- Scott Burnside, NHL
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In a 4-1 Game 1 win over the Ottawa Senators that was much closer than the score would suggest, the Penguins more closely resembled the methodical, opportunistic group that dominated the Eastern Conference during the regular season, as opposed to the one that had the bejeebers scared out of it by the New York Islanders in the first round.
"That was the way that we want to play. I think the last series we had that first big game, and you think it’s going to be that way, and we had a tougher series than I’m sure that we thought," said defenseman Paul Martin, who opened the scoring for Pittsburgh before the game was three minutes old with one of two power-play goals scored by the Pens.
"I think it was good for us to realize how much better we’ve got to play to win games and tonight we did a lot of the little things that we do to help us win. Get on the forecheck, get pucks to the net and not spend as much time in our own end. So, it was big for us," Martin said.
This isn’t to suggest the Penguins dominated this game. They didn’t. Not by a long stretch.
In fact, one of the interesting things about this series -- the fourth time the teams have met in the postseason since the 2007 playoffs -- is that the Senators resemble a slightly less developed, less refined version of the Penguins themselves.
The Senators move the puck quickly and smartly out of their zone and are patient with the puck in the offensive zone. If they lack the finish of the Penguins, it is a function of a lack of raw skill and experience as opposed to will or understanding.
In Game 1, the Senators imposed their will on the Penguins for long stretches only to be denied by Tomas Vokoun, who won his third straight game since coming on to replace Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the first round. Vokoun stopped 35 of 36 shots and has now stopped 101 of the 105 shots he has faced this postseason.
The Penguins, meanwhile, withstood these moments of pressure from the Senators without melting down in their own zone, something that happened with frequency in the first round.
"I think we were all kind of trying to make sure we found a way to do a better job of getting out of our end and executing a little better," said captain Sidney Crosby, who was held without a point for the first time this postseason. "I think everyone was trying to make sure that they [bore] down a little bit more."
The differences, then, separating these two teams in this series-opening game were subtle, the kinds of differences that almost always separate the teams that can take a first-round series victory and build on it, and those that cannot.
The Penguins’ ruthlessly efficient power play was at it again, collecting two goals on four opportunities. The Pens lead the NHL in playoff power-play scoring and efficiency with nine goals on 25 opportunities.
The Senators, who were surprisingly potent with the man advantage in the first round against Montreal, scoring six times on 25 opportunities, could not match that Tuesday against the Penguins, going 0-for-5 with the man advantage, and in fact gave up a short-handed goal in the third period to scoring machine Pascal Dupuis to put the game out of reach.
The special-teams play was the difference, Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson said.
"I thought we did a pretty good job five-on-five, but overall but I don’t think we can be happy with today’s game. We have to be a lot faster in our decision-making for us to be a faster team and we weren’t that tonight," Alfredsson said.
Head coach Paul MacLean acknowledged that perhaps the Sens’ youthfulness might have been a factor early in the game when Pittsburgh jumped out to the early lead. But they tied it quickly and MacLean felt the team reacted well, with the exception of producing goals.
"I don’t disagree that the youth of our team was a factor early in the game, but I thought we responded quite quickly after the first goal," MacLean said. "At the end of the day, I think they were a little bit quicker than us in the first period and it made a difference. But in the second period, I thought we came out and played a much better game to our liking and didn’t get enough out of it."
The first game of a new series is always about establishing a line in the sand.
That line becomes the baseline for future games, the mark against which a team continues to push forward and evolve -- or fall back and get pushed to the curb.
The Senators, in spite of the score, seem to feel that they are capable of drawing the next line, in effect redrawing the configuration of the series.
"We got a lot of pucks to the net. There was a lot of traffic and there was definitely some pucks laying around," said Ottawa netminder Craig Anderson, who has been dominant this spring for the Senators but who allowed four goals -- the most he’s given up in the postseason -- on 30 shots.
"They were pretty tough in front of the net and it really kept us from getting second and third chances, so going forward we have to be tougher in front of our own net and we have to be tougher in front of their net and try and get those chances and make them count," he added.
With two days off before Game 2 Friday night, the Senators will have loads of time to work on those elements they feel were missing in Game 1. The problem might be that if the Penguins really have learned from the first round, this will become a mighty steep climb.
"I think we played the right way tonight," said Dupuis, whose short-handed marker gives him a league-best six goals thus far.
"It wasn’t one of those fluke games," he said. "Yes, [Vokoun] made some key saves, yes, they had chances but you know what? It felt right."