PITTSBURGH – Even as numbers on a roster, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ power play appears intimidating.
At times on the ice, it looks borderline unfair.
Start with two NHL MVPs in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Add a future Hall of Famer like Jarome Iginla and a Norris Trophy finalist in defenseman Kris Letang. Throw in a grinder to do the dirty work in Chris Kunitz and the Penguins have a unit that’s an electric mix of skill, speed and grit.
Give them 2 minutes to work and they can quickly turn a game into a mismatch. It’s a lesson the Ottawa Senators painfully learned during a 4-1 loss to the Penguins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Tuesday.
Despite dictating play at even strength for long stretches, the Senators were practically blown out on the scoreboard after the Penguins went 2 for 3 on the power play and even added a shorthanded goal to seal it in the third period.
Pittsburgh made it look easy against the NHL’s best penalty killing team. The Senators stopped 88 percent of the power plays they faced during the regular season, easily tops in the league.
All power plays, however, are not created equal. And if the Senators want to even the series in Game 2 Friday night, they have to either stay out of the penalty box entirely or find a way to stop a unit that’s scoring 38 percent of the time in the playoffs when it goes a man up.
The key to Pittsburgh’s success doesn’t rely on Xs and Os as much as remarkable talent that few – if any – teams can match. An eye-popping 37 percent of Penguins’ power plays in the playoffs have ended with an opponent skating slowly out of the penalty box after the red light behind their goal flicks on.
“They have basically five All-Stars on the first (power play) and it’s tough to chase them and get hits on them when they’re moving the puck properly,” Ottawa defenseman Marc Methot said. “We’ve got to be better.”
It might already be too late.
The Senators have won just two playoff series in franchise history after dropping the first game, and none since 2003 and have never rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the postseason.
Yet Ottawa remains upbeat, pointing to the way it was able to tilt the ice at even strength, peppering Pittsburgh goaltender Tomas Vokoun with 36 shots. A bounce here, a bounce there and a little more production on the power play – where the Senators were 0 for 6 in the opener – and Ottawa believes it can head home with things all tied up.
“We’re a confident group in here,” Methot said. “We know we can hang in there with them.”
And Methot and his teammates insist it won’t take a perfect game, just a smarter one. While three penalties is hardly a ton, the Penguins proved in Game 1 that even a single shift with the advantage is enough to take firm control of things.
“If we break even on the special teams battle it gives us a good chance to win,” Ottawa coach Paul MacLean said.
After dealing with some jitters on Tuesday while making its first appearance in the second round of the postseason since making the Stanley Cup finals in 2007, Ottawa believes it has found its legs.
The Senators will need them more than ever with burly defenseman Eric Gryba likely out with an upper body injury sustained after a collision with Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik
Gryba’s job was to try and clear space in front of Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson. Without him there will be a little more room for Crosby and company to work.
It’s a group that is finally starting to get comfortable with each other. Pittsburgh picked up Iginla, forwards Jussi Jokinen and Brenden Morrow and defenseman Doug Murray at the trade deadline to gear up for a Cup run. Yet injuries to Crosby, Malkin, Orpik and defenseman Paul Martin late in the regular season made it difficult for coach Dan Bylsma to get a look at what he really had on his hands.
In a way, Bylsma still doesn’t know. He continues to tinker with lineups during games, trying to search for the right mix. The Penguins found enough in the first round to dispatch the New York Islanders in six sometimes-frantic games. They may have taken the next step in Game 1, playing more soundly defensively and more patiently offensively in perhaps their most balanced game of the playoffs.
Take Pittsburgh’s third goal of the night, a power play score by Kunitz. Letang found himself working in the left circle and instead of moving to his left instead turned to his right and slipped a pass to Iginla. Kunitz pounced on the rebound and the Penguins had things well in hand.
It started with a move Letang doesn’t typically make and ended with Pittsburgh’s ninth power-play goal in seven playoff contests. While the goal was timely, the message it sent, however, was just as important.
“When you get that power play ultimately you do want to score,” said Iginla, who has two goals and eight assists in the postseason. “But a big part of our focus is to just go out there and get some momentum, get some shots, put some pressure on them.”
It’s working vs. the Senators.