- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins showed up for work Wednesday morning wearing T-shirts with the No. 4 on the back, a nod to the immediate task of winning four games to get out of the first round of the playoffs.
No word on whether those same shirts will be worn Thursday with the "4" crossed out and replaced by a "3" after the Penguins whipped the New York Islanders 5-0 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
They’re just T-shirts, of course: some fabric and a little lettering, including the phrase, "Here We Go."
But the shirts speak to a mindset, a narrowing of the focus to the task at hand.
When you are a team as deep and talented as the Penguins -- and when there is as much discussion about a long playoff run, a possible trip to the Stanley Cup finals, another championship -- it might be easy to forget about first things first.
If you look at the big picture, if you look at what is needed to win a Cup, "It’s a bit overwhelming," Pittsburgh forward Craig Adams said after Wednesday’s game.
And if you start thinking about that, "you’ll never get there," he said.
"Everyone wanted to hand us the Cup last year, and we saw how that turned out," Adams added.
And there’s the rub.
In an interview before Wednesday’s game, Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero went to great pains to reinforce that his team was very mindful of the Islanders, even though the Pens were the top seed in the Eastern Conference and the Isles the eighth seed.
"I know this team has a great deal of respect for the Islanders," Shero said. "There’s no way we’ll be underestimating them."
Those are the kinds of sentiments that are on display when you’re coming off a 2012 playoff season that really ended before it began with the Penguins blowing a 3-0 lead against Philadelphia in Game 1 and quickly falling behind 3-0 in the series en route to a six-game loss. It was the second consecutive one-and-done playoff spring for the Penguins, and they have won just one playoff round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.
So you can understand if there is an emphasis on the details this time around.
"We’ve been preaching that all year," Adams said. "I think we’ve been humbled."
After one game, it would appear the message has sunk in, as the Penguins methodically took apart an inexperienced Islanders team that is playing in the postseason for the first time since 2007.
The Pens took advantage of an early power play to go up 1-0 after a terrific play by Beau Bennett, who cut in from the right side and roofed a shot over veteran netminder Evgeni Nabokov. Bennett wouldn’t be in the lineup if it weren’t for the fact that doctors declined to let captain Sidney Crosby suit up for Game 1.
Talk about taking advantage of your opportunities: Bennett scored in his first-ever playoff game.
The Penguins would add another power-play goal early in the second period by Kris Letang before Pascal Dupuis, the king of even-strength goals, added two while the teams were playing five aside. Tanner Glass rounded out the scoring with his first-ever postseason goal.
Defensively, the Pens killed off four Islander power plays and limited the Isles to 26 shots, providing netminder Marc-Andre Fleury with ample protection. Fleury, who endured a nightmare series last postseason against the Flyers, earned his sixth postseason shutout.
"Everything went great tonight," Dupuis said. "Yes, we did play the right way, but you have to keep saying to yourself it’s only 1-0."
If there was cause for concern for the Penguins, it was the loss of James Neal, who got tangled up with Travis Hamonic early in the second period and did not return. There was no information on his status for Game 2 Friday.
Also, Jussi Jokinen, who added two assists and continues to be a point machine since coming over from Carolina at the trade deadline, went off the ice gingerly after a collision with Islanders forward Marty Reasoner, who was assessed a kneeing major with 2:10 left in the game.
The Islanders, meanwhile, looked like a team whose most important players (outside Nabokov) were playing in their first playoff game. Reasoner, playing in his 24th career postseason game, was the player with the most playoff experience among Islander skaters, and he’d been a healthy scratch for the final 10 regular-season games.
John Tavares, who figures to be among the finalists for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, was a nonfactor, finishing the night without a shot. Likewise, Brad Boyes and Matt Moulson weren’t the players who combined for 25 regular-season goals.
Head coach Jack Capuano said the team’s work ethic and determination weren’t what they had been during the final month of the regular season, when the Isles secured an unexpected playoff berth, and the execution was lacking.
Nabokov, a player Capuano referred to as an extension of the coaching staff given his experience, was given the hook just 1:51 into the second period after the Pens made it 4-0 with two goals in 32 seconds.
Although he was beaten twice by hard, high shots courtesy of Bennett and Letang on the power play, this loss wasn’t a function of poor goaltending. Instead, this was a loss that was, pure and simple, about one team being light years ahead of another in terms of getting the job done.
"Obviously, I think it was a little bit too easy for them, for the Penguins. All-around game has to be better. Better saves, more saves. I guess it’s got to start with me," Nabokov said.
"I’ve got to make key saves at the key times and give the guys a chance to battle. But the game was over basically at the beginning of the second period, it’s four-zip, and it’s really tough to come out of it against that type of team. So [I] have to find a way to tighten up and be better," he said.
Of course, as the Pens’ T-shirts remind us, this series is not the best of one.
The Islanders have a chance to regroup, and one imagines whatever nerves and butterflies might have invaded their bodies Wednesday will have dissipated by the time Game 2 rolls around Friday night.
"I don’t think anything is easy. You have to come out, and you have to work hard. It’s got to hurt to play; I heard somebody in the locker room actually say that: It’s got to hurt to play," Nabokov said.
"I think we have to come out next game, and we have to be ready, be more physical and just make it hard on them everywhere, every inch of the ice. We have to battle for every inch of the ice, everywhere. I think that’s the only way we can play with that team because, otherwise, they’re too skilled. They’re too good."