Game 1: Pittsburgh 3, Tampa Bay 0. Pittsburgh leads series 1-0.
A venerable “old” 38-year old veteran playing in his 117th career playoff game scored the winning goal. A 26-year old goalie, already an “old” veteran of 63 career post-season games, tops among all sixteen starting netminders this spring, turned away all 32 shots he faced for his 5th career post-season shutout. Finally, three “new” players suiting up for the playoffs as Penguins for the first time figured in the scoring as Pittsburgh christened Consol Energy Center with a 3-0 win over visiting Tampa Bay in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.
Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury threw down the hammer and pitched a shutout at the Lightning, earning first star honours. In a shot-heavy opening game, Fleury and Tampa Bay goalie Dwayne Roloson stood their ground for the first two periods. Fleury was superb in the opening frame making 14 stops including two in quick succession from a deflected shot initiated by defenceman Eric Brewer and the follow-up attempt off a rebound by Ryan Malone. Fleury was sharp again in the opening minute of the second period, stopping a barrage of quick shots from Tampa Bay during their lone power play. Roloson was equal to the task, keeping Tampa Bay in the game by making saves on all 18 second period shots he saw.
On offence, the Pens were predictably frustrated on the power play, squandering all 6 chances including a 28 second 5-on-3 opportunity in the third period sandwiched within 3:32 of consecutive man-advantage time. There were signs of improvement on their fourth chance when they adopted a shoot-first mentality, directing eight shots toward the net. Yet it was Alexei Kovalev, the old veteran in his second tour of duty with the Penguins, who fired the opening salvo, at even strength, breaking a scoreless tie at 6:05 of the final period with his 45th career playoff goal, tied for seventh best among active players.
Tampa defenceman Pavel Kubina had given Kovalev a whack from behind that momentarily knocked down the Penguin forward at the side of the net and resulted in Kubina’s stick falling to the ice. Kubina tried to sweep the puck around the boards but Pittsburgh defenceman Paul Martin kept the puck in and quickly backhanded a pass to forward James Neal who without hesitation fired a shot-pass to a waiting Kovalev. The old vet knew what to do and one-timed the puck past a sprawling Roloson.
As the goal was being announced, Arron Asham carried the puck to the slot, faked a slapshot then drove to the net. Roloson jumped to his left to try a pokecheck but Asham circled quickly around the Tampa Bay goal and tucked a wrap-around into a vacated net for the Pens’ second goal in 18 seconds. Chris Kunitz scored an empty netter with 42 seconds left to seal the win.
The “new” guys: Kovalev, Neal, Asham and Martin. The first two were acquired before the trade deadline to bolster the offence while Asham was a low-key summertime signing that added grit, experience and modest lower-line scoring depth. Martin was also added in free agency as one of the team’s prized defence acquisitions. It was especially great to see Kovalev score the playoff-opening goal as it reminded this writer of 2008 when another veteran, 41-year old Gary Roberts, calmly scored twice in the Pens’ first playoff game that spring, a win at home over Ottawa that began a journey all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
Lastly, defenceman Brooks Orpik, along with Neal, delivered a physical message during the opening minutes. Ninety-two seconds into the game, Orpik levelled Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos at the corner boards with a thunderous check while Neal hit Martin St. Louis, Mattias Ohlund and Vincent Lecavalier in the same shift about eight minutes later. Frustrated, Kubina tried to deliver an even-up hit on Neal but was charged with an interference penalty instead. Establishing an intensely hard-checking game in their own end to intimidate the Lightning’s talented forwards while being equally aggressive on the forecheck is something the Pens will need to repeat to maintain success against Tampa Bay over the next two weeks.
About the Author: Adrian Fung (@PenguinsMarch) contributes game reports, opinions, analysis and features, mostly about the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has covered the World Hockey Summit, Kraft Hockeyville, World Junior Championship exhibition games, CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, MasterCard Memorial Cup and NHL Rookie Tournament for Hockey Independent. twitter.com/PenguinsMarch