlamov’s crease from the goal line. On occasion when reinstated Petr Sykora found himself on the power play with Staal, they were trying to work it that way. The off wing needs to troll down toward the net when he sees these two trying to set it up. Either that or bring defenseman Letang who has shown he can score by creeping in that way.
- Face-offs–Among all players who entered into a draw situation, Pittsburgh came away with 53% to Washington’s 47%, a 6% advantage. However, when looking at the center position, which is the one that takes the majority of the face-offs by design, the analysis reveals a different picture. Penguins centers took 58 of the 60 face-offs in the game (97%); Caps centers took 56 of the 60 (93%). Of Pittsburgh’s four centers: Crosby (50%), Malkin (63%), Staal (59%), and Talbot (56%), they won 32 of the 58 (55%) face-offs they took versus Washington’s five listed centers: Boyd Gordon, Niklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, David Steckel, and Sergei Federov who won 25 of the 56 (45%) face-offs they took. The advantage widens to 10% in the Penguins’ favor.
- Goaltending–In any game, but especially in the playoffs, the goal tender has to the best defender, the best penalty-killer. Both Marc-Andre Fleury for the Penguins and Simeon Varlamov for the Capitals kept their respective teams in the game, preventing a score-fest that would have looked like the Fourth of July. Of particular note is young Varlamov’s incredible robbery of Sidney Crosby in which the heel of his paddle somehow managed to keep the puck from crossing the goal-line, preventing a goal that would have brought the Pens even at 3, likely forcing overtime.
All in all, it was an electrifying game. Players, fans, and pundits alike have come away from it with a lot to think about. If this first game is any indicator, then every game in this series will be a chess match of cosmic proportions. Neglecting one small detail could blow a game wide open. The powder keg has been lit. The only remaining question is: How long is the fuse?