Rangers forward Derick Brassard scores on Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury in the first period of Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
After a poor first period, the Pittsburgh Penguins managed to make a game of Game 1 of their first-round series against the New York Rangers. However, they need a nearly-flawless game to beat the Blueshirts, and because they didn't get one Thursday, they didn't win.
The injury-depleted Pittsburgh Penguins were one of the biggest underdogs of any team entering the 2014-15 NHL playoffs, particularly after they finished the season 3-5-2 and barely managed to claim the final Eastern Conference wild card berth to set up a date with the league's No. 1 regular-season team, the New York Rangers. And when the Blueshirts scored a goal just 28 seconds into the first period Thursday night, went up 2-0 late in the opening frame, and outshot the Pens 13-5 enterng it looked as if a rout was on.
It didn't turn out that way, as the Pens gathered themselves from the second period on and made a game of it, cutting New York's lead to 2-1 six minutes into the second and keeping the Rangers off the scoresheet for the rest of the night at Madison Square Garden. But there are two reasons why Pittsburgh didn't find a way to win Game 1: firstly, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were unable to produce any offense, something necessary for this team to win; and secondly, they're playing the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup – a squad that requires only the briefest of breakdowns to take advantage of before clamping down on defense.
Pittsburgh needs to play four virtually perfect games in order to win this series, and their slow start and sloppy first period was more than enough for the Blueshirts to beat them.
There were encouraging signs for the Pens, to be sure. After surrendering a giant rebound that led to the Rangers' first goal, Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury availed himself well and stopped all 25 shots he saw in the final two periods to finish the night with a .947 save percentage (36 saves on 38 shots). He wasn't the reason they lost Game 1, or even the sole culprit on the first goal (Penguins defenseman Paul Martin allowed goal-scorer Derick Brassard to blow by him on the play). If he gives the Pens that type of performance the rest of the series, it may go longer than the five games (or less) many predicted it would take for the Rangers to dispose of them.
But Fleury didn't get enough offensive support to get out of that first-period hole, and much of the blame for that must fall on Malkin and Crosby. The dynamic duo combined for only three shots on the night and were non-factors for most of the game. Blake Comeau had their only goal, and although they'll need players of his caliber pitching in, there's next to no chance they can emerge victorious over the Rangers, either from period-to-period or game-to-game. New York has too many offensive weapons, and the difference in depth between the two teams is stark and telling.
The Penguins also need to be a much more disciplined team the rest of the way if they want to move on to the second round. They were assessed four minor penalties in the first period – one of which led to Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh's game-winning goal – and five penalties in total on the night. That lack of self-control led to less ice time for Crosby and Malkin and had the Pens on their heels during the tone-setting early portion of the game. If they're still as easily-flustered in the remaining games of the series, there won't be many remaining games in the series.
Pittsburgh did beat the Blueshirts in the faceoff circle (winning 38 of 66 draws) and turned the puck over fewer times (seven) than the Rangers (11), so there are additional positives there for Pens fans to hang their hopes on. However, if they're being totally honest with themselves, they have to admit what a herculean task it will be handing the conference's No. 1 seed four losses in their next six games. The Rangers can have one element of their attack plan go wrong and still win: if star goalie Henrik Lundqvist has an off night (and Thursday, he didn't, stopping 24 of 25 Pens shots), they can out-score Pittsburgh, and if the offense isn't there, Lundqvist can steal a game or two for them.
Unfortunately, the Penguins can't suffer a letdown in any area. They can't let down their guards for a period, or even a few shifts, because the Blueshirts are good enough to capitalize on any mistake.
Do you have four perfect games, in you, Penguins? Because it sure looks like nothing less will suffice.