Since last evening's Penguins 3-0 win over Tampa Bay in Game 1 of the NHL Playoffs, I've been wrestling in my mind over whether the outcome is a sign of a long or short series to follow.
On one hand, the Pens certainly showed the recipe for how this version of the team can win games sans Sidney Crosby and make this series a short affair:
-A few tablespoons of "getting to their game," i.e. quick breakouts, north/south movement, and sustained pressure in the attacking zone. I thought the Pens defensive corps was especially good at quick and efficient puck retrieval in their own zone (Zibby's 3rd Period clearing attempt off the ref's skate notwithstanding). The resulting edge in shots on goal of 32-18 over the final two periods says it all.
-A heaping helping of physicality, including seven hits from Brooks Orpik to lead the way. Pittsburgh made it known they won't give up an inch of ice easily, and Orpik's tone setter on Steven Stamkos 90 seconds in is the lasting image I take away from this contest. The Pens' edge in recent playoff experience was on display here, although the final hit numbers 44-35 in favor of the Lightning surprised me. That's a misleading stat, because the prime hits were mostly on the side of the Black & Gold.
-A dash of opportunistic scoring touch, with Alexei Kovalev and Aaron Asham scoring their first goals in 6 and 16 games, respectively. Kovy's old age paid off for him I suppose, as he patiently grabbed his walking cane and got off his feet from a Pavel Kubina hack job only to find James Neal's dish coming his way at the post. Asham's goal was Sid-caliber, and is the sign of a team that can ride the wave of positive emotion to bury a team when they're reeling. This would seem to be a great confidence boosting outcome for the Letestu-line and for Asham, a key role player as the series moves forward.
-A shaker of advantageous defensive match-ups, with the Paul Martin / Zibby Michalek D-pairing taking Stamkos out of the game and with Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, and Jordan Staal matching "Marty and Vinny" step for step.
-Keeping the penalty box out of the ingredients, with only one penalty called on Pittsburgh. The refs clearly missed a few high sticks, and you've got to feel badly that Marty's teeth are St. Elsewhere today, but then again how do you call a high-sticking penalty when they guy's head is two inches from ice level? That dangerous TBay PP didn't have a chance to be a factor Wednesday.
-And of course, a major dousing of Marc-Andre Fleury as he trapped Lightning in a bottle (thanks to our friends at SteelersDepot.com for that line) with 32 saves for his 5th career playoff shutout. The prime scoring chances MAF saw: a Steve Downie deflection, Nate Thompson in front, Brett Clark on a 2 on 1, the goal that Dominic Moore thought was, the "Reverse Double-Leg Stacked Pad Save" on Ryan Malone, the "Gadget Arm" save on Vinny Lecavalier, stops on sneaky shots by Sean Bergenheim and Simon Gagne, and a late-game Stamkos shot through a screen. Flower was a little fortunate that TBay missed a few chances, too, but the quality of his stops that were ticketed for the back of the net put his Game 1 performance as virtuoso.
If followed Friday night and beyond, that's the recipe for a series win in short order.
However… Can Fleury be expected to repeat that for an entire series? Won't the Lightning adjust dramatically to the physical nature of the postseason? Aren't those top end scorers due to breakout for TBay, with power play chances sure to come as the series continues? And can the Pens keep finding two-three goals per game from role players?
I'm sticking with my pick of Pens in 7, but I'm feeling much more confident about the prediction after a Game 1 where it all went right.
By the way, for the latest NHL odds on all the playoff action hear OddsShark.com's handicapping analysis on Wednesday's at 3:40 and check out their site: <p><a href="http://www.OddsShark.com/NHL/Odds" target="_blank">Odds Shark.Com</a>.</p>