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Analysis: Physical Play Marks Game 1

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

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As Tomas Vokoun scanned for the puck, there was a battle of wills taking place behind him. Literally.

Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik and Ottawa Senators rookie Cory Conacher were hacking, pushing, slashing and shoving inside the blue paint. At one point Conacher nearly ended up inside the net. The melee continued as the players shifted to the slot, where the exchange of blows continued.

A few minutes later Orpik stood up Eric Gryba at the blue line and landed a heavy check. Gryba left the ice and did not return to the game due to an upper-body injury.

In the third period in the corner of the Penguins zone Conacher engaged Kris Letang. The two traded cross-checks and were both penalized. As they skated to the penalty box they screamed at each other – and it probably wasn’t very complimentary.

Welcome to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Penguins took a 1-0 series lead with a 4-1 victory in Game 1 at CONSOL Energy Center Tuesday night thanks in part to special teams and goaltending.

But if Game 1 is any indication of what is to be expected throughout the course of this series, you’ll be seeing a lot of the plays described above.

The Penguins threw 40 hits in the game, led by five each from Chris Kunitz and Matt Cooke. The Senators were similarly willing to take the body. They collected 26 hits, led by Chris Neil’s five.

The Penguins’ opening round series against the NY Islanders was an open-ice, up-and-down affair. The Islanders’ speed and skill players tried to outskate the Penguins. And they were certainly successful during stretches of the series. Team speed and skating was a much bigger emphasis than physicality.

The Senators also have some swift skaters, but they are more apt to play a punishing and physical brand of playoff hockey. Just ask the Montreal Canadiens, who were left battered, bruised and eliminated after five games in their opening round series versus Ottawa.

Neil led the way physically for the Senators against Pittsburgh with his aggressive play. He caught Joe Vitale in the neutral zone and delivered a solid hit. He also engaged with Orpik behind a play and even took liberties with the Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

The Senators have some sandpaper forwards in Neil, Zach Smith and Matt Kassian, as well as big defensemen in Jared Cowen, Marc Methot and Gryba. Their job is to play physical and wear down the Penguins. But the Penguins also like to play a physical, forechecking style.

This series may become a battle of attrition.

With the score out of hand, some tempers boiled over in the final 30 seconds. Neil and Smith were given misconducts while Cowen, Conacher, Vitale, Brenden Morrow and Deryk Engelland were all assessed unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.

It was that kind of game. And it may be that kind of series.

I hope both teams’ athletic trainers stock up on ice bags.

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