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Commentary: Pens Drop Game 1 in Opening 20 Minutes

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

After 60 minutes of action, the Pittsburgh Penguins dropped Game 1 of their opening-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the New York Rangers, 2-1, at Madison Square Garden Thursday night.

But really, all the Rangers needed were the first 20.

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New York scored twice and had 13 shots and four power-play opportunities in the first period to stake out a 2-0 lead. The Penguins mounted a comeback but were never able to overcome that opening frame.

“The start and being tentative, that’s got to be gone,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “It does happen sometimes in a series in that first game when you’re trying to feel your way through it. We were definitely guilty of that. We have to make sure we improve our start.”

The Pens were under the gun from the opening faceoff.

Literally.

After the puck dropped to start the game it took the Rangers 28 seconds to grab the first lead of the series. Forward Rick Nash gained the zone and unleashed a nasty slap shot that was turned aside by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. However, the rebound kicked right out to Penguins killer Derick Brassard, who beat Paul Martin down the seam, and buried it behind Fleury.

From there, the shellshocked Pens were running around and taking penalties. Pittsburgh took four penalties in the first period alone and five total in the game.

“Of course we were,” said defenseman Rob Scuderi when asked if his team was undisciplined. “That’s way too many penalties in a postseason game. Usually you want to keep it to two, maybe three. Four in one period is not going to get it done.”

“It’s not good for your team,” continued Scuderi, sporting stitches and a bloody nose from a high stick in the game. “We don’t generate any momentum because half the guys are sitting on the bench and not playing and keeping their legs warm. By the time we pull ourselves out of those penalties the period is pretty much over. It’s not something we can repeat.”

The Pens’ penalty killing was a bright spot for the team. They finished the regular season with the third-ranked unit in the NHL with an 84.8-percent success rate. They killed four of the five disadvantages tonight.

“It’s not easy to kill that many penalties,” Crosby said. “They did a great job. ‘Flower’ had some big saves. They ended up getting one on the power play. It’s not ideal. We need to find a way to stay out of the box and hopefully draw some ourselves.”

The Rangers did connect on the man-advantage in the first period to build a 2-0 lead. It would hold up for the win.

The Pens played much better in the second and third periods, standing toe-to-toe with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers. But it wasn’t enough.

“We know how to play, we just have to do it from the very beginning,” Scuderi said. “I thought we did a good job of settling down in a tough environment and getting back to our game and had some success. We have to start doing that from the drop of the puck.”

There are many lessons to take away from Game 1. The Rangers aren’t unbeatable. Fleury can, and will need to, steal this series for Pittsburgh. But most importantly, the Pens can’t play undisciplined. As lopsided as the power plays were – five for New York to only one for Pittsburgh – the Pens were only one goal away from tying the contest.

Playoff games in the NHL are a matter of inches. The Pens can’t give away an entire period and expect to win. That’s a lesson they’ll carry into Game 2 Saturday night.

“We’re a confident team in here,” blueliner Ben Lovejoy said. “We believe that we cannot only play with that New York Rangers team, but we can beat them. We didn’t bring it early enough tonight, but we feel we have the guys in this room.”

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