Game 1: Pens show 2016 Cup run type prowess in one critical area

Penguins 3 – Blue Jackets 1

(Penguins lead series, 1-0)

GAME 1 BREAKDOWN

The Pittsburgh Penguins playoff opening 3-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets had a lot of similarities emerge that were pivotal to the Penguins success last post-season in winning the Stanley Cup.

The way the second and third periods went, it felt like an extension of the 2016 playoffs.

The Penguins after being out-shot 16-3 in the first period, did what the Penguins often do in turning the switch immediately when the puck dropped for the second period.

Pittsburgh scored twice in the first 3:45 of the period on goals from Bryan Rust and Phil Kessel. Both goals were ones where Rust, Kessel each beat Sergei Bobrovsky with 1-on-1 shots. No screens, no bounces, just Rust and Kessel beating Bob with a better shot.

Then the Penguins go up 3-0 with a goal from Nick Bonino who continues to elevate his game at the right time.

“I think for about eight minutes or so in the second period [we lost our momentum],” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said of the Penguins taking over the game moments into the second. “They score their first one, I still think we’re ok after the first one. After the second one I thought we lost ourselves for a little bit. They surged, and we hung on for a bit. I still thought we had some good minutes in there.


PACKING IT IN

The story of the game, though, for the Penguins wasn’t Marc Andre Fleury coming out of the bullpen and stepping up with a solid performance in stopping 31 of 32 shots or the Penguins offensive surge in the second.

It was the most important ingredient in why the Penguins won the Stanley Cup last spring also carrying over to Game 1 of the 2017 post-season.

The Penguins played suffocating defense tonight in clogging the middle of the ice and it starts with the structure the forwards played with through the neutral zone and the defensive zone.

The Penguins gave up shot attempts and zone time but even when they had the sluggish start in the first period and were outshot 16-3, the Penguins limited the grade-A chances and second, third opportunities all night in periods 1-3.

This was another classic case where the advanced stats didn’t tell much of the story. The Penguins were -14 in shot attempt differential at even strength but Pittsburgh dictated play in all three zones over the final two periods of the game and were strong defensively in limiting high danger opportunities.

5 v 5 there was nowhere to go for the Blue Jackets in trying to create offense in the middle of the ice and from the slot. So much of their puck possession time was on the outside and above the dots.  Pittsburgh had great rotations among their forwards in defending the cycle and insulating Marc Andre Fleury in front.

A key for the Penguins was the center help down low. It was like clock work from the likes of Sidney Crosby, Nick Bonino in how they supported the puck defensively. The Penguins ask their centers to do a lot of read and react and it was just a lights out effort from the centermen.

Evgeni Malkin who had a two assist night in his return to the lineup, was also good in his own end.

When the Penguins 1-5 are playing collapsing defense like they did tonight, you have to try to bait them to get out of their structure and the Blue Jackets were rarely able to do that.

Too often the Blue Jackets were looking to make a grit play with the dump and chase.

When Columbus had the impressive start in the first period, a lot of that was an adrenaline rush from the Blue Jackets that wore off in period two and the Penguins forwards not helping their D enough in getting low enough to exit the zone. That adjustment from Pittsburgh was made with quick chips as the game progressed.


Adjustments coming?

Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella was happy with his clubs performance in Game 1.

“I’m not worried about the team,” said Tortorella.  “This is why it’s a series. I’m encouraged. They surged but I think we did some good things”

Some encouraging things for the Blue Jackets heading into Game 2 was the play of Zach Werenski – Seth Jones. Both showed game changing ability and what a player Werenski is at 19 years old.

Upfront Brandon Saad had his moments, highlighted by a great first period where the Penguins D, most notably Olli Maatta had a lot of trouble in handling Saad down low.

As the Blue Jackets need to counter the Penguins with more skilled plays and patience with the puck, their most skilled center in Alexander Wennberg was really good.

Yet, the storyline again out of Game 1 is Columbus must find a way to make adjustments offensively to create more offense through the middle of the ice to avoid going down 0-2. The Blue Jackets identity is playing physical with a dump and chase game but that style also allowed the Penguins to set up defensively, so even when the Blue Jackets were winning puck battles off the forecheck, Pittsburgh had ample time to shrink their d-zone setup and collapse to the middle by packing it in.

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About The Author

William DePaoli

TIOPS Insider

William DePaoli is the President/Founder of Inside Pittsburgh Sports LLC and can be reached at wdepaoli@insidepittsburghsports.com

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