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Pens' breakouts key to breaking Isles' forecheck

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

UNIONDALE, New York - It only took one shift for the New York Islanders to set the tone for the First Round series against the Penguins. 

The puck dropped and the Islanders flipped it into the offensive zone. Six seconds into the game Cal Clutterbuck hit Jake Guentzel. Fourteen seconds later Guentzel absorbed another hit, this time from Casey Cizikas. 

The Islanders are a team built on structure. But they're also built to be physical and aggressive on the forecheck. And that helped them take a 1-0 series lead with a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 1 on Wednesday night. 

"We knew they were going to try to come at us with a heavy forecheck. That's part of their game plan," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "They have one of the highest dump-in rates in the league. They play a straight-ahead game. They put pucks in and try to establish a forecheck and impose their physical presence and force turnovers."

Cizikas, Clutterbuck and Matt Martin comprise of the Islanders' fourth line. And it wasn't an accident that head coach Barry Trotz started that trio in the game as opposed to one of his scoring lines. He wanted them to establish the forecheck early. 

"We expected that, especially from that Cizikas line," defenseman Kris Letang said. "They're a team that pays attention to all the details. They finish their hits. We expected that."

The line of Cizikas (2), Clutterbuck (6) and Martin (7) combined for 15 of New York's 42 hits in the game (Pittsburgh countered with 43 hits of its own). And that line thrives on taking the body.  

"Their F1 is hard on the puck," defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. "The puck is going deep and they're not slowing down at the blue line. They're still going full speed. They get pucks in. We know we're getting hit. We just have to do a good job of keeping the puck moving." 

The Pens' defensemen took the brunt of the physicality. But it will require a team effort to combat the Islanders' attempt to impose their will. 

"We have to do a better job as a group trying to handle it," Sullivan said. "I don't think the onus is just on defensemen. It's a five-man collective effort. It starts in the neutral zone. We have to do a better job impeding their progress and give our defensemen a little bit more time. We need closer support. We need to communicate with one another. There are a lot of things we can be better at."

If the Pens can slow down the Islanders' momentum in the neutral zone it will allow Pittsburgh's defensemen more time to retrieve the puck and make a decision. Otherwise, they'll need forward support to give their defensemen outlet options. 

"Having a centerman or the first forward supporting our D and getting back," said center Nick Bjugstad, who had a game-high eight hits. "These guys are a physical team. It's important to be able to support each other as a triangle and down low. That's the biggest thing. 

"Getting back to pucks quicker and making the decision quicker. They're going to want to bump you. That's their game. They have a good forecheck and they were physical last night."

And even if the Pens execute perfectly, the blueliners will still need to brace themselves. 

"Sometimes you're going to have to take a hit and move the puck," Dumoulin said. "Sometimes when there are plays to be made and clean breakouts we have to make those passes. They have to be clean. As D we have to get our forwards the puck with speed." 

It will all come down to those breakouts. After all, the key to avoiding an opponent's forecheck is to stay out of the defensive zone. And the Pens' breakout feeds into their up-tempo style. 

"We didn't do a good job of getting out of our zone," captain Sidney Crosby said. "If you're spending half of your shift there then you don't have a lot of energy to go the other way. We have to execute coming out of our zone and give ourselves a chance to create things offensively. 

"That's probably what we'll take out of Game 1. We definitely have to be better."

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