If this were the National Football League, then the Penguins might be in some trouble.
In football, each contest in the playoffs is a win-or-go-home proposition. Survive your opponent and you advance to fight another week. Bring anything less than your ‘A’ game or have a bad bounce go against you, the season comes to a screeching halt.
But the postseason tournament is different in the National Hockey League. Lifting the Stanley Cup requires a team to successfully navigate its way through four best-of-seven series before it can be crowned the champion.
While the mental and physical demands of this grueling journey can wear out even the best of teams, there is little doubt that the best-of-seven format serves to separate the contenders from the pretenders.
You see, any team can beat another over the course of 60 minutes (plus overtime, if necessary) on any given day, but if one club is far inferior to the other, its chances of pulling off four stunning defeats within a seven-game stretch are remote.
And this is why the Pittsburgh Penguins have every right to feel good about themselves despite dropping Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Montreal Canadiens, 3-1, on Sunday afternoon at Mellon Arena.
No, we are not dismissing the Canadiens’ chances of upsetting the Penguins. That would be rather foolish after watching Montreal win four of its past five games against the Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals and defending Cup champion Penguins.
Instead, the point of that statement was if the Penguins are to ultimately be judged as being better than the Canadiens, a fact most hockey experts unanimously agreed upon entering this semifinals series, they will have a chance to validate that thought by establishing their game and re-taking control of the series.
However, if Montreal is in fact the better team of the two, that will play out over the next two weeks as well.
But the Penguins don’t want to have to worry about envisioning such a scenario, which is why with some minor tweaks to their game plan, they believe they can get right back on the winning track when the series shifts to Montreal beginning with Tuesday night’s Game 3 at Bell Centre, where the Penguins are 6-3-1 since 2005-06.
“I felt like we played pretty well,” said captain Sidney Crosby
of Game 2. “We did a lot of good things. You still have to find ways to score. That’s not easy in the playoffs. … When we look back at the game I don’t think we would change a whole lot that we did. We did a lot of good things. If we keep doing those things then the puck will go in for us.”
“We played pretty hard in Game 2,” forward Alexei Ponikarovsky said. “We spent most of the time in their end and created a lot of chances. They had some lucky bounces and those ended up in our net. I think we played a pretty solid game and put a lot into it.”
Of all the reasons why the Penguins have to feel confident heading into Tuesday, the increased number of scoring chances has to be chief among the positives Pittsburgh will draw from.
After being outshot, 31-24, during their 6-3 defeat of the Canadiens in Game 1, the Penguins responded with a shooting gallery on Jaroslav Halak in Game 2. When all was said and done the Penguins finished with a 39-21 shots advantage on Sunday, including a dominating 30-9 edge over the final two periods when Halak stood on his head, much like he did throughout the final three games in round one against Washington.
“We got more shots like we wanted to,” Crosby said. “We probably as a whole got the puck to the net and got the puck more than we did last game. The only difference was power-play wise we didn’t execute as well. Even-strength we did a pretty good job of creating things.”
If there was one criticism of the Penguins offensive attack, it was that they maybe got a bit too fancy at times instead of simply getting shots to the net with traffic and fighting for rebound opportunities. Crosby isn’t worried about his team improving in that area next game.
“I think we passed up some shots,” he said. “We got to the offensive zone and then maybe got a little too fancy. That’s going to happen from time to time.”
Another area the Penguins hope to improve in Game 2 is special teams. Pittsburgh was a plus-3 in this department in Game 1 after going four-for-four on the power play and killing off three of four Canadiens power plays.
Montreal had the special teams advantage on Sunday as they killed off all three man-advantage situations for the Penguins while picking up the game-winning goal off a Mike Cammalleri power-play marker.
The Canadiens penalty killers, who killed off 32 of 33 Washington power plays last series, seemed to sit back and play tentatively in Game 1, but Crosby and Ponikarovsky noticed Montreal learning from that mistake and playing more aggressively in Game 2.
“They were a little bit more aggressive in the neutral zone and took away some rhythm,” Crosby said. “We still had some chances around the net. It’s a matter of inches. That’s what it comes down to.”
“I think they were fronting the shots more and they were more aggressive on the penalty kill,” Ponikarovsky said. “We had some quality chances but we didn’t connect.”
Connecting on the road hasn’t been a problem at all for the Penguins so far this postseason. They were a perfect 3-0 at Scotiabank Place against the Senators. Pittsburgh’s impressive road mark stretches beyond this season, as they are 15-10 away from home in the playoffs dating back to the 2008 season.
A little bit of adversity is nothing new to the Penguins either, nor is it something this team will shy away from. They also went into Game 3 against the Senators having split the opening two games at Mellon Arena to temporarily relinquish home-ice advantage. As a veteran hockey team that has been there, done that, they know continuing to play their game will bode well during the next two contests.
“We have to outplay them,” Crosby said. “It’s not easy but that’s what it comes down to right now. You can talk about momentum and things like that but you have to play the game and earn that on the ice. That’s something we are going to have to earn when we go there.
“It’s going to be tough but that’s the challenge that we face. We faced the exact situation last series and we responded well. That’s what we will look to do here.”