The Penguins enter Game 2 of this second round with the series lead in hand and potential reinforcements on the way. The depleted Pens gutted out a comeback in the third period of Game 1, putting up three goals to shock the entirety of Capital One Arena in a 3-2 win. Both Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin missed the game with injuries, but just as the Penguins have all season, they found a way to get the win in spite of a start that was less than ideal.
The Past; Game 1
It is not at all unusual to see the Penguins out-skated and out-played in the early stages of a hockey game. Eventually, things usually come together. Thursday night, that point came at 2:59 of the third period with Patric Hornqvist’s goal, which led to an all-out onslaught of shots, chances and eventually goals from Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. It took nearly 45 minutes of play for Pittsburgh to get on the board, but Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov managed to open the scoring just 17 seconds into the game. Alex Ovechkin would tack on a second goal in the early stages of the third period to make the deficit 2-0 before the Penguins stormed back to win 3-2. The way the game was played was not ideal for Mike Sullivan’s Penguins, despite the eventual win. If anything, it demonstrated the team’s ability to flip the switch when crunch time comes around, as well as their ability to make the most of limited opportunities. The Penguins scored three goals on just 23 shots, and in his first playoff game in Washington since May of 2016, Matt Murray was stellar in stopping 30 of 32, including a dazzling blocker stop on Brett Connolly.
The Present; Game 2
Now the Penguins must learn from their mistakes and apply them to Game 2. Washington’s top line of Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Wilson is as dangerous as it was advertised to be. Two goals and three-for-five points between the trio. That being said, Pittsburgh’s top line is a similar story. In each of the past two postseasons, the Pens have had one line that could be counted on when a clutch goal was needed. In 2016 it was the HBK line, and the following year saw Sid and The Kids over-match opponents time and time again. Here in 2018, the first line of Guentzel-Crosby-Hornqvist has cemented itself in opponents’ minds as the one to be feared. While this latest offensive juggernaut has yet to be christened with a memorable title, they dug deep in the third frame Thursday night. A goal and an assist were recorded by all three, and Jake Guentzel added another assist on Crosby’s goal at 5:20. These two lines lead their respective teams, and there is no reason to believe any part of that will change Sunday afternoon.
Once the Penguins found their game, they stuck to it, but it certainly took longer than they would have liked. The lack of Hagelin and Malkin were definitely a factor. While Hagelin is still back in Pittsburgh, Malkin skated with the team Saturday and was very motivated when discussing his situation with the media. The Penguins struggled in the face-off circle in Game 1, winning only 43% of draws. An improvement in that area would certainly help elevate their game — it is much easier to win when you actually have the puck. If Malkin returns, he will be able to make a difference in the circle. The coaching staff won’t rush him back into action too soon, but don’t be surprised if the last number out of the tunnel tonight is #71.
Mike Sullivan and his coaching staff are exceptionally talented at making adjustments from game to game and turning weaknesses into strengths. While it is difficult to control every aspect of your game, the focus and mental toughness have to be there right from the start in Game 2. If they are, there won’t be any goals against at the 17 second mark, there won’t be a 2-0 hole that needs to be climbed out of, and it will be far simpler to play smart, “Penguin Hockey.” That is the key in Game 2. Get to your game before the opposition gets to theirs. It would be much nicer to go back home with a 2-0 series lead in pocket.
But like I said on Thursday, it’s the playoffs. Anything and everything can happen.