Stop freaking out about the Pittsburgh Penguins dropping Game 1 of their series against the Ottawa Senators. Seriously. Yes, the Penguins were at home. Yes, the overtime goal was scored on a bad breakaway that got past a slow Olli Maatta. But that doesn’t call for panic—and it certainly doesn’t call for cutting criticisms of Maatta’s overall play or, more ridiculously, of Phil Kessel’s. No matter how bad the breakaway, the loss shouldn’t be blamed on Maatta but rather on a deeper, fixable problem. The Penguins will have the ability to adjust and take Game 2, and here’s why.
Adjusting to a New Opponent
Starting a new series less than three full days after the last one ends can be hard on a team in more than one way. This Penguins team is exhausted from an emotional series that not only went a full seven games but was also, in typical Penguins style, riddled with injuries. (Trevor Daley has yet to return to the lineup, and players like Sidney Crosby, Conor Sheary and Brian Dumoulin are most likely playing at less than 100 percent.) Another difficulty of this quick turnaround is more mental than physical; the team has to adjust to a fundamentally different style of play.
The Penguins answered the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round and the Capitals in the second with similar styles of play. Both the Blue Jackets and the Capitals rely on a fast, offensive-focused game, where the Penguins were able to rely on desperate defense and the occasional offensive breakout.
The Senators are the polar opposite. They’re a defensive-based team that had four players waiting in their zone as soon as a Penguin crossed the center line, quelling those lucky breakouts that defined the series against the Capitals. The Senators slowed down the play and made the game about defense, and the Penguins failed to adjust quickly enough.
So maybe they weren’t able to adjust on the fly, but head coach Mike Sullivan has used the day between games to change the game plan. And chances are that will pay off in Game 2.
Changes Will Be Made
The Penguins’ Sunday morning practice consisted of drills deliberately created to mimic the Senators’ style that stifled the Penguins’ play so effectively on Saturday. Here’s a video of the Penguins playing with a carefully clogged neutral zone—just how the Senators like to play it.
Penguins open practice with a drill that intentionally clutters the neutral zone. pic.twitter.com/yBU9L3lBmg
— Bill West (@Just_BWest) May 14, 2017
Penguins fans, take heart. Last year, the Penguins dropped Game 1 of the previous Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. They floundered that game against the Lightning’s style, which was significantly different from the Capitals series they’d just come from. After the game, Sullivan adjusted. The Penguins came back to win Game 2, and eventually, the series.
Sullivan has shown he knows what he’s doing. The Penguins did not lose Game 1 because Maatta was too slow in catching up to Bobby Ryan. They lost because they did not score on any one of the whopping five power plays they were given that game. They were stymied by the Senators’ defensive style, but now they’ve had the chance to review game tape and adjust accordingly to this new style of play.
And if Sullivan’s history is any indication, then adjust they will. Look for the Penguins to have better answers for the Senators on Monday. If they haven’t changed their approach by then, that’s when you should start to worry.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.