Brooks Orpik isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
Prior to Game 1 of the Penguins-Flyers series, the Penguins defenseman said he was looking forward to putting a number of late season distractions in the past and focusing on playing a solid team game.
“At the end of the season Geno’s trying to get 50 [goals], certain guys are trying to extend point streaks, maybe we were a little too caught up in that and it kind of took away from our defensive game,” he said.
“Going into the playoffs hopefully we can just concentrate on what we need to.”
For twenty minutes on Wednesday night, the Penguins did exactly that. They limited Philadelphia’s offensive opportunities and jumped out to a 3-0 first period lead. The third goal was a nifty swat by Pascal Dupuis after a behind-the-back pass by Sidney Crosby and a between-the-legs dish by Steve Sullivan:
The rout was on…or so the Penguins thought.
Pittsburgh isn’t necessarily an ‘arrogant organization’ — the $20,000 phrase used by Rangers coach John Tortorella — but they’re a confident bunch. They know they have the talent to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup and few teams have been able to shut down their offensive firepower in recent weeks. Confidence is an important ingredient in the playoff formula.
Orpik concerns from earlier in the week became a factor in Game 1 though. With a 3-0 lead on home ice, the Penguins abandoned their gameplan we discussed in our series preview.
In the first period, Pittsburgh punished the Flyers defensemen with hit after hit. Nicklas Grossman, coming off a knee injury suffered less than two weeks ago, was hit six times in the first half of the game and would have struggled to finish the series if the physical assault continued.
The Penguins never hit him again the rest of the game.
Dump and chase was replaced with cross-ice passes as they looked to run up the score. Cross-ice passes became turnovers, and soon enough the Flyers were back in the game:
“We just got away from our game,” Crosby said on Thursday. “Unfortunately we had that 3-0 lead and we really just stopped doing those little things that you need to do: getting pucks deep, managing the puck. They had a lot of time at that point to get opportunities to get back in the game.”
Brooks Orpik also saw many of the same concerns after reviewing Game 1.
“We watched a lot of video and [the problem] was just our approach to the game when you get a three-goal lead like that,” Orpik said. “I think you have to look more at winning the game 3-0 rather than chasing the fourth goal. If you play well defensively and responsibly you are going to force their team to take chances. By playing good defense you are going to get opportunities offensively. You just have to stay patient. We got a little too excited when we made it 3-0.”
The overanxious mentality has been an issue for the Penguins all season. Malkin’s chase for 50 goals after suffering a serious knee injury last February was one of the best stories of this season. His determination (and ability) to beat every player on the ice has turned him into one of the game’s most dangerous players. But his individual focus also sometimes hurts the production of his line.
The Malkin-Neal-Kunitz line combined for 175 points in 50 games together after December 10 — an average 3.5 per game. As Malkin neared 50 goals, however, his fixation on scoring made Neal and Kunitz spectators instead of active contributors. Chasing individual accomplishments in relatively meaningless regular season games is fine, but it’s very tough to flip the switch overnight and get back to a team game in the playoffs. We saw some of that carryover effect in Game 1 on Wednesday night, especially after the Penguins jump out to a 3-0 lead.
Peter Taglianetti (@PeterTags) played defense on the Penguins’ Stanley Cup winning teams throughout the early 90’s. He’s been on teams in the underdog role, such as the 1991 Cup-winning team that lost every Game 1 along the way. He’s also been the heavy favorite. The über-talented 1993 team was shockingly upset in the second round of the playoffs.
Taglianetti says focus and accountability has to come from the players, not the coaches, in a situation like the Penguins faced in Game 1.
“It’s got to start with the guys in the room. The coach can tell you about your mistakes, but right now is not the time to bench players. You can’t bench Jordan Staal for not backchecking properly or Evgeni Malkin for not making a certain play. This is a do-or-die situation now and the players just have to know these things. It has to be instinct after a while.”
“As a player in these games you need to know what’s the score, how much time is on the clock, and no coach should ever have to tell you not to make a pass up the middle of the ice. You know better than that.”
Philadelphia has struggled with slow starts all season and it’s very possible the Penguins could jump out to another quick lead in Game 2 on Friday night. With a great deal of playoff experience on the roster, the Penguins should be able to learn from their mistakes and put together a full 60-minute effort.
“There were many different things [that went wrong] but it’s over,” Crosby said. “There is nothing we can do now. We’ve got to make sure we play a full hockey game here on Friday.”