PITTSBURGH -- Everything we thought we knew about these Eastern Conference finals and how they might play out has now been blown to smithereens.
What we imagined as a potentially classic battle between two deep, experienced, talented, well-coached teams has been nothing like that at all.
Instead the Boston Bruins have humbled the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins, riding a dramatic four-goal first period to a 6-1 victory in Game 2 on Monday night, to take a 2-0 advantage home with them for Games 3 and 4 on Wednesday and Friday.
While it would have been unthinkable to hint at a sweep before the series began, the Penguins’ shocking collapse means a 4-0 finish is definitely possible.
Through two games, what most imagined would be a closely contested, see-saw affair has been a colossal mismatch with the Bruins outscoring the Penguins 9-1.
“Tonight was terrible. There’s no other way to describe it,” said Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, who was held without a point for the second straight game, the first time that has happened all season. He committed a ghastly turnover that led to Boston’s first goal just 28 seconds into the game.
“We weren’t good, really, in any area. A loss is a loss, it’s frustrating, but you really don’t like giving them one like that. We didn’t do a lot of things to give ourselves a chance to win. This one we have to forget pretty quickly and find a way to dig ourselves out of this hole going to Boston.”
Through the first two games, this series has been a been a mismatch on every level, starting with the goaltending and extending to virtually every facet of the game, including that elusive-yet-critical element of "compete level."
Netminder Tomas Vokoun allowed three goals on 12 shots and was gone just 14:31 into the first period, replaced by Marc-Andre Fleury, who promptly allowed a goal on the first shot he faced just 25 seconds after Brandon Sutter had scored the Penguins’ first goal of the series.
“That first goal kind of got them a little momentum back after we got that goal by Suttsy,” said Fleury, who was making his first appearance since May 7, which was Game 4 of the first round.
Fleury would allow two more goals, and unless either netminder can make more quality saves in the coming days, this series is going to be over in a hurry.
And while the goaltending wasn’t up to snuff in Game 2, that is hardly the Penguins’ only flaw.
The Penguins’ defensive zone coverage has been lax. And not to beat a dead horse, but through the first two games it has mirrored the kind of scatterbrained own-zone play that marked Pittsburgh's first-round exit at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers last year. The difference between that series and this one is that at least the Penguins managed to find the back of the Flyers' net with enough regularity to stretch the series to six games.
This one? Not so much.
Indeed, it is staggering how great the disparity has been between the Bruins’ top-end players and the Penguins’ star-studded cast. Nathan Horton and David Krejci both scored in the four-goal first and have 15 postseason goals between them. Patrice Bergeron’s line chipped in three goals on the night.
Defensively, the Bruins allowed just 27 Penguins shots, 13 through the first two periods, and killed off both Pittsburgh power plays, giving them six straight kills against a team whose power play was the NHL’s most deadly at the start of the series.
Although he was excellent in Game 1, netminder Tuukka Rask was rarely tested.
As for the Penguins, it’s hard to imagine Crosby has had two worse playoff games in succession than Games 1 and 2 in these conference finals.
Along with the giveaway that resulted directly in the first goal, there were errant passes throughout the night. Juxtaposed against what we’ve seen from Crosby earlier in the postseason and the expectations for him to lead this team, his performance thus far against the Bruins qualifies as shocking.
"We don’t sit here and accept that," Crosby said. "We know we’re looked upon to score and produce. I’m not going to sit here and make any excuses. We have to be better. That’s the bottom line."
He’s not alone, of course.
Kris Letang is a finalist for the Norris Trophy. But given his play in the first two games, it’s a given that if voters had to cast their ballots again, there would be a lot of other names written down before they got to Letang.
With the Penguins trailing 1-0, it was Letang’s blind clearing pass from behind his net at the end of a Boston power play that set up the Horton goal.
James Neal finished the Penguins’ second-round series against Ottawa with a flourish, scoring five times and adding two assists in the final two games. But he has been a non-factor against Boston.
That's the individual scorecard, and it's not pretty -- but it's the collective collapse that is most mystifying.
The Penguins were built to prevent just this kind of thing from happening.
Never mind Iginla rethinking his decision to eschew a trade to the Bruins in favor of becoming a Penguin. Given Iginla’s pedestrian play in this series, it’s the Bruins who might secretly be breathing a sigh of relief that things turned out the way they did.
“I don’t think anybody in our room is happy with the first two games, the way we’ve played all the way through it as individuals and as a team,” the veteran winger said. “We all know we have to be better. I had a tough couple of games, and I’m going to throw that out and find a way to be effective and be better going forward, and I think that’s everybody in our room’s mentality."
What is perhaps most perplexing about the Penguins’ plight is the sudden discussion about having to change their mindset, their approach. How does a team advance to the conference finals and suddenly lose its way so dramatically?
“Our approach just has to change," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I go back to when we won 7-6 in Montreal this year, and I don’t think anyone in the room felt good about ourselves leaving the rink even though it was a win. Kind of felt like we never had control of the game. Right now, it just kind of feels like our approach is to score goals rather than keep it out of the net, and against a team like this -- that’s this patient and this responsible -- they’ll make you pay for it."
He acknowledged it’s a bit surprising to be thinking about fundamental issues like this at such a critical juncture.
“Maybe a little bit," Orpik said. "If we were a younger team, more inexperienced, I’d probably say no, but with the team and group of guys we have here maybe I am a little surprised. There’s nothing we can do about these two games. We have to change our approach pretty quickly to be successful."
Then, after a moment’s consideration, he continued: "Yeah, it’s a little surprising at this point in the season."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma admitted he, too, has been surprised at what his team has shown in these past two games.
"Yes, how we played for the last five periods, yes," Bylsma said. "We've gotten away from our game. We've gotten off our game plan. We've deviated.
“And that group of guys, that team in there, they'll reset and refocus, and we'll come back with how we need to play in Game 3."
Now, we know enough to understand that two games do not a series make.
So do the Penguins. And the Bruins sure know it, too.
"We know that they're going to try to bounce back, and we need to make sure we're ready," said Bergeron, who had a goal and an assist Monday night. "They're a really good team, we respect them, and we know it's not over."
We recall returning to Boston from Vancouver after the first two games of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, convinced the Bruins wouldn’t win a game. They didn’t just win a game but won four to win a Cup.
Chicago looked cooked against Detroit in the last round, going down 3-1 before roaring back to win three in a row.
Likewise, in 2009, the Penguins twice overcame 2-0 series deficits -- against Washington and Detroit -- to win a Cup.
"We've won -- this team has won a lot of hockey games," Bylsma said. "It's a good team. We've won 15 in a row. And we won seven in a row and five in a row.
"Certainly didn't play anywhere near where we're capable of. And that's got to be our focus, to get our first win in Game 3 in Boston."
All those things are true, the winning and the talent that resides in that room. Those things are undeniable. But right now it just feels like it’s not nearly enough.
And who could have seen that coming?