NEW YORK — Penalties are rarely good, but like the post-Big Daddy career of Adam Sandler, there is a wide spectrum of bad. An offensive-zone roughing penalty is in all cases ill-advised, but when the third period rolls around and the offending team is trailing by a goal, a penalty like that starts to look full-on Jack and Jill.
So when Pittsburgh winger Blake Comeau reported to the box for getting physical on Rangers center Dominic Moore in the offensive zone late in the first period of Game 1 at Madison Square Garden Thursday night, it only seemed appropriate that the penalty would lead to the deciding goal in New York’s 2-1 win. Through traffic in front, Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh blasted a shot from the point that Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said he picked up too late.
The goal was the punctuation on a period that was thoroughly dominated by New York, which outshot Pittsburgh 13-5 in the first. Drawing four Penguins penalties, the Rangers spent 6:43 with a man advantage, essentially robbing Pittsburgh’s stars from establishing any sort of rhythm from the start of the game. Sidney Crosby, for instance, saw the ice for just 3:42 in the opening frame. Meanwhile, defensemen Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy logged eight and nine minutes, respectively. With ice time distribution so lopsided, it was no wonder the Penguins had a hard time sustaining offensive zone time.
“It took a lot of momentum away from our team,” Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. “Key players couldn’t get on the ice, so certainly that was a factor.”
But then again, playing down a man has been a bit of a recurring theme for Pittsburgh lately. The Penguins, pressed up against the salary cap since the trade deadline, dressed only five defensemen in four of their last seven games of the season. “It’s difficult to play five when you lose a guy in the middle of the second period—somebody goes down with an injury, say,” Lovejoy explained before Game 1. “It is so much more difficult knowing you’re going into back-to-back games with only five defensemen.”
The Penguins limped into the postseason, nearly letting a playoff berth slip from their grasp. They secured a spot on the last day of the season, but in this first round they are without their star defenseman, Kris Letang, who suffered a concussion on March 28. His absence leaves a gaping hole on Pittsburgh’s defense, where third-pair players Brian Dumoulin and Taylor Chorney each made his postseason debut on Thursday night.
“It’s much more difficult [without Letang],” Lovejoy said before Game 1. “He is the first guy over the boards in all situations. He’s our best power play defenseman. He’s our best penalty kill defenseman ... We absolutely miss him.”
Without him, the Penguins’ defensemen have had to learn to compensate, an ongoing process that seemed to get easier as Thursday’s game progressed. That, however, had a lot to do with playing 5-on-5. When the Penguins were able to sustain pressure in their offensive zone, the game looked far more even. And when Comeau, perhaps atoning for his earlier penalty, snapped in a rebound six minutes into the second period, it was the fifth straight Pittsburgh shot on net.
“We need to be incredibly smart going through the neutral zone and getting pucks behind their 'D' so they can’t turn it over and use their speed,” Lovejoy said.
New York’s legs are, indeed, its strongest asset, and on Thursday night, it took almost no time to prove it. Just 28 seconds after the puck dropped at MSG, the Rangers showed just how impressive their breakouts can be. Coming out of their zone, defenseman Dan Girardi found winger Rick Nash on the far blue line with a clean pass. Nash fired a slapshot on Fleury, who gave up a rebound in the slot that a charging Derick Brassard banged in.
Compared to the New York Rangers from a year ago, coach Alain Vigneault noted: “I think the young players that we have gave us a little more speed, a little quicker on the transition. Both teams defend real well … [but] this one here might be a little quicker on going from defense into offense.”
The Rangers’ excellent transition game has propelled them to a Presidents’ Trophy already, and has made them the early favorite to come out of the East—if not win the Stanley Cup. They’ll have an easy time of this first-round series if the Penguins do not settle in, display more discipline and win the battles to sustain pressure. Should that be the case, then “transition” will be a hot word in Pittsburgh to come.