When the postseason rolls around, games are often a special teams battle during the Stanley Cup playoffs. That has to be considered a good thing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, as their power-play and penalty killing units were difference makers as Pittsburgh skated away with a 6-3 victory in Game 1 to seize early control of the Eastern Conference semifinals series.
The Penguins’ success on special teams has to be a huge moral boost for Pittsburgh, because coming into the series specials teams were the most talked about element outside of the Penguins finding a way to beat Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak.
In round one against the Washington Capitals, who finished the regular season with the NHL’s No. 1 power play, Montreal killed off 32 of the Capitals’ 33 man-advantage situations.
By the 13:27 mark of the first period the Penguins had already surpassed that figure as Sergei Gonchar and Jordan Staal
tallied to turn an early 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 Pittsburgh advantage they would never relinquish.Kris Letang
tacked on a third goal at 2:34 of the second period and Alex Goligoski tapped home a backdoor feed in the third period as the Penguins converted on each of their four attempts with the man-advantage.
Pittsburgh’s four power-play markers tied a team postseason record originally set in a 6-4 victory over the Capitals on April 29, 1992 in Game 6 of the Patrick Division Semifinals, and marked the first time in team history the Penguins have gone four for four on the power play.
“Special teams are a huge part of every game,” said Penguins assistant coach Mike Yeo, who is in charge of overseeing the power play. “In the playoffs it’s always nice to get off to a good start early in the series. Believe it or not, confidence does play a big part in it. If you can be a little bit successful in your early games then hopefully you can carry that with you. That makes guys a little bit more likely to stick to the plan.”
“We did a great job just getting shots on net and making their guys move to open shooting lanes,” Letang said. “We had Billy (Guerin) and Sid (Crosby) there crashing the net.”
Letang credited Pittsburgh’s success on the man-advantage to the work put in by the Penguins coaching staff off the ice in the video room and during practice on Thursday.
“The preparation before a series is really important,” Letang said. “The coaches and all of the (hockey operations) staff spend a lot of hours looking at tapes. We noticed a few things on the power play that we needed to do and we did that (Friday).”
Such studious preparation paid off for the Penguins, but as deadly as the power play was, its success might not have been possible if not for a terrific effort by the penalty killing unit, which has now killed off 10 of its past 11 times shorthanded.
Montreal held a 1-0 lead when the Penguins were called for a penalty just 59 seconds after the Canadiens P.K. Subban opened the scoring. Not only did Pittsburgh kill off the penalty, they held the Canadiens without a shot as a majority of the penalty was played in the Montreal end of the rink.
“That was definitely a turning point in the game,” Goligoski said. “I don’t think they got any chances. We kind of got to our game after that.”
Using the momentum of that kill, the Penguins quickly jumped ahead on a power play of their own 1:09 minutes later.
Gonchar, Letang and Evgeni Malkin
played catch in an umbrella formation at the top of the offensive zone, just waiting for a lane to open. When one finally did, Gonchar walked into a Goligoski feed and ripped a shot past the glove of Halak. Bill Guerin provided a screen in front of the net.
“On that one (Tom Pyatt’s) broken stick helped us,” Letang said. “You don’t want to take a shot for nothing and just allow them to clear it. We were taking our time.”
On that goal, which got both the crowd and the momentum back in Pittsburgh’s favor, the Penguins power play did everything they preached they would the last two days.
There was player movement at the top of the key, the discipline to wait for lanes to open and a net-front presence at the top of the crease.
“Movement is a principle that we have that at times we struggle with,” Yeo said. “I think that is normal for a lot of power plays to get stationary and stagnant in areas. It is something that we do stress and want to have, particularly against these guys. We feel there are areas where we can move them out of position and open up lanes – whether it is a shooting lane or a passing lane.”
While the Letang goal came courtesy of the Penguins generating the puck movement they desire, their second and third power-play goals were virtue of hard work along the boards.
On the second goal, Staal won a battle along the near boards to keep the puck alive, poking the biscuit down low to Alexei Ponikarovsky before a Canadien could break the pass up. Ponikarovsky dished right back to Staal in the slot, and after a slight hesitation to open a shooting lane, Staal ripped a shot in the upper corner of the twine.
Less than three minutes into period two it was Crosby’s unmatched desire to win a puck battle that gave the Penguins a commanding 3-1 lead. Scott Gomez had a step and a half on the Pittsburgh captain to a puck along the far wall, but Crosby got body position on Gomez, took the puck right from his stick and hit a wide open Letang in the slot. Letang took care of the rest from there.
“If you really dissect it and look at it closely, a lot of those opportunities came from us hounding pucks and using our work ethic to keep zone time alive,” Yeo said. “From there we were able to attack in certain areas and get them out of position.”
Pittsburgh caught the Montreal PK out of position one final time 2:59 into the final period. Crosby attracted a couple defenders to him in the near circle before sending a cross-ice pass to a streaking Goligoski filling in the back door. Goligoski one-timed a shot along the ice to put the Penguins ahead 5-2.
“The puck kind of came to my stick and it was just a reaction,” Goligoski said. “We wanted to move around a lot and create confusion for their forwards and their D with our guys popping out and going back door.”
If the Penguins continue clicking at such a high rate on the man-advantage, where they are now 11-for-32 (34.3 percent) in the postseason, it’s going to be tough for Halak, Carey Price or any of the Canadiens to keep up with Pittsburgh’s high-flying attack.