One key for the Penguins’ 4-1 win in Game 1 against the Ottawa Senators? Get in on the forecheck and work their players down low.
That’s because apart from Erik Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar, the remaining four defensemen that dressed for Ottawa on Tuesday at CONSOL Energy Center – Jared Cowen, Eric Gryba, Marc Methot and Chris Phillips – are all big, physical and hulking behemoths of blueliners. But they are not necessarily the fleetest of foot.
And when Gryba and Cowen were on the ice together for a shift in the first period, the Penguins took advantage of that.
Evgeni Malkin’s line forechecked like they had never forechecked before (the word ‘forecheck’ is used a lot in this piece). James Neal started it by racing to the boards behind the net and outworking Cowen in a battle for the puck, moving the vulcanized rubber quickly over to Chris Kunitz. He danced around Gryba and darted a pass to Malkin driving to the blue paint for a tap-in goal.
“How we get the game-winning goal is on a forecheck,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “Chris Kunitz and James Neal on the forecheck get Malkin backdoor for a forechecking goal. So I loved the way our team came out and played that game. We’re not counting on just one guy to pull the load there.
“(With) our team and the way we want to play, we’re not looking for just 87 (Sidney Crosby) or 71 (Evgeni Malkin) to win us a hockey game or carry the load or be the main focus. It’s our team and how we need to play. I thought we did a really good job of coming out and playing that way throughout our lineup.”
We agree with coach Bylsma, but that being said, it sure doesn’t hurt to have 71 looking like the Evgeni Malkin who wins MVP awards in both the regular and postseason. And that’s exactly how he played on Tuesday.
Points-wise, Malkin recorded an assist in the first period in addition to his goal, giving him points in all seven games during this year’s postseason. His previous career-long playoff streak was six games (set May 9-23, 2009). His six multiple-point playoff games are the most of any NHL player this spring, while his 10 assists lead the league and his 13 points (3G-10A) tie him for first in the NHL in scoring this postseason.
But as he said himself, it’s not the points that matter to him. They seem to come no matter what with him because of the superstar that he is. It is his play the entire length of the ice – offensive zone, neutral zone, defensive zone – and how he manages the puck that matter to him. During Pittsburgh's first-round series with the Islanders, at times he tried to do too much when he had possession, and it resulted in turnovers and chances against.
“I had 11 points (in the first round), but I had a couple bad turnovers and the Islanders scored goals and won games,” he said. “Just work in my D-zone more. I’m not seeing my points. I’m seeing my game on both sides. Offensive zone, I can’t score every game. But when I play better in the D-zone, it’s very important to me.”
Malkin said in order to rectify that and improve his all-around game, he is trying to simplify what he does on the ice. And he executed that on Tuesday. But it didn’t make him any less exciting to watch.
Overall, he was just absolutely flying and powering around all 200 feet like only 'Geno' can. When he had the puck on his stick, he made the right decisions with it and took care of it by far the best he has in this postseason, finishing with zero giveaways in the game while still playing like the Evgeni Malkin we know and love. It resulted in his overall best game and he was named the Game’s No. 1 star as a result.
“I try to play every game my best. (Tonight) was maybe a little bit better,” he said. “No turnovers; it’s very important to me. And I’m just trying to play simple. All five guys, my linemates, played good tonight and yeah, a great game for me, too.”