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Prisuta: Pens Get the Best of Halak in Game 1

by Mike Prisuta / Pittsburgh Penguins
The dreaded hot goaltender arrived at Mellon Arena having allowed an almost inconceivable three goals on the 134 shots the Washington Capitals had managed to get on net in Games 5, 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

The Penguins needed a mere 22:34 of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semis to get that many pucks past Jaroslav Halak on Friday night.
Does this mean Halak isn’t the second coming of Dominik Hasek after all?

Stay tuned, because the Caps pretty much had their way with Halak in Games 2 and 3 before he suddenly became almost unbeatable against an avalanche of rubber.

But that said the Penguins’ 6-3, series-opening victory over the Canadiens couldn’t have worked out much better (Jordan Staal’s loss to injury is an obvious exception).

One of the dangers they faced against the Canadiens was succumbing to the Halak-inspired frustration that apparently engulfed the Capitals while they were making their first-round exit.

Halak was brilliant, yes, but the Caps also contributed by trying to make the perfect play to beat him.

That’s a phenomenon Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato recognized from having experienced it firsthand.

“The frustration of playing a goaltender that’s playing that well plays into the heads of the shooters and goal scorers,” Granato offered pre-series. “The only thing I can compare it to was in ’93 when we played Montreal when I was with L.A. We had Patrick Roy that we were going against (in the Stanley Cup Final). He was playing so well and so confident that the only thing we were talking about was, ‘We gotta make a perfect shot. We gotta shoot it here. We gotta shoot it there.’

“At that time we had Jari Kurri, Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille, Dave Taylor, plenty of guys that were 35- to 50-goal scorers, great goal scorers (Granato modestly excluded the 37 he scored that season). And when you tell a goal scorer what he has to do to try and score, you’re over-thinking. So you get your chance in front of the net and you’re running through the whole scenario, ‘OK, if he’s down I gotta go this way.’ And you don’t have time.”

Granato saw the same type of frustration in the Caps as their best-of-seven nightmare unfolded.

“I really looked at Washington thinking they had to make a perfect shot every time they got a scoring chance,” he said. “You could see the process going through their heads of, ‘OK, I gotta catch it and then I gotta make sure if he’s going that way I have to shoot this way.’ They have too many good goal scorers to have to play that way.

“That’s the one trap you can fall into as a goal scorer, over-thinking. That’s the reason those great goaltenders can sometimes play into goal scorers’ heads and have great success against the (Alex) Ovechkins or (Alexander) Semins. They had great chances to score goals, shots they normally make no matter who’s in net. But when a goalie starts playing that way and you start to think you have to make the perfect shot it becomes pretty darn hard to score.”

One game in against the Canadiens the Penguins have no such concerns.

Their third goal was a wrist shot by Kris Letang that mirrored the goal scored by Staal, the Penguins’ second, in that both players delayed momentarily prior to firing (Staal to change a shooting angle to avoid the shot-blocking effort of Brian Gionta and Letang to allow Ryan O’Byrne’s attempt at a blocked shot to screen Halak).

The Pens didn’t over-think their approach to Halak and the collapsing, shot-blocking teammates in front of him.

They apparently thought it through thoroughly, though.

“I thought we did a good job of not just trying to blow shots through guys,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “We had our heads up and we were conscious of the shooting lanes. We got pucks to the net.”

They rang up No. 4 against Halak at 18:36 of the second period.

By the 5:38 mark of the third the Pens were ahead, 5-2, and Halak was making the long skate to the bench after being yanked for the second time in three games against the Penguins this season.

Mike Prisuta is the sports director for WDVE-FM in Pittsburgh and the sports anchor for “Jim, Randy & the DVE Morning Show.”
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